Can’t Imagine Parish Small Groups?

You know that connecting people to a group–a place to belong, a place that actually notices when you’re missing–is vitally important to the life of a Christian disciple.

Yet even though we know this, the reality of becoming a parish of small groups seems had to imagine. Just on the logistical and organizational levels alone.

For a dose of encouragement, check out some of the webpages from St. Anthony of Padua down in The Woodlands, TX that show how a parish can use technology to ease the logistical and organizational burdens of growing a network of groups:

  • Community Groups Landing Page with a short video trailer, longer message, and more
  • Recruiting and inviting group hosts
  • Custom search to find the right group options for you [seriously, I think this is my favorite part of the whole set-up]

So, time to share…how do you conquer the logistical challenges of boosting small/community group participation in your parish?




Experiential Learning and Faith Formation

Experiential learning has become a trendy word in K-12 and university-level classrooms, for sure. But what about in faith formation and religious education?

Thankfully, in many Catholic circles the idea of faith formation or religious education as simply “classes” like any part of a school curriculum has faded away, in theory. Life change. Entering into a relationship of prayer, adoration, and deepening friendship with Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit is now a part of what many consider, “faith formation.” However, have our methods really changed? Or, is it still all based on the classroom model?

Enter this interesting report on Mariners Church, Moving Discipleship from Teaching Content to Life-Changing Experiences. Though not in a Catholic context, there are many takeaways that Catholic ministry teams can consider. This congregation:

  • Got rid of the “menu of options”–trying to offer something for everyone, all of the time and transitioned to one core program, offered repeatedly throughout the year [here’s some encouragement and a  Catholic parish that took that step!]
  • Increased the length of this program from 6-wks to 10-wks (church leaders had originally assumed that people would only sign up to do something for 6-wks)
    “We ran a lot of discipleship models before based on what we thought people would be willing to do…When we changed and went to a much higher demand with 10 weeks, 5 nights of homework, three additional meetings for experiences, we were concerned, no one would do it. What we learned was that people were willing to step up to where ever we set the bar for them.”
  • End program with a commissioning into ministry (towards community, congregation, etc.)
  • Focused more on training leaders to facilitate rather than teach content
  • Embraced experiential learning:“when it comes time for Rooted participants to learn about serving, for instance, the groups don’t get a sermon—they serve in the community together for a day. Learning about confession and accountability is an experience during which Rooted attendees are “super transparent,” confess strongholds and sin in their lives and every individual is prayed over to break the strongholds. Learning about prayer is a three-hour “prayer experience” participants can’t believe they’ve completed when it’s over. “Everybody always says, ‘There is no way I thought I could pray for three hours,’ Shelly says, ‘but I heard from God for the first time, we need to this more often.” I heard God’s voice.’”

Catholicism is inherently experiential–this is “the point” (to put it non-theologically) of our lives of liturgical worship. Yet, as the experience of Mariners Church reveals, there are concrete steps (that may require major change) to embracing experiential learning as part of faith formation–it can’t just be a theoretical approach. Even many forms of “liturgical catechesis” in Catholic parishes are more “classroom” than “experiential.”

Consider, what do you think the role of experiential learning should be in discipleship/faith formation/religious education? How can your parish make this a reality, rather than an unreached ideal?

How Diverse Can Small Groups Be? An Example

Here’s an outstanding example of using small groups within a large, multi-campus church.

A few things I’d like to highlight:

1. One of the tougher debates when a parish is thinking of starting a robust small groups culture is the question of purpose, what exactly are the small groups about? There’s no one answer. But, there needs to be an answer–otherwise debates over what constitutes a legitimate small group will likely emerge. In this example, the purpose of small groups is to help people Connect to each other, Grow to be more like Jesus, and Serve God’s mission.

2. Check out the sheer diversity of small groups. Some, like Alpha are in the “core discipleship” category providing a kerygma-centric experience, great for newer believers or those who’ve never made that step in their faith before. Others are clearly oriented towards the serve aspect of small groups. Others are what we might call “interest” groups, aligned around doing something fun/social–this focuses more on the connect purpose of groups. There’s 3 pages to click through…so check it out!

Okay, so this isn’t the model for church small groups. But it’s a well done example of what it looks like when nearly all of the life of the congregation is channeled into small groups. Could you imagine a Catholic parish where all of the life of the parish…the food pantry, the rosary prayer group, adult faith formation, liturgical volunteers at mass, etc. was organized into small groups, with sign ups at targeted times throughout the year (e.g. Sept, Jan, Lent/Easter, and June?) I think it would be easier to motivate people to take that next step and get involved knowing that it’s not a lifetime commitment–and we might be able to build more authentic community by having a group vs. (in the case of liturgical minister volunteers) a long list of lectors, etc.

Interested in small groups? Check out more resources here.


Ideas for Genuine Inquiry in RCIA via Garry Poole’s “Seeker Small Groups”

In Seeker Small Groups: Engaging Spiritual Seekers in Life Changing Discussions (2003) Garry Poole proposes small groups led by ordinary Christians as the best way to engage and evangelize seekers.

