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Small Groups at Parishes May Save Our Church

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A movement formed in 2005 by the Church of England and the Methodist Church called Fresh Expressions. It was also the Church of England that introduced Alpha in 1977. Alpha is widely used in our Catholic parishes as an effective way to invite people into the community. The idea is that through building a relationship, we also can forge trust and spark engagement.

Fresh Expressions introduces a new church concept formed by the group itself alongside a church rather than as an invitation to an established church or parish.

Again, [amen,] I say to you, if two or you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.  -- Matthew 18:19-20 
Small Group Movement

This new movement could be viewed as threatening to our Catholic church. But we have a long history of missions and models of church that are invitational. In our U.S. Church, we have the option to form small groups.

One example of small groups in action is how parishes have embraced Alpha to invite the community (Catholic, non-Catholic, de-Churched, and Non-Churched) to events that provide a venue for personal interaction. Is there also something we can learn from Fresh Expressions that could guide us?

On its website, Fresh Expressions US states: “We equip Christians to start contextual expressions of the church among the many segments, neighborhoods and people groups of society. A Fresh Expression is a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of those who are not part of any church.” 

That kind of statement shakes our Catholic sensibilities! And yet, isn’t this a recognition of our Apostolic times? In our beautiful, mystical Church, we are called to reach everyone with the Good News. Our vitality depends on the people in our parishes and our ability to attract those not in our parishes. 

Grow in Faith

As our parishes create a culture of missionary discipleship, we must find ways to accompany individuals in their personal faith journey. Data from Catholic Leadership Institute DiscipleMaker Index indicate that a surprisingly low percentage of our most active parishioners are growing in their faith, let alone their relationship with Christ.

To accompany our parishioners and also reach out to the community, our parish must act as a “parish of parishes” through groups that enable and support each other. This has long been true of parishes with significant ethnic groups. And now we see it is the way we can appeal to different age groups in various stages of conversion and faith formation. The small groups can be contextually relevant; they can allow the group to move at their own pace.

Gaining Interest

Parishes are actively exploring small groups to enable the missionary impulse in parishioners.  Even though the concept is not new, parishes do not have much experience with them. There are resources to help. Rebuilt has been holding a series of webinars on small groups, encouraging parishes to explore groups as ways for people to come together.

The webinars have featured pastors who are implementing small groups at their parishes. The level of interest from their parishioners is striking. Fr. Matthew Collins from Most Holy Trinity Parish in Wallingford, Conn., explained that the concept of the groups is easy to understand, but the actual experience and substance of the small groups takes time and open exploration.

Discipleship Quad

Franciscan University in Steubenville did extensive research on small groups, resulting in their offering called the Discipleship Quad. In their research, they observed that “many Catholics are without community and lack support in their faith journey. Many do not know what they believe, and even if they do, they may not be living out their beliefs or sharing them with others.” The Discipleship Quad is a group of four people who journey together. The offering from Franciscan is a 12-month accompaniment.

Small groups are a way to allow parishes to operate as many communities within one community, offering a sense of belonging to people in a way that cannot be achieved through a parish-wide push of programs or communications. In a way, small groups can operate as fresh expressions of our parish communities. 

Tech Resources

Technology can help. Resources such as MissionInsite provide the data about your community, which can help you identify which small groups might be needed for mission focus.  A platform like MinistryPlatform, designed with features for small groups, can offload staff so you have more time for personal ministry.

Small groups are a way for your parish to flourish. The groups can be more “hands, feet and eyes” of Christ, as St. Teresa of Avila might say. New lay leaders augment the parish staff, in exploration that moves at the pace of the group. Through the context of the parish, lay leaders can be guided in our Catholic faith, and offer the opportunity for deeper exploration of the Catholic faith.

To learn more about how MissionInsite can help you with small groups. Check out Tom Bandy’s whitepaper on How to Use MissionInsite for Small Group Ministry.

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Terry is a multi-disciplined executive who is passionate about serving the Church through supporting his leaders and organizations. His experience includes coaching and training Catholic leaders, facilitating priority planning with dioceses and parishes, consulting with parish leaders to engage parishioners, and using technology to foster stewardship. Terry serves as chairman of the finance council for his home parish in Hartsville, SC, and as cantor for his parish in Myrtle Beach. 

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