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Finding The Way: Part 6

Making the BIG Church Small

by Dan Stolebarger, Director of Koinonia Institute


This article is the latest in a series of what will be my Doctoral Dissertation to Louisiana Baptist University. It is my personal pilgrimage of where I have been, where I am at, and where I hope to go! In other words, it is my journey and my attempt to find The Way...

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The job at the Rock was that of Small Group Pastor. I can remember very clearly my interview. The room was filled with people-Miles wanted to be sure that he was not the only one making this hire and that since we were friends he wanted the others to be part of this process so that my qualifications and experience would be the basis of my being hired rather than our friendship.

The Rock began its first service with over one thousand people in attendance. In its beginning stages the Rock was really just an extension of the Sunday Night services at Horizon. The venue choice was keeping in line with the “mission statement” of the church, which was to win people to Christ and produce “soul winners.”

The choice was made to have regular services at San Diego State University at Montezuma Hall. This exposure, combined with Miles’ charisma and a cadre of soul winners, produced an explosion in terms of the numbers of people in attendance. Early on, the decision was made to use Small Groups as the means to disciple the multitudes that were showing up on a weekly basis. It became very evident that someone was needed to oversee and develop the Rock’s Small Group ministry, and this was the position I was applying for.

The one thing I remember about the interview was the overwhelming support for Small Groups. Everyone in the room agreed that small groups had to be woven into the Rock’s culture. As I look back I know it was the Holy Spirit who posed the question through me: I asked, “How many of you in this room are currently in a Small Group?” I saw blank stares and went on to say that if we were not leading the way, then we couldn’t expect others to jump in. This was the moment, not only of my hiring, but the moment that the Rock was no longer just a church that met on Sundays but a church that was made up of Small Groups!

Small Groups became the main thrust of our means of discipleship and on a weekly basis-even during the service-the question was posed to all of those in attendance, “What Small Group are you in?” The Small Group staff became the largest at the Rock, and we began to use the web as our main source of communication-with our Small Group leaders as well as providing a comprehensive directory so that anyone interested could go online and find the nearest Rock Small Group in their area.

Leadership development became essential. One thing that we emphasized from the beginning was that the Small Group was not to be duplication of a Sunday service. Our leaders were referred to as Facilitators, because although they were “leaders,” their main function was to facilitate discussion rather than to “teach” a Bible Study.

It was essential in our Small Groups to create an environment where members could ask “stupid” questions. Keep in mind, we were a very young church and hundreds were receiving Christ weekly and being funneled into Small Groups. We believed that our Small Groups needed to be that place where any question could be asked and we guaranteed an answer-maybe not at that moment, because our Facilitators were also somewhat young in their walk-but because of our web hookup we could promise an answer by the time the Group met again.

We also understood the need for accountability. When you become a mega-church, it becomes very easy to hide! The Small Group environment became the place where everybody knew your name and it was here that you had the opportunity to share with your group your prayer requests, as well as having a group that you could be accountable to.

The next thing that had to be addressed was the size of the Groups. Because of the atmosphere we desired to create, it was necessary to limit their size. Groups could range from 3-12, but once you hit 12, it was time to “multiply.” This was not always popular, but we found it necessary, because once the Group passed twelve, it became very easy for members not to participate and their attendance became irregular. Because our church was exploding in growth, we mandated that each Group not only needed a Facilitator, but also what we called an Apprentice-the one who was being groomed for Leadership when the Group multiplied.

The Internet played a large role in the Rock’s Small Group ministry. Each Monday, the Small Group questions for that particular week were up on our website for our Facilitators to download. In addition to the weekly discussion questions, we also used the web to provide Group information as well as directions. At the end of each Small Group, someone in the Group would fill out a weekly report and submit it online.

The webpage also provided a listing of the “types” of Groups that were available. We had Men’s, Women’s, Married’s, Collegiate Men, Collegiate Women, and Singles, as well as Junior and Senior High School Small Groups. In the beginning the weekly sermon provided all of our Groups the curriculum for their discussion times. As we grew, Groups wanted to study and discuss other topics, and this provided a logistics problem because with one curriculum all the groups were “open,” but when we moved into “mixed curriculums” we needed to have that indicated on our website. Although curriculums varied, the basic structure of all of our Groups remained the same.

There were three anchors to the Group that were “musts”! The order was not mandatory, but each Group needed to spend time praying together. During this time group members were encouraged to share their prayer requests and, because of the intimacy of the Group, this is where accountability took place. Not all Groups did “prayer” the same way-some split up into two’s and three’s, others had men in one room and women in another-the point was that every time the Group met we would spend time in prayer. And we found it important to make a distinction between sharing prayer requests and actually praying. There is a difference.

The second anchor was to have a “study time.” Because of the dynamic of Small Groups, we found that if you were not intentional when it came to your study time, then the social aspect of the group would take over and more times than not you would “run out of time!” And even though the fellowship may have been great, the bottom line was that most of the sheep were not fed. In order to keep this from happening, one of the things we suggested was to have a “clock watcher,” who would alert the Group when it was time to begin the study.

The third thing we required was that the Group had at least one service project. We called this leg, “What are you DOING for Christ’s sake?” All of our Groups were encouraged to put their faith into action and over the duration of the Groups’ session together they would have a service project. The Small Group Staff provided suggestions and opportunities, from house building in Mexico to serving together at a local Soup Kitchen. The expectation was that each Group would seek God’s leading and then serve together.

Over the years of being involved in this ministry, we came to see the value in having a prescribed time frame for our Groups. Most Groups agreed to meet for twelve weeks. When that time was up it did not necessarily mean that the Group disbanded, but it did give an opportunity for change. Some Groups needed to divide; some Apprentices needed to launch a Group of their own. This is also how we kept the various curriculum choices in check. If a Group wanted to study a certain book of the Bible or some other type of curriculum, it first had to be approved by the Small Group Staff, but it also could only run for twelve weeks.

Looking back at this ministry, I believe that it is the most efficient way to “make disciples.” I do believe that the church began in homes and will one day end in homes. In my opinion, without Small Groups, what we call “church” leans heavily on the side of being a spectator sport rather than a place where one participates! And Christianity suffers from a lack of players, thus the world in which we are living is no longer being “turned upside down” by those who were first called members of “the Way!”

This brings me to an overall assessment of the heath of the Church today. Unfortunately, the rise of Islam and the jihadist fanatical displays of their faith are overshadowing Christianity, and polls indicate that the fastest-growing religion of our day is no longer Christianity, but is now Islam. How can this be?

I believe the problem, at least in American Christianity, has to do with the expectation of the “everyday” Christian. Unfortunately the picture most people have of Christianity is shaped by what they see from the televangelists. A slick program with all the trappings of today’s entertainment industry with a strong appeal to give money! That is what they see.

Our churches are all moving toward “production,” with plasma screens and video clips. Sermons are whittled down time-wise and the message is often only salt and peppered with Scripture. The only expectation is that one attends and gives. The church will provide the professionals to do the rest!

The Barna Group states that the average “church member” now attends church 1.6 times a month. With this version of Christianity, it is easy to see why we are losing the battle. We just are not producing solid disciples! This type of church system as we see it is NOT working-we need an overhaul! Something has got to change!

The answer is …

Next month, Part 7: “Just Do It!” This phrase should be the call to the church, not a shoe ad!


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