Small groups of Christians gathered to reflect on and pray with the Scriptures are highly effective in nurturing faith formation and in bringing new people into a congregation. How groups are started, leaders selected and supported and how the group life is developed can increase that effectiveness.
Starting a new group requires more than just putting an announcement in the bulletin. It is helpful to identify and invite specific people to attend (in person, by phone or via a handwritten note). Starting a new group with a potluck supper (preferably in the leader's or priest's home) and some time to get acquainted a couple of nights before the first session is often helpful, especially in a large church or when there are newcomers in the group. Lent is often a good time to launch a new group—the Lenten season is the time of highest church attendance.
Don't forget to send an announcement to your local newspaper (especially in a small community) or include the group topic in a newspaper ad. You may also be able to obtain a public service announcement on a local radio station. Read the religious news page in your paper and listen to the radio to see what kind of story they use. Write up your announcement as a story that fits what you saw or heard. Take the time to get to know the religious news writer/editor and the radio station person responsible for making broadcast decisions. Ask him or her what they want and how you can help them. Take careful notes and give the information they want in the form they want. Follow up with a thank you note when they use your story.
Although we have often used the term "Bible study" in this text, many people are not attracted to the term. It often generates a sense of guilt ("I should know more about the Bible than I do") and fear ("My ignorance will be exposed; I'll feel stupid"). It is those feelings that cause adults, in particular, to avoid Bible study. Some have found it helpful to use expressions such as: study of the Bible, scriptural conversations, dialogue with the Scriptures, engaging the Scriptures, studying the Bible or learning more about the Bible when promoting a Bible study program. These expressions are less likely to elicit an automatic negative response (which comes out of an emotional base and/or previous experience). The other important point to communicate is that no prior knowledge is expected, that no one will be embarrassed by being asked questions to demonstrate their knowledge or lack of knowledge of the Bible. In other words, it is important to communicate (and then create) that this will be a safe experience in which everyone can learn and grow together.
Promote your program in several different ways; gather a small group to think of ideas and try any and all that sound feasible and reasonable. Bulletin and newsletter announcements, buttons and balloons, flyers and brochures, cartoon, quizzes or stories as bulletin inserts or handouts, in depth newsletter articles, coffee hour or lunch presentations, announcements in church, registration table with samples of the materials available, posters, banners or bulletin boards, a brief sample session after church, a video shown after the service (several are identified in the Resource section as appropriate for introducing a program), direct mail letters or postcards, etc. Use the methods that best fit your context, but use more than one method.
People today are highly mobile, and you cannot assume they will find your church or find out about it or the programs you offer unless you make an effort to reach them. Younger adults, for example, want more detailed information than previous generations. You need to tell them what you are offering, a description of the content, the length of the group meeting, how many meetings, the availability of childcare, etc. You also need to give directions to the church. If your church is not easy to find and identify, invest in signs that are easy to read while driving.
An excellent resource, Parish Communication Kit: "Telling Your Story" brochures, is available to help you develop an effective way to communicate your message. It is a series of 10 small booklets which give tips and pointers on a wide range of communication vehicles. Created by a consortium of denominations which included the Episcopal Church, the series is practical, easy to follow and congregation based. Topics include:
Telling Your Story With Bulletin Boards (#51 9134)
Telling Your Story With Desktop Publishing (#51 9135)
Telling Your Story With Direct Mail (#51 9136)
Telling Your Story With Marketing (#51 9137)
Telling Your Story With News Releases (#51 9138)
Telling Your Story With Newsletters (#51 9129)
Telling Your Story With Photography (#51 9139)
Telling Your Story With Radio (#51 9140)
Telling Your Story With Telephone Use (#51 9141)
Telling Your Story With Videos in the Congregation (#51 9142)
Available for $.25 each or $2.50 for all 10 (#51 9143) from Episcopal Parish Services, 815 Second Avenue, New York NY 10017, (800) 223 2237; in New York State: (800) 321 2231, ext. 5416.
ONGOING BIBLE STUDY GROUPS Ongoing groups provide stability and community, especially in larger congregations where individuals often need to find a place where they are known in order to feel that they belong. These groups can meet on Sunday mornings or during the week; it is best if both options are provided. It is important to evaluate an ongoing group periodically to assess if the current methods and materials meet the needs of group members. Ongoing groups usually are held together by using a multi year program or are an affinity group that is held together by whatever makes them an affinity group (workplace ministry groups, age specific groups, interest groups, task groups).
Many affinity groups use a variety of study methods and materials. Some choose materials related to their interest, task, or age. Others spend several months using one method and getting to know it well before moving on to another method. These groups usually use the Sunday lectionary lessons for their texts; some select books of the Bible to study in course. Changing the methods or materials periodically makes it easier to incorporate new members.
