The Future of Small Group Ministry (and how to prepare for it)
I don’t know about you, but I’ve long been intrigued by a somewhat obscure Old Testament reference to the men of Issachar. Tucked away into a long list of those who joined David when he was banished by King Saul, we’re told about the men of Issachar “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do (1 Chronicles 12:32 NIV).”
Do you understand the times? Do you know what we should be doing? Can you see where things are going? Have you taken the time yet to stop and think about what where things are going means for small group ministry?
When you read the reports coming out of the Barna organization, when you read what Gabe Lyons, David Kinnaman and James Emery White are writing, for that matter when you simply listen to the news and read the headlines, it’s not hard to feel a change in the wind. The truth is, “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed (William Gibson).”
As I think about what is coming, here’s what I think is the future of small group ministry…and how to prepare for it.
The future of small group ministry (and how to prepare for it):
“Meet me at Starbucks” will be a much more common invite than “meet me at my church.”
As even the most attractional churches become less appealing to post-Christian America, it will become much easier to invite someone to “meet me at Starbucks (or the pub.” As a first step for unchurched (or dechurched) friends, neighbors, co-workers and family members, “Come to my church” will just seem so 20th century. On the flip side, the next Christians will see their home for what it really is: the 21st century equivalent of an excellent host in the 1st century.
“Tonight we’re studying John chapter 15” will require a lot of explanation.
You do realize that the further we go into the 21st century, the less biblically literate the culture becomes. Every study demonstrates this conclusively. This means you need to anticipate that even references that were assumed all your life (who Joseph was or that the Gospel of John was written by one of Jesus’ closest friends and followers) are now obscure and remote, Culturally savvy group leaders will approach teaching opportunities like Paul did in Acts 17 and assume unfamiliarity while deftly connecting spiritual truth with what is familiar.
Connecting strategies will be tilted toward strong ties.
Face it. The most connected people in your congregation are the least connected people in their neighborhoods and offices. The least connected people in your congregation and crowd are almost always the most connected people in the community. When the least connected people in your congregation and crowd participate in a social event (office party, block party, Little League game, softball league, etc.), they are strengthening ties with people who have never attended your church. Why not leverage these already established strong ties?
If all of your connecting strategies depend on unconnected attenders signing up to attend an event that happens on-campus you are already missing out on the most natural way to connect people. Wise leaders will gravitate toward and develop new strategies that leverage pre-existing strong ties.
Vision and training will focus on cultivating friendships in the community.
As the shift to a Post-Christian America accelerates, it becomes ever more important to envision and equip members to invest in their neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances and family, cultivating genuine friendships in the community. What about your fall festival and your Easter egg hunt? Wise observers of culture will innovate and experiment with neighborhood and even cul de sac expressions that make introductions and developing friendships more likely.
The value added element will be relationship and the byproduct will be discipleship.
Belonging absolutely precedes believing or becoming. If this isn’t obvious, refer to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There was certainly a time in the mid 20th century when it was still common to grow old in the neighborhood you were born in, to know your neighbors and even socialize with your co-workers. As mobility increases and neighborhoods and cities become more and more transient, loneliness and a vague sense of disconnection grows. Wise leadership will make it ordinary to prioritize and normalize loving your neighbor as yourself. See also, 5 Things I Wish You Knew as You Build Your Small Group Ministry.
Leader development and encouragement will be almost entirely decentralized.
Churches everywhere are beginning to discover that the pace of life is making centralized gatherings more difficult to demand and less productive to implement. Far easier to instill and more productive are decentralized gatherings at the local coffee shop or for that matter, in the living room or kitchen. See also, 7 Decisions that Predetermine Small Group Ministry Impact.
Storytelling will emerge as a best practice in thriving small group ministries.
We live in the era of storytelling. Yes, people have always been captivated by stories, but today more than ever before to tell a compelling story is to catch and hold the attention of a culture that suffers from an attention deficit disorder. We do have the greatest story. If we want to convince the unconnected crowd and community of the priceless value of authentic community, we must become better storytellers.
Organic connecting practices will be the rule rather than the exception.
You may have become a master at planning and executing connecting strategies (small group connections, GroupLink, small group fairs, etc.), but the further we step into 21st century post-Christian America, the more important organic connecting practices will become. As even the most attractional churches become less attractive destinations, it will become more and more important that we naturally, organically, build relationships with neighbors, friends, co-workers and family members. Effective small group ministries in the future will feel much more like interconnected hubs of relationship woven into the fabric of the neighborhoods, workplaces, and third places of our cities.
Disciplemaking will be the priority and practice of ordinary Jesus followers.
As the 21st century post-Christian America feels more like the pre-Christian 1st century, the lives of authentic Jesus followers will become more and more attractive to a culture several generations removed from experiencing the life-on-life impact of people who truly love their neighbors as themselves. That kind of love is the basis for true disciplemaking as come and see leads to taste and see.
Click here for 4 Keys to Preparing for the Future of Small Group Ministry.
What do you think? Have a question? Want to argue? You can click here to jump into the conversation.
Image by Frank Alcazar