Curing Groupaphobia: Pretreating Fears in Small-Group Ministry

February 13th, 2017

Recently, I did an Internet search on fears. Most sites consisted of lists totaling more than nine thousand different types of fears—everything from ablutophobia, the fear of washing or bathing, to zemmiphobia, the fear of the great mole rat. As a pastor of a church, I have a submission: groupaphobia, the fear of small-group ministry. It’s a fear shared by people who are invited to be in a small group, leaders of small groups, and even those on the church staff responsible for communicating about small groups.

“Whenever I’m afraid,
I put my trust in you”
—Psalm 56:3 CEB

The uninitiated have anxieties like going to the home of someone they’ve never met. (Will this culminate with a PowerPoint presentation on how to sell Amway products?) They’re apprehensive about appearing ignorant because of a lack of spiritual depth or biblical knowledge. (Can anyone really turn right to Obadiah in the Bible?) They dread the idea of potentially being stuck for ten years with a group who’s going word-for-word through Leviticus. (I guess I’ll have to ask for a Strong’s Concordance for Christmas.)

Little do the uninitiated know that even the small-group leaders have fears. They wake up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, wondering how they’ll answer the question about biblical evidence for infant baptism. They wonder if the only choice they’ll have for support from their church leadership is a thirty-six-week, three-hour Saturday morning leader bootcamp.

Meanwhile, the person in the church with the greatest angst is the one charged with the task of communications. How in the world is it possible to emphasize the value of small groups when everything the church does is “life-changing . . . can’t-miss . . . most-impactful-message-series-ever”?

The fears are lurking in our congregations, friends. But there is a cure, and you’re already halfway there! Curing groupaphobia begins with simply being aware of the fears felt by the various constituents and audiences. Once you have that awareness, you can begin to address them one by one. The following are a few things we have used at our church over the years:

Simple Onboarding     

  • Make it as easy as possible for people to join, or at least try out, a small group. This helps your church communications efforts and those you’re seeking to enlist.
  • Focus on just two months to focus on sign-ups. We have used January and August.
  • Share testimonies from real people already in a group. We use media when possible to show a video of an actual small group: a picture of a group of normal people sitting in a family room studying and laughing is worth a thousand words.
  • Let people start slow. We use two sessions: one begins in February; one begins in September. Each session has a defined time period:  sixweeks.
  • Small group are best begun when advertised as an all-church study, with each week’s session aligned with the previous weekend’s sermon.
  • Also consider beginning an Explorer Group. This is a small group offered nearly every week of the year that’s held at the church instead of at a person’s home. The content is based on the previous weekend’s message, and it’s a very nonthreatening, low-commitment group—out of which you can birth new small groups.

Specific Menu

One of the biggest challenges faced by many small-group leaders is what to study. While we require our groups to stack hands with us and do any all-church studies we offer, they are free to choose their own studies the rest of the year. With online curriculum providers like RightNow Media (think Netflix for church), access to and availability of great studies are endless. This makes the task as daunting as trying to decide on the best style and brand of toothbrush at Walgreen’s. (Have you looked at the selection lately?!?)

To make selecting studies less stressful, we offer the following four suggestions for each session:

  • Spiritual development topic (e.g., prayer, spiritual gifts)
  • Service and mission (e.g., toxic charity, homelessness)
  • Scripture (e.g., a book of the Bible, the ten commandments)
  • Sermon (designed in-house, based on the previous weekend’s sermon)

Support Leaders

We have learned over the years that our small-group ministry is only as strong as our small-group leaders. Be sure you set them up for success. Following are a few things we have done:

  • Small-group leader training prior to the launch of a major push of small-group communication. This helps set expectations and allows your leaders to connect with other small-group leaders.
  • Leader hub on Facebook. We have been using a special page on Facebook for small-group leader communication and interaction. The leaders come up with a lot of great ideas and suggestions, and this really speeds up the sharing.
  • Regular communications: usually an e-mail once or twice a month. We try to provide just enough contact to help them feel connected and supported without feeling overwhelmed.

At Morning Star Church, the small-group ministry is a critical component of our overall discipleship process. We know how important it is to gather and journey together in Christian community. Many churches have Sunday school classes: we do this in small groups. We believe the learnings we have shared can apply to both types of ministry. With people new to the faith or new to your church, these practices can help them take that all-important first step. For those who have been in the church for years, our prayer is that a thriving small-group ministry will encourage them to take a full stride forward as a disciple.

With a little awareness and some intentional steps to lower the anxieties associated with small groups, you’ll have nothing to fear. Unless, of course, your small groups all decide to start meeting together at the local bath house to do a sixteen-week study on the great mole rat.

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