Does this sound like your church’s small groups? You find a group of people who live near you, sit in someone’s living room, and try not to fall asleep during a rehashing of the sermon on Sunday followed by every couple talking about their kids’ schedule and how exhausting it is being a parent. Don’t get me wrong, there’s value in that, but between running surveys for churches and speaking with churchgoers, I’ve noticed a lot of people in small groups still struggle to connect with others… or even see the point in going to their small group. 😢
I remember exploring the idea of interests based small groups twenty years ago with legendary pastor, and awesome supervisor for one of my seminary internships, Paul Walterman (https://www.freshheartministries.org/about/). It was a bit challenging to build interest groups back then, but they were notoriously the most effective ones when you could cobble them together. I even recall a group who loved to combine fishing, breakfast, and Bible that was always growing. 🎣👨🔧👨🌾👨🔬👨🍳👨🚒
So here is my proposition: technology has really reached a point today where it’s time to consider empowering more interest-based groups as part of your discipleship and outreach strategy.
Why location-based small groups struggle
Let’s face it, location-based small groups have their flaws. It’s not that they’re bad, per se, but they can be quite limited. For one, they require everyone in the group to live close enough to each other to make meeting up feasible… and if your groups are like the ones I attend, then attendance can be super sporadic even when members are relatively close! Plus, there’s the pressure to keep things “spiritual,” which can be an incredibly intimate thing, particularly when people are still pretty much strangers. I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to share my deepest struggles and need for prayer if I don’t know, like, and trust all the people in the room! They also, and don’t take this the wrong way, favor female connection over male connection because men notoriously struggle to connect without having a tangible task to accomplish together, but small groups are usually based around conversation and vague expected outcomes. 🤷
Don’t even get me started on the struggles introverts have with small groups! At minimum, introverts make up one quarter of the human population and in some groups can easily comprise half of the people. Social situations are a bit draining for us introverts, we prep and psych ourselves up to go into bigger church gatherings, and while small groups are a lot easier for us, we can still feel super awkward trying to connect with people we have almost nothing in common with. Conversely, introverts are often energized by their hobbies and can even feel energized when doing their hobby with others (for example, socially awkward introverted Dungeons & Dragons players or LARPers).
A more natural way to form small groups
Instead of organizing small groups around location, why not try organizing them around interests and passions? This makes much more sense in today’s world. We have so many ways to connect with people and discover that we share interests and hobbies that bring us together.
For example, you might find people who share your love of hiking or cooking or playing board games. You can form groups around these shared interests and build relationships around the things you already love to do. Plus, when you’re doing something you enjoy, it’s much easier to form connections with others than when you’re sitting in a living room trying to make small talk.
There is also the opportunity to have small groups much more naturally feature “in, out, and up” dynamics in that they can connect to fellow believers and do outreach activities more readily. If you have a group that encourages and prays for each other over basketball each week, then it’s very natural for them to also join or even host small tournaments or other events where they will come into contact with nonbelievers.
Using technology for group outreach
The great thing about organizing groups around interests and passions is that technology makes it easier than ever to find people who share those interests. Social media, online forums, and other digital platforms offer endless opportunities for outreach. Two great platforms for this are Eventbrite and Meetup. The possibilities are endless, and by using technology, you can cast a far wider net and connect with people you might not have met otherwise.
Reinventing small groups around interests and passions instead of location is a natural progression for the church. It’s a way to break out of our bubble and connect with people who share our interests, regardless of where they live or what they believe. It’s also a way to make small groups more enjoyable and missional. It doesn’t mean we have to leave our location-based groups… and full disclosure, I’m not leaving my location-based group any time soon, but it is a way to get people engaged that are struggling to engage.
So, let’s embrace new ways of doing small groups and see where it takes us. Who knows? Your church might just have a group of runners that takes off and leads dozens of people to Christ… and the best part is that people don’t spend two hours sharing “prayer requests” about how tired they are from being a parent if they are out of breath! 😉