Not many people take a Sunday drive anymore. In fact, I'm not sure if anyone ever really took a Sunday drive. But as a child my father would refer to slow, clueless drivers as Sunday drivers. Sure, they were in a car, heading toward a destination, but they didn't have a clue what the destination was. They were just lollygagging down the road.
A lot of small groups are like Sunday drivers. They might enjoy the journey, but they don't know where they're heading and don't have much motivation to get to their destination in a timely fashion. In an effort to make space for all those Sunday driver small-group leaders, we're willing to call just about anything a small group. It doesn't matter if it's big or small, long-term or short-term, purposeful or purposeless - you can call anything a small group.
What a Small Group Is Not
However, if you want a vibrant, healthy small group you have to be intentional. You have to put some effort into it. You have to know where you're heading and have a plan on how to get there. And, at the most basic level, you have to know what a vibrant small group truly is. I like to start by examining what a vibrant small group is not.
Intense Bible Study or Class
If a group simply becomes an information dump or an academic pursuit you will quickly lose the point (and probably lose your members). I loved college. I am one of those weird people who enjoy a good lecture, a challenging book, and writing papers. But when I think back on what I loved most about college, it's people. It's the relationships that stand out 20 years later. If the small-group experience becomes an intense learning space where members are pupils and leaders are lecturers, you will miss the whole idea of community and family that the New Testament writers paint in vivid detail. Certainly the Bible should be part of the group—but if you develop Bible scholars who know the Word and don't live it, you've simply re-created the very Pharisees and Sadducees that plagued Jesus' ministry.
Other small groups swing to the opposite extreme from the intense Bible study. In fact, they are all process and no product. They are so relationally focused they don't accomplish much. They enjoy a good meal together, swap stories, and play games. Sure, it's fun to be part of the social club, but who has the time? In our over-stressed, over-scheduled world most people shed unnecessary responsibilities. And the social club will be the first to go. A good group challenges its members to grow to be like Christ, but the social club doesn't concern itself with that—which is a key reason it's not a healthy small group.
A Group of 12
I'm not sure when it happened but at some point in the last few decades the official number of small-group membership became 12. Perhaps it's because of the popularity of the number 12 in the Bible (12 tribes, 12 disciples …). If Jesus' team had 12, the reasoning goes, so should ours. Of course, Jesus' team had 13 since he was part of his own team, but that's a technicality. The truth is that you can have a vibrant small group with 3 or 30—it just depends on how you handle discussion time. So don't get hung up on the total group number.
I'm a huge fan of small groups meeting in homes. I think it follows the example we see in the New Testament. It's a comfortable place for most people to relax. It reinforces the number one metaphor of the church in the Bible: the family. That said, the Bible does not insist that groups meet in homes. In fact, the Bible clearly teaches that the setting doesn't matter as much as the heart of the people. Homes, classrooms, conference rooms, and coffee shops are all acceptable places to gather.
A Weekly Meeting
Every men's group I lead meets weekly. Other than a few weeks off for holidays or vacations, my group meets. Our relationships run deep, and our commitment is clear. My community group, though, is a different story. We'll meet every week for a month, shift to every other week for a while, or take a few weeks off if necessary. We schedule our gathering around our work, kids, and vacations. Certainly a group that meets infrequently risks losing its identity quickly. We have to work hard to keep up relationships. But we believe that the meeting frequency shouldn't feel like an obligation or chore. At the same time, it shouldn't it feel like a capricious, thrown-together meeting designed around the convenience of the group members.