Growing the Church, One Small Group at a Time

One of the most impressive areas of growth for us is in the area of involvement in small groups in the church. Small group involvement is important for two main reasons: 1. The Wesleyan movement was, in great part, a small group movement. John Wesley creatively utilized small, face-to-face groups to ignite his revival. In the groups, evangelical passion was wedded to Wesleyan accountability. Small groups are a very “Methodist thing.” 2. Studies show that churches grow through the increase of the number of small groups in the church and an increase in lay membership in these groups. In fact, part of the remarkable transformation at Helena UMC, is explosion of small groups being led by Paula Jones there. Mike Edmondson and Paula tell me that there is no vital, dynamically growing church that does not have at least 65% of all its adults involved, sometime during the course of a year, in small groups.

Elizabeth Nall, is our Conference leader and coach in educational small group work, particularly among parents and children. Elizabeth, in reporting our documented gains in the number of United Methodists in small groups in North Alabama says, “Small group formation is where faith development is deepened through study and relationships. There is potentially as much or more opportunity to reach people through small group participation in our churches as through our worship experiences.”

John Tanner, the pastor from Cove UMC (I call Cove the “Research & Development department for the North Alabama Conference”), credits small groups as the major factor in his congregation’s dramatic growth. At Cove (1030 Total professing members – 1050 was their average weekly worship attendance) a total of 950 people participate in small group ministries every week. John estimates that about 70% of Cove’s members participate in weekly small groups.

I have participated in teaching in a number of small group settings at ourCanterbury UMC. Oliver Clark leads a fine adult educational ministry at Canterbury that is small group based. Of Canterbury’s 4804 members, 1,428 attend regular small group meetings. An estimated 328 people are involved in Canterbury small groups who are not otherwise related to the church. Small groups, for many people, are the door through which people enter the church.

At Helena UMC, they have set a goal to give birth to at least a dozen new small groups every year in order to keep their forward motion. Elizabeth Nall says, “As a Christian educator, I believe that ii is essential to be intentional about faith development in small groups as we remain passionate about worship. There is ripe opportunity to make disciples for Jesus Christ through these small group encounters.”

This past Saturday, Feb. 6, 2010, Elizabeth and our Conference Adult Ministries Team arranged for Debi Nixon, Adult Discipleship Coordinator, from the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, to lead our conference in a discussion on small group ministry at Canterbury UMC.

Nixon discussed the Wesleyan and Biblical concept of small groups, how to start them, maintain their health, and the purpose and the goal of small group ministry through sharing the story of Church of the Resurrection – another church which chose to grow by “growing smaller” and focusing on small group ministries. Top leadership in our conference guided nineteen breakout sessions during the event encompassing more specific discussion in small group areas that our North Alabama local churches are using with success.

I am so glad so many of our churches gained important insight from Saturday’s Growing Successful Small Groups event. If your church needs guidance in strengthening your small group ministry contact Rev. Elizabeth Nall or (205) 226-7993.

Will Willimon

Ray Crump, who leads our relief warehouse in Decatur, has just reported to me that United Methodists of North Alabama ”are responding to the crisis in Haiti in a way that I have never seen in all my 50 years of ministry and relief work.” Ray and his volunteers are shipping tons of supplies to Haiti nearly every week. Thanks for this wonderful outpouring of Christian concern.

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