A “Plated Meal” Leads to a “Church of Groups”

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We've all been to a buffet or a cafeteria. Long display cases of entrees, side dishes, salads, breads and desserts. Some buffets are an amazing collection of incredible food. Others are a wide variety of bland, predictable food.

Most of us have also been to a banquet or event where there was a plated meal. Maybe it was a wedding rehearsal or a $1,000 a plate fund-raiser, but most of us have also had this kind of meal. There are times when a plated meal can also be amazing. And to be fair, there are also plenty of times when the food is only so so.

I want to suggest that the most predictable path to becoming a church of groups is the plated meal approach. It's not the buffet or cafeteria. The most difficult scenario is one where a customer walks up to the long line of options, grabs a tray and begins sliding it down the counter in front of the display case, choosing for themselves an entree, a side dish or two, a salad, a roll, and a dessert.

I want to suggest that the most predictable path to becoming a church of groups is the plated meal approach. It's not the buffet or cafeteria. Share on X

Now, please understand. It's not that a customer can't get a healthy and delicious meal from a buffet or a cafeteria. They certainly can. But unless all of the options are equally healthy and delicious...encouraging choice doesn't necessarily lead to health or delicious variety.  And it's not that your members and attendees (your crowd) can't choose for themselves from the buffet that you're offering. They can. But it's less likely that all of the menu items actually lead in the direction you want them to go. This is why I've identified "menu items promoted equally as one of the top 10 fantasies of churches with groups.

And that's why I say that a plated meal leads to a church of groups. If you believe that the optimum environment for life-change is in a group...you need to be moving in the direction of plated (as opposed to the buffet line at Luby's or The Mirage. I believe that for two reasons:

First of all, most of us will have a hard time pulling off a buffet line of amazing and delicious choices that move people in the direction we want them to go. And that's a key point. If you can pull off options that move people in the direction you want them to go...put an asterisk on this point. But most of us cannot. We don't have the resources.

The second reason that I think plated is the better route is important for you to understand. It's been conclusively demonstrated that more choices leads to decision paralysis. I cite the now famous study where one week a sample tray of 6 different jams was offered to customers at a grocery store. The following week an amazing array of 26 options was offered. Guess which week produced more sales at the checkout? That's right. Fewer.

What's the lesson? When it comes to selecting the best way to move someone in the direction of spiritual health and balance...a plated meal is the most likely path. If you want to become a church of groups...you're going to probably need to think "plated," not buffet.

Next Steps:  I want to suggest that if you want to become a church of groups...but you know your current menu of options makes you more like a buffet...two books that will help you are The 7 Practices of Effective Ministry and Simple Church.  A third that ought to be on your staff reading list is Church Unique, by Will Mancini.  These three books provide the basis for a great conversation when read as a team. A word of caution though, if you're not the senior pastor or executive pastor...you can't make the kinds of changes you'll want to without their engagement.

You can take a look at my Top 10 Fantasies of Churches With Groups right here.

Image by Thomas Hawk

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  1. Alan Danielson on August 18, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    GREAT THOUGHTS! Love the word-picture. The way I encourage pastors to offer “plated meals” is to clearly and simply define small group expectations.

    Bill Search, who wrote “Simple Small Groups”, does a good job of this by asking all groups to do three things: Connect, Change, and Cultivate. This allows each group to explore their own uniqueness while still expecting them to embrace the same values and strive for the same outcomes.

  2. Mark Howell on August 18, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    Thanks for jumping in Alan! Definitely defining expectations is a big part of small group ministry success.


  3. Brent Thornton on August 18, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    This was great Mark. You have made a compelling argument for a good and true principle of spiritual growth and group growth. Thanks for your clarity and thoughts.

  4. Mark Howell on August 18, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    Appreciate the feedback Brent! Thanks for jumping in and be sure and come back!


  5. Steve Watson on July 12, 2016 at 10:14 am

    Hey Mark, we have HOME groups (small groups) that we allow to select what to study. There are basically 2 options with a 3rd non-option: use the study guide from the previous Sunday, choose something from the local christian book store or our library and the 3rd is a church wide study where we ask all the HOME groups to do this one as a church.

    In your opinion is that giving too much freedom? I have had to talk with some groups who had trouble choosing in the past. Thanks so much for all the help!

  6. markchowell on July 12, 2016 at 10:37 am

    Hi Steve! I don’t think that’s too much freedom, generally speaking. A few things to keep in mind might be helpful. First, when you do start new groups, it’s a good idea to give them a study to begin with and also, provide them a study to do next. New groups are often not strong enough to have a debate or discussion about what to do next. Second, some churches provide a recommended list and ask groups to choose from the list (or submit any alternatives for review). This will help with the situation you mention above. Finally, part of the role of a coach is to help leaders and groups choose the study they ought to do next. If you haven’t already put this in play, you might consider equipping your coaches to have the discussion with the leaders they support and care for.

    Thanks for jumping in!