What do these things have in common: work in the morning, an assignment, a girlfriend in town, a football game, a sick pet, a new puppy, a drinking party with mates, a Christmas craft project and an eBay bid? They’re all reasons people have given for not coming to growth group, according to a quick survey of the staff team at our church. Do any of them sound familiar? Have you heard (or said) them yourself?
We’ve all missed growth group now and then for various reasons, but sometimes people seem to be absent as often as present. Pastoring such irregular group members is one of the most common challenges of group leading. We want to love and encourage our group members, but that’s hard if they don’t come! We know there can be excellent reasons for not coming to group, and we want to be generous in our assumptions, but some people are so irregular and miss group for such dubious reasons that we wonder about their commitment. What can we do?
A good starting point is to remind ourselves of some key biblical truths. Firstly, the Bible is clear that it is good and necessary to gather as Christians for mutual encouragement. Hebrews 3:13 calls on us to “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today’, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin”. We see here that the danger of sin is very real, so therefore gathering is necessary! Obviously growth group isn’t a daily thing but it’s not something we’d want to drop. So as leaders it’s right that we care about people gathering and committing to each other.
Secondly, the Bible calls us to show love towards our irregular group members rather than resentment. It’s tempting to become bitter about people who are frequently away, but according to 1 Corinthians 12:31 love is the more excellent way. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 tells us that love is patient and kind, not irritable or resentful, and it bears all things. Having irregular group members gives us a great opportunity to apply this verse to ourselves!
Thirdly, the Bible tells us that ministry is hard. In 2 Timothy 2:6 Paul compares a pastor to a hard-working farmer. I’m a soft-handed urban pastor, but I know a few farmers and how hard they work! If ministry is like farm work then there’s no reason to think leading a growth group would be easy. So the struggles of pastoring irregular group members are not unusual. They’re just part of the normal, hard, shepherding work we’re supposed to do.
With these things in mind, what can we do to love and encourage our group members?
The first thing is prayer. We know in our heads that God cares for his people, is all-powerful, and loves to answer our prayers, so it’s important that we demonstrate that conviction by praying for our group members. Pray for their maturity, perseverance, and that they’d commit to the group.
The second thing is to find out what’s happening in their lives. We can usually get some ideas from text messages, but this is minimal. It’s much better to arrange a one-to-one catch up, or speak with them at church. A good verse to have in mind as you do this is 1 Thessalonians 5:14: “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all”.
This verse reminds us that there are different reasons why people might be irregular. Which category does your group member fit? Are they idle or lazy in regard to their Christian growth and commitment to church? Are they fainthearted or easily discouraged? Are they experiencing weakness such mental or physical illness, or difficult financial circumstances? Perhaps there’s more than one of these things going on. A simple starting question might be something like: “I’ve noticed you haven’t been at growth group much this term. Could you tell me more about what’s been going on?” Hopefully they will be honest with you and you can get a better idea of why they’re not coming regularly. Notice also that this verse, like 1 Corinthians, speaks about patience. In this case we are to be “patient with everyone”. If you’re anything like me this is definitely something to pray for in advance!
The third thing when pastoring irregular group members is to actually do something that helps them attend more. 1 Thessalonians 5:14 is again helpful here. It shows us that what we do depends on the individual situation.
If people are in that first category of being idle or lazy, we need to gently admonish or rebuke them. For example, if they’re prioritizing things such as sport or television, you can challenge them to value growing with God’s people. If they’re caught up in sin and are beginning to avoid other Christians, you can point out that what they’re doing is sinful and foolish and they need to change. Obviously this is not easy! Nearly everyone finds rebuking someone hard. If you’re feeling nervous or hesitant, you should ask your pastor for some advice, wisdom and encouragement.
If your group member is faint hearted or easily discouraged, then 1 Thessalonians tells us to encourage them. You could do this by sending a text or phone call on the day of growth group saying that you’d love to see them there. You could also arrange for another person to give them a lift and generally look out for them during growth group. Encouragement is a long-term project, but it’s a ministry other people in your group can share with you.
If your group member fits in the category of being ‘weak’ then according to 1 Thessalonians what they need is help. The sort of help you and the group offers will depend on what sort of weakness the person is experiencing, but this could include things like going with them to a doctor or counsellor, providing a meal on the night to make things easier for them, or helping them arrange child care for when growth group is on. Small things like this can go a long way towards helping people make it to group.
In all this you should remember that you’re part of a team and your pastor is keen to help and encourage you in this ministry. You should let your pastor know if someone in your group isn’t coming along very much. They can pray for you and that person, and help you figure out the right steps to take. If, despite your efforts, someone becomes so irregular as to be virtually absent, it would be wise to hand responsibility for that person back to your pastor to see what they can do.
Hopefully, through these steps and regular prayer you’ll see change in your irregular group member. And it does happen! Each year I hear great stories of people coming more frequently to growth group and consequently growing and serving more. I’ve known several irregular group members who have gone on to be wise and faithful group leaders within a few years.
Pastoring irregular group members is a common challenge when leading. Thankfully, we have a great God who cares for his people even more than we do. So be prayerful, patient and persevere in the hard work of ministry.