It’s a common refrain among church leaders in charge of small groups: How do we get more people involved? The average church has 6 out of 10 attendees involved in some kind of small group ministry. That means 40 percent of your church is likely not connected to a group.
As more ominous statistics are released each year detailing the decline in American church attendance, many church leaders have started focusing on small group participation as a key indicator of the health of their church.
“In the future, church attendance won’t drive engagement; engagement will drive attendance,” writes Toronto pastor Carey Nieuwhof on his blog. “The goal will become to get people engaged faster and to engage people more deeply in the true mission of the church…”
While there are many ways to engage more deeply with your members, small group participation is one of the surest signs that an attendee is moving toward deeper involvement in the life of your church. Which is to say: healthy churches need healthy small groups.
Connecting that other 40 percent to a small group won’t be easy, but it can be done. Here are a few time-tested ideas to get you started.
1. Get more leaders!
Obviously, the number of your small groups is typically dependent upon the number of leaders you can enlist. It’s certainly easier said than done. But start by raising the profile of small group leaders. It’s not hard. Small group leaders are on the frontlines of your church. Their ministries are flush with stories. Tell their stories from the pulpit. Share them on your website. Speak of these leaders as heroes, those who make great sacrifices to make an impact in your church and in the broader community.
Also, take a look at your requirements and expectations for group leaders. Your strategy may dictate your expectations, but make sure you don’t have any outdated expectations that don’t fit today’s culture.
2. Leadership must model small group involvement.
Small groups can’t just be something your church leadership talks about. Your leaders must actually participate. This includes your senior leader. Small group involvement for leaders, particularly senior leaders, has its pitfalls. Depending upon the personality of the leader and the others in the group, having senior leaders step into a small group can stifle natural conversation. Senior leaders may also find it tough to be completely open during group discussion.
But it’s so crucial to the overall success of the small group strategy that leaders and the groups they’re in must choose to work through these difficulties together. You could try things like having the senior leader actually host a group, back off, and let another leader take over. This can be a great time for the senior leader to get to know their church members on a more personal level.
Church bodies can smell a “small group faker” from a mile away. If your leader encourages people to participate in groups he isn’t a part of, it’ll seem hollow and will ultimately fail.
3. Consider using multiple types of small groups.
There’s no rule saying you have to follow a particular small group strategy rigidly. Many of the strategies out there accommodate (and even encourage) an investment in other kinds of groups. Just because you offer sermon-based small groups doesn’t mean you can’t have some missional groups (in fact it doesn’t mean your missional groups can’t also do sermon-based studies as well). Just because most of your groups are closed doesn’t mean some of them can’t be open.
4. Give people a short-term group option.
You’d be surprised what a person would be willing to do for four or six weeks that they don’t want to commit to indefinitely. Even if your church prefers models that support long-term small groups, start a few short-term groups at key points in the year (after Easter, beginning of summer, the start of school, etc.). Target times when people’s schedules may be in flux (like at the beginning of new seasons or the start or end of school). Once these new groups form, encourage participants to consider extending their time together by suggesting a follow up study.
This article has been excerpted from the free echurch ebook Shrink To Grow: How To Engage Your Church Through Small Groups.