Held Captive to "Small Group Worship"

Posted on April 2nd, 2012

What do pews, columbaria, sidewalk bricks, and local church histories have in common? In many churches, these are the places where people can find names of families who are forever linked with their local churches. These are all local church attempts to satisfy our insatiable thirst to know and be known. In life and in death, we want to be remembered.

This desire to be personally known and cared for is, for some people, an incentive to keep the church from growing.

If a local church is growing, there is pressure to learn new names. This pressure makes us uncomfortable. We all know learning new names means we care. However, if the local church is in decline it is easier to care for people because there are fewer people to care about. If a church is growing, we look for our friends on a Sunday morning and miss them in a sea of new faces. However, if a church is in decline, we can easily spot a friend sitting in the pew where she always sits, and everything seems okay, even though there are fewer of us. We will catch a friend, speak a personal word, and repeat with nearly everyone we care about on a Sunday morning. The simple fact is that it is easier to know someone’s name when there are fewer names to know.

Intimacy is critical to any local church. Persons captured by incentives to decline often insist on intimacy in worship. These folks may be educated that the purpose of worship is many things:

  • Praising God and Christ.
  • Growing connectedness with God and Christ.
  • Hearing the word of God read and proclaimed.
  • Experiencing the energy and power of communal worship.
  • Transforming the human heart and mind.
  • Encouraging Christians to go out into the world and serve.
  • Intimacy with God.

The purpose of worship is not to provide the kind of personal attention and affirmation that is available through small groups. Declining churches treat worship as a small group process, and small groups can only function for intimacy when they are small!

People need intimacy and need to feel cared for. Satisfy this need for intimacy through small groups, rather than worship. How many small groups do you need? The number probably varies but twelve to fifteen seems to work in most contexts. If your congregation has fifty people in worship and is trying to let worship meet the needs of intimacy and caring, worship size will inevitably be reduced to a manageable number.

Pursue Smallness Aggressively

Small groups need to begin with conversation. Look over the members and friends of your local church and find what things people have in common. Make a list of common touchpoints then issue an invitation for conversation. Don’t simply put an announcement in the worship bulletin but make personal, one-on-one, face-to-face invitations. Complete a discerning process with persons you hope will participate in the small group as design team members. Ask questions like “What dates are best?” and “What time during the day or night works best?” If the target group has small children in the home: “Do we need childcare?” or “What location will be best for getting the maximum number of people to attend?”

Of course, the need for small groups isn’t new information. But consider aggressive pursuit in getting people into the conversation. Aggressive pursuit looks like this:

”Judy, many folks in our area have lost their jobs just like you. I know it has been tough for you, and I am impressed with your spirit and resolve through this difficult time. Yours is a powerful story and model for people going through this. We are having a gathering of people who have all lost their jobs in this awful economy. We need you to be at that gathering. Yours is a compelling story and your attitude has continued to be positive. Your spirit is infectious. We have to have you at the gathering. Say you will come!”

“Sam, we are beginning a ROMEO group—Retired Old Men Eating Out. Some guys are having trouble adjusting to retirement. They don’t seem to know what to do with themselves, and their wives are ready to kick them out of the house. You have said that the first few months of retirement were tough for you, but now, two years later, you’ve got a lot of things going, and you appear to be really happy to be retired.”

Sam agrees, “You’re right. At first it was difficult to deal with finding a purpose, something meaningful, but I think I came through it all right.”

“Here is the deal…. We need you to come to this first lunch group meeting on Wednesday noon at Mary’s restaurant. We are inviting all the recently retired guys from the church, friends and members alike. Maybe you know some guys who fit our description but don’t come to church. If so, bring them along. It is important for the church and other retired guys for you to be there.”

Here is a list of needs within a congregation that may call for formation of affinity-based small groups:

  • Loss of a job
  • Stay-at-home moms
  • Retirees
  • Surrogate grandparents
  • Avid readers for “book of the month”
  • Young adults (whatever constitutes “young” in your congregation)
  • People in recovery
  • Movie lovers
  • Play dates for preschoolers and parents
  • Blended families
  • Covenant groups for spiritual growth

Whatever is of interest and will bring people together in an introductory conversation may become a potential small group. Inside of this and subsequent conversations, relationships will be established, and relationships will deepen over time. People will begin to socialize together within the membership of a particular small group. They will begin to sit together in worship. Leaders will emerge and as the congregation experiences new growth, they will guide the group in congregational care of the small group’s members. Research shows that churches with 350 persons or more in worship need at least thirty-eight small groups for the church to be vital and their members to feel connected. Churches with 100-349 in worship need at least twelve groups; churches with less than one hundred in worship need three to five small groups.

Recruit small group leaders with the understanding that they will be the “care leaders” for that small group. It is most easily seen in long-term adult Sunday school classes, but the best class leaders practice caregiving leadership when members of small groups have medical or personal crises. If the structure is correctly built, the one in need of caregiving will first call his or her small group leader even before they would call their pastor. (As a pastor you don’t just need to be okay with that; you need to be happy about it!)

Members who insist that worship be the place for intimacy need not hold churches captive. Instead, reactivating small group ministry is the pathway to close relationships for more people and increased vitality for the local church.


Excerpted from 10 Temptations of Church: Why Churches Decline & What to Do About It, (Chapter 6, The Temptation to Limit Church Size). See the authors' article Incentives to Decline: Why Some Churches Really Don't Want to Grow.

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