Vital congregations series entry #4: Why start new small groups?

September 24, 2012

It’s been nine months since Minnesota United Methodist churches began recording and reporting weekly statistical data for our denomination-wide United Methodist Vital Congregations project. United Methodist churches across the connection have set goals and are intentionally tracking seven important metrics:

1.       worship attendance

2.       number of 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.       amount of money given for mission beyond the local church

7.       total contributions for local church ministry

I thank 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 Laura Miles in Minnesota Conference’s congregational development office.

For the rest of the year, this column will explore the priorities and practices for each of these seven vital signs of congregational health and vitality. In preceding months we’ve looked at the questions, Why measure? Why worship? Why professions of faith? This month we take time to ponder the purpose of the third metric: Why start new small groups?

When my family was launching a new United Methodist congregation back in the days before cell phones and call forwarding, the “office phone” was our home phone. My wife, Deb, fielded an inquiry one afternoon from someone who had heard about our brand-new faith community, which at the time was only a few months old.

The caller inquired, “So, what does your church have going so far?” That question usually meant, “So, what can a little church like yours offer me?” Deb described at length our worship, nursery, Sunday school, vacation Bible school, choir, softball team, and half a dozen ministry teams that were up and running. After Deb recited this impressive list, there was a long pause at the other end of the line. Eventually the caller lamented, “Oh . . . so you all know each other already?” From the tone of the question Deb realized that what this seeker really wanted to know was not, “What services are provided?” but, “Is there a place I can fit in?”

That’s a reason for churches to constantly start new small groups—so there’s a place for new people to fit in! If you’ve ever experienced church from the perspective of a visitor or nominally involved member, you know that feels all too awkwardly like walking into someone else’s high school reunion—replete with all the cliques, inside jokes, outside relationships, and quizzical staring at the unrecognized stranger.

Sometimes we get hung up on strategy and endlessly debate the pros and cons of forming new groups by cell division of existing groups, by targeting new arenas of common interest, or by networking the newest people in a faith community. When asked which is the best method for small-group development, I usually reply, “YES.” What’s most important is pursuing the purpose and not meeting the preference; it’s creating a process and not dictating the product. Just do it!

Look at Jesus. He launched his ministry not by preaching to the multitudes on the hillside, but by walking the beach and inviting a handful of people to walk with him in a small-group experience that spanned several years. Family, friends, and complete strangers were given a place to fit in, and through their relationship with one another developed a faith and witness that became a catalyst for countless other small groups, embracing new people beyond themselves and beyond their time and place.

Dan Johnson is director of congregational development for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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