By Tess Schoonhoven
Overcoming the challenge of cultivating a thriving small group ministry is a task that leaves many church leaders discouraged and without answers.
But if effective small group ministry is vital to church health, how can leaders understand the challenges and work to combat them for stronger outreach?
Steve Gladen, executive pastor of small groups at Saddleback Church, spoke with Brian Daniel and Chris Surratt on the common trends and challenges he sees churches struggle through in groups ministry on a recent episode of Lifeway Leadership Network’s Group Answers Podcast.
Here are three Gladen discussed.
Social media has created a whole new world for groups ministry as each platform has the ability to create digital groups that bring people together to connect over similar interests.
The church is at a crucial point where the opportunity to connect with people for the gospel over social media is available but the question is, how can leaders embrace those opportunities?
“Your driving force has to be changed lives,” Gladen says. “If you’re passionate about changed lives you’re going to try to ooze your way into every nook and cranny to make it happen.”
To engage groups well using technology, Gladen says it is important to understand the current health of the church body.
“Meet people where they’re at and take them to where you want them,” Gladen says.
Take them slowly out of their comfort zone.
This can mean both bringing those who only engage online into a physical space and bringing those who have yet to engage online to a place where they’re open to online group ministry.
2. Making changes that meet the needs of the community
Many churches want to see small groups and discipleship groups expand in their community, but they don’t know how to make those changes a reality.
Gladen says that making changes to group ministry takes a long time because it plays such a large part in the community of the church.
The larger the impact of the ministry, the longer it will take to change it.
When switching to a small groups model the focus should always be relational, Gladen says.
“Build all kinds of relational equity, make sure nobody’s surprised, make sure everybody’s on board, and make sure you have a plan,” Gladen says. “Start with small groups and slowly build equity with teachers and say ‘hey this is what we’re trying to produce with discipleship and can you help me get there.”
Change doesn’t happen quickly.
3. Getting the congregation invested
Gladen says that small group ministry requires building the church from crowd to core, meaning leaders should start with bringing in large groups of people—and from there seek to be intentional about setting aside smaller discipleship groups.
“If you don’t have the people there, you can’t make a groups culture,” Gladen says.
People want to feel valued, respected and needed, he added, and in order to build healthy small group ministry, each person needs to know they’re an important piece of the puzzle.
“When people have a responsibility in your church, the natural byproduct they’ll feel is value,” Gladen says.
He also says it’s key to train small group leaders and challenge them to build the groups culture from where they are, starting organically.
“Work on those crowd events to bring people in and use the small groups to build people up and train them and send them out for even more planting,” Gladen says.
Gladen says that one of the biggest obstacles to his personal growth in leading small groups ministry is fear.
“I let fear get the better piece of me in making a decision,” Gladen says. “When God lays something on your heart the toughest thing to do is be obedient to it.”
Gladen encourages leaders to be bold with their steps to grow their small group ministry.
“Battle [fear by] taking big bold steps in daring faith,” Gladen says.
The steps towards a thriving group ministry may be taken by crawling, walking or running, but it is exactly those steps that build faith and ministry.
TESS SCHOONHOVEN (@TessSchoonhoven) is a former intern with Facts & Trends and a recent graduate of California Baptist University.