Starting Small Groups… Connection before Content

A small group leader recently told me how her group was going. Like so many others, she shared that the early stages of her group were most impacted, not by the content of the lesson, but by the ice breakers, of all things. Every time I hear this feedback (which is a lot), part of me celebrates, and part of me silently groans, I’m glad they liked the ice breakers… but so much for those lessons I wrote!

Despite my internal eye roll, though, having new groups connect over silly ice breakers (that really mean something… questions that aren’t just “conversation starters”) was highly intentional on my part. Simply put, it gets people telling stories. Story telling is but one component of groups that thrive. But there are others, too.

 At Resurrection, we’ve built a small group ministry on several key principles, none of which are mind-blowing, but are easily abandoned in the busy “well-we’ve-got-to-do-something” pace of church ministry. The “rethinking” we’ve done has been to simply refocus principles we ministry leaders leave behind too quickly. Here are a few of them:

  • Small groups are about the cultivation of Christian character rather than just intellect. Intellectual development is great. But small groups are about Christian character.
  • The people who walk into a new small group have a wide variety of social needs. However, our technological world marked by individualism is not providing people with many social outlets. As a result, some people begin a small group by placing all of their social expectations on that group. This does not bode well for the success of the group, and the problem needs to be addressed by connecting people to relationships outside, not just inside,the small group.
  • Lastly, you have to earn intimacy. Groups need to start with low-stakes conversation, not an accountability circle… but then they need to be nudged towards intimate spiritual conversation. Oftentimes, intimacy is earned through storytelling.

Again, none of these ideas may be all that new to you. Putting them into practice, though, can be hard. At Resurrection, we’ve sought to guide groups along an intentional journey of connection and growth that takes these principles seriously. We de-emphasize the “lesson” the groups discuss on a given evening and emphasize the relationship building. We try to use our program to create an abundance of connections in the larger community rather than just keep people in an isolated group. And we start with conversation over topics that are important without being overly personal. Along the way, we highlight the importance of fun, the centrality of stories, and the active movement of a living God.

Now, back to where I began – the leader telling me about her group’s love of the ice breakers. Apparently, in the first few weeks, there was an older woman who never talked. She wasn’t so much shy as she was closed off. But then, the group began a session with a question I had included in the lesson: “Have you ever snuck into a movie theater?” This question made this woman recall a story from her adolescence she hadn’t thought about in decades. And as usually happens when people reconnect with their younger selves, this woman opened up, smiled, shared a silly story about a hometown theater, and was an active contributor in the group from then on.

Do all ice breakers have that power? No way. Does intentionality matter? Absolutely. Seeing people as sacred beings who need other people, but who also get bruises in the messy work of relationship building… that is the heart of small group ministry. And it certainly doesn’t take rocket science – or a megachurch – to lead groups on that journey.

Justin Schoolcraft is the Small Groups & Young Adult Program Director at Resurrection’s Leawood location. He loves the day-to-day work of being involved with people and helping them recognize the movement of God in their lives. He is recently married and loves playing several instruments, rooting for the West Virginia Mountaineers, and being as active as possible.