August 13, 2010
The Rev. Brad Kalajainen’s new church in suburban Grand Rapids, Mich., had grown to about 180 members when “a spirit of grumpiness” haunted the United Methodist congregation.
The reason, he concluded, was that Cornerstone Church had enlarged to the point that parishioners no longer knew the names and faces of all their fellow worshipers. They no longer felt part of a tight-knit community with a shared Christian mission.
“We are only in one business and that is to make disciples,” Kalajainen said. “We’re not in the business of knowing everybody’s name. …If you are a pastor, you have to lead them to that vision.”
The solution, he discovered, was to start small groups. With the groups, the church continued to grow in membership while members could grow in faith in the intimate setting they craved.
Cornerstone Church in Caledonia, Mich. recently celebrated its 20th anniversary and now averages between 1,600 and 2,000 in worship attendance each Sunday. A big part of that success, Kalajainen said, is the church’s vibrant small-group ministry.
The pastor shared his insights on how more United Methodist churches can develop small-group ministries at the denomination’s School of Congregational Development in Nashville, Tenn., July 29-Aug. 2.
His workshop, which attracted church leaders from as far as the Philippines, came on the heels of the denomination’s recently-released Congregational Vitality study that identified small groups as one of the main “drivers” of church growth, attendance and giving.
“The goal of small groups is to connect people to Christ and connect people to each other,” Kalajainen said. “You can’t grow larger as a church unless you grow smaller. Otherwise people feel just like a face in the crowd.”
‘Casting the vision’
Cornerstone started its first small group with 25 people about two years into its existence. After about a year, some group members started a new group. Now, Kalajainen estimates, Cornerstone has approximately 85 and 90 groups, which the congregation has labeled “Life Groups.”
Like the Christians of New Testament times, most of these groups meet in people’s homes. They eat together, pray together and study together — generally using a curriculum Kalajainen has recommended. He said he has found the ideal size for such groups is 10 to 15 people.
Kalajainen acknowledged that pastors would soon be looking for new appointments if they tried to retrofit all the members of an existing congregation into small groups.
“But I think you can be very aggressive in casting the vision over and over,” he told church leaders. “You don’t preach just one sermon on the importance of small groups. You work it in all the time. The things that are important to your church, you constantly weave it into your message.”
The Rev. Oliver S. Mangubat agreed. A United Methodist pastor in Quezon City, the Philippines, Mangubat said small groups have been instrumental in helping his church flourish. His congregation grew from 50 to 220, he said.
Making the push
Fall, Kalajainen said, is often a good time to make a big push to start small groups.
At Cornerstone, members have multiple opportunities to join Life Groups. They can sign up on the church website, through a membership class, through a church bulletin announcement or at the church’s guest services desk.
Every three months, the church also holds “Life Link” events where people can get acquainted and register for the type of Life Group they would like to join such as singles, parents of young children or empty nesters.
Small groups not only help members be better disciples; but also become the frontline of pastoral care in a large church, Kalajainen said.
He pointed to the experience of a Cornerstone group formed by six young couples who had all gotten married at the church the same summer.
One of the Life Group’s couples had never attended the church before their wedding. But the two soon drew close to their fellow group members and started regularly attending Sunday worship.
A little more than a year later, the couple was about to welcome their first baby when something went wrong. The doctors told the husband that his wife might not live through the delivery.
In their time of need, the husband’s first instinct was not to call the pastor but his small-group leaders. Within minutes, the 10 fellow small-group members had arrived at the hospital to comfort the husband and pray.
The story had a happy ending: the baby was born healthy, and the new mother made a full recovery. Kalajainen did not learn of the couple’s trauma until the following Monday night after mother and child had already been released from the hospital.
“Life Groups for us have been a system of extending care way beyond anything I’m able to do,” he said. “Frontline care should be in groups like that where lay people know how to pray for people and be there for them.”
Small groups also serve as doorways for newcomers into the church. One year, the church recruited members to launch 75 new groups. The church brought in Brett Eastman, who at the time coordinated small groups at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, to help with the effort.
Eastman challenged the group leaders to look at their cell phone contact lists and invite some of these friends and neighbors without a church home to join their small group.
Kalajainen knows of people who later joined Cornerstone because of those invitations.
“The answer is always no,” he said, “if you never ask.”
*Hahn is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter.
News contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.