Hint: It starts with "small" and ends with "groups."
… is through small groups.
It’s the primary means by which our church does pastoral care. Many churches strive to maintain a system in which, if a person has a need, they go on the church prayer list, perhaps it’s even announced, and then they hope to be visited by someone—usually a pastor/minister. Often, for the sake of discretion, details are left out, and because many present don’t know the person (at least if the church is more than about 250 in attendance), the person’s request isn’t taken as seriously and handled very personally. There is a sense someone else will take care of them. Often this doesn’t happen—or people who don’t know them well do a lesser job because they don’t know the person—and the person knows that. Some dread not knowing someone in the church has a need they didn’t know about. Why? As long as the person is receiving care, who cares? If you are that close to a person, you’ll find out. If you’re not, no need to be nosy.
When we look past groups as a pastoral care ministry, we’re also missing a huge opportunity. Growth groups help people learn how to shepherd others. When someone needs care, accountability or encouragement, they provide a far more effective way of caring for people than either trying to mobilize the elders or staff, or notifying the entire church of the need. One of the greatest benefits of small groups is a church’s ability to train future shepherds by letting them shepherd people within their small group.
This leaves some questions:
1) What if someone isn’t in a group? Then the elders and ministers kick in. The first question, however, when someone has a need, should be, “What group are they in?”
2) What if a church member leads them astray? How? By praying for them and taking them food? It’s a valid question, but when the rubber meets the road—a quite answerable one.
3) Then what are the staff and elders for? What only they can do, or do best: the Ministry of the Word, prayer, leadership.
It’s far easier to begin a small-groups ministry in a new church than to transition to it within an existing church. It’s not impossible, it’s just more difficult. Established churches without an existing small-groups system first need to clarify exactly what their purpose is. In our case, creating Christ-centered community. In small groups, relationship runs point. It’s not a study that takes prayer requests at the end. That’s what many of today’s Bible classes are like. Small groups are about growing in Christ together by doing life together up close.
You’ll need to clear schedules to make room for them. For most churches, this will mean removing mid-week assemblies, Sunday night assemblies (unless it’s a third service of the day or something), other “competition.” If you continue Bible classes, keep them on Sundays and keep them Scripture-focused. If you don’t, small-group involvement will suffer, because people will get their need for relationship met in the Bible class. However, such Bible classes are the worst of both worlds—they don’t offer close fellowship or in-depth Bible Study.
Once the schedule brush is cleared, you can set the groups up any way you wish, though I would encourage you to follow Larry Osborne’s model set forth in his book Sticky Church. It’s the finest nuts and bolts book on small groups out there.
Then, repeat—over and over and over again.
Your church will be blessed. The back door will close, the sermons will live longer, pastoral care will be stronger and you’ll train future leaders more effectively.