I am planning a 30th wedding anniversary trip to San Francisco later this year. My wife has never been there, but years ago I trained group leaders on two different occasions about a year apart. Both times the leader of our group of trainers took us on a tour of San Francisco, and of course we ended up at Muir Woods. Just north of San Francisco, it is the home of a forest of Sequoia trees. These giant trees are over 250 feet tall, and some have been around since the time of Christ’s resurrection! But the truly amazing thing about Sequoias is that their roots only go about 4 feet into the ground. It’s so counterintuitive! You’d think the roots would have to extend hundreds of feet to support the giant trees. The secret to their longevity is that the roots intertwine and they support one another – that’s why you don’t see Sequoia trees growing alone – they always grow together in groves. What a perfect analogy for what Bible study groups should be like, right? People growing together, intertwining lives, and being discipled toward Christ-likeness.
If you want to see people connect and intertwine lives in your church’s Bible study group system, you’ll want to consider whether or not the three things below are happening. The good news is that if they are not, that is something that can be addressed just like Hope Church in Las Vegas did.
- The pastor must point. In a recent lunch conversation with Tom McCormick, small groups pastor at Hope Church in Las Vegas (Vance Pitman is the pastor), he explained the church’s phenomenal growth in its Bible study groups by focusing on Pastor Vance Pitman’s role. Vance believes in his church’s small group system and its ability to make disciples, so he challenges members and guests to be involved. The message of belonging to a smaller group of people is said weekly, and Pastor Vance has begun telling people, “If you only give us an hour a week, don’t hear me preach – spend that time in a Bible study group.” Tom McCormick told me this has made all the difference for Hope Church in Las Vegas. When something becomes important to the pastor, it becomes important to the people. Hope Church has discovered this, and it’s working.
- The people must be in small groups. Recently I’ve been hammering this point. I’m not sure it’s getting through just yet, so I’ll hammer some more. Disciples are going to be made in smaller groups – period. “Master teacher” classes with a lecturing instructor are going to create unconnected group members – not Sequoias. For there to be connection like in a Sequoia forest, there must be relationships. Relationships mean there must be conversations. Conversations mean there must be questions. Questions mean that we are discussing life and how the Scripture impacts it. You can get all of this done in groups of 10-16 people, not in groups of 30-50 people.
- The people must be in even smaller groups. As good as a church’s primary small group system may be, and even if the groups are composed of 10-16 people, there is still a need to get even smaller! Jesus discipled 12 men, but He also took 3 of them and spent even more relational time with them. Churches today are rediscovering the ability for single-gender groups of 3-4 people to grow as disciples. The church’s primary group ministry (let’s call it Sunday School or LIFE Groups) “catches” couples and singles; they find a place to belong and grow with a group of 10-16 other people like them – similar in age or life-stage. Then those 10-16 are challenged to belong to one more group – a group of 3-4 of their peers for the purpose of praying, relating, studying, and intertwining lives.
If your church does the three things above, you’ll see people moving from pews into groups, and from groups into even smaller groups. Disciples will be made. Lives will be connected in deeper ways. You’ll grow a Sequoia church, not just a Sequoia Sunday School.