LAKE FOREST, Calif. (BP)–For some congregations, small group ministry is an answer to a lack of space in the church building. For others, it’s an answer to inviting seekers or new believers into a relatively stress-free setting. For yet others, it’s a way to make sense out of busy lives and inflexible work schedules that might derail someone from a traditional Sunday morning experience.
But for any church, small groups are about relationships — vertical (believer to God) and horizontal (believer to believer).
Serendipity by LifeWay, the small group ministry area of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, has joined with Saddleback Church to sponsor a series of NEXT small group conferences in 2009.
The first of four conferences was held at Saddleback in Lake Forest, Calif., Feb. 19-21. Others will be April 24-25 at Victory World Church in Atlanta; May 15-16 at Vineyard Community Church in Cincinnati; and Sept. 11-12 at Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall, Texas.
Rick Howerton, director of training and events for Serendipity by LifeWay, said co-producing the NEXT conference with Saddleback was a win-win.
“Saddleback is the undisputed leader when it comes to churches utilizing small groups as a means of teaching, discipling and developing relationships with their members,” Howerton said. “We are honored to be working with them.”
Small group ministry dates back to biblical times, Howerton said. “Just look at the healthy churches in the New Testament,” he said. “They were primarily small groups of Christians gathering to worship, learn and develop relationships with each other.”
The popularity of small groups is growing in churches across the country, with Howerton noting, “People live such busy and disjointed lives that they are craving the intimacy the small group offers.” He defined a Christian small group as a deliberate face-to-face gathering of three to 12 people who meet regularly and share a common purpose of exploring Christian life, faith, evangelism and discipleship.
Lyman Coleman, considered by some to be the father of modern-day small group ministry, led two workshops for small group hosts, drawing on experiences that can be used as relational tools to help people bond into close-knit communities.
Coleman also headlined a lunchtime session in which he traced his involvement in small group ministry. While working with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association years ago in New York, Coleman was inspired by the success of Alcoholics Anonymous in one of the city’s churches. He saw how the first six steps focused on the power of relationships, while the next six steps added a spiritual dimension.
“I saw that it worked because of the blend of the spiritual and the relational and accountability,” Coleman said. “I imagined that would work wonderfully in our churches.”
He and his late wife were involved in a small group with the same people for many years, Coleman said, adding, “These people were the closest relationships we had on earth.”
Steve Gladen, small groups pastor at Saddleback, told attendees at the NEXT conference that the gathering “is not about Saddleback. It’s not about Purpose Driven. It’s not about Rick Warren. It’s not about the size of your church. This conference is about the health of your church. If you work on the health, you will get the growth.”
Gladen has a sign in his office that says: “Vision without implementation is hallucination.” For small groups to succeed, a church must have a good plan and capable leadership, he said.
“The senior pastor has to support it,” Gladen said. “And you have to have someone to coordinate your groups, whether you have three or 3,000.”
Gladen said he hoped that NEXT participants would leave with three things:
1. a personal plan to start or a renewed vision for small groups and a refreshed spirit to pass along new ideas to others in a small group ministry.
2. a church plan — a vision and strategy for making small groups happen in their own church context.
3. a network for support, encompassing small group leaders, pastors and champions intentional about mutual support and the sharing of ideas.
During a session for conference attendees new to small group ministry, Gladen said the elements of healthy small groups were the same as the purposes of the church: worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and evangelism.
“You need to work toward balance in your groups,” Gladen said. “Balance keeps you from becoming specialty groups [and] focusing only on one area.”
Balance assures that members are developing in each of the three areas, allowing each member to express the passion God has placed on his or her heart, Gladen said. Balance also keeps the group on course toward fulfilling the Great Commission, he said, as well as the Great Commandment to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind … and your neighbor as yourself.”
Eddie Mosley, pastor of group life at Lifepoint Church in Smyrna, Tenn., said his church has about 100 adult small groups meeting throughout the week but also has some traditional adult Sunday School classes on Sunday mornings at the church as well as classes for children and students.
“We don’t have the space for all the adults to meet at the church on Sunday mornings even if we wanted to do that,” Mosley said. “Our small groups are all adults, leaving space for children and students at the church buildings on Sunday. We have classes meeting everywhere there is floor space….”
At Lifepoint, adults are asked to meet in small groups during the week, attend a worship service on the weekend and then give an hour of service on Sunday, such as teaching, directing traffic in the parking lot, greeting guests or any other activity that needs to be done.
When Lifepoint decided to begin its small group ministry, about 40 Bible study classes that met on Sunday morning at the church chose to continue doing that, and that was fine, Mosley said.
Mosley said one class’s reaction stood out in his memory:
“The teacher, a 71-year-old man, told me that his class wasn’t interested in the ‘party’ group. They wanted a real Sunday School class with real Bible study. This same gentleman called me a few weeks later and said the class had decided they wanted to meet in a small group on Thursday evenings for their Sunday School class. He said they found they were spending so much ‘social time’ in their Sunday morning class talking about prayer requests for all their medical ailments and about their grandchildren and their activities and such that by the time they finished they only had about 20 minutes left for Bible study and they wanted more.”
Does the growth of small groups mean the demise of traditional Sunday School? “Absolutely not,” Howerton said.
“LifeWay does Sunday School better than anyone,” he said. “There will always be a place and a need for an organized gathering for Bible study with fellow believers and those who are seeking to know God.
“But small groups absolutely meet needs, too,” Howerton said.
“People today are hungry for relationships,” he noted. “People are so transient that it’s rare to live in a town with extended family anymore. Small groups can give support, accountability and the opportunity to develop family-like relationship with other believers.”
Polly House is a corporate communications specialist and editor of Facts & Trends magazine at LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. For information about resources for small group ministry from Serendipity by LifeWay, go to www.serendipityhouse.com. For more information about upcoming NEXT conferences, go to www.lifeway.com/next.