Kelloggsville Church, an eight-hundred-member suburban congregation in Kentwood, Michigan, caught the vision too. The church had had small groups for some time, but they’d pretty much fizzled and failed due to exhausted leadership. The staff was already overworked, with no time to devote to a struggling small-group system; there was no one to guide the ministry or encourage and support the small-group leaders. So the staff watched as the number of small groups dwindled to just two (two, for eight hundred members). Meanwhile, the church was going through a time of clarifying its mission and vision, and when the leadership looked at effective ministry, they saw plainly that small groups needed to be a part of both caring for its members and reaching out to the community. Kelloggsville had reached a transition point, and major change was needed.
It was at that juncture, clearly God’s timing, that Diane, a member of the church and a small-group workshop trainer who’d just become familiar with principle-based groups, shared with key staff and weary leaders the freedom and freshness of growing people through these groups (and, coincidentally, growing the groups themselves). Together they designed a strategy built on the gifts and passions of their people, a strategy in keeping with what they believed God intended for their church. By tapping into the leaders’ gifts and passions, the church’s entire small-group approach radically changed, and the leaders and attendees changed as well. As they were released to dream God’s dreams, people created groups out of new enthusiasm. The number and kinds of groups they developed increased dramatically. They became excited about their groups, taking personal ownership because they’d helped design them. They developed a small-group nesting vision that fit their church’s commitment to outreach and care.
One of the newly formed groups came out of Kelloggsville’s “Sportsperson’s Club,” a growing side-door ministry of the church begun several years earlier. The Sportsperson’s Club was the dream of Pastor Maury DeYoung, who longed to reach a group often overlooked by the church—weekend hunters and fishermen. Maury’s own love of the outdoors created a natural link for reaching people who spent their weekends hunting and fishing rather than in church. Accordingly, on Thursday nights, people gathered to learn tips about deer hunting, tying flies for fly-fishing, bow-and-arrow target practice, and a host of other topics to engage outdoor enthusiasts. As he reached these avid sportspersons with the things they loved and that motivated them, he built relationships and led them to see the Creator behind the creation they enjoyed. Out of that foundation, Maury continues to facilitate small groups of men willing to explore the Bible and share their stories. What started as one group of about six people with a passion for hunting and fishing and for seeing God at work has grown to a large ministry that has touched the lives of thousands in western Michigan. Watching God work has been exciting, and new ministry avenues continue to emerge.
A couple of women in the church developed a strong desire to reach the wives of these outdoor enthusiasts. Starting small, these women created an affirming, we-care-about-you environment to support the wives who became “deer widows” during the fall hunting season. Women who had never before been in a church responded to the community invitation and found a welcoming place to enjoy hanging out with other women. In fact, the woman who initially appeared most uncomfortable being in a church building was the last to leave at the end of the first evening. “I haven’t had this much fun in years!” she told the group leaders. “I’ll come again.”
New kinds of groups, new people reached. All because Kelloggsville Church was open to dreaming God’s dreams for their community and open to a new way of thinking about small groups. Both these churches, in Kentwood and Salt Lake City, illustrate the importance of the foundation for experiencing God’s blessing on your small-group ministry: Be rooted in God’s will.
These leaders had a vision for what God was calling them to be and to do, and they had a vision for how small groups would facilitate that call. They were willing to let this vision be the driving force in determining what they did, and they learned the significance of tuning their hearts to listen to God before they did anything else.
Tuning our hearts to beat with God’s is an essential beginning point. That’s what marks the ministries He blesses, and we have benefited from a host of small-group pioneers who have provided excellent fodder for us, contributing mightily to our understanding of God’s intent for small groups. For instance, we have learned invaluable lessons from the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve-Step model, Paul Yonggi Cho’s cell model, Carl George’s meta-model, Lyman Coleman’s serendipity model, and the Willow Creek challenge to become “a church of small groups, not with small groups.” The Alpha course has been embraced worldwide, drawing people to Christ.
These are just a few examples of the models that have informed our understanding of small groups. Again, they have been influential because their leaders listened for God’s voice and were faithful in discerning what He was up to in their ministry. Whether Full Gospel Church, Willow Creek, Saddleback, or other thriving ministries, their leaders pursued the answer to the question, “What is God doing here?” and then did it with passion and purpose. They’re God-centered and people-related; this is the most important thing we learn from them, for though the models are valuable, it is zeal for following God’s call and the underlying principles behind the models that are fundamental.
