What Destroys Small Groups?

Many of you will know that I am the Pastor to Adults at FBC Maryville. Part of that job means that I’m over our small group discipleship ministries (for adults). For us, this is primarily “Sunday School” (Connect Groups), but we do have in-home and on-campus studies throughout the week as well. Solid preaching is important for a church, but without an ongoing small group ministry, people just will not “stick” and grow as a church.

Small Group

There is a saying that begins my training for new teachers “if it is going to be, it’s up to me.” I want them to realize that their class has to function like it’s own small business. Just as a small business owner does not look to the government to get them customers or run their store, the teacher of the class has to run their own shop. But also, church leadership will set guidelines and stipulations (maybe not exactly like the government, but you get the idea).

So, why do some classes make it and some don’t? Lots of reasons, but I’m convinced that every successful class takes work, not just on Sunday mornings, if you want to kill your class, just study and teach a good lesson. A small group, whether on Sunday morning or some other time, is so much more than teaching, it’s how we should connect. I read a great blog post by Bob Mayfield about how to “Kill Your Group” and I find it to be true. I’ve adapted his list here:

  • Inactivity: I’ve seen this many times, the teacher shows up “well, no one’s here, oh well” what happened? He/She prepared the lesson and made sure they had good content, maybe they even did a good job of planning the delivery, but didn’t do anything else. No fellowships were ever planned, to calls or notes to members of the class, no visits when they were sick or just to say “hi,” nothing… inactivity. The leaders in the group (and the leader’s leader is the “teacher”) needs to make sure the class stays connected. If someone is going to miss a week, it should not be a surprise. Stay in touch with everyone!
  • Not teaching the Bible: Look, the reason why these groups get together all focus around God’s word. If you don’t use the Bible to teach the lesson, or if you don’t spend time studying the Bible to teach the lesson, over time, people will pick up on it. Most people will blame it on the curriculum “oh I don’t like this…” but I’ve never actually seen that to be true. Every curriculum that I use is based on the Bible and has a key scripture passage each week. That’s not shallow, that’s deep, it’s up to the teacher to soak in the Scriptures and apply the passage to the lives of the class.
  • Not loving the group: I’ve borrowed the 3 core values of Sunday School from Allan Taylor of FBC Woodstock. He says they are “Reaching, Teaching, and Ministering.” I mean the same thing, but I say “Loving” in stead of “Ministering” (that is, after all, the word Jesus used in the Great Commandment). So, the teacher can feel fond or “loving” towards the class, but if they don’t ever practically do something, they are not loving the group. If people in the group spend time in the hospital, lose a job, have a baby, lose a parent, have storm damage, etc. and they never see the teacher outside of “class time,” they’ll leave soon enough. If the only time you learn about your group members is when you meet for class, there’s no connection. There’s no real love.
  • Not spreading the love: If it’s important for the teacher to love (i.e. minister, and it is important), it’s just as important for the teacher to spread this responsibility around to other leaders (and future leaders) in the group. People in the class need to use their spiritual gifts, they can’t just sit and receive all the teaching and ministry, if they do, they’ll be inwardly focused and useless. If the teacher is the only one doing any ministry, the class will realize that they cannot grow. They will not expect anyone to visit them when they get sick, they will not expect help when they run into trouble, and eventually, they will not expect to be in that group any more. It takes a village to raise a class.
  • Not following up with guests: It’s important to put an emphasis on “joining” the group. It may seem as simple as adding their name to the roll, but it tells you who you need to minister to. If they are on the roll, then someone needs to be reaching out to them when they are not there, learning what’s going on in their lives, and strategically helping with that need. If they are not on the roll, they are a “guest.” When a guest visits your class, you need to have the courtesy to follow-up. They came all the way to where you are, the least you can do is pick up the phone and give them a quick call. Email and Facebook are great, but a call and a post card (both) are best. They show effort and that you care. If you don’t care, quit.
  • Not taking responsibility: “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me” repeat that over and over until you can feel it. Most people want the Pastor or Staff to send prospects their way, and we do, but ultimately, the class leadership (the teacher) has the responsibility for their own class. It’s not the culture, it’s not the people, small groups just take work. In 15+ years of Gospel Ministry, I’ve never seen someone who worked their small group that the group didn’t work.
  • Not being positive and exciting: I understand that there are introverts and there are extroverts, but you get to control your attitude. Ron Edmondson has some great posts on being an introvert in ministry. In fact, if you are the kind of person who enjoys the weekly study and learning that it takes to be a small group teacher, you might just be an introvert, that’s a good thing! But we need to stretch ourselves. We need to be positive and have a good attitude. Last time I checked, you don’t get to “rejoice” to yourself, and this should be our constant state as a Believer (cf. Phil 4:4). Your small group is part of a local church body, you should be positive and supportive of your church’s leadership and programs, if you disagree, do so in private. No one will come week-after-week to hear a lesson from Eeyore. They will come back to gripe and complain, but then you are part of the problem… be a part of the solution!
  • Not leading your class to start new classes: It sounds counterintuitive, but I promise you… this is a growth strategy. I don’t know of any Sunday School expert over the last 100 years who has not passionately advocated for starting new classes to help growth. Arthur Flake became the head of the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1920 and no one has done “small groups” more successfully ever since. At times, we lose our focus or we think that the fundamentals are getting outdated so we change (and then fail), but when small groups are worked as they are intended to be worked, more people get involved, growth happens, and part of “working” a small group is reproduction, it just is. Oh sure, your class is so great, and you think you’ve got such good chemistry, but your class will not continue to grow. If you class has not added 10% in the last 2-3 years, and you have more than 25 people on the roll, you’ve got an EMERGENCY on your hands. You need to start a new class ASAP!
  • Not being a part of the team: I touched on this in terms of being positive and exciting, but you need to realize that you are part of a bigger team. You need to help the newer teachers, you need to support the pastoral leadership, you need to work together and learn from the other classes. Small groups should see themselves as a piece of a ministry, not a ministry themselves. If someone doesn’t come back to your class, don’t just say “oh well, forget them, they just didn’t like our class.” So what, the goal is to connect people to a class, not your class. Be a team player, the Apostle Paul likes this (Eph 4:1-6).

What do you think?

Are you a part of a small group (Sunday School or cell group)?

What do you think is the purpose of your small group? Is it for you to receive, or give, or both?

How much time do you spend as a group “in class” and “out of class” 90/10%? What if it were more like 60/40%

What was the best Sunday School class you were ever a part of for more than 9 months?

About John Harris

I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.
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