Suppose someone approached you with an opportunity to join an organization that you knew very little about. From what you can tell, if you join the organization, you are in it for life.
Another friend approaches you later in the day with a similar offer, only this opportunity has a six-week trial option that allows you opt out gracefully if you do not feel like you fit into the group.
Which option would you select?
Almost everyone would go for the second option, right? The option with the six-week trial period!
The Difference Between Ongoing and Short-Term Groups
Churches have choices when it comes to the expectations new people have about Sunday School or small groups. One option is the “ongoing group” option. An ongoing group meets regularly, usually weekly, every week of the year. An ongoing group does not necessarily need reminders about group meetings each week. Everyone knows that their group will meet Sunday morning at 9:30, for example. Some of the values of ongoing groups are: they provide ongoing ministry year-round; group members are in consistent instead of sporadic relationships; quality of relationship depth can be quite high. Many churches use ongoing groups for their long-term, ongoing discipleship strategy.
Short-term groups however, usually meet for about six to twelve weeks and have specific start and end dates. Many discipleship groups fit into the category of short-term groups. The curriculum (Experiencing God for example), usually determines the length of time that the group meets. When the last session is completed, the short-term group ends. Some values of short-term groups are: curriculum flexibility; open social circles; and because of the brevity of the group, short-term groups can be more intense and focused.
The Uninvolved Worship Attender Problem
Many churches have more people attending worship than they have in their Sunday School/small group strategy. Most churches have invited these worship attendees to participate in a group. Pleaded with them to participate. In some cases, even begged, guilted, and shamed the unwashed masses of uninvolved worship attenders to get involved in a small group. And usually… to no avail. Church leaders scratch their heads and wonder what will it take to get people that are attending worship to get involved in an ongoing small group.
The issue is not that worship attendees do not love Jesus. It is usually not centered around the pastor’s poll numbers either. There are generally three primary reasons why people attending worship are not in a small group:
- Existing social circles. By instinct, worship attendees know that the social circles of the church’s small groups are actually closed circles. Though the group members are friendly; they have already established certain habits, inside jokes, and an existing pool of stories that new people do not know.
- Worship attendees do not know (or trust) the group leader. Let this scenario run through your mind: You are visiting a group for the first time and the leader calls on you to read from Habakkuk and the passage has words that do not have any vowels. You frantically flip through your Bible looking for Habakkuk while a dozen Bible scholars watch with amusement. Point made.
- All the church’s groups are ongoing (read long-term). But we live in a culture of short-term commitments.
Using Short-Term Groups In an Ongoing Group Strategy
Many churches today are offering short-term groups as a way to engage worship attenders. These short-term groups do not compete with ongoing groups, but instead they are used to reach worship attendees that are uninvolved in a group. The church offers short-term groups, often led by the pastor, as a way to engage people attending worship into participating in a group. During the course of the short-term study; friends are made and relationships are formed. As the study draws to an end; the short-term group is extended with another study or two, the pastor enlists one of the group members to become the new leader, and the group is changed from a short-term group into an ongoing group.
Using short-term groups with this strategy is a response to the three issues listed above that prevent many worship attendees from participating in the church’s Sunday School or groups. If the pastor successfully enlists a new leader to replace himself each time, the pastor can continue starting new groups one to three times every year.
Bob Mayfield is the Sunday School/Small Group specialist for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. Bob has his own blog at bobmayfield.com and also helps manage reconnectss.com; an online training site for Sunday School and Small Group leaders.