evang-small-groups

By Chuck Lawless

As a pastor, I learned early that small groups are essential to a church.  They provide opportunities for growth we could not offer in a large group setting.  Members cared for each other when I could not possibly be there to meet every need in the church.  More specifically, small groups became a central player in our church’s evangelistic strategy.

Most healthy churches have both open groups and closed groups. Open groups use an on-going curriculum that allows guests to enter the study at any point; emphasize evangelism, with the goal of becoming an entry point for guests; and strive to grow enough to multiply at least annually.  Closed groups use a set curriculum that limits entrance once a study has started; typically meet for a set number of weeks; and emphasize discipleship, with the goal of strengthening a believer’s walk.

The problem in most churches is this: open groups become closed groups when steps are not taken to avoid this direction. Because evangelism is difficult, many open groups see few unbelievers attending their group. The evangelistic focus thus quietly disappears as the group slowly becomes closed.

How does a church make sure that open groups remain evangelistic?

1. Be aware of indicators that an open group is losing its evangelistic focus. 

I know of no open group that intentionally decides to be inwardly focused. I have, though, seen many open groups lose their evangelistic focus.  Watch for these indicators that an open group is moving in the wrong direction:

  • a failure to reproduce another group at least every two years
  • a leader who refuses to raise up an apprentice to lead another group
  • a steady decline in the number of guests who attend the small group
  • group members who complain that “the curriculum is not deep enough for us”—thus showing they believe the group is more for them than for others
  • no new group members within the last six months
  • no planned fellowship/outreach events within the last six months.

2. Choose the right small group leaders.

Most, if not all, problems in small groups can be fixed by selecting the right leaders.  A strong small group leader will teach anywhere, reach out to anybody, and make any curriculum work.  Likewise, the right small group leader will help the group keep its focus on evangelism.

If your groups are intended to be evangelistic, seek these characteristics in leaders:

  • good teaching skills so that believers and non-believers alike will want to attend and learn. A boring small group leader will lull a group into irrelevance.
  • a stated willingness to reproduce the class – that is, to reach people, train them, and send the strongest out to begin another class.  A small group leader who is unwilling to send out “class missionaries” will not lead his class to be evangelistic.
  • a lifestyle of personal evangelism.  Few small group leaders suddenly focus on evangelism when they start to lead a group.

3. Continually challenge small group members to think about non-believers.

This practical step sounds almost too basic, but it is critical.  The longer people are in a church, and the higher they rise in church leadership, the more likely is they will be disconnected from non-believers.  Without realizing it, most of us get cocooned in the church world.  We get comfortable in our world and almost dare outsiders to disrupt it.

Good small group leaders push hard against this tendency.  They ask group members to share names of non-believers for whom they are praying.  They hold members accountable for intentionally developing relationships with unbelievers.  They model evangelism by telling stories of persons for whom they are praying.  They lead the small group to plan fellowship activities that unbelievers might attend.

4. Celebrate when group members become believers.

What better way to rejoice than to throw a party when a non-believer chooses to follow Christ?  The small group that has prayed for that person, reached out to her, invited her to fellowships, and welcomed her into the group surely is ready to celebrate when God changes her heart.  Bake a cake, buy some ice cream, and give some presents!

In fact, the gift options are numerous – a Bible, Christian music, a devotional guide, a journal, Christian books, and a family magazine subscription are all possibilities.  The gift need not be elaborate to let the new believer know you celebrate what God has done.

Here’s the point: God-honoring, Christ-centered celebrations will help your small group’s evangelistic outreach.  Clearly and intentionally praise the Lord every time He uses your group as a means to change a life – and then ask Him to use your group again.  Evangelistic small groups are actually quite fun when evangelism takes place and lives are transformed.

What other strategies would you recommend?


Lifeway_Blog_Ad[1]Chuck Lawless currently serves as Professor of Evangelism and Missions and Dean of Graduate Studies at Southeastern Seminary. You can connect with Dr. Lawless on both Twitter and Facebook.

photo credit: marcia.furman via photopin cc

Comments

  1. Patsy Chacon says

    God bless you and thank you for sharing this morning. We are a new ministry and we are going to starting training our leadership team fir exactly what your blog is about today. Could you plse recommend some good material for us to go over with them? And for the small groups how many should each leader have in each group and what bible topics should they start off with?. Thank you so much, and again, like always everything you share in your blogs seems to always be written just for us. Thank you

  2. David Lopez says

    Consumer driven during the week Sunday school will hardly ever become evangelistic, it’s not about the setting, the house or the neighborhood, it’s all about the participants for whom football, HGTV, and their US suburban understanding of God, Justice and Politics are more important than actually caring to share life with non followers. Very likely if a small group starts as a book club, it will end as such.

  3. Essie says

    I would like to chime in a question: Is it ever okay to exclude anyone from the life of small group ministry, particularly and more so, just because that person has autism? After all, in larger churches, if a person is excluded from small group ministry, then they miss the opportunity for relationship building and development of relationships that can help them to thrive spiritually. Even an autistic individual who is higher functioning has the capacity and need for this intimate relationship building.

  4. says

    Great reminders! I like defining the primary purpose of the small group as evangelism; all the other functions are secondary to and supportive of the primary purpose.

  5. steve says

    I remember when Wednesday night meant prayer meetings, pot luck dinners, special needs meetings, and committee meetings. As a youth, Royal Ambassadors (RAs) was my small group experience. We functioned in a Christian community that reached out to others with Christian love. Outsiders were immediately recognized and made welcome. Doors were not locked and generally stayed open for anyone to enter. The unsaved cannot worship until they have been convicted.

    However, in this era of mega-churches the health of a large church relies on small groups. Small group leaders need to be prayed for, cared for, listened to, encouraged, and reminded that reproduction is a biblical strategy. This idea implies a “team” approach. In other words, pastors need to stay connected to the church’s small groups. Pastors need to remind small group leaders that nothing is a hardship to love.

    Assimilation requires a plan of action. It is a process that requires the church community to stay connected with every newcomer. The need for open groups starts from the top. Christ died for that “one more.” All Christian small groups should intentionally seek new members until the group is no longer “small.”

    Pastor are the shepherds and they need to keep watch over their flock (small groups) while they graze in the fields! Pray um up, love um up, and coach um up – that’s what Jesus did.

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