This week I had the opportunity to spend time with some really gifted and dedicated small groups pastors from around the country as a part of the Willow Creek Association’s Group Life Advisory Team. This was my third year getting to connect with this team, and every year has been very helpful. It is a great opportunity to learn from some of the most innovative churches and leaders, all of whom are committed to leading people toward a growing relationship with Christ through community in small groups. These really are the men and women shaping the group life movement in America. Beyond being a great learning opportunity, it’s also just a lot of fun. It’s a chance to meet with old friends and connect with new ones. This year was even more special for me, because it was a chance to catch up with my good friends Bill Willits and Tim Cooper from North Point for the first time since I left.
Our two days together covered a range of topics, but I’ll try to net out my biggest takeaways. The purpose of the team was not to solve problems, but instead to surface the greatest issues that small groups ministry is facing in our contexts. What emerged was a picture of what is going on around the country. Here are the highlights:
- Online community – This was the hottest topic of the week. It seems everyone is thinking about what to do with all the technology tools that now exist to bring people together. As you might expect, there was a wide range of opinions. What was generally agreed upon was that that technology was a good form of connection, but much more could happen in real-world interactions. There were some who were still skeptical, asserting that engaging in “online community” will only lead to more fractured, disconnected lives.
- Missional community – This was maybe the most frustrating discussion of the week. While there were valuable things shared, it was clear that there is no clear sense of what missional means – everyone has their own definition. So discussions often sailed past participants who were talking about different things. Scott Boren of Woodland Hills Church had some great thoughts. He’s currently finishing a book on the missional church and shared some helpful thoughts from his research.
- Spiritual Formation – I feel like there is so much potential in this conversation and much more time we could have spent on it. What was agreed was that small groups are a critical part of spiritual growth and a significant catalyst to develop faith. But everyone affirmed that groups alone are insufficient to help people form spiritually. Willow has put a lot of work into developing an extensive class system to address the growth needs of people in different stages of spiritual development. Others have followed suit or implemented 1-1 or smaller groups for discipleship training.
- Reveal and small groups – Willow took some time to talk about the clarified conclusions they have from Reveal. There was some healthy tension in the room surrounding the damage Reveal has done for the church-wide perception of small groups. Many people have misinterpreted Reveal and used it as their blunt instrument to bash the seeker-sensitive church and small groups ministry. New data coming out of Willow is clarifying that small groups are a very significant part of spiritual growth. Again, they are just not sufficient alone. The message to Willow from the advisory team was clear – there is a significant image problem for the group movement that can only be reversed by serious work from the Reveal folks.
- Groups research – I talked with a member of the advisory team who did a study of over 3000 small group leaders from several hundred churches across a broad denominational and non-denominational spectrum. I’m going to try to get a summary of his results, but here’s one nugget he shared. They found no correlation between group leader preparation and spiritual growth in their group. However they found a direct correlation between how much the leader prayed and growth in their group. So if you have limited time to prepare for your group, pray for the group and wing the lesson!
I’ll try to post some of the notes when Willow sends those along. Also, if you’re on Facebook you can now connect with the Advisory team at Willow Creek’s Group Life page.