Most multi year program groups will meet until the program is finished. If significant "dropouts" occur earlier, it may be helpful to reassess the use of that particular program. If a core group continues throughout the entire program, they often bond as a group and are reluctant to part once the end of the program comes. Careful preparation and planning far in advance of the end of the program can help ease the transition to another program or to a new group structure. Some group members may wish to lead new groups. Others will want to move on to something else. Often participants in multi year Bible study programs are ready to take on significant ministries but cannot find ways to do that within their congregation. Unfortunately, many people conclude that the only way to sustain that which they have learned to value in this experience is to go to seminary and be ordained. It is important to help these program participants identify meaningful ways to use their knowledge, understanding, and renewed commitment to living a Christian life. Working with the adult catechumenate process and developing discipleship groups can be the next step for many of these participants.
DISCIPLESHIP GROUPS A number of Episcopal congregations have developed "home cell groups" (known by various names but here called "discipleship groups"). Discipleship groups often include study of the Scriptures as part of their time together. However, they are more than just a Bible study group.
Discipleship groups move beyond Bible study to the creation of a small group that functions as the primary place for faith formation and for reflection on and support for ministry in all aspects of one's life, and is the locus of pastoral care and prayer support. Small groups of 10 plus a leader and apprentice leader meet weekly or biweekly to "study and share, pray and care." These groups intentionally encourage growth by inviting new members to join. Once the group has reached a maximum size of 12, the apprentice leader and several members start a new group.
Participants in discipleship groups have discovered the power of small groups in building community, encouraging spiritual growth, and supporting members as they seek to fulfill their baptismal promises in their home life, on the jobs or at school, in their leisure time, in community involvements, and in retirement. Congregations which have made a commitment to refocus their congregational life around small groups and their emphasis on members' individual and corporate ministries "in the world" have experienced a renewed spirit.
Forming and maintaining discipleship groups requires ongoing training for the group leaders and apprentice leaders, which is beyond the scope of this book. Resources currently are available from the Fuller Institute and some more fundamentalist or evangelical denominations. Several Episcopal congregations have developed resources which reflect Episcopal theology and style. The national church is in the process of adapting various materials and will have resources on discipleship groups as well as leadership skills training materials available in 1994. For more information, contact the Adult Education and Leadership Development Office.
SHORT TERM GROUPS Ongoing groups are often difficult for newcomers to join, so it is helpful to start new groups on a regular basis. Newcomers often look for people like themselves in age, relationship status, interest in the same issues, etc.; if a congregation is large enough, groups can be started which match newcomers and those not yet part of another group.
In smaller congregations, care needs to be taken to make space for new group members, or the Bible study group will end up being the same small group that always meets. You may conclude that others don't want to participate, when most likely they don't want to participate in that group which feels closed or filled. Start a new group after you have asked people about their needs and concerns and listened carefully to their responses. Try different methods or resources. Try a different group configuration. Instead of identifying your one ongoing group as an established group (e.g., "the adult education group meets in the library") try identifying it as a series of groups by offering a series of different topics, each advertised, in essence, as a new group with a specific start and end date. This makes it possible for newcomers to join at the beginning of a "new" group.
Baby boomers (those born between 1946–1964) tend to respond best to short term commitments. They are more likely to attend a group which is doing a four or six week study than one which asks for a three year commitment or is "ongoing." It is also important to schedule groups at times when they can attend and to arrange for (or encourage the group to arrange for) childcare for those with children.
Short term groups do not build the depth of relationship or the ongoing support of a Christian community. They require constant publicizing, recruitment of leaders, and identification of resources. However, they also provide variety and easy entry for newcomers. They are often the first step in someone's journey to a deeper faith; a positive experience in several short term groups may lead the person to an ongoing neighborhood group where more significant relationships may be developed and the Scriptures and faith can be explored in greater depth.
Most important: Don't assume that people aren't attending a group because they aren't interested in Scripture or in education. They are. It may take some work to find out what interests them and how to best meet their needs.
LEADERS Select, train, and nurture group leaders with care. Leaders need to have group facilitation skills and commitment to the ministry of leadership more than expertise in the Bible or formal teaching (e.g., lecture) skills. It is best to pair inexperienced leaders with a mentor to support them in the beginning. Or start with an experienced leader and an apprentice in each group. After a while, the experienced leader takes a new group, and the apprentice takes over.
Once you have recruited your leaders, don't abandon them. It is important to establish a system of meeting regularly with the group leaders to see how things are going, discuss problems they are encountering, provide spiritual nurture in a group where they are not the leader, provide training they may need, and provide affirmation and prayer support for their ministry.