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Transitioning To Small Groups

by Nick Blevins

When I find myself in a conversation talking about what Orange is, I always emphasize that it is a strategy. Yes, Orange creates and provides excellent curriculum, but what churches need most is a comprehensive strategy for reaching and leading families. One of the six distinctives of the Orange Strategy is that it is designed to connect every kid to a consistent leader. The Orange Strategy emphasizes small groups for kids from preschool up through high school. If you’re looking to transition to a small group model in your children’s or student ministry, I hope this post can be a helpful resource for you.

Choose Effective Over Easy

The emphasis on small groups is one of my favorite aspects of the Orange Strategy as our church has reaped the benefits of small groups for kids and students for almost a decade. I always say that building a children’s ministry and student ministry around the foundation of small groups is challenging, but it is completely worth it.

Our church had the easy route because we were a new church plant and we implemented small groups from the beginning. On the other hand, I’ve helped guide some other churches through the transition to small groups and challenging barriers do come up. However, we must choose what is effective over what is easy when it comes to serving the next generation.

Lead Small Culture

Your first step in transitioning to small groups is to buy and read the book, Creating a Lead Small Culture. At the end of the book, you’ll find seven steps to transitioning to small groups. Read through that and use it as you create a transition plan. As you create your plan, here are three big things you’ll need to change along with a few tips to help you with each one.

Change the Mindset

It’s always important to start with why (great book by the way). Before any changes are made, you want as many people as possible to hear the vision about why you are transitioning to small groups. Again, the Lead Small Culture book is helpful as you talk about the importance of giving every kid and student “a place to belong and someone who believes in them.”

Parents will need little convincing about the importance of moving to a model that prioritizes their child and places another important voice in their life. Existing leaders, however, may need to be led more to understand and embrace the vision.

3 Tips to Change the Mindset

  1. Learn together with your key leaders and parents. Invite them to join you as you read Lead Small Culture. Discuss the implications for your family ministry and be sure to keep notes along the way. Change the mindset of your key influencers and release them to share what they learned with others.
  2. Collect stories of how people’s lives were impacted. Ask about when they were kids and how their lives were changed because of adults who were consistently present in their life. If it’s a personal story, it doesn’t matter if it’s recent or specific to your current ministry. I oftentimes talk about the numerous leaders who impacted me as a high school student (which is longer ago than I’d like to believe).
  3. Cast vision in multiple environments. Talk about the problem, share the solution, emphasize the urgency. Talk about how too many students walk away from church after high school and the thousands of students who aren’t a part of any church and live in your communities. Talk about providing them a place to belong and someone who believes in them. Communicate the urgency as every year you’re graduating students and welcoming new students in. There’s no time to waste.

Change the Structure

“The quality of your relationships is linked to the quality of your structure”. Lead Small Culture

One of the things I love doing with our son, Isaac, is playing with LEGO bricks. Isaac loves to stack them up and make a structure as high as he can. He loves when the stack falls over, but he’s always surprised as to why it won’t stay up. As you can imagine, at three years old he doesn’t understand how you can’t simply continue to change or add pieces to it without changing the base structure to support it.

We have fun seeing how high we can stack them until they fall over. Conversely, it’s not fun watching small groups fail because the structure wasn’t changed to support it. As that quote from Lead Small Culture suggests, a solid structure is necessary to help small groups thrive. Here are three tips to help you change the structure.

  1. Change the structure of your program to support small groups. If you currently have a class structure where the primary focus is teaching, you’ll need to create a separate large group and small group experience that work together. If you currently have more of a large group setting the entire time, you’ll need to trim it down and make room for small groups to take place afterwards.
  2. Create small groups for kids and students. Create them based on age, gender, and when they attend. Analyze attendance so you can see how you will divide up groups and create an org chart or schedule to match what you need. You may need to recruit help from a highly organized person who can help figure it out.
  3. Create a volunteer structure where everyone’s span of care is not too large. Span of care simply means the number of people a leader is responsible for leading. For example, small group leaders lead 8-12 kids/students and coaches lead 8-12 small group leaders. Again, you may have no coaches right now, but map out the structure so you know what you need and what to recruit toward.

Change the Leaders

As you prepare to transition to a small group model, one of the changes you may need to make—despite how difficult it may seem—is to change the leaders. At this point, you have already cast the vision and changed the structure to provide the best support you possibly can to leaders. The biggest change that needs to happen is with the leaders on your team.

  1. Change teachers to small group leaders or communicators. If you had a classroom model where the leaders in rooms were teachers, a big shift has to happen. Truly gifted communicators can take on the role of teaching in your large group. Other teachers may have the makings of a great small group leader and you need a plan to help them make the transition. The harsh reality is that other leaders may need to move into a totally different role or on a completely different ministry team in your church. They may not buy in or fit in with the new vision.
  2. Change from every two weeks or every four weeks to every week. There are a few exceptions, such as having only one service, but for the most part you want to be heading in the direction of having weekly small group leaders for kids age three and up. That may seem impossible, but the key is to start small. Focus on one leader you can challenge to make that jump. Continue on to the next leader, and so on, and recognize that some leaders won’t make the jump.
  3. Change their expectations. The expectations of a small group leader are much greater than the expectations of a classroom teacher and most other roles in other models. No longer does their role end on Sunday. It extends into the week. No longer is their job to connect with kids and students. It now includes connecting with parents. Raise the bar of expectation and watch as the leaders who “get it” rise to that new level. Will some leaders opt out or not rise up? Yes, and that hurts, but think about your kids and students and who you want leading them. It’s worth it.

In the Lead Small Culture book, Reggie notes that this transition may take two years to make. Create a plan and be patient along the way. Another great resource is Carey Nieuwhof’s book Leading Change Without Losing It. Learn and soak it in before you make any moves.

I wish I could sit down and talk with each one of you reading this, because here is what I would do. I would share with you the countless stories we’ve heard over the years that are evidence of how important small groups are for kids and students.

The story of small group leader who guided one of their second-graders through a tough divorce and was able to connect with mom to serve her as well. The story of a high school student who points back to her elementary and middle school small group leaders as the reason why she finally believed people cared for her. The story of how that same student now leads an elementary small group of her own.

I’d tell you those and plenty of others.

You probably have similar stories already, but I believe there are far more stories yet to be created, and they may only happen with the investment a child or student gets from a small group leader.

It’s hard.

It’s worth it.

I’m cheering for you.

Nick leads the Family Ministry team at Community Christian Church in Baltimore, MD. He is married to a beautiful and talented woman named Jennifer and they have two kids, Isaac and Mackenzie. You can reach Nick on his blog, or via Twitter.

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