"What you draw them in with is what they'll be committed to" ... So true!

In Organic Church, Neil Cole writes, "What you draw them with is what they'll be committed to."

Wow. Truer words have never been written, even if the sentence structure isn't the best!

I see this truth play out over and over across the USA in small group ministries. Church leaders become fatigued with the fact that the consumer Christians in their congregations aren't interested in participating in Christ-centered groups (where the members are challenged to lay down their agendas for the cause of Christ). So, they retool their small group ministry and sell the sizzle of "Designer small groups" where the drawing topic can be anything from emergency preparedness to scrapbooking to dealing with cancer.

My dad pioneered the use of these kinds of groups for evangelism years ago, because "Type B" unbelievers (furthest away from trusting Christ on the Engel scale) aren't drawn to the message or the messenger, but to a secular interest. He called them Interest Groups or Share Groups.

However, there were a number of differences between Dad's Interest/Share Groups and what's going on in today's small group ministries:
  • Interest/Share Groups were subsets of a Christ-centered group and run parallel to the mother group. 3-4 mature believers in a group would form an interest group and report back each week as to how it was going and how to pray for the spiritual condition of each person in the interest group.
  • Interest/Share Groups were 8-12 weeks in length, which was the amount of time necessary for deepening friendships to form.
  • The goal of Interest/Share Groups was to relationally bridge the unbelievers to the members of the Christ-centered group... during the weeks of the interest group gathering, the unbelievers were invited to meals in the home of one of the leaders of the Interest/Share Group and members of the Christ-Centered group would also be at that meal.
  • After 8-12 weeks in an Interest/Share Group, the unbeliever would learn that Christians aren't what they initially thought they were like. A paradigm shift was the goal.
  • After the Interest/Share Group concluded, it often created an empty place in the weekly calendar and a relational void for the unbeliever. This was very good because they had made friends with the Interest/Share Group leaders and the members of the Christ-centered group, and would be far more open to visiting the Christ-centered group.
Now let's contrast this with Designer Small Groups:
  • The goal is to get church members to meet around a topic of interest off church property between corporate gatherings. Big church meetings aren't relational, and this fills that sociological void.
  • Congregational members are far more likely to sign up to lead a Designer Group because they get to choose the focus of the meetings. They're motivated to market their idea and fill their group!
  • Church leadership usually require that prayer requests are taken and prayer or worship is present in the group to legitimize it a bit with a spiritual element.
  • The hope that God will move powerfully among the members as a result is certainly present, and I have no doubt that it does happen. But one could argue that it's not strategically intentional for the members of these groups. Most don't know it's anything more than a church sponsored Designer Small Group.
The church that my wife and I were a part of for nearly ten years abandoned Christ-centered groups a while back for Designer Groups. Due to a number of problems in the Christ-centered groups (no discipleship pathway, lax relationship-driven leadership development, and the groups were not the missional thrust of the church, etc.) they decided to give this a try to battle group member fatigue.

And the members of the groups were indeed fatigued. As a member, if you're not growing spiritually toward group leadership and beyond AND seeing personal transformation in yourself and others in the group and some success with evangelism and one-on-one disciple making, fatigue will set in fast!

After six months of designer group participation, I've not seen a lot of fruit from this diversion at the church. More people are in groups, but walking into a garage doesn't make you a mechanic, just a guy standing in a garage. Neil Cole was not wrong. It may not be easy, but drawing people into a small group whose sole focus is Christ makes for a powerful group experience when the members of the group shed their agendas and Christ's presence, power, and purposes are experienced.

So tell me, dear blog readers... what has been your experience with Designer Groups long term? Have the members of the church seen lots of spiritual fruit from it? Has it transformed the minds and hearts of those who have participated?

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