Many churches have some form of housegroup structure. They may be called by other names - Homegroups, Midweek Groups, Cell Groups, and so on - but they all share many of the same benefits and problems.
There is a great deal of useful literature and training material available on the subject of housegroups. The purpose of this document is to provide a brief introduction and overview of the topic, to put the more specific training into context.
It is hard for the housegroups to be successful if the people in the housegroups - and especially the leaders! - do not understand their purpose and role. Sadly, after talking with people from many different churches, it seems that this is far too often the case.
There are various benefits to be gained from the kind of systematic support for housegroups being described here.
What is a housegroup? In Biblical terms, there is only one possible answer: it is a church that meets in someone's home.
|A housegroup is a church that meets in a home.|
By 'church' I mean, of course, a bunch of people that are committed to following Jesus, committed to each other, and committed to the wider church.
As a church, the housegroup must have the same five priorities that every church is supposed to share (mission, prophecy, evangelism, pastoral care and teaching) so that its members can grow to maturity together.
The housegroup must like every church, discover how to embody those five priorities in a way that is appropriate for the unique individuals that comprise the group, in their unique circumstances.
Following Jesus means that we are totally committed to building the Kingdom of God. Building the Kingdom and building disciples (bringing every member to maturity) are not alternatives, but two sides of the same coin. The only way to grow as a Christian is to follow Jesus in His mission to make the Kingdom of God a reality here and now, by using the unique personality and gