When I arrived at my current call, it was clear there already had been a good amount of faithful energy directed towards the nebulous crowd that we call young adults. But now, the ministry was facing a crossroads. Weekly pub night and monthly intergenerational luncheons—the more programmatic aspects of the ministry– were waning, but the small group bible studies that had popped up more recently were on the upswing.
I can’t say whether that shift of energy was simply a shift towards the new or whether it is a symptom something larger. Regardless, I jumped on the bandwagon! I began to see our small groups as the focal point of our ministry to young adults. These groups provided the relational support of a Christian community for people who were often new to town because of a new job, educational opportunity or relationship. The small groups also provided the space to ask questions about the basics of our faith for people who were sometimes intimidated by other ministries of the church where they felt they might not know enough about theology or the bible to participate confidently.
So, obviously, as an eager young pastor I built up a plan to strengthen and multiply these groups. I hoped to develop leaders that would allow the program to grow. I knew those leaders would need support so I factored that in, thinking we would build a leadership team that I would mentor. I also hoped find us some better curriculum to follow, for my own theological integrity as well as at the request of the group members. In short—I tried to make a neat little program garden out of a wildflower ministry.
I didn’t make it very far.
Malcolm Gladwell writes in his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, “Sprinkled among every walk of life are a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack of making friends and acquaintances. They are Connectors.” What I discovered is that it is these connectors who drive small group ministry were not the traditional “bible-study-leader” types I thought I needed to find. The connectors are the people that I can text the day before a planned social event and they will not only show up but also bring five others along with them. These are the people who everyone seems to know. They spread the word about things they love as naturally as breathing. They are born inviters, and they are invaluable in building community.
Gradually I began to think not of sustaining distinct “programs,” like monthly socials or weekly study groups, but of creating a relational network.* Our network has two major hubs in each of our two bible studies and each group has its connectors who hold it together. Our connectors are the best at welcoming in newcomers and at reaching out into other ministries of the church to connect on a larger scale. By providing more space for these connectors to work their magic, we have seen a community spring up. Our network has grown to include people who might not even be a part of a small group but who often find themselves invited along to an informal after church lunch.
In this network, I serve mainly as an entry point and information provider. I intentionally reach out to build relationships with visitors and newcomers. Then I invite them in and sit them down next to a connector or two so that they become integrated into the network themselves. I even eventually got the better curriculum that I wanted—one of my connectors heard about a study another group in the church was doing and asked if we could do it too!
A talented pastor I know often says of youth ministry, another niche ministry of the church, “My goal is to have the youth so connected to the church that I work myself out of a job.” Neither of us is there yet, but maybe it’s not a bad concept to embrace.
* Many thanks to the thought of Carol Howard Merritt in her book Tribal Church and Landon Whitsitt in his book Open Source Church who were also influential in my thinking on this topic.
Caitlin Thomas Deyerle is a Lake Fellow Resident at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.