Assumptions: What’s Probable and Possible for Existing Groups

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When I consult with churches about building small group ministry, one of the first discussions we often have is about what’s probable and possible for existing small groups.  Almost every church as groups already in place; many times these groups have been around a long time and often predate the pastor or small group director.

Why do we have the discussion about what’s probable and possible for existing groups?  Mostly because I believe there’s an upside and a downside to everything and I want to help them manage their expectations.

The Upside for Existing Groups

Here’s what I believe to be the upside and downside for existing small groups:

One upside is that existing groups are often a great source of encouragement for a churches most involved members.  They are often the one place, the one activity where they are not the leader or not serving.  Instead, it is an opportunity for them to receive.

Another upside is that every church has people who are naturally drawn and attracted to community.  For them it is an essential ingredient…it’s actually the most important part of the of their spiritual life and actually trumps the worship service.  They end up in small groups whether a church provides any help or not.  They’ve often been in groups elsewhere, loved the experience, and know how to pull together others who have the same bent.

Finally, a third upside is that existing groups provide a level of care that has made a significant difference for many of their members.  When they’re asked why they love their group they will quickly tell you that “when I had surgery” or “when my wife left me” or “when I lost my job”…my group helped me through the toughest time of my life.

The Downside of Existing Groups

Remember I mentioned that there is an upside and a downside to everything?  Here’s the downside of existing groups:

Existing groups are very poor connecting opportunities for unconnected people.  Once a group has been meeting longer than about 4 to 6 months an almost impermeable membrane forms around them that makes is extremely difficult for anyone new to break through.

Existing groups only rarely see the needs of unconnected members as their concern.  Remember, this is often the one place that members of existing groups are receiving.  This is where they get refreshed.

Existing groups are often repositories for some of the most capable potential leaders (that you know about).  Drawn to community, they end up in groups together and are unaware of what they are missing.

What’s Probable and Possible for Existing Groups?

Although there are always exceptions, these assumptions about the upside and downside of existing groups are the probable.  What’s possible?  Here’s what I’ve found:

  • Given the right motivation, some members of existing groups will be open to short-term ideas like taking a small group vacation in order to help start new groups.  The best part?  Some existing group members who take a vacation will see their own contribution potential in a new way and will not be able to go back to being just a consumer (i.e., they’ll want to stay with the new group).
  • Stories about the experiences of members who previously ventured out of existing groups, helped launch new groups, and saw God use them in the lives of newly connected people offer a very compelling pathway.  The willingness to “give it a try” often comes in waves the next year.
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  1. Cathy on September 27, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    Another way I utilized potential leaders hiding in existing groups was to ask them to step out of their existing group to mentor a new group into being. Usually I asked for a 6 session commitment, during which time THEY became the visioncast-er for community to the new folks, helped them select a leader and divide responsibilities. Then they drew the leader into helping prepare & lead the lesson. The Mentor could stay in their existing group if it happened to meet on a different night, and the existing group was asked to be intentional about praying for the new group.
    Worked well for us…

  2. Mark Howell on September 27, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    Thanks Cathy! You’re on to a great idea! In fact, that was the precursor for the small group vacation idea (at least for me). The frequency with which their short term commitment turned into an obvious God given opportunity to make a difference and a desire to stay with it…spelled r-e-l-i-e-f to me and fulfillment to them. Thanks for contributing to the discussion!