Why Churches Need Healthy Small Group Ministries

What keeps us faithful to Jesus when life falls apart?

Pastors are supposed to know the answer, but the more people I talk with—especially through this crazy time we’re living through right now—the more I realize that my usual answers don’t work as well as they once did. COVID has changed everything, including how we view faith.

Don’t get me wrong. Stirring music, moving sermons, missions activities, children’s activities and Bible studies all play a role in how we keep our feet on the straight and narrow. In good times as well as bad. Without them, we don’t have a way to flesh out our faith in stable and meaningful ways. That’s why there’s such joy in so many congregations right now as churches re-open.

The community we find in the church is more important than the programs we do with the church

But I’m starting to see another dynamic at work in churches today that has more to do with the depth and quality of relationships than on the variety and attraction of programs–a trend especially noticeable during COVID. For growing numbers of people as they try to stay faithful to Jesus when life falls apart, the community they find within the church is more important than the programs they do with the church.

I witnessed this first hand last Wednesday night. Since re-opening mid-week services a few weeks ago, we’ve been hosting a special series called, “Seasons: Conversations about the Stages of Life.” Based on live interviews, this series has allowed our folks to hear the stories first-hand of how people make it through hard times. From newlywed to retired and everything in between, we’ve heard stories of God’s provision for his people in every season of life.

Wednesday was the last in the series. I was joined on the stage by Ryan and Katharine, a young couple with several young children; and Joan, a widow and senior adult. All three told remarkable stories of God’s provision.

Ryan and Katharine shared their testimony of how after a rocky beginning their marriage was transformed into the healthy and vibrant relationship they enjoy today. Joan told her story of a successful medical career followed by the loss of her husband and the fulfilling life she now has as a widow. All of them were willing to drill down into the specifics of their life’s journey as well as the grace they needed to meet the challenges, losses and failures along the way.

All of us long for friends to help us through life

Their stories were different in many ways because the world Joan was born into is almost unrecognizable compared with the world that greeted Ryan and Katharine at their birth. At the same time, their experiences were remarkably similar in that at every stage of life the same God met them with what they needed to get through.

But the part that really caught my attention was how the three of them had one thing in common. They were part of a deep and rich circle of friends within the church, a community of people their age who were a vital part of their heartaches and their joys.

When children didn’t act right, there was someone to talk to. When spouses couldn’t get along, there was a friend willing to listen. When sickness, tragedy or disappointment made home life hard, there was a circle of people who understood. In times of joy, there were people to celebrate with. When they needed prayer, there was a group of people who took prayer seriously.

We find community in church through small groups

The relationships the three of them enjoyed were built within small groups, a catch-all name for the many ways local churches get people together in intimate settings. Churches do this so that their congregations can build the kinds of friendships that connect people to one another even as they’re part of the larger fellowship.

I believe in small groups because that’s how we find the kind of community that our hearts long for. Church leadership guru Thom Rainer points to small groups as the critical factor in church health:

Small groups are vital to the health of a church. They go by various names: small groups, home groups, community groups, Sunday school classes, life groups and others. But they serve the very important purpose of connecting people to a more personal community. Those in small groups are more likely to stick to a church, will give more, will invite more, and will be more involved in ministry. A church without an intentional small group ministry is a church in bad health or headed toward bad health.

When you have close friends in the church you can get through almost anything

There’s no replacement for family, those people we’re related to by blood or adoption who are an integral part of life’s journey. But what I learned Wednesday night was that there’s another level of close relationships, not on the level of family, but close enough that calling them “brothers” or “sisters” isn’t out of line. Indeed, without them, following Jesus becomes lonely, tedious and hard. But with them, the life of faith takes on an altogether different texture, one of laughter in the tears, comfort in the struggles and peace in the chaos. When you know you don’t have to make it on your own, you can get through almost anything.

What keeps us faithful to Jesus when life falls apart? The people around us. Just ask Ryan, Katharine and Joan.

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