Many churches build a small group ministry as an extension of the main church worship and religious practices, just because other churches have successful small groups. This is a mistake because small groups have completely different dynamics from the larger Christian fellowship. When the small group ministry is organized top-down, it loses the flexibility that makes small groups attractive and Spiritually successful. The simple need for organization in a large group church requires rigid schedules and lessons that minimize the value of individual people. We'll cover how this large group thinking can generate small group pitfalls, and how to avoid them.
One of the worst demands a large group imposes on a small group is “approved curricula. " The chief values in smalls groups are flexibility and appreciation of the individual. To rigidly adhere to some “Sunday School" type program is an insult to the Biblical fact of the priesthood of all believers. People may attend for a couple weeks, but then will drop out. If you have faith in the Holy Spirit and His Biblical role as teacher, you don't need no stinking programs. If you don't have such faith, you don't need small groups, or church, for that matter.
Tyranny Of Time:
The importance of balancing schedule and flexibility is often missed by small group leaders. The top-down approach says all small groups will be 90 minutes, equally divided between prayer, study and fellowship (for example). The rigidity may comfort 10% of the people but the other 90% won't keep coming. On the other hand, If it's 30 minutes this week and 3 hours next week, no one will want to come. 90 minutes to 2 hours is a good general timeframe for a weeknight because people are busy. I always recommend having a set quitting time so those who have to, can get home and get their kids to bed, while others can stay if they feel like it. Have some Bible questions to discuss, but if someone comes with a huge need, feel free to spend the whole time praying or meeting their other needs. That way, people have some comfort in regularity while knowing the whole group is also sensitive to each other's needs.
This is more than not prying. It's also avoiding putting people on the spot. . . something that happens far too much in church settings. Every Christian prays, but many don't like to do it out loud in front of people. So, arrange your prayer time so those who wish to, can, but the others don't feel compelled to. The same goes for Bible reading and answering questions. One person's fairness can be another's tyranny. It should be perfectly fine for someone to sit the whole evening or the whole year without saying a word. Trust me on this, you'll get a lot more out of people if you let the Holy Spirit guide them. As an added bonus, what you get will be from God, rather than someone making something up because you called on them.
People are important to themselves and to God. In a classroom situation, there may be times that someone's comment or answer must be corrected. Small groups are not classrooms, so no one is there to teach. That other lady's answer may be as far from your understanding of God as is humanly possible, but it's her answer, and deserves respect. By venturing her comment, she did more right than wrong. Have faith that the Holy Spirit will lead discussion so that she will learn from the others. You'll have the added benefit of learning a thing or two, yourself. . . from her, of all people. . . even as wrong as you thought she was. By not having any wrong answers, you encourage open discussion and have more growth and learning than any classroom-style teaching could ever accomplish.
Respond To Individual Needs:
This is an area where large churches are far inferior to small groups. People are needy! That's why we come to God in the first place. Sad, that at our greatest point of need, the whole church service isn't devoted to minister just to us. Well, that's the power of small groups. If someone comes in having just had an argument with their spouse, maybe that's an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to use the group to help that one person, rather than talk about the weather and finish the questions tonight. Top-down thinking says. . . "this is a Bible study. . . why aren't we studying the Bible?" Small group ministry thinking says, “You can't know the Word until you do the Word. "
Sense People's Sensitivity:
While some people are outgoing and insensitive, others are quiet and very sensitive. This is a weakness of the small group that's often not present in the large church setting. Because individuals are discouraged from interrupting the program of a large church, those who do speak can use carefully chosen words that don't ruffle many feathers. In a small group, everyone is encouraged to participate, so outgoing insensitive people, if uncontrolled, will offend the sensitive ones. The good news is, because the outgoing ones are allowed to speak in a small group, they stand a good chance of learning not to be offensive. Still, a good small group facilitator will limit the outgoing ones by asking for other opinions and by politely defending the sensitivities of the shy.
To avoid the pitfalls of small group ministry it's important to preserve flexibility, have faith in the Holy Spirit, and to respect each person as a holy priest used by God to minister to you and the others. Get that down and there is no question you will have a successful small group ministry.
Glen Williams is Webmaster for http://www.web-church.com , an Ordained Minister, Founder and CEO of E-Home Fellowship (EHF), Inc. He has been active in ministry since 1989. You can comment on his articles at Web-Church Christian Forums .