A fresh look at small groups

By Susan Cooper, Special Contributor…

WICHITA, Kan.—It’s time to re-examine how churches do small group ministry, according to Carol Krau, adult formation and discipleship director for the UMC’s General Board of Discipleship and author of Keeping in Touch: Christian Formation and Teaching.

Dr. Krau believes many congregations need to redefine the purpose of their small groups and Sunday school classes.

“Adult Sunday school and small group studies generally operate around age-levels or demographics or are organized around traditional formats like Bible study or contemporary issues,” Dr. Krau said at a Christian education workshop hosted recently at Calvary United Methodist Church in Wichita.

This tends to keep people in the same groups for years, which may not be contributing to true faith formation.

“We do things out of habit and because we value the relationships,” Dr. Krau said.

“In planning small groups . . . we want to be sensitive to the fact people have different experiences and invite them into growing closer to God,” says Carol Krau of the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship. © 2012 DESIGN PICS

While fellowship is an important aspect of groups, the primary point is helping people to develop their relationship with God through Jesus Christ and to live faithfully in the world, Dr. Krau suggested.

“Adult formation is the most broken part of the system. What the church has done is treat all adults the same. All adults are lumped together in terms of faith formation,” she said.

Each congregation needs to define what faith formation means to them and how that translates into goals for small groups and classes.

Dr. Krau suggested posing questions to help church members define the identity and purpose of their groups:

• Who are we as God’s people?
• What does it mean to be a Christian in our community, in the United Methodist Church, and in America?
• Who is our neighbor?
• What is God calling our congregation to do?
• How can we be more in relationship with the community?

Discussion and study topics can be derived from the answers to basic questions such as, “One of the things we want people to know is . . .” and then fill in the blank with answers they think are important, perhaps “Bible literacy” or “God’s grace.”

Other questions to generate study topics could be, “What does a life of Christian faith look like?” and “What sets the United Methodist Church apart?”

The answers can be expanded to create more topics or even more groups. For example, deciding what it means to be biblically literate or what core things every member should be doing.

Dr. Krau said leaders also should evaluate the results of a class or study and even ask the group, “How did this study make us realize what we need to know or learn about next?”

“Topics should grow other topics,” Dr. Krau said.

She added that those topics should be personal.

“Why do we need to read the same stories? It should be, ‘What does the story say to us?’ and ‘How does that match what I’m dealing with?’

“Any Bible story means something different at different stages of our lives,” Dr. Krau said.

She suggested using curriculum to guide group discussion about how the topic relates to their lives.

“That’s the real purpose of curriculum.”

Dr. Krau recommends using a metaphor as a theme and incorporating that into class and group names. She said it’s a good way to define study topics without making people feel excluded.

A metaphor gives people opportunities to grow their faith and discipleship from where they are on their spiritual journeys rather than assigning them to age-related groups and classes.

“Some people may be great with prayer, but, for Scripture, they are in a different place,” Dr. Krau said.

Visual images inspired by the metaphor are helpful. Groups and classes should be planned with an image in mind, according to Dr. Krau. She suggested “Body of Christ” as a metaphor, with the vine and the branches, but the theme doesn’t have to be out of the Bible.

She gave two examples of metaphors used successfully.

Brentwood UMC in Tennessee has used “River of Life” as their theme for study. “They had five markers: Checking out the Scene, Stepping into the Water, Riding the Rapids, Diving Deeper and Going Fishing. All five had classes related to that,” Dr. Krau said.

Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., has used mountain climbing for their metaphor and imagery.

Having Sunday school classes and small group studies themed, instead of age-related, can bring in people who wouldn’t necessarily be in a particular group but who can bring different perspectives and insights.

“With a metaphor, you can say, ‘Here is what we have; what’s resonating with you? Which sounds like it could be helpful for you?’” Dr. Krau said.

She warned, however, against the danger of themes being elitist.

“There’s no need to label things as the ultimate goal, like being in the ‘House of Holiness Class,’” Dr. Krau said.

“In planning small groups, we should be able to address varying experiences with God and the church without making judgments. We want to be sensitive to the fact people have different experiences and invite them into growing closer to God.”

Ms. Cooper is associate director of marketing and communications for the UMC’s Kansas Area.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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