Churches have been organizing small groups (i.e. Sunday School classes, LifeGroups, home groups, etc.) for years. There have been volumes of material published to help churches understand the very best way to connect with newcomers and to minister with seasoned members.
Flake's Formula (a systematic strategy for growing churches through the Sunday School designed by Arthur Flake) has helped Southern Baptist churches plan and design their educational ministries for almost 100 years. I'm not knocking it. In fact, it worked and still does in certain areas because the principles are solid. There have been evangelists (does anyone remember Leon Kilbreth) who touted the values of Sunday School and the importance of organizing to reach people that have spoken to hundreds of churches over the years.
While the days of the Sunday School revival are over mostly, the reality that small group connectedness is valuable remains. Jesus modeled this. He was the ultimate small group leader.
Churches still understand this, but struggle with reaching people who may not connect through traditional Sunday morning Bible study. I'm not advocating getting rid of Sunday School. In fact, we here at First Baptist still have a pretty strong small group time on Sunday morning.
However, it's becoming clearer through the years that people are not connecting in the small group as easily as in the past. Yet, there are few really new models (and maybe that's because there's "nothing new under the sun") for connecting with people in small groups.
We advocate and promote the Sunday morning small group time. We endorse and encourage mid-week groups that meet on the church campus. We also value and support home groups and meetings taking place in resaurants, workplaces and schools. In fact, we boldly state that any and all of these small group times "count."
That's huge. From a church and denomination that traditionally only counted the meetings that took place on Sunday mornings before worship (i.e. Sunday School), to say that any small group meeting that happens for the purpose of connecting with people and studying the Word of God has been a welcome transition.
Now, we find ourselves enjoying more freedom in our small group ministry. Yet, there's still a problem. We're really not connecting.
This is the age of social media. It's here to stay whether you like it or not. In fact, social media has been around long before computers. It just was fleshed out in the real relationships between people.
Now we have a venue to connect, at least superficially, online.
When the internet began, it was a basically designed to share documents between offices and computers. Over time, it evolved into a system that could connect people via social media (YouTube, blogs, chat, etc.) Now, it's taken another leap forward. We now see a web built around people, where their profiles and content are moving with them as they visit different websites.
This occurs via the "Sign In with Facebook" app that appears on many sites and "check-ins" with such apps as Foursquare. Twitter, which originally confused consumers and made many say "This thing isn't very useful. What can you say in 140 characters? Why would you?" is now huge. Revolutions have literally been followed via Tweets. Politicians have lost their jobs through it. Twitter, in some form or fashion, is here to stay.
OK, so what does all this have to do with small group ministry and the church?
I believe (and I fully admit, it's just my belief and this thought process here is embrionic) that many of our churches and small groups are seeking to connect with an outdated model. The outdated model I'm referring to is not "Flake's Formula" or anything LifeWay has published. I'm speaking of "Facebook."
There aren't many people left on the planet, especially in our nation, that have not at least heard of Facebook. The amount of users is staggering and continues to grow. Even with the fear and obvious reality that Facebook has issues protecting people's privacy, the numbers grow.
There are some things about Facebook that make us believe we are connecting with others when we're not. For instance, the word "Friend." What does that really mean? It used to mean someone with whom you had a positive relationship. It was a real person who cared for you and vice versa. Many of us have an abundance of acquaintences, but in truth would only claim a few as friends. Then, there were the "best friends" we had. Those were special people. Being a friend took time. It was not effortless. It was, in fact, biblical.
Then, social media changed the meaning of the term. Currently, I have over 2,200 "friends" on Facebook. I started looking through the list earlier today and noticed that there were many whom I've never met in person. Some aren't even real people (I'm a "friend" with a local news channel.) Others are acquaintences. Some I haven't seen since high school (Facebook eliminates the need for reunions.) Many are brothers and sisters in Christ, but only a small group would really be considered my true, close friends. Now, don't get me wrong. These people are friendly, but are they really my friends, in the truest sense of the word?
There's the reality that of my 2,200 "friends" most do not even know each other.