We can learn from what they have done, but we cannot imitate another’s vision and make it our own. Bill Easum, president of Easum, Bandy and Associates (www.easumbandy.com), put it this way:
Too many leaders try to “cut and paste” someone else’s vision into their setting. Copycat visions always fail. Leaders can’t inspire what they have not lived and spiritually died to.
Trying to do this leads to what Wes Roberts (in an e-mail to a bunch of Promise Keepers guys) called “Paul Yonggi Cho depression,” a phenomenon that happens when people follow, to a T, all that Cho has done to build his Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea, to a membership numbering in the hundreds of thousands—but without the dramatic (or any) results. Cho is successful because he’s been obedient to the vision and call he received from God. God has blessed him because he was faithful to do what God directed him to do. In the wonderful diversity God has created, He’s planned something unique for your church too. Discovering what that is and joining Him in the work will bring joy and energy to your small-group ministry.
Being God-centered and people-related means that God’s will comes first. We need to focus on Him because He is the one with the perfect plan for our small-group ministry. Psalm 127:1 tells us that “unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.” It’s God’s work, not ours. We are His hands and feet and voice, following His guidance and listening for His voice through earnest, fervent prayer, both individually as leaders and also with others who come alongside and join the work. The band of faithful prayer warriors in the tiny Salt Lake City church knew this. Because they were in tune with God’s heart, they could clearly see the vision He had for using them to reach ex-Mormons through their small-group ministry.
A God-centered vision also means diligently studying His Word to clarify the vision He gives us and then being accountable to one another in staying focused on that vision. It means we learn from what God models in His Story (the Bible). Regular reflection and evaluation will ensure that we are God-centered and people-related rather than people-centered and God-related.
We’ll learn from His example: He is a relational God, reaching people where they are, not where He wants them to be. Beginning in Eden, He “walked in the Garden” to see what was growing, what needed pruning, what needed exposing. It was in His walking around the Garden in the cool of the day that He called to Adam, “Where are you?” offering Adam a place of honesty and confession. He met Adam at his point of need, just as He meets each of us at ours, just as He desires that we meet others at theirs.
We learn also from Christ’s example in the Gospels. He had a mentoring relationship with a tight circle of three—Peter, James, and John. In addition, He taught and lived with twelve disciples who were totally different from one another and yet united in one purpose. Furthermore, Jesus daily interacted with people, loving them and healing them, both individually and in groups.
Once again: A God-sized small-group vision celebrates the diversity He created. It’s large enough to include a wide variety of small groups. It frees people to listen to God’s voice and use their God-given gifts. It’s not controlling but empowering, not draining but energizing. It’s organic and fluid in nature, changing its methods according to the surrounding cultural landscape but changeless in its central purpose of growing people on their journey to becoming completely committed Christ-followers. It acknowledges that new groups constantly form, and when their purpose has been accomplished, they end. It’s a vision that presumes change, constantly asking, “What is God doing right here, right now, with this person, with this group, in this place?” It’s a vision built on mutual trust and accountability. It’s filled with the anticipation of God’s provision and blessing.
Putting God’s agenda first is also wonderfully freeing for small-group leaders. They no longer need to feel that the weight of the small-group world rests on their shoulders. They can release that burden to God, knowing He will bring to completion and bless what we do when we stay on our knees and submit to His leading. It means we’re free to move to a new stage of ministry when He calls us to it, trusting Him to provide leadership for our small group or for the entire ministry, especially if we’ve been faithful in sharing His vision for small groups with others. It means small groups may exist for a season and a reason, but not forever—it isn’t failure if they end when they’ve completed their God-ordained purpose. The bottom line is this: There is incredible freedom when God comes first and we come second, when we are God-centered and people-related.
The tiny church in Salt Lake City and the large church in Kentwood caught a God-sized vision for small groups. In designing groups based on a wide variety of gifts and passions, both churches reflect their unique culture, cultures that celebrate diversity and individuality. They also reflect their Creator, who designed this diversity and therefore delights in it. They tuned their will to His, and they’re experiencing firsthand that when our will is one with God’s, we’ll be ready for the wild, wonderful ride of working with the people He places in our path, people with whom He wants us to share His love.
Growing People Through Small Groups by David Stark & Betty Veldman Wieland
Copyright © 2004 ; ISBN 0764229125
Published by Bethany House Publishers