Goldfish Bowls

I was recently asked this question via email from a church leader in Canada:

There has been some question in the past at our church about how long a group should be together. A thought had been to “shake” things up or break up groups on purpose and in doing so that it would help. My opinion is that it hurts. The leaders are wondering what is best. What are your thoughts?

My first thought is to take a 30,000-perspective on the question. If I were consulting face-to-face with this church, I’d ask,

  • What’s the mission of your church?
  • What would you say is the main purpose of groups at the church?
  • What would your senior leader say is the purpose of groups?
  • What would your group leaders and members say is the purpose?
  • How would you describe your definition of and philosophy for small groups in the church?
  • How did these groups form in the first place? Naturally, organically, and relationally? Or through a programmed approach such as sign-up sheets, assignment/placement in groups (i.e., by last name, ages, neighborhoods, etc.), or a campaign?

I ask those questions to understand the context but also because the answers to those kinds of questions usually help the leader to respond to the more specific how-to questions.

In regard to definition and philosophy, I personally think of small groups as one of the most basic units of the body of Christ. The position the leaders in this church are espousing would be like taking organs out of one body and transplanting them into others. I can’t see how that helps.

If those organs (people) are unhealthy spiritually, that makes the whole situation even worse. Shuffling unhealthy people around in groups won’t help the situation. First deal with the unhealthiness within the groups. To do that you’ll need to assess your groups and your people. (My free group assessment is here: http://www.touchusa.org/free-small-group-health-assessment.)  I believe the best prescription for spiritual unhealthiness is discipleship. Spiritually immature people are often the most spiritually unhealthy.

My other favorite illustration of healthy small groups is a good football team that huddles to call the next play, instruct, encourage, and confess (“my bad; I dropped the ball”); and then breaks the huddle to run the play in order to carry out the team’s mission. No game was ever won in the huddle. Cohesive teams may make some offseason “trades,” but the best ones have been together for a while. They know one another, care about each other, and are a “team.”

If you’re purpose is to build disciples in healthy community, the big question is what’s best for doing that?

I don’t fully know this church’s situation, but in many cases like this one there’s something else going on behind these leaders’ desire to “shake things up.” It would take time for the small group director to meet together with people, invest into them, and do some evaluating to discover what that something is. Are people afraid of intimacy? Do they simply not like the people they are presently meeting with? Are they too inwardly focused (a holy huddle that’s not carrying out the mission)?

This is where the question about how they formed into their present groups comes in. If they were assigned or placed in groups by the church, or if they connected through a sign-up sheet or something like that, I can see why they might want to shake up that nonrelational program. However, I’d carefully, prayerfully put together a plan first for how the new groups will form. Because I believe in a more relational, rather than programmed approach to groups, I’d find a way for people to gather in groups through the relationships they already have—not as consumers, though, but as friends who desire to live in community to carry out God’s mission.

By the way, I suggest three books for anyone wrestling with this question:

My Small Group Vital Signs. It provides seven indicators of health that keep groups flourishing (so that members want to work together, grow together, bear fruit together, and then naturally multiply into new healthy groups).

Scott Boren’s MissioRelate (click for more info or to buy now), for small group directors, pastors, and other church leaders. Out of the hundreds of books I own on small group ministry, it’s the best and clearest on how to build a healthy small group ministry.

Scott Boren’s Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus (click for more info or to buy now), for small group leaders, core team members, and the rest of the group. I’m reading this book now, and it’s fantastic! Scott shows groups how to move from good meetings to having great small group experiences that transform lives and make a kingdom impact.

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Michael Mack has led Small Group Leadership full-time since 2012, but has been involved in small group ministry for more than 25 years. He lives in Pewee Valley, Kentucky (just outside Louisville), with his wife Heidi. Their family small group, which includes their four young adult children, has much potential (and much anticipation) for future growth and multiplication. Michael enjoys mountain and road biking with a group of great friends who participate together in various charity rides. See the "About Michael Mack" page under About Us for more about him.

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