by John Wimber
Since Jesus trained the Twelve, small groups have effectively made disciples who show a growing commitment to Christ, His cause, and His church. Small groups are essential to a healthy growing church. When I speak to young pastors who want to plant a church I encourage them to "build from the bottom up" and resist the pressure to go public before infrastructure is established.
For pastors leading churches without small group ministries, identifying leaders and releasing small groups is one of the most vital steps you can take. Yet this process holds dangers, so be aware of four things if this describes your situation.
First, depending on the nature and the activity of the group, you run the risk of violating some basic Vineyard values. For instance, if the small group model you employ excludes worship, fellowship, or gifts of ministry, that model - right from the start - will violate three essential values of the Vineyard. Whatever type of small group you start ought to be faithful to these values.
Second, some small group training models won’t fit certain kinds of churches and cultural situations. Though the program worked for the originator, it won't always work - at least without modifications - for you. Many models have to be contextualized. For example, people working in a "blue collar" kind of setting may need more structure and definition in their groups than executives working in a "white collar" setting.
Third, some pastors assume every person who attends Sunday services - from the elderly to the teenagers - ought to participate in a small group. By everyone they mean, everyone. From my experience however, this is naïve. Young people tend to want a high quantity of relationships as well as a few quality ones. Therefore, they are amenable to being involved in small groups. But the older they get they tend to want fewer relationships with high quality. People older than 50 are less likely to involved themselves in small groups that are large and have turnover. It’s hard for them to undergo so much social change.
Of course the exception is someone who’s been in a small group from the time he was young. My brother-in-law, Bob Fulton, was converted in a small group. He’s now in his fifties and has never been outside of one. So small group life is church life for him.
Fourth, the launching of small groups as a program in a church ought to be done over time, giving people lots of room to opt in or out. To suddenly announce, "beginning next month, we’re going to divide everybody in the church into new groups" can be hurtful and disruptive. I think its wise from a leadership standpoint to give at least a year to that process. Let people try some small groups with those that are the most responsive. Share some literature with leaders in the church so they can get acquainted.
Let some of your leaders visit other churches that have small groups and then let them get involved in designing their own small groups so they can do something that reflects their own values.
In summary, the purpose of small groups is to make and nurture disciples who evidence a growing commitment to Christ, His cause and His church. The training elements of modeling, and formal and informal teaching, produce a powerful dynamic for maturing believers.
Variety in Small Groups
At first groups may be fairly homogenized and reflect the style of the founding pastor. As the church grows other needs will surface and other leadership styles will emerge to meet those needs. In our church we place groups in three broad categories: task-related groups, training groups, and integration groups.
1. Task-Related Groups. Their purpose for gathering is usually to perform a service. But there are by-products to working together. I use the word by-product not in a derogatory way but rather to point out the primary intent of the group is a task not relationships. But people who work together bond together. Most people bond better if they share a common activity or goal. Groups that go out an minister to the poor or prisoners, groups organized for evangelism, groups who minister pastoral care to the sick, the aged, the widows or divorced, groups designed specifically for prayer and intercession - all these can both perform a task and potentially develop a high degree of love and acceptance for one another. These groups can be very satisfying for participants. Often unbelievers and highly energetic people find a home in task related groups where service is the goal.
2. Training Groups. These groups usually are short-term groups put together for training in specific ministry skills. A group working on leadership issues is a good example. Such a group might meet for two or three months to work on biblical teachings of character formation, spiritual development and leadership gifts. Hopefully the group will relate closely enough so social and emotional needs are met as well.
3. Integration Groups. These groups help people get into the life of the local church. Solid relationships are the key to assimilating newcomers into any church. Remember, people come to churches for many reasons, but usually stay because they’ve made a close friend or two in the church. Integration groups have many functions: evangelism, assimilation and discipling. They primarily provide a bridge from the community into the church.
Every Vineyard should have vibrant small group life. It’s difficult to think of exceptions. I value them so much because the Lord has met me there so many times. If you are starting (or re-starting) small group ministry in your church, I encourage you to listen to what the Holy Spirit wants to do in your context. I know He will bless you and your people on your journey together toward Him.