Vital congregations entry #5: Why participate in small groups?

October 26, 2012

It’s been 10 months since the churches of the Minnesota Annual Conference began recording and reporting weekly statistical data for our nationwide United Methodist Vital Congregations program. United Methodist churches across the country have set goals and are intentionally tracking seven important metrics:

1.      worship attendance

2.      people received into membership by profession of faith

3.      number of small groups

4.      number of people participating in small groups

5.      number of people engaged in service and outreach efforts

6.      contributions for mission beyond the local church

7.      total contributions for local church ministry

Thanks to all the congregations that are faithfully responding to the weekly link for data entry. For the few congregations that have technical difficulties with the system or still need help getting started by submitting their goals, please contact in the Congregational Development office for assistance.

For the remainder of 2012, I’ll be exploring the priorities and practices for each of these seven signs of congregational health and vitality. In preceding months we’ve considered, Why measure? Why worship? Why professions of faith? Why start small groups?

This month we ask, Why participate in small groups?

Last year, Emma Coats, a Pixar story artist, tweeted 22 rules of storytelling that she has learned at this successful animation studio. (You can read them at One rule she identified is to start with the question, “Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of?”

This is a foundational question for small group participation. Busy people don’t need one more meeting to attend. New people don’t need one more institutional requirement to be accepted into a faith community. But all people need a place where their personal story of hopes, fears, struggles, and victories can be told, known and accepted. All people need a community of intimacy and safety where the story of Christ’s living, loving, dying, and rising can fuel the belief burning within that provides perspective, purpose, and power for each new story of life.

I first heard it said by the pastor of my youth, Duane Lunemann: “God loves us just as we are, but too much to leave us that way!” Similarly, participation in small groups is not only for personal acceptance and support, but also for personal transformation. The Wesleyan walk with Christ is a progressive conversion to more deeply embodying personal and social holiness.

Another storytelling rule from Ms. Coats: “Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard; get yours working up front.” This is an important exercise for maximizing the transformative power of small group participation. Determine in advance: What is the expected end result of participation? What does a deeper embodiment of personal and social holiness look like?

In their book Deepening Your Effectiveness: Restructuring the Local Church for Life Transformation (Discipleship Resources, 2006), Dan Glover and Claudia Lavy write, “As people of the Great Commission, we have only one job: to fill our churches with people who, at the end of their lives, can say without a shadow of a doubt, ‘I really knew Jesus.’ When that happens, the world will not be able to contain the church. We will be everywhere, serving everyone and lifting up the name of Jesus as our motivation. It’s possible. It’s achievable. Jesus, who is the Truth, would not have sent us to go and make disciples of all nations if we were not actually able to accomplish the mission.”

Toward that end, Glover and Lavy reflect on the formative process Jesus employed for discipleship and they repackage that for our time and place. They liken it to the six-stage progression of encountering the ocean from walking along the beach, to wading the shoreline, to withstanding the waves, to treading water, to swimming beyond the breakers, to diving in the deep. Within each stage there are five primary elements to address: a person, a question, a relationship, a barrier, and a ministry. And through it all, it’s far too hazardous, far too tempting to turn back if we try to swim alone. Small groups are not just a recreational program, they are a life preserver!  

Dan Johnson is now the Twin Cities District superintendent for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He used to be director of congregational development and Reach • Renew • Rejoice.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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