Okay, so what does he mean by seekers? For him seekers=non-Christian, a spiritual seeker, a seeking friend–it’s interchangeable for someone who has not personally received Jesus Christ as forgiver and leader, no matter how far along they are in their spiritual journey (p. 32). The Christian’s goal then, “is to understand a seeker’s perspective and figure out the best ways to challenge that seeker about what it means to know God. And, then prayerfully attempt to give him or her opportunities to receive Jesus Christ as the only means of finding forgiveness and true relationship with God” (p. 33).

A Seeker Small Group (SSG) is 2-12 seekers and 1-2 Christian leaders who meet to discuss the seeker’s spiritual concerns, questions, and issues. What a huge point! The leader doesn’t really set the agenda or decide that the seekers should hear about, say, styles of prayer, the Catechcism, what RCIA is like, etc. [and yes, I know that these things happen during RCIA’s inquiry phase in many parishes]. Poole notes that Christians often spend time answering questions that seeker’s aren’t asking. We just want to share the Good News before even engaging with the seeker’s actual objections, confusion, etc. SSGs are  place to understand the seekers’ past religious experiences, Biblical understanding, spiritual questions, barriers/objections, and places of spiritual blindness (=where the seeker holds a theology that misrepresents Christianity).

Seeker Small Groups get started through relational evangelism. People in the church inviting friends, relatives, co-workers, acquaintances, and the like. Of course, many people hear about Seeker Small Groups on Sunday–but there’s always a bridge of trust. “If we build it, they will come” simply doesn’t work for seekers. We need to build the relationship and interest first–whether trough church events or conversation at a softball game. Churches can establish affinity-based seeker groups (e.g. men, women, neighborhood, etc.), launch them before or after a popular Sunday service, or jump-start many of them through a large weekend event or outreach moment.

My thoughts on how this might translate for Catholic parishes:

1. I think we’d have a much more difficult time convincing/empowering typical parishioners to feel comfortable/competent in leading one of these groups. In principle, any Catholic Christian should be able to facilitate one of these seeker groups and have the basic ability to discuss core, kerygmatic beliefs. Unfortunately, the perception I observe is that most parishioners feel that there’s a tremendous amount of catechetical knowledge that’s essential for them to have before they “lead” any group. But, this misses the point–the seeker is wrestling with core issues, like does God exist? and any Catholic Christian should be able to share with authentic conviction how he/she came to this belief.

2. We’d have a different theology of who is a seeker. We wouldn’t call a “seeker” synonymous with “non-Christian,” since for us, seeker would also likely include many of the baptized who have drifted away or not responded to their baptismal vocation. We’d likely have many seekers who consider themselves “cultural Catholics.” This is all okay–just something to be aware of when reading Poole’s book.

3. Seeker Small Groups could function as a pre-inquiry or inquiry phase for RCIA. The fact that these groups are relatively small and meet for a defined, but short (6 wks or so) length of time means that–bam!–problem of not knowing how to start year-round RCIA is solved. 🙂

4. Poole writes that Seeker Small Groups show that seekers really matter (p. 34). Seekers matter to God, so they should matter to our parishes. When I think about typical parish offerings–eh, there’s not always a place set aside for seekers. We need to to that, instead of expecting seekers to conform to our ideas of how they should come to know/meet Jesus in the midst of the local parish.

Sound intriguing? Poole’s book is easy to digest and is basically a handbook on how to lead these small groups. I’ll be covering some of the basics in future posts, but if you’re an RCIA leader or involved in adult faith formation–I definitely recommend this book. For me it presented a whole realm of new ideas on how much seekers can actually be engaged through the local church.


Small Group Ministry Example from a Catholic Parish

Comparing different models used by different congregations is great for jump starting your thinking about implementing and growing small groups within a parish! Finally, I have an example of a Catholic parish (since, yes, I know most of the examples and literature in this area in the U.S. is from outside the Catholic ministerial world)…

Here’s what groups at Church of the Nativity are like:

How big? No larger than 12 members.

How long? Meet weekly September through May, with a break for Christmas.

Commitment? Yes. Sign up is required. Dropping in (and out) is discouraged.

Find out more about their materials and discipleship plan here.

Interested? Check out more small group planning posts here.

Example of a Church of 1100 Members with 65 Small Groups

I’ve written before about how Activate: An Entirely New Approach to Small Groups is a great book for parish leaders and/or planners looking for a how-to guide on launching a vibrant small group ministry.

In an effort to gain more insight into the actual details of what a vibrant, thriving, encompassing small group ministry looks like, I went to the church website for Journey Church NYC, where the author’s of Activate minister.