There are all the pages I "Like." What good is that? Businesses create pages on Facebook so people can become "fans" and "like" their products, but beyond that click, what's the point? In most cases, I've just created digital "junk mail" for my Facebook feed.
Now, don't get me wrong. I like Facebook. I use it. In fact, we have pages on Facebook for our church and different ministries and use those to promote events and special ministries.
I wonder. . .and I'm rambling on my keyboard with these thoughts right now. . .have we shifted our small groups and connectedness in church? These relationships which are supposed to be about glorifying God together in community have become surface-level, hope you get the newsfeed announcement, Facebook-style friend gathering (where if you're not in attendance, that's OK, because we'll update you later with a Facebook message regarding class prayer requests and the schedule for who is to bring breakfast the next week.)
Some may read this and think I'm just slamming technology and social media. I remind you that you're reading this on a blog. I use Facebook. I use Twitter. I like them. I read my news on the computer, etc. Just saying - this is not a rant against computers or technology.
This is just an observation that we may be clumping all our "friends" together, hoping to connect, but in reality missing many.
Now we have a new social media venue available. Google Plus was revealed not too long ago. It has been touted as the next Facebook, or as some have boldy stated, the program to dethrone Facebook. That all remains to be seen.
However, there are some interesting things about Google Plus that seem to at least acknowledge the reality of relationships. One reality is that sociability is complex. As Paul Adams has so clearly described in his slide show called The Real Life Social Network v2, people do not have one group of friends.
Online, as in Facebook, there is one group of friends. I'll use my group for example. I have one group of 2,200 friends. They don't all know each other.
People have many independent groups of friends. For example, people have family, school friends, work friends, friends from city A, friends from city B, friends with common interests or hobbies, etc.
These can be categorized many ways: life stage, shared experience, hobby, etc.
According to research, regardless where an individual lives or what part of the world he/she is located, the friending groups are remarkably similar.
When people throughout the world were asked to list and group their friends, some interesting things were discovered.
On average, most people have between 4 and 6 groups.
Each group tends to have between 2 and 10 people.
Each group is independent. However, even in the days before online social networking, people have tried to mix their independent groups at times. In many cases, this was to no avail. The only common denominator was the one individual.
Like it or not, we are tribal and in this case, we find ourselves in different tribes. . .but rarely can the tribes mix.
Yet, in churches, we create small group communities based on some arbitrary thing like age or zip code or life stage (and in many cases these work) but discover that we often miss the desired goal of reaching everyone. That's why many of our groups have dozens of names on the roll sheet that never attend.
This may be why some folks disengage in small groups? Try as we might, there are some who just cannot or will not connect.
For example, if you post an update on Facebook, to whom is that intended? I post a lot (too much I've been told by some) and often they are spiritual things related to a series I'm preaching or a book I'm reading. I guess at some very thin level it can be called "internet evangelism" but in reality, it's an intended update that often gets comments or "Likes" from an expected audience.
If I post something about the Dallas Mavericks (BTW - in case you didn't know, they beat the Heat and are the World Champions!!!! ) the comments and "Likes" come from a group I attended high school with and maybe my son because I have indoctrinated him in the ways of Mavs fandom.
The reality is that most of our posts and updates have intended audiences and are usually a small subset of friends and acquaintences.
Even within a subset of friends, there are even more subsets.
Here's where I'm going with all of this.
We often use the bullhorn to attempt to reach and connect with people. We have a large list of names. We scream through the bullhorn that we love God and people and invite others in. Then, we wait and a group responds. . .but often they don't connect. Why? Because we're attempting to connect, even in a small group setting, with large group ways.
Maybe we need to go back and read "Flake's Formula?"
Google Plus has come along and recognized the subset of "friends" and relationships and is attempting to take advantage of this. Perhaps it will work. Who knows? Regardless, it reminds us that the mission we have been called to - of reaching this world with the life-changing message of Jesus Christ, is better done in relationships with others (and I mean real "friends") rather than in the large group of 2,200 plus.
It's been modeled before.
Jesus spoke to thousands.
He connected with 12.
He was "best friends" (can I say that?) with three.
Not sure how all this is to be fleshed out, but it has me thinking. . .and that's dangerous.
What do you think?