Surrey BC was the site of a conference on small group ministry organized by the Willow Creek people. The focus was on the importance of small groups as places of belonging, as places where people can experience true community. It is only when you feel you are part of a safe community that people are able to openly explore their faith. You have to belong before you can believe was one of the strong messages of the conference.
Yes, much of the theology was too conservative for us. On the other hand, these are people who have been doing small groups for years and know both the gifts and the challenge of maintaining a viable small group ministry.
Small groups are places where we can share the problems, celebrations, and realities of every day life. We know that loneliness and isolation are a fact of our culture. People are working more from home. Our mobile society means friendships are often left behind as we move to find employment. There is a hunger for relationships.
Bill Donahue, who has written several books on small group ministry, was one of the presenters. He stressed the importance of a small group having a family atmosphere. A family is a place of nurture, relationships, acceptance, and learning. "We have to create an environment that will encourage a family-type relationship."
Dave Treat, in his breakout session, suggested that small group leaders need to be FAT - not overweight, but Faithful, Available, and Teachable. They have to have a faith that shows, and live it. They have to be available to people in the group, really present to their needs and their spiritual journey. And they need to be teachable, which means open to new ideas and model what it means to be a life-long learner.
Several speakers stressed the need to make the time and places to share our stories with one another. Hearing someone's story means really getting to know them. The best way to hear someone's story is to ask questions and take all the time needed to hear what they have to share.
Stories stir up our passion. They motivate and teach and help us become more authentic. When we tell our story, we actually learn it ourselves and become more comfortable with who we are. That sense of our own identity is what makes us authentic.
Creating a Healthy Small Group Ministry
Alan White is a consultant who assists congregations to develop and strengthen their small group ministry. He gave us a quote that underlined the importance of small groups: "You don't have to know everybody, but everybody has to know someone."
People can attend worship at a church for a long time before really getting to know anyone, or be known. A few pleasantries over coffee doesn't do it. It is in the safe environ-ment of a small group that real sharing can take place, and real caring.
He posed the question, "What would your church look like if every person was under the care of a small group?" His answer: it would be growing, it would be energized, it would be doing ministry, and there would be places for new people to truly become part of your community.
One of the practical insights Alan shared is that the average yearly donation on the part of people who are part of a small group is double that of ordinary church members.
What is needed for people to participate in small groups? A simple structure that people can use to flow into small groups is important, as are supportive church staff. The Board and lay leadership need to be on board. There needs to be a good communication system. Above all, attract small group leaders who are passionate about their faith and have a vision of what a relationship with God and modeling one's life on Jesus can do.
We learned a lot at this conference. If you are interested, we will be sharing much of this information at our Athabasca Small Group session next August.
Congregational News February 2007 Vol. 13 No. 3
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