Small Groups: Community Service

I get emails:

Hi. I lead our church small group program. I read a response from you to a blog concerning Sunday night church and was interested in what you said your church does. You said that your groups purposely seek to be involved in community service including cooperating with social service organizations. You finished by saying that it took some time to set up but now it is running fine. Would you please pass on to me what took so much time to set this up? I would like our groups to be service minded too. Any help would be appreciated.

Here’s what happened.

Small groups have different purposes. Some are intentionally evangelistic. Others are purely pastoral. Some are educational. Ours started out as assimilation groups. After we’d built a new building, we’d had a influx of members and felt the need to help the new members integrate into the church’s community. And so the leadership of the program put together teams across age-group lines, resulting in multi-age, assimilation groups. And they worked well, for a while.

But that idea ran its course in a couple of years, and we’ve tried all sorts of things in the last 10 years or so. But the program had developed a bad case of “what’s the point?” I mean, dinner and a lesson on that morning’s sermon was nice, but not really satisfying.

A new member (transferred from a non-institutional church) suggested that we ask the small groups to take on community service projects. He agreed to chair a committee that worked with local social service agencies to find volunteer opportunities for our groups. We are fortunate to have members who are social workers, probation officers, and such and so very aware of the agencies in town, and he was smart enough to get them on his committee.

The committee members met with numerous agencies and found that many had no interest in working with a church, because so many churches had let them down in the past. Others had no programs that could use weekend or evening volunteers. But they came up with an impressive list of agencies willing to work with us, willing to let us work with them as Christians, and needing help that we could provide even with 40-hour workweek jobs. (We insisted that we couldn’t help if we had to leave our Christianity at the door.)

We then asked the groups to pick at least one agency to work with — or to find their own project. Most of the groups worked with a social agency. One group “adopted” a young mother of two in diapers who’d just lost her husband in a car wreck, helping her any way they could think of. Another group adopted a neighborhood of elderly retirees — not church members — volunteering to do yard work and a neighborhood clean up. Some groups did fundraisers to free enslaved children or buy shoes for the needy in other countries.

They called the effort the ADOPT program. Here’s the ADOPT URL: http://www.universitycofc.org/community_outreach.html. Here’s the URL for the small group program: http://www.universitycofc.org/small_groups.html

Frankly, we elders we just amazed at how well things went. Many of the groups were newly energized and did very well. Others struggled. But on the whole, participation was better and — much more importantly — we were finally participating in God’s mission to the world at a congregation-wide level, rather than through a program that involved just a few.

The impact on the congregation as a whole was dramatic, because the change in the small groups helped solidify a change in our hearts — to reach out to the poor and needy and sick.The Spirit was already on the move, but this change in the small groups seems to have made dramatic changes in how we look at our Christianity.

Yes, some of the groups don’t get it as well as others. And all small group programs require intensive management to really work. And they are not the great evangelistic groups your read about in the books — we’ve never managed to get a lot of evangelism out of the groups. But the heart of the church is changing — and that is producing evangelistic results.

Our experience is that groups need oversight. The leaders need coaching/mentoring — a big group meetings of 20 leaders at once don’t work because sometimes the leaders need to discuss problems with individuals.

In short, to have the results we’ve had, I think three things are critical —

* First, the Spirit needs to be moving the church in this direction. I know it sounds uncomfortably mystical, but the church isn’t going to go this way without help from Above. If you don’t see a yearning for greater community service in your church already, spend some serious time in prayer and include instruction on God’s will in this area in your preaching and teaching first.

* Second, do your homework. 98% of the church have no idea about how to get involved in their community. Make it easy for them by pre-clearing several agencies and let the groups pick. And if they’d rather work on a project off the list, that’s fine … maybe better.

* Third, provide leadership support through regular coaching/mentoring sessions in groups of no more than 5. Four fit nicely around a table at the WaffleHouse, so that’s a good rule.

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8 Responses

  1. An excellent, practical post! Would to God that we could spend more time on such matters than having to discuss the issues in the conversation at graceconversation.com!

  2. Jay, I love the emphasis on service in your small groups. While our small groups are going very well, I have considered a possible shift in the direction of service. Your comments were helpful, but I’m still left wondering exactly what it “looks” like.

    For example, take the small group that has adopted a young mother. The small group (of, I’m guessing, 10-12 adults) meets every week and then they do what? Do they go to her house every week? Do they meet and discuss what they’re going to do? Do they invite her over to be with them every week? I love the concept, I just can’t picture what it actually looks like. Can you help?

  3. Becoming and Doing, Doing and Becoming? Does it really matter which? I believe that it does. Which statement best describes how God has and does work to accomplish His work in the world? Certainly the Doing has its place and is required if anything gets done. But which statement invites the Holy Spirit to empower the work? Unfortunately, the Church of Christ has historically denied the personal indwelling of the HS to renew and transform God’s elect, therefore the emphasize has been on the Doing, empowered by “you ought to” kind of encouragements because you are now a Christian! So, Go and Do! Thankfully, this is changing. The journey of spiritual transformation (2 Co 3: 18; Rom 12: 2) is a life long process – this growing – this new becoming – from one being, “new born babies” to “being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices accep[table to God through Christ Jesus” (1 Pt 2:1-5). “Through these (His divine power), he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may particpate in the divine nature and escape the the coruption in the world….” (2 Pt 1:3-11) So, what do you think? Becoming and Doing, or Doing and Becoming?

  4. I have a few questions of curiosity about small groups.

    I have friends at six congregations who over the last ten or so years have converted the Sunday evening service to small groups in the homes. All six reported a total attendance increase (percentage of Sunday morning) the first six months to a year. Five of the six reported an overall attendance decrease (less than when meeting at the building) at the two year mark. The one congregation that claims a continued attendance increase (at the three year mark) doesn’t require the small group leaders to report attendance (translate: it is only estimated).

    Historically, I’ve been skeptical concerning the effectiveness of small groups based on the above (non-scientific) information.

    I’m currently attending one of the six places reported above. It was great as a new person to develop some close relationships in the beginning (assimilation).

    Here are my questions:

    What is your experience concerning attendance trends (percent of Sunday morning)?

    Is attendance a good measure?

    If not attendance, what measure(s) do you recommend to best understand small group effectiveness?

  5. Jay
    This looks like a great topic to headline the Elder Training Seminar we still need to have!!!!

    How about on a Friday evening and Saturday this Fall??

    OK – we can make it on the weekend that Alabama has an open date!!!

    What say everyone????

  6. Jay,

    Thanks so much for posting this!

  7. Jay,
    I agree with Alan concerning how the groups actually play out on a weekly basis. I liked what you had to say and am thankful that I found a church that is doing small groups with community ministry in mind.

  8. Some of the materials for my Small Group studies came from preachit.org For just $10 a month, you get access to a tonne of resources and materials, everything you need to keep your small groups fresh and exciting! Its awesome, and totally made being a new group leader way less stressful. I am already looking forward to my new group starting in September!

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