"Small groups are essential for building community in your church."
"Discipleship development is most effective in the context of small groups."
"Small groups are the key to church growth."
"The only way to create relationships in a large church is through small groups."
Here is the problem. Any one of these statements may contain truth. However, without knowing what exactly is meant by the term "small group," these statements could mean a lot of things.
Is the focus of the group fellowship, faith formation, Bible study, accountability? Is there a focus at all? Is the group self-driven or is there a facilitator? Is the facilitator trained? Are we talking about a self-selected group, a group generated through random sign ups, something created through a complex computer system? Are these open groups or closed groups? Is there an expected life-span for the groups or do they go on indefinitely? Are they based on geography, or life-stage, or hair color?
Don't get me wrong, in asking for a moratorium on the term, I am NOT asking for a break from the concept. There are churches doing some amazing ministry with small groups. But, there is an essential element involved. Churches who have effective small groups have identified the purpose and designed them to accomplish that purpose. For instance, if the purpose of a small group is to deepen member's level of discipleship, a church would have to ask some questions? Are the leaders of the groups disciples themselves? Have them been adequately trained and given adequate resources to lead? A church successful with this model would know that small groups don't make disciples, it is what happens within those groups. What if the purpose of a church's small groups was simply to create new relationships? The church would have to ask, do we have leaders who are good at helping people to get to know one another? Do we have a way of connecting people to these groups? (Otherwise it is likely they will be made up of people already in relationship.) Do we allow these groups to remain together for a long time or, for the purpose of creating new relationships is this a dynamic process?
What can get confusing about small groups is in the difference between products and by-products. We use this distinction in evaluating the effectiveness of different ministries at University. The products are the intentional output of a ministry. The by-products are the other things that might happen, that might be great but aren't the central purpose. For example, if we were to have an evangelism event at the church, the product (main purpose) might be measured on how many new people we go to meet and talk to. The by-product might be that be that we have a really great time with the people we already know. When the event is over, it is really easy to measure the wrong thing. "Well, we didn't meet anyone knew, but is sure was fun. We should do it again next year."
If the intended product (main purpose) of a small group is disciple formation, its success needs to be evaluated in terms of that. I realize it is hard to quantify growth as a disciple, but we can certainly ask questions related to how people are growing in their Christian journey. However, just looking at the narrative and accepting "we have all become really good friends" as success is measuring the wrong thing. It is great that people have become friends but was that what you were trying to do?
I think a lot about this because University does not have a "small group" program. However, people do meet together in small table groups throughout our Pathway to Discipleship; people do gather on Sunday morning in groups for Sunday school; and we do have a fairly decent number of organic small groups that organize and meet on their own. These groups have different purposes and the ones that we do organize are organized around those purposes and measured based on the intended purpose. In our Pathway to Discipleship, we are attempting to evaluate whether or not the program is helping people to "look to Jesus and look like Jesus." That is hard to quantify but there are questions we can ask. The overall goal of the Pathway is to connect people to their Jesus Mission. We can ask, are people serving in the Kingdom and using their God given gifts?
There is now another dimension to this discussion at University. In launching our west campus, West U, there is another need and another purpose for a small gathering of people. In the launch of a new church, there is a need to create community. This is especially important and challenging because you are basically creating a community of people from scratch. At West U, The Pathway to Discipleship will remain the primary way we develop disciples. Under the direction of West U's lead pastor, Adam Knight, we will use small groups primarily for community building. With this purpose (product) in mind Adam is forming groups in a particular way. There is a need to be intentional. They are not going to be based on Bible study or discipleship, we do that in other places. They are going to be designed around leaders and activities that build community. The initial plan includes meeting twice a month - once for simply fellowship and the other for some form of community building mission endeavor. This is new ground, so we don't know how it is going to work. But, we do what were are looking for, so we should be able to figure out how to measure effectiveness.
Okay, so you can keep using the term. But, in doing so, also tell us what you are talking about. What is the purpose? What is the intended outcome? What does it look like? And, how do you know if it working?