Mission drift is a danger within any work. I have found that the small group ministry in our churches is no exception. When left alone and unguarded, small groups will fall into a “path of least resistance” mode. If the leader of the group loves to teach, then it will simply become an hour in which they can lecture. When the leader is highly relational, if the mission is lost, then the group time becomes a social get-together with little direction. For a healthy small group, portions of both extremes are needed; biblical instruction and relational connection. However, if the group simply becomes a once-a-week meeting for any reason then we have, in large measure, lost the reason for the small group.
Small group ministries take on many names; Home Groups, Sunday School, Life Groups, Adult Bible Fellowships, and the list goes on. But the ministry has some core reasons for its existence. In order to guide people who tend to drift, let me offer seven shifts in perspective that will help you keep a healthy group ministry.
1. Concept: Shift from 1 hour to 1 week. We should not consider that the small group is something that happens just once a week. Rather, we need to have the concept that it is an ongoing ministry; something that happens seven days a week. Focusing on the one hour meeting (or however long the group meets) communicates to people that the rest of their life does not matter. Plus, it lets the members of the group off the hook when others are in need of them.
2. Framework: Shift from organization to leadership development. It is easy to organize a gathering of people on an ongoing basis. It is more difficult to raise up, train, and apprentice new leaders. In a recent training some small group leaders, I challenged them to think beyond simply organizing a gathering but to focus on leadership development. We need to develop new leaders so current leaders can leave for other work. And, we need new leaders so that we can send them out for greater work.
3. Involvement: Shift from caste to freedom. A caste system dictates that whatever economic level you are born into, you will stay in all of your life. So, if you are born to a farmer, you will be a farmer. If you are born in a royal family, you will rule throughout your life. We need to ensure that we do not relegate people to a lower “class” of membership in the church. Small group ministries should free people to exercise their gifts for ministry in the church regardless if they have an official title.
4. Type: Shift from closed to community. Traditionally, small groups and Sunday School classes have been categorized as either closed or open. A closed group means that the members covenant to be there from week one until the study is over. An open group is one that anyone can come in at any time. I want to encourage us to go beyond simply saying that a group is open to new people. Rather, we need groups that focus on community; not just welcoming. New people should not just be welcome to the meeting but enfolded into our relationships.
5. Perspective: Shift from meeting to ministry. Similar to #1, the shift needed here is to consider the gathering important but not all-encompassing. It is a delicate balance that we not negate the power of the gathering for a small group but lead people to see it as a part of the whole ministry. A small group should focus its attention on all of the parts of ministry; prayer, compassion ministries, pastoral care, outreach, disciple making, and the gathering where teaching takes place.
6. Reason: Shift from teaching to transformation. Left to themselves, when a group gathers, teachers can lose focus on ministry and simply spend all of their time… teaching. Both leaders and participants need to incorporate the work of teaching into the overall goal of transformation. Christ did not come to make us masters of religious trivia. Not even if it is biblical information. Rather, He wants to see lives transformed; and we should desire the same.
7. Goal: Shift from gathering to scattering. Ultimately, the reason we have one small group is to multiply the ministry of the church. It is our nature to want to count how many people will attend our gatherings. The kingdom of God, however, will gain a greater benefit if we will measure our ministry by how many we can send out. As a leader, look for the person who can be your successor or the leader of another group. The church is at its best when we scatter the gospel as widely as possible and follow it with ourselves. New groups will always be a blessing to the ministry of the church.