deepAndWideSo right about now you’re thinking, Hmm. How do you program that?

You don’t.

You can create practical Bible teaching, but you can’t create a providential relationship.

Our team spent a lot of time discussing the church’s role in this important faith catalyst. Here’s what we concluded. While it’s beyond our ability to manufacture any type of relationship, much less one characterized as providential, what we can do is create environments that are conducive to the development of these types of relationships. So we determined to do just that. I’m not exaggerating when I say that may be the most significant decision we’ve made as a team. We determined to create a model that was relationship-centric. We began looking for ways to get people connected more quickly and to keep them connected longer. This had significant implications for the way we approached family ministry and adult groups.

In Creating Community, Bill Willits provides a full description of our adult group model. What’s relevant to our discussion here is that the value we placed on providential relationships was what drove us to build our model around closed rather than open groups. We decided not to leverage adult groups as a growth engine, but rather to do everything in our power to create authentic community. So our adult Community Groups are designed to stay together for two years. We were told this wouldn’t work. But then, we were told a lot of things wouldn’t work in those days. Our entire ministry model is designed to move people into groups. We believe circles are better than rows. And we know anecdotally that within the context of our adult groups, men and women who may otherwise have never met are being used in significant ways in each other’s lives. At least 90 percent of the adults we baptize thank specific individuals in their small groups for the roles they played in their coming to faith and their decisions to be baptized. They may not use the term providential to describe these relationships, but when they tell their faith stories, it’s obvious that they were.

On the family ministry side of the aisle, our commitment to create environments conducive to providential relationships caused us to make several strategic decisions. The most significant was our decision to keep group leaders with their small groups as long as possible. The longer a group leader was with a group of kids, the more likely it was that a relationship would develop — and thus the greater chance of God using a group leader in a significant way in the life of one of the kids in his or her group. So when adults volunteer to lead a group of first graders, they stay with that group of children (and their parents) all the way through fifth grade. Not only does this create the potential for long-term relationships, it creates a degree of accountability that goes way beyond the weekend experience. It’s not unusual for group leaders to stay with their groups as they transition into our middle school ministry. That provides them with eight years of influence during what is arguably the most important time for a child developmentally, spiritually, and relationally.

We’ve seen this pay huge dividends in our middle school and high school environments. You know as well as I do that to be assigned to a group of eleventh- or twelfth-grade boys or girls as their group leader would be a tough assignment. By the time you finally gain a little trust, the school year is over and they are gone. But imagine being a small group leader for eleventh-grade boys or girls whom you’ve been with since they were in eighth or ninth grade? That would make a big difference relationally, wouldn’t it? And it does. Year after year. We have large student ministries at all of our churches. As an outsider you might be tempted to think it’s the music and the energy in the room that draws the kids. But the kids, my kids, will tell you that it’s their group leaders who make the environment special. The middle school and high school kids at our churches wouldn’t use the term providential to describe their relationships with their leaders. But when you hear their stories, when you watch their baptism videos, when you hear parents talk about the difference the leaders have made in the lives of their students, there’s no doubt about it. These are providential relationships. When those kids are adults and they describe their faith journeys, you can rest assured their high school small group leaders will be part of their stories.

Stanley, A. (2012). Deep and wide: creating churches unchurched people love to attend. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.