Small groups help congregations grow ‘deep and wide’

August 31, 2016
A small group meets at Minnetonka UMC.

By: Christa Meland

Minnetonka United Methodist Church has been growing in number for the past few years—and a Natural Church Development survey available through the Minnesota Conference helped Rev. Jeanine Alexander realize several years ago that small groups were a key opportunity for the congregation.

“I’m determined to grow this church deep and wide at the same time,” she said.

During Lent in 2014, 146 people participated in various small groups, all of which focused on the book If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat.

Since then, Minnetonka UMC has offered a new set of small groups three times each year. Between 150 and 200 people participate in any given “semester”—significant for a church that worships about 280. Each Lent, all small groups read the same book. During the other two semesters, individuals choose between a variety of small groups with different focuses. Alexander has led small groups on Making Sense of the Bible, and topics led by others have included progressive Christianity, grief, and even running.

“There is something about being on a journey with other people and having the support of other people as you’re exploring your own faith,” said Minnetonka UMC member Jen Mein, who has led various small groups. “Small groups provide me with structure and discipline.”

They’re also a place where you can get to know people and share your vulnerability. Mein used to be uncomfortable praying aloud in front of a group, which is something she had to do as a small group leader. Talking about that with her group was helpful to her and prompted other people to share their own vulnerabilities. 

Like Minnetonka UMC, Hilltop United Methodist Church in Mankato also started small groups—which the church calls “Connect Groups”—in 2014. It offers 12 different groups three times a year, and topics have included grace, forgiveness, and the Old Testament. There’s always a four-week “Common Ground” class that’s especially relevant to new members, as it explores scripture, the United Methodist Church, and how to become more deeply involved in the life of the congregation. (View current Connect Groups catalog.)

All connect groups include prayer and some kind of learning, and there are options for people at all places in their faith journey. Stacy Vanderwerf, who started Hilltop’s Connect Groups, said one of the biggest benefits is that visitors have a way to get plugged in and meet new people right away.

“The body of Christ is a gift from God to us to feel that connection,” she said.

Connect Groups have also helped Hilltop UMC maintain a family feel even as it grows, because they give people a way to get to know and care for each other in a more intimate setting. The church worships about 195, and between 105 and 125 are in Connect Groups in a given semester.

Both Alexander and Vanderwerf read the book Activate to help them figure out how to set up small groups, and they say two of the keys to successful small groups are having them span a fixed period of time (theirs range from four to 13 weeks) and having the right number of people (somewhere around 15 works well). They also say it’s important to have lay people involved—not just as participants, but as leaders. Both churches actively seek out leaders and equip them by providing training.

Both Minnetonka UMC and Hilltop UMC are looking to expand on their current efforts, and Alexander said her church is still learning and exploring what works well for small groups.

Minnetonka UMC went through the Missional Church Consultation Initiative revitalization process, and one of its prescriptions is to create small groups around a discipleship path—meaning there are classes everyone takes based on where they are in their spiritual growth. Meanwhile, Hilltop UMC is looking at developing class meetings—ongoing covenant groups that people would be invited to join in addition to their small groups.

“Connect Groups have helped deepen our connection to one another,” said Vanderwerf. “When we are more connected to one another, it affects the way we worship together…there’s a sweeter, richer experience when we’re connected to the people around us.”

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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