Leverage Existing Relationships

Thinking beyond ministry teams to a variety of groups and events

Two common reasons people don’t join a small group:

1) They’re too busy to add another commitment into already packed schedules or

2) They’re too intimidated to be with a group of strangers.

One way to overcome these barriers is to consider where people have already committed time in short-term programs and to leverage those preexisting relationships toward building long-term small groups. Here are some strategies and tactics to facilitate that transition.

1. Inventory and Assess Existing Programs

First, take a comprehensive look at your church’s calendar and make an inventory of programs existing throughout the church during the year. Chances are there will be plenty of group gatherings and activities already happening in your church. These may include Bible studies in various formats, life skills classes, mission-related groups, membership sessions, specific project or task activities, as well as gender, age, and stage-of-life affinity programs. Depending on the goal of these programs and their structure, they might benefit from integrating elements of relational connection into meetings or transitioning into long-term, intentional, relational communities. 

2. Cast Vision and Come Alongside Program Leaders

After you’ve identified the programs that are good opportunities for developing long-term groups, meet with the program ministry leaders to cast vision for small groups and develop a transition plan together. If needed, share the critical importance of small groups in fostering biblical community. Then explain why the common experience of the short-term program is a great jumpstart into developing ongoing relationships that help people move forward spiritually. These conversations will vary in difficulty depending on your church context, the amount to which church leadership has already bought in to the value of small groups, and your level of influence with specific program leaders.

It’s helpful to approach these conversations with a high degree of humility and a willingness to listen to what the leaders hope to accomplish in their programs. Keep in mind that not every program is appropriate for converting into a long-term group. For some ministries, just including intentional time for personal connection may be the best next step. Offer specific ways to strengthen the relational aspect of the existing program structure by adding elements such as discussion breakout times, personal questions with application, prayer partners, or social gatherings outside meetings.

3. Be Intentional and Invitational

Visibility and repeated invitations are beneficial because someone who hears repeated announcements about small groups in various forums is more likely to get the message. Figure out which ministry environments you can enter and talk about the value of biblical community through small groups. Ask program leaders if you can come to their gathering to explain what a small group is, speak about the value of connecting in significant long-term relationships within the church, share a story, and communicate how participants can sign up.

When you visit a gathering, try to attend the whole meeting so you get a feel for the audience. Be approachable, answer questions, and most of all, tie in how small groups further the goals of the program and provide a way to continue growing beyond the short-term experience. Communicate how small groups line up with the values of the specific ministry. For example, in speaking to a Financial Peace University class, I might explain how they can continue to grow in the skills they have learned when they are held accountable by a small group of people with shared goals, meeting together on a regular basis. Whether people join a group right away or not, this helps increase visibility and the likelihood that someone will eventually join a small group.

4. Set Expectations Early and Follow Through

If possible, the program leader can let people know from the onset that there will be an opportunity to continue as a long-term group when the activity is over. Clarity of communication sets expectations early and prepares people in advance to transition. This works particularly well for retreats and other large events.

5. Be Flexible About Atypical Groups

As we transition short-term programs into small groups, we need to be flexible about how a new group will look. They might not reflect the components of the typical small group in your church context. Because these groups were formed from preexisting programs, the new groups will likely reflect those values and priorities, especially in the early stages. For example, if you convert worship team members into a small group, they will likely continue to spend significant time on musical worship during their time together and may not be as interested in other aspects of group life. Likewise, a mission trip team that became a long-term group will probably still focus much of its energy on missions-related concerns. These groups may initially lack some of the elements or activities of a regular group. However, sharing a common interest or bond is a wonderful place for groups to start. Allowing people the flexibility to shape their group around their common bond provides a solid foundation while encouraging these groups over time to engage in other aspects of biblical community.

6. Shepherd the Transition Closely

In any relay race, the critical point is passing the baton. Likewise, the key element in converting a short-term activity into a long-term group is the transition time: getting the group off the ground with its first few meetings. Participants need to know who will be leading the new small group, as well as the logistics of the first meeting (date, time, and location). One way to make sure the transition happens as smoothly as possible is to assign a coach to oversee and assist in the process. The coach can equip the new leader to facilitate the first meeting well by building on the participants’ previous shared experience, connecting all members with each other, working through interpersonal dynamics, and setting up appropriate expectations for the new group.

Ultimately, we want to see every person in the church engaged in significant, relational, long-term biblical communities that move them forward in loving God and others. Transitioning short-term programs into long-term small groups is a terrific way to reach this goal by leveraging existing relationships, common experiences, and established commitments.