Because we believe sustained life change happens best in the context of community, we make small groups the priority option for spiritual growth in our church. Many churches offer a variety of classes for people to choose from to help them grow in biblical knowledge. While I don’t believe there is anything fundamentally wrong with offering classes, we see the group-learning format as the best direction for our church. Here are a few reasons why it works for us:
- Offsite groups solve space problems. As a growing, multisite church, on-campus space will always be an issue for us. Even if we wanted to offer a more traditional Sunday school format for classes, we would not have anywhere to put them. A few of our campuses are portable, and they are allowed to use just enough rooms to pull off a Sunday morning experience with worship and kids. Even our permanent facilities are completely packed on Sundays with what it takes to create an effective environment for families. We could build more buildings and continue adding rooms, but there will never be enough space. Small groups in homes all over the city are the best answer to space problems for us.
- Small groups provide accountability. The only way to continue growing spiritually is through honest accountability with another person. Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so people can improve each other.” This level of sharpening happens best in a small-group setting with other believers.
- Small groups limit choices. It seems reasonable that the more options we have, the better, but the opposite is, in fact, true. Recent studies show that people are paralyzed when they have too many choices. One of my favorite restaurants in the world is In-N-Out Burger. They offer four things on their menu: hamburgers, cheeseburgers, shakes, and drinks. That’s it. It helps that their burgers are really, really good, but I love that I don’t have to think about it when I go in. I just order a cheeseburger and fries. I also love the food at the Cheesecake Factory, but the twenty-page menu of options frustrates me. Apple recognized this early on and created products that are simple and obvious. One button is all you need. When new people visit our church and ask us what they should do next, there’s only one button: join a small group. If small groups are just an option on a long menu of choices, they will lose every time.
- Small groups broaden the span of pastoral care. We could never hire enough staff to facilitate spiritual care for every person who attends our church. Starting a small group gives people opportunities to discover their God-given gifts and abilities through leading. Instead of hiring more staff pastors to keep up with the growth, we have commissioned 250 leaders to pastor their small circles of community. Our group leaders are the first line of care in the church. If one of our pastors is required to make a hospital visit because of an emergency, the person’s small group is almost always already waiting there.
- Small groups create a natural pipeline for leadership. Most churches are asking, “Where do you find leaders?” A small-group system is an ideal incubator for potential leaders and future staff members. If you want to find out if people will follow someone, ask them to start a small group. If you want to find out if someone can build teams, ask them to coach three to five small-group leaders for a semester. Looking for your next campus pastor? Look for the small-group leader you keep encouraging to start new groups because their own group has grown to the size of a small church.
- Small groups make a large church feel small. We all want our churches to grow, but the downside to growth is the loss of personal intimacy. After the church grows beyond three hundred people, it’s impossible for attendees to know everyone. This is exasperated when a church turns to multiple services, and it is completely lost when a church becomes multisite. The only way to keep people from falling through the cracks is by creating a system to catch them. Small groups help the church keep people who would otherwise drift back into anonymity. We all long for the feeling that someone knows our name on Sunday morning. Small groups provide it.
- Small groups reinforce the message. More than 75 percent of our groups at Cross Point use our message studies for their weekly curriculum. Because of that number, we are very intentional about what we put in their hands each week. We currently partner with an outside organization to turn message manuscripts into a comprehensive study for our groups to use. The studies include additional scriptures and commentary to take the message a little deeper. We also provide a one-page version for our hosts and leaders who prefer fewer options. Any senior pastor would be thrilled to know that people are talking about their Sunday message throughout the week.
- Small groups identify the core. When we are looking for where we should plant our next campus at Cross Point, the first information we access is how many small groups are in that area. When we need to quickly respond to a need or a natural disaster, our first line of action is our group leaders. We saw the power of this during the 2010 Nashville flood. Hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed overnight by over nineteen inches of nonstop rain. Amid the devastation we watched small groups instinctively pull together and be the Acts 2:45 church. People opened their homes for group members who had lost everything. It took some people months to get back on their feet, but their small groups never wavered in support. Church membership is no longer the core of a church; small groups are.
- Small groups are easily replicable. As your church begins to grow, you have to decide what will expand. Excellent classes are difficult to pull off across multiple locations. Large-group gatherings become less viable with space at a premium. Staple ministries (men’s, women’s, seniors’, etc.) are quickly maxed out or marginalized with a lack of staff to pour their time and focus into them. The one ministry that has no limits is small groups. You are only limited by the number of homes, businesses, and apartment clubhouses in your city. Instead of attempting to start another men’s ministry, kick off a few men’s small groups. Thinking about launching a new campus? Start with a monthly gathering of three to four small groups in that area. Small groups are limitless when it comes to a church’s reach in a city.
Thomas Nelson Inc, Ln: Small Groups for the Rest of Us (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015).