Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Groups matter according to new Stetzer, Geiger book

By Bob Smietana
Think of Transformational Groups, a new book from Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger, as a kind of check-up on the health of small groups.
The news is mostly good, but there are a few things that need attention in the church. Much of the content in Transformational Groups is based on a 2011 research project from LifeWay Research that included surveys of 1,000 Protestant pastors and 3,500 lay people.
Researchers found that people who attend a small group are more likely to read and study the Bible, confess their sins, pray for nonbelievers, and—no surprise—spend time with other Christians.
For the most part, they like being in small groups. About three quarters of small group attenders say they look forward to meeting with the group. Most say being in a group helps them feel closer to God. And once someone joins a group, they tend to stay. More than half of the people surveyed say they’ve been in a group at least two years.
Still, something is missing, say co-authors Stetzer and Geiger.
They point out groups do a good job of providing support for members, but small groups often don’t push members to grow into mature believers.
The authors point to research that shows few people feel challenged by their groups.
For example, most group members say they feel encouraged and accepted by their group. But few—only about 1 in 3—say the group holds them accountable. And only about 1 in 5 say the group had offered them correction for something going on in their lives.
According to the authors, that means groups are falling short of their purpose—which they believe is to make disciples and create real community.
“The world pushes us to isolation and then offers superficial interaction as a false community,” write Stetzer and Geiger. “Part of what the church of God (as the people of God) must do is show a better way.”
Both authors are preachers and practitioners, who lead small groups at their churches. They say small groups sometimes fall short because of a lack of leadership and direction.
While most churches have well planned Sunday services, small group ministry tends to be disorganized, say Stetzer and Geiger.
That’s not a strategy for long-term spiritual growth, which the authors say happens being in community.
“Imagine if pastors and church leaders put as much energy into their worship services as they do to their group ministry,” they write. “Just let Bob, the worship leader, pick whatever random song he likes. It could be one from the hymnal, a song he heard on the radio driving to church that morning, or a hit when he was a teenager. The musicians and choir could follow his lead or do their own thing. The ushers could stroll down the aisles to collect the offering whenever the urge struck.”
That kind of approach wouldn’t work for Sunday morning worship. And it’s not the way to handle small groups either, says Stetzer.
Instead, pastors and church leaders need to have a thoughtful plan for groups. In nine concise chapters, the book offers a mix of practical examples and theory on how to develop a strategy for groups.
For starters, they suggest creating a manifesto or mission statement for groups.
“It is our goal for every person in this group to become a mature disciple of Jesus Christ,” their sample manifesto reads. “This happens when you are in a group with other growing disciples where you are learning the Bible together, holding one another accountable to spend more time with God daily, and living a lifestyle that looks more and more like the lifestyle of Jesus.”
They also suggest setting clear goals for each group and finding the right leader to match those goals.
“If a church decides the primary purpose of a group is study, then the church should recruit teachers,” write Stetzer and Geiger. “If a church decides the primary purpose is biblical community, the church should recruit leaders to shepherd and facilitate. If a church decides it is mission, the church should train their leaders to think like missionaries.”
They also suggest group leaders be given some guidelines on what resources to use in groups—to make the Bible studies they use fit the church’s theology and mission. That way everyone is headed in the same direction.
Most importantly, the authors say, small groups and community need to become a central part of a church’s life.
“Your church, no matter how together it looks on the surface, will never become all that God wants if community is just another annoying detail, just something to place on the calendar,” they write. “The pastor(s) and church leaders must believe deeply in and declare the importance to community to Sunday morning consumers who prefer comfort to community.”