Mega churches concentrate efforts on developing small group leadership skills to keep their members engaged on a personal level. Perhaps secular nonprofits need to pay attention.
An article in Christianity Today caught my eye. Fix My Small Groups! by Keri Wyatt Kent listed some common problems that arise when churches use small groups as a part of their ministry. While the article quoted pastors from some smaller churches, I was struck by the number of 10,000-plus-member congregations that have taken a serious interest in the dynamics of small groups:
- Mars Hill Bible Church (EIN 38-3442884, church, no Form 990) in Grandville, Michigan has a network of geographically based small groups as a part of its program.
- Willow Creek Community Church (EIN 51-0164942) (South Barrington, Illinois) is adopting the regional small group approach, and the article opens with an anecdote about group dynamics from Willow Creek
- Of course, the article mentions Rick Warren of Saddleback Church (EIN 95-3689195), whose 40 Days of Purpose curriculum has launched a great many small group programs.
- While the connection is not mentioned in the articles, one of the resources listed is a web page (smallgroupresources.org), sponsored by McLean Bible Church (EIN 54-0763526) of Vienna, Virginia (which was the subject of my earlier posting Mega Churches Left in the Dust about the rise of 10,000-plus congregations in the US).
It is not clear how successful these organization have been in finding a formula for making small groups effective. But the article lays out the difficulties that these groups face, which has more general applicability to other charitable organizations interested in outreach and maintaining volunteer networks:
- A single annoying group member has the ability to poison group fellowship unless the other group members can find a way to get past it.
- Lack of group structure: churches are finding that small groups have to be organized around another unifying affinity factor, which can be as simple as geography or age groups.
- Need for leadership: explicit training for leadership seems to help, rather than just recruiting.
- Lack of commitment: with everyone so busy in suburbia, it's difficult to get people to commit to regular group meetings. Some deal with it by having limited-term commitments (for ten weeks, say) and by having the pastor participate in a small group and regularly mentioning it to provide an example.
- Inbred, exclusive groups (cliques): other than reminding the groups of the need for outreach, there seems to be no sure-fire solution to the tendency of groups to become self-focused. Some groups like to reach out, others don't.
- Attracting newcomers: related to the previous point, it's difficult to get new members involved in a group structure. One suggestion is to base group discussions around sermon topics, so that new participants are less intimidated about having something to contribute, having just heard a whole sermon on a topic.
Leadership, commitment, outreach: all of these necessities are relevant to non-church charities, and their scarceness explains the ineffectiveness of most grassroots charity efforts. So the great paradox for all charities is the fact that effective small groups are best fostered as a component of a much larger group.
Another paradox is illustrated here: the fact that Christianity Today, and the main on-line resource (which it sponsors) are for-profit ventures. There are also several software products for managing small groups, including ChurchTeams, Logos Management Software, and Group Meister. The relationship between charity, making a living, and living a good life is complex.