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While the phrase “Paradigm shift” may be used and heard a lot today, the actual occurrence of one is still a rare sight. A paradigm shift can be defined as a dramatic change by members of a group or community in the cognitive framework of basic assumptions, ways of thinking, underlying suspicions and methodology. I believe a true paradigm shift in small group ministry can release a desperately needed disciple-making revolution in our churches.
For many years, small groups were seen merely as an assimilation tool. In other words, if you get new church attenders plugged-in to a small group, they won’t be able to sneak out the “back door.” While this was (and is) a real benefit of small groups, it was an isolated motivator that typically didn’t generate enough sustainable momentum for churches to eventually see the “back door” shrink or close.
Since then, small groups have been re-discovered as an oasis for community, transparency and best friends. In others words, you need a small group to form close-knit, Christian relationships in your life that allow you to be vulnerable and cared for. While this was (and is) a real benefit of small groups, it created two unforeseeable reactions:
A. Scared them away for good. People who weren’t already in a group became reinforced in their lack of participation because they didn’t want any more relationships in their life. The thought of having to create new, deep bonds with strangers was an overwhelming one.
B. Unrealistic Expectations. People got out of their comfort zones to visit a group, loaded with high expectations. When they arrived and looked around, they had trouble seeing their future “bestie” across the room and left disappointed, never to return again.
I have personally navigated my way through these paradigms of small groups. In many churches, small groups need a paradigm shift to unlock the potential God has hidden in them.
In this article, I want to share with you 5 Paradigm Shifts in Small Group Ministry that I have experienced as a Groups Pastor that have been absolute game-changers for me…
1. Promote spiritual growth more than you promote small groups. When your church is communicating to your people about upcoming opportunities to join a small group, talk more about what aspect of spiritual growth the group will be focusing on instead of the nuts and bolts of group life.
Can people meet new people at a small group? Yes.
Can people develop flourishing friendships over time at a small group? Sure, it’s possible…
BUT DON”T TALK ABOUT THAT! Talk about the study the group(s) is going to go through. Talk about how you believe people will grow as a result of going through the group curriculum. Elevate the value of participation in group life for personal development to the same levels that you also do for the weekend services, daily devotions, serving, giving etc.
Why? For one, it’s the truth… and for two, it will give your people a healthy focus at the beginning while everyone gets comfortable and gets to know each other. When it comes to small groups, most American Christians tend to get excited about content before being hooked by community.
2. Your vision MUST be to see every single individual in the church connected into a small group. Don’t move onto to the next point because you think that you’re already doing this. A lot of churches have this as their goal, but they’ve set the deadline 5-6 years down the road. I’m not talking about hitting this goal in 5-6 years, I’m talking about hitting it in the next 5-6 months.
If you seriously plan with this goal in mind, it will radically alter your prayers and approach. You will begin asking questions you never asked before…
How many people are connected in groups right now?
How many groups would we need to connect every single person in our church?
How many new people will we need to find to spearhead all of the new groups?
What tweaks do we need to make to our ministry model to make it possible to hit our goal?
Remember: Your present ministry structure creates the perfect conditions for the current outcomes you have. If you’re looking for a dramatic difference in results, you’ll need a dramatically different design.
3. The Lead Pastor MUST be the small group champion. Sorry for the buzz-kill Associate Pastors, but it’s true. Sorry for the new plate to spin Lead Pastors, but it’s true. You can always have a volunteer or staff pastor lead the charge behind-the-scenes, but if you want your entire church to mobilize into groups, they gotta hear it and feel it from their leader. This is the practical advice I give to Lead Pastors:
In the first week of a new groups launch find one small group to visit one time. At the next weekend service, take the first 1-2 minutes of your message talking about your experience.
4. Your groups can’t be hardcore without the core. If small groups and discipleship are going to break out in your church like gangbusters, the leadership core of the church must be all-in. In fact, without the core, things will just be hard.
Remember, it’s not the worship leader’s job to worship for the church. It’s also not the small group pastor’s job to do small groups for the church either. Jesus commanded all of us to “make disciples” (Matt. 28:19-20). When the church sees buy-in from the influencers regarding the church’s discipleship philosophy, it will remove any confusion about what the priorities should be in their own life.
If you’re the point person for group life at your church, please don’t use #3 and #4 as the catalyst to tear your clothes and proclaim a holy rebuke. Use these insights as fuel for prayer and as conversation starters with key leaders who know your heart.
5. The end-game of small group discipleship is to send out disciple-makers. The end-game cannot simply be to get people connected to each other. Remember, we want to see people grow in our groups. Think about growth in your small group ministry in the following stages…
-> Seeing every single person connected in a group
—> Seeing people in groups grow from consuming to contributing
—–> Seeing disciple-makers raised up within groups and sent out to start new groups
This mindset can take time to cultivate but it’s an important one to maintain for kingdom discipleship. Not everyone in small groups will eventually lead their own group one day, but there should be a few people in each group that are in the process of being sent out to fulfill the mission of disciple-making. This dynamic not only facilitates future growth, it raises the sense of significance for each group and provokes other group members to have a higher vision for their own spiritual formation as well.
I pray that one or more of these five paradigms spawn fresh waves of thought, ideas and energy for you. Which one(s) stand out to you the most?
Comments? Questions? Feel free to leave them below…
Andrew Mason is the Small Groups Pastor of Real Life Church, a family of churches in the Nor. CA region. He oversees Small Groups and Assimilation. He is Founder of SmallGroupChurches.com, an online community of leaders dedicated to growing churches one small group at a time.