Here’s what I saw:

1. An informative FAQ page. I can see how this would build comfort with joining a group and answer the basic questions most parishioners would have. It looks like at The Journey small groups start up 3x a year and meet in a variety of locations, with various topics and particular affinities (i.e. women, dads, college age, couples, meal-time groups, service groups, etc.) With such diverse affinities and topics, I really could see how a typical Catholic parish could channel all ministry into small groups (see “Vibrant Isn’t About Busy” for why more Catholic parishes should seriously consider this).

2. Examples of what’s planned for Summer 2014. Here are some of the 65 different groups (each approx. 15 ppl) that will meet:

– General Groups (open to anyone)
– Community Service Groups
– Worship Arts Groups
– Family Groups
– 20-Something’s Groups
– College Groups
– Teen Groups
– Activity Groups (running groups, mealtime groups, etc.)
– And more! 

There are also “Play Groups” which meet one-time for a social or fun event. I could also see one-time groups forming in a Catholic parish for specific service/justice/mercy events or needs.


Small Group Nuts and Bolts — Some Concrete Tips from Ben Reed

There’s both a vision/strategic side of growing small groups for catechesis and evangelization in your parish, and a nuts and bolts side that addresses practical questions. This podcast (and transcript…so you don’t have to listen!) from Ben Reed via UnSeminary.Com offers some much appreciated nuts and bolts operational tips.

When to launch groups? The main times are January and August because these are two times of the year when people are looking to make new commitments or schedule changes. Other times for smaller new launches might be April or October, or specific outreach building off of a conference at the church. For Catholic parishes, maybe this means an opportunity for launching small groups right after a summer festival/feast or other popular community event involving the parish?

How to get people into groups? Have an easy on-ramp. Meaning, have a small group presence at the event/time period that’s going to propel people in. For Catholic parishes, I’d say this means something special after Masses on Christmas Eve/Day and Easter to give a tangible “next step” for those who might be coming back to Church, new to the parish, or in a “pre-discipleship” stage of their faith journey.

Who should be a small group leader? First off, having a “robust leadership development process” is critical because it enables Reed to take risks on people who haven’t previously led groups or wouldn’t be one of the “usual suspects” within a parish for such facilitation/leadership. Given the size of Catholic parishes (median 1050 or so families) in order to reach a large portion with small groups, most parishes will need to develop many more volunteer leaders than currently utilized in parish life. Reed also acknowledges that getting existing leaders (i.e. ministerial staff, deacons, parish council members, Knights of Columbus leaders, etc.) is important too, and I’d add that for these folks, serving in small group leadership positions shows how important this is to the parish. It models discipleship for the rest of the parish. It shows a team effort (staff/clergy/volunteers/laity) rather than one group placing a burden on another. 

Okay, what’s this robust leadership development process at Reed’s church? Reed uses 5, 1-hr seminars to coach and develop small group facilitators. The first two seminars happen before a group launches. Then the leader is linked up with a coach who will provide one-on-one mentorship as the leader is continuing with a group over many months. During the actual group leading time period (months, years, etc.) the leader will complete the remaining three 1-hr seminars. The seminars are about information transfer, the one-one-one coaching/mentorship is the relational aspect of training. 

When and where do small groups meet? Reed explains:

we define a small group as a group of people who are taking steps of faith together. It doesn’t matter where you meet. It doesn’t matter how long you meet. And so we have chosen a unified vision. Some churches have chosen kind of different paths for small group and Sunday School classes, but we have chosen a unified path that allows us to have a streamlined training process, a streamlined development process.”

I think the streamlined leader development and training process could be a huge “win” for many understaffed/underresourced Catholic parishes. By using small groups as the process or way of delivering discipleship, evangelization, catechesis, pastoral care, formation for service/justice, acts of mercy, liturgical service, etc. within the parish [read more about that here], a parish could up the quality of training, but decrease the various types of training for a more efficient and “deep” model within the parish.

Reed also notes that the church provides childcare at least one time during the week (Sunday nights) so that groups that choose to meet at this time have an option at the church building that makes it easy for families. Definitely a great idea for parishes! In many parishes childcare/nursery simply can’t be provided at most formation activities because the activities are spread throughout the week–but by massing formation groups at one time (and giving them an off campus option, say at a coffee shop near the parish) childcare coverage can stretch over a large number of groups.

And, final words from Reed on where to start:

One more thing that I would say is if you are kind of wrestling through how do we get groups going? What does it take to get groups off the ground? We don’t even know…we are exploring small groups we may do those, we may not….I would say this: grab 2, 3, 4 maybe even 8 people you know that you say these are leaders. Whether they are spiritual leaders or just natural leaders, grab those people and spend 8 weeks with them and invite them into your home. Just do life with them for the next 8 weeks and see if you like that. See if they enjoy it. I can almost guarantee that they will grow. And then you can kind of choose from there to launch out potentially 8 new groups out of that, but to start small groups, the easiest way to do that is for you to start your own small group. Gather the people that you know and start investing in them.

Definitely a challenge for me personally, especially since I’m not a staff member at my parish. My parish has many grassroots small groups of 4-8 folks, but we haven’t really been multiplying. Hmm….Come, Holy Spirit!