July 31, 2017

by Parker Haynes, Associate Minister at Myers Park UMC, Charlotte

It’s nothing new to say that God created us for community. In baptism, we are incorporated into the body of Christ and become the laos. We want others to be present in our lives so that we can share the most precious, exciting and also the darkest moments of our lives. Being in community with other human beings is powerful because it gives us a chance to let down our guard, practice a form of Brene Brown’s vulnerability and be truthful in our relationships. When I think of that kind of community, the church often falls short, but there are inspiring stories of others like Jean Vanier’s L’Arche organization. Although it can be difficult to cultivate this kind of community in a wide-ranging church body, small groups give us a chance to practice that authenticity and vulnerability. The Methodist tradition has a rich history of practicing small groups, but our churches have to work in order to create a culture where participation in small groups is the norm.

From the time our young clergy enter seminary until they are ordained, the words “death tsunami” have overwhelmed them and cast a shadow on their future ministry. Many have suggested one of the reasons for the immense decline of the United Methodist Church has been its desertion some of its central practices including the class meetings John Wesley established among early Methodists. Kevin Watson passionately writes of our need to reclaim this forgotten and essential small group experience in his book “The Class Meeting,” which is summarized further down in the eLEAD. In a day and age when almost every church witnessing the movement of the Holy Spirit in their congregation has a thriving small group ministry, many Methodist churches have abandoned their early core values.

Somewhere along the road in the middle of the 19th century, Methodism took an authentic, experiential and transformative movement and turned it into a rigid, professional and mainline institution. One of the ways to recapture the power and passion of the early Methodist movement is the reintroduction of the small group as a core value of local congregations. Unfortunately, as church growth models have permeated leadership development in churches, “creating a small group culture” has also become a cliché that is often lip service to the way a church truly functions. John Wesley did not institute the class meeting because he wanted to grow Methodism into the largest denomination of Protestantism. Small groups are central to the life of the local church because they allow us to live into our calling to be the body of Christ and the community of God.

But “small groups” can be an incredibly generic term that simply means a group of 12-15 people doing something. In order to create a culture of small groups, you have to be able to answer a few questions: What kind of small groups do you want? How often will they meet? What is their purpose? Content? Will there be restrictions on a participant’s age or marital status or on group’s size? Small groups could be a Disciple Bible Study, or a Sunday School class, or a life group. I tend to agree with Kevin Watson that the most effective small groups are not information or curriculum driven, but focused on changed lives and group members’ experience of God. They are a place where transformation happens. Don’t just settle for any number of people being involved in any kind of small group. Know what you want the small group experience to be like and lift it up as the model for how your people connect with one another. I hope you’ll find these resources helpful in establishing a culture at your church where participation in small groups is an expectation, not merely an option.
Leadership Development