I’m honored and occasionally baffled by the fact that I get to direct small groups for Fellowship Church. I’ve found it interesting to do some homework about how churches “do” small groups. This is a summary of how we do them. Very little of this is unique to our church, so I (or anybody else at Fellowship Church, Holden) can’t take credit for thinking up much of it… But anyway, here’s how it goes:
Small groups are groupings of people put together to discover God through fellowship, service, and bible study. They meet weekly (with brief breaks around Christmas and in late summer) and engage in service projects together.
The life span of a small group is a bit over two years. In the first couple months, the group is in the “open” phase. During the open phase, a group is getting to know each other. Folks are encouraged to just drop in. No attendance expectations are expressed. Discussion and fellowship is usually light (read “shallow” or “superficial”) My focus on filtering new people into groups is to steer them into open groups.
After a couple months, the group enters the “covenanted” phase. (We used to call this the “closed” phase but decided the term sounds exclusive and isn’t very accurate, anyway) The covenanted phase is one which begins with the signing of a covenant.
Until now, all the groups have signed identical covenants. The covenants expresses commitments to pray for each other, commitments to regularly attend small group, etc. Currently, I’m working on a flexible covenant. The flexible covenant expresses the parameters within which we’re comfortable with small groups operating. It’s a bit like a menu, with a variety of ways to express expectations for group life. I’m excited to see how this will work out. The idea is rooted in the fact that we have certain expectations for what counts as a small group but we don’t need to have them all be identical, and sociologists talk a lot about how important and bonding it is for groups to create their own norms.
Anyway, my goal for a closed group is to have about 12 adults. One couple within the group lead it though we try to encourage a sharing of leadership and expect an apprentice couple to be identified within the group.
I will only place new members in a covenanted group if I can’t find room for them in an open group. (Sometimes the night that open groups meet on doesn’t work, for example.) And I only do this with the group leaders permission. (Almost always this isn’t a unilateral decision but a group discussion.)
This is the second-most controversial aspect of how we do small groups. People feel that it’s snobby and cliquish. And I realize that’s how it looks.
But the truth is this: if I’ve just unearthed all the skeletons from my closet one week, and Joe Newbie and his wife Mary Newbie show up the next, I’ve not only been shut down from continuing to be authentic… It’s also the case that I (and others) will be less likely to open up and be real next time, knowing that our authenticity might get derailed by the arrival of someone we haven’t built up trust with.
At the end of about a year and a half, the group prepares to multiply. The apprentice will take half of the group members into a new open phase; the old leaders will take the other half of the group members into open phase.
This is probably the #1 most controversial aspect of the philosophy. People grow really close. It’s kind-of brutal to break groups up. Virtually every group has had reasons– sometimes compelling ones– to alter the timelines for their specific cases.
But I know how I am, and I know that most people are basically like me. We like comfort, safety, and the known. Left to our own devices, we will be quite engenuious at mantaining the status quo.
I won’t go so far as to say that safe, established groups can’t reach out; I won’t go so far as to say that they don’t evangelism. But it takes on a very different character when you’re out of the same-old, same-old.
An established group, based on my experience, is likely to feel safe to folks who are already pretty close to God. A friend of a couple who have been attending a small group might join an established group. A couple who have been attending church for a year might go. A person who feels like their world view, politics, socio-economic status, would have a comparitively easy time walking into a group that’s already been established.
We should all want to do everything we can to move people closer to God. I love that I get to put people in established groups. It’s awesome that so many groups welcome as many people as they can even after the covenants are signed.
But we’d be leaving behind a lot of people if we didn’t multiply.
Because a smaller, new group is easier to join for the people who need it most, it’s much more likely that they will join. This is not just about keeping people in their comfort zones. It’s about operating in the real world where seekers– and all of us– are free to do what we want.
Furthermore, splitting a group gives a little incentive for people to evangelize. It creates an occasion to reach out, gives some members the kick in the butt that they need. There are people who will work harder at reaching out when they are in a smaller group, when they have a reason to want it to be bigger… Again, maybe not pretty, but it is reality.
Perhaps the most important reason to break groups up is because it grows even the established members. There is a tendency, after a while, to settle into stale-mates that don’t help or challenge anybody. Creating lots of new relationships isn’t easy… But it is valuable.