Bible Belt Small Groups

There is a place in every church where numerical and spiritual growth level off and/or decline. This barrier can exists for many reasons, but one of the biggest reasons is when churches reach a certain point in their numerical growth without a strong small group model. When our church started with thirty-three people, we were a small group. Everyone knew one another well; everyone knew each other's needs; and we were easily able to hold one another accountable. Once a church passes the 120ish mark (everyone has a number, this one is mine) something changes. The personal relationship and accountability only exist within certain circles (usually those who have been there for years); and seldom are others invited in. The presence and needs of those outside these established circles become invisible. In essence, your church loses the “community” foundation.

When a church loses it’s “community,” you will see these problems surface. If your church is attractional, you will continue to see new faces, but you will not retain new faces. This is the tricky part; you will think you’re growing because of the new people you see each weekend, but in reality, you are simply feeding other churches who have a community base. Why? Because people, for the most part, only stick where there is strong community. Personal relationship, loving one another (meeting needs), and accountability are the factors that cause people to become rooted in the church body (wished I could tell you they stay for your preaching...they may come for that in the beginning, but they will stick only when there’s community). It blows a lot of pastor’s minds when they learn a family left their cool, post-modern church and became established in the little 80 member church down the road. Why? Because “cool” churches do not keep people; community keeps people.

There are several small group models out there, and to be honest, I have tried them all and failed at each of them. I was frustrated because I knew in order to press towards 500-700, we had to have a strong, healthy small group model. After whining and complaining to God for a while, the Lord begin to open my eyes to something; something that would change our small groups forever.

My community is different than a lot of my pastor friend's communities who live in urban or heavily populated areas. I live right in the middle of the Bible Belt in Kentucky; my town has a population of 1,800 and I'm surrounded by churches who still sentence every preacher to hell who doesn't preach from the glorified 1611 KJV.

When I tried small groups, they would typically start well, but never finish well, although I did all the things that books told me to do. Also, those who started well were usually the people who had been there for a while, and even then, they would usually drop off before the first semester would end. Here's what I learned from this.
  1. In my culture, when people think "church" they still think of a church building.
  2. Most people in rural Kentucky don't get excited about showing up at someone's home who they don't even know (we Kentuckians are relational, but in a funny kind of way).
  3. To the younger generation, the thought of a home Bible study didn't seem to generate too much excitement.
So, here's the model I came up with and it is working GREAT! If you're a church in a rural area, who struggles with small groups, this may be your answer.

We call our small groups, "Life Groups." This is not a new term, but we use the term in a very intentional way. Here's what we do.

  • We hold life groups at the church building. When people walk in, they see twelve round tables in a very "non-church" environment. Normally, we use lower light and have some kind of easy listening secular music playing in the background. By holding this at the church building, we launched with over 200 people! And here's the best part; instead of decreasing as the semesters went on, we increased! At the end of our 2011 small group semester, we averaged a total of 210 people consistently. Why? Because people are more comfortable coming to a church building than a home of someone they barely know.
  • Each table has a different topic on it. For example, we had topics like Hot Smoking Marriage, Empty Nest, Addiction in Family, Deer Hunting, etc. When people came in, they simple found a topic that was of interest to them. There are no sign up's...instead they just show up and sign in on the roster that's on the table that they choose.
  • The first thirty minutes we use sermon-based small groups (read Sticky Church by Larry Osborne). The last thirty to forty minutes, we talk about the life topic that's on the table. So, those at the deer hunting table talks about Jesus for half an hour, and then talks about the big buck they killed last year for the last half.
  • We serve refreshments during life groups, as well and make it a ton of fun. During promotion, you push the life topic more than the Bible study, because it generates more interest and is more appealing to someone who feels biblically inadequate. And I can tell you, the last half of the hour is just as important as the first half; because talking about life together is discipleship at its best. Relationships are made and community happens.

After the first two semesters, we ask life group leaders to move their group into their homes and allow others to have their table at the church. So then, we don't have either/or, but and/both. The church building becomes an entry point to get people plugged into small groups, and then eventually move them into home groups.


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