Are our Small Groups Effective?

recently participated in a men’s retreat, and I left with a nagging question. Let me explain. I do not mean this to be a criticism of the retreat. While I am normally not a retreat kind of guy, I can’t deny that God did work in the lives of some of the men there. We were placed in groups for the weekend, and a couple of the guys in my group definitely had an encounter with their loving Heavenly Father. What could be better than that? And there certainly is great value in getting away for forty-eight hours, and unplugging to focus on God. We could all use a little more of that in our lives. So this is nothing against the retreat or the organization or anything like that.

As I listened to my group share their stories, they had real concerns about the kind of fathers and husbands they were and that their relationships with God has gone cold. Important stuff. And the question that nagged me was this, “Why do they need a retreat for this? Why can’t they find this in the context of their local church community?” None of what they were dealing with seemed beyond the realm of the church.

Some confessed that they were ready to give up on church. They weren’t finding what they needed. Pat answers, shallow relationships, and unhelpful programs were what they talked about. It made me sad because we should be doing better. Healthy churches should have spaces for all kinds of people to find the help, encouragement, and prayer they need.

So that’s my challenge to all of us. We need to be creating the types of church communities where real biblical fellowship happens. Where we actually help each other become the people God has created us and called us to be. This experience got me thinking and praying about the men in the Life Group I attend and how I can be more helpful to them.

The easy answer would be, “We have small groups for that”. But do we? Are our small groups created to be places of authentic, vulnerable community or are they something less? If they are less we need to pray and plan and train and model until they are something more.

“We are a friendly church” is not good enough either. While you may be great on Sundays, the real measure is how much people engage beyond that hour a week. Have we made it a priority to have people connect for prayer, encouragement, help wrestling with and applying Scripture, discernment and more? Do we have settings where people who need to celebrate can do so and where people who need to cry can do so and find comfort and care? We need to create these spaces.

Are we challenging and training folks to step into mentoring and discipleship relationships, where they share their lives and experiences with others? If not, why not? We need good answers to these types of questions.

Here are some thoughts to get us started towards answers:

  1. This is not a curriculum issue. Curriculum can help, but there is more than that needed as we think through our small groups and disciple making programs.
  2. Speaking of programs, we need to make sure we aren’t over-programmed. People need time to breathe, to build the types of relationships I am writing about and to experience life and God together. The church can’t keep everyone (including the pastor) too busy to do this. We may need to evaluate and maybe even scale back our programming so that there is time and space for these types of relationships.
  3. This needs to be personal. This isn’t a good idea for everyone else. How am I as leader/member/part of church community going to participate in this? Am I going to try and have my small group be like this? Is there a couple of people I need to meet with to build this type of community? What am I going to do?

I realize this just scratches the surface. I want to encourage you to keep talking about this with the folks in your church community. We need to be the kind of places where people can confess, ask for help, be heard and loved and find God in the midst of their very real lives. We need to be better than pat answers and unhelpful clichés. We need to strive for authentic, real, helpful, God honoring community. So folks have somewhere to turn. So people don’t walk out and give up on God. So the Kingdom will come.

Marc McAlister

Director of Leadership Development, the Free Methodist Church in Canada