You know that person or couple who only comes by your church or small group when there is a party? They are fun people and seem to want genuinely to connect with community. But when it’s time to volunteer with the church or the neighborhood, they don’t seem to be responding to text messages.
If this sounds familiar, don’t worry—Jesus dealt with the same thing! When there was free food they attracted the crowds of thousands, but “pick up your cross and follow me” was a real buzz kill.
Churches often rely on small groups to increase or sustain participation. But it’s not just enough to have people show up for parties. Small groups require a balance between what appeals to people and the mission or vision that started the small groups idea in the first place.
Maintaining that balance means avoiding seven traps.
1) The Packaging Trap
Slick programming, packaging, study guides show that a good deal of energy has been put into making sure you buy the small group package.
Design, packaging and marketing are not a bad thing. It can help attract members to your group. But does it keep them coming back?
People come because something is attractive. People stay because they find value. Make sure that your small group materials change your life. That is a good indication they will have value for someone else.
2) The Fun Trap
Video producers often put in 100 hours for every hour of video and movies. They may even invest thousands of dollars a second! Even the best small group have a hard time being more fun than staying home and watching a movie!
Doing something fun instead of something important puts small groups at a terrible competitive disadvantage. If fun is all that keeps people coming, what do you do when something that is more fun comes along?
Rather than focusing on making small groups fun, you should focus on making them “joyful.” In a joyful small group, people know that their presence is valued and vital. Having fun doesn’t necessarily accomplish this.
3) The “Big Churches are Doing It” Trap
Many cities have them: a huge church that casts a shadow over other churches in the city. Often, trends and even materials used by small groups come out of what a different mega-church did five years ago.
When choosing materials ask the question: “how would this keep my demographic coming back?” Do not settle for something that worked elsewhere and provides a clear program for the Fall.
Think of it the way you would think of finding food for people on a restricted diet. Not anything will do. You need to provide for their nutritional needs, without giving them something that might make them sick. Feeding small groups spiritually works the same way.
4) The “Make the Stronger Members Look After the Weaker Members” Trap
This problem happens to groups who are intent on making a difference in their communities.
They strongly value the strong (someone who has an abundance of something) helping the weak (someone who lacks something). This could be a group that feeds the hungry, evangelizes or disciples. It might even be a group of long-term church members trying to welcome new attendees.
The problem with these groups is that they are seldom unsustainable. Serving others attracts people who need you at that moment. They will continue to return as long as they have need.
On the hand, consider involving people in ways that allow everyone to bring their strengths and weaknesses together. Both parties grow from the encounter. Because it is not reliant on the strength of one party, it is sustainable. Everyone knows they are valued, and they begin to develop a sense of community.
5) The Avoiding Problems Trap
We do a lot of different types of training, such as Connexus (ongoing training for churches and small groups), Thrive (week-long, immersive training for individuals, couples and teams) as well as a variety of training that we have facilitate for churches and organizations around the world. Often, we have multiple small groups going at the same time. We have different leaders using the same materials.
Even though the materials are the same some groups developed problems and upset group members…other groups do not. In these groups, the problems can soon become more important than relationships. These problems would often disappear when the group leader left, only to reappear in that persons next group!
This prompted the question: why do some leaders seem to create problems in every small group and others (using the same materials with the same people) do not? The leaders who had problems proved to be the ones who were working hard to avoid problems and did everything right. The leaders who took problems in stride and showed their group how to overcome the problems (often with a smile) brought real value to the group.
Learning how to overcome problems and how to improve relationships is something everyone knows they need. There is no better place to learn this than in the safe, connected community a small group can provide. A group is the perfect place to learn how to return to joy when something goes wrong. Not only does this prepare people for life outside of group, but it also keeps bringing them back!
6) The “Talk Radio” Trap.
There is a difference between wisdom and information. If no one knows the answer to a question, and if all opinions are equal, you end up with “talk radio.”
One way to run a small group is to treat it like talk radio: throw out a topic and have everyone discuss. Many people like to talk while others like to listen and say little. About ten minutes thought will generate enough talk radio topics to keep a group going for a year provided they come back each week.
The question is whether we have created value. Does exchanging views and out thoughts produce the best growth and transformation? Are we seeking information or wisdom?
Make sure that your small group activities bring value to your mission and review your progress. One milestone might be “are our conversations providing wisdom or information.” Pick your own significant milestones and see if you are reaching mission critical objectives.
7) The Trying to Keep Everyone Happy Trap
There is a similarity between avoiding problems (#5) and trying to keep everyone happy. The difference is that avoiding problems tends to pull out our perfectionism and feeds the myth that success comes from removing all the problems before they happen.
Trying to keep everyone happy is focusing on the people who are becoming (or might become) upset. Focusing on what might upset or has upset someone ensures that the small group is guided by the people who have the hardest time with their emotions and relationship.
The need to keep everyone happy is an outgrowth of poor returning to joy skills on the part of us as leaders. We rarely keep true to our goals and mission when we are trying to avoid upsetting the least relationally stable members of the group.
One solution is to find small group training like Connexus that provides a good way to build relational skills in your group. Thrive training as a group leader that provides the comfort of well developed relational skills in leading the group. In every group, regardless of what materials or training you seek, bringing the active presence of God into the group for guidance during calm moments will improve the outcome when someone becomes upset.
What we have learned developing the Life Model
We have developed the principle of teaching only what has changed our own lives. The essential value we offer in groups comes from sharing those things that have been meaningful and had value for us. On several occasions, I have gathered a group of men and asked them to tell what was the most significant thing they had learned as a father or husband. I asked them to share this with a group that included men and boys. In every occasion, the participants wept and said it had been one of the most impactful moments of their lives!
Building a joyful small group will do more than just retain people, although it will do that as well. Don’t be afraid when people seem like they are on the verge of never coming back! It looks a lot like when people are on the verge of changing and growing!
What keeps you going back to your small group?