Leading Small Groups Out of a Rut

I could see it happening from the window in my home office. Ryan, my 17-year old, was behind the wheel of our Toyota, confident in his ability to navigate the approaching right turn as he had done many times before, despite a few inches of snow.

The familiar street, however, presented an unfamiliar challenge to an unsuspecting teen driving in the Chicagoland winter. At the bottom of the hill he tried to turn right, but the hardened, slick surface refused to cooperate. He slid straight across the street into a four-foot embankment of freshly plowed snow, totally engulfing the front left portion of the car. It was hard to be upset with him. The damage was minor, and the mistake was the kind many a novice has made. The front left fender and tire were deeply embedded into the drift, and we began to work to dislodge it. Despite several valiant attempts to free the vehicle, it remained wedged in.

We tried to break the car free, but to no avail. It was frustrating and we felt helpless. Had it not been for the help of a friend, getting “unstuck” would have taken much longer and probably cost us a few bucks.

Groups in a Rut

Small groups can be like that. Community life is dynamic, relational and volatile. It’s complex and multidimensional. People come together in a small group environment and … stuff happens. We should not be surprised that it can be messy. Said another way, “Groups work perfectly … until people show up.”

As a result of that volatility, some groups fail and some succeed. Success and failure are clear outcomes, and we celebrate or mourn the result.

But what if the group neither succeeds nor fails? What if it simply stops moving? What if it slides into a spiritual or relational rut? And what if, despite some effort, the leader feels helpless getting the group moving again?

The most challenging group is the stuck-in-a-rut group. It is not growing, and it is not dying. You can feel it at the meetings, observe it in the relationships and sense it in the leader. There’s some Bible reading and discussion, some sharing and socializing. But one week leads to another and nothing changes. There are no emotional highs and few depressing lows. It feels flat.

Though things are not going poorly, there is nothing really great happening either. The group is stuck. But why? What are the potential causes?

There could be many factors involved, but over the next few weeks, we will take a look at some of the most common. First up: lack of cohesion.

Lack of Cohesion

Group members wonder: “Why are we here? Where are we going? What is the goal or purpose of gathering?” At the church leadership level the question is similar: “ Why do we have groups and how do they contribute to spiritual formation?”

When I work with church leadership teams, I often craft a scenario followed by a question:

Hi! I’m Bill, and I just moved here from out of state to take a new position with my company. My family and I are looking for a church community. I am a relatively young Christian—about five years—and I am eager to continue growing. But the reality is we might only be here for three to five years until another likely move. So I have a question: If we join this community and participate in the services, events and activities you offer, how will we be different three to five years from now? What kind of people are you hoping we become, and how will you help us become such people?

Silence is usually the response. Blank stares dominate the faces. Or, at best, most church teams begin to ramble through a series of clichés and programs describing a vague approach to making disciples. There is neither consistency in their language nor clarity in their focus.

See Also

But even when the church is clear about why they have groups and what the framework is for guiding people toward Christ-likeness, group leaders can be a little fuzzy. They do not know why their specific group exists and where it is headed.

The group lacks cohesion.

Cohesion is the “stickiness” of a group, measuring whether people feel connected to the group. It results from two key factors. First, a group needs a clear purpose and direction (usually articulated by the group leaders). And second, the members must have a high need for the group.

Unfortunately, most people do not know why their group exists (except in broad terms), and they have little perceived need for the group. People say: “They want us to get in groups at our church. So we figured we’d try one. That’s what we do here.”

We need to communicate the essential nature of community life to our churches. People must realize they need a group and a group needs them. When a group has a compelling vision and purpose, and members realize they need community for personal growth and serving others, then the group begins to stick. 

Check back for more on how drift, complacency and fatigue, transition and legalism affect small groups. This article originally appeared in Neue magazine.

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