We gave it a try for two years and we just couldn’t get traction. I spent 6 months before that working with existing group leaders, staff, and elders to implement the Journey Church’s “Activate” model of small groups. Essentially this is where you launch all new groups in 3 semesters each year for 10-12 weeks at a time. In the weeks leading up to each launch you promote the ministry and have open sign-ups for each group. At least one of those semesters every group studies the same material. This Sunday we should be having people sign-up for the next semester but there is only one group to sign-up for. Here’s why:
1) We have a long-running small group ministry where several groups have met for years. They were reluctant to start over every semester with a potentially all-new group so in increasing numbers they opted-out of the sign-up period (or simply wrote-in the names of all the previous members of that group and maxed out the sign-up sheet).
2) Groups didn’t want to take a break between semesters so they continued meeting and often started new material before the official start of the semester. This had the effect of providing continuity for the group but also discouraging newcomers to the group.
3) We are a program-based church with lots of weeknight activities and ministries. The abundance of weekly ministries makes it more difficult for people to commit another night to small groups. I like to describe it this way: People have only so many hours in their ‘church bucket.’ When they attend Sunday morning they scoop out some of the available time. When they go to choir practice or help at Awana they scoop out even more time. If they attend classes on Sunday morning they scrape out the last few remaining minutes in the bucket and that’s it until next week. Not many people are willing to take time out of their family bucket, TV bucket, yard care bucket, or sports bucket to add more time to their church bucket. In the face of that kind of competition, small groups lose out.
4) We are a church with small groups – not a church of small groups. And that isn’t likely to change anytime soon. While we recognize the power and potential of small groups we are reluctant to take the steps to eliminate any of those programs (see #3) that would free-up time and space for greater participation in small groups. And we have never given small groups the kind of attention and promotion that is required to get there. That is our reality for now. We have several small groups with good leaders where various levels of life-transformation is taking place.
So we will revert back to trying to start a new group here and there at different times of the year or adding people to existing groups when they have openings. We will continue to encourage groups to multiply and to raise up new group leaders. It’s different than the ‘Activate’ model but I’m not sure that it’s less effective – especially for a 40+ yr old church that has established methods of operation (traditions). I am reminded of another church where I came on staff to lead small groups. In my first leaders’ meeting one of the leaders took me aside and asked me, “You’re not going to try to tell us what to do are you?” What I discovered was, if you push too hard on some groups they will simply pull out of the official small group ministry of your church and just meet as a group of friends who happen to attend the same church. I’d rather have some level of influence with these groups so I’m willing to be an encourager and a resource for these group leaders rather than forcing them to adopt a particular model. My energy will be spent strengthening our existing small group model so that it will be a place where group members can worship, belong, and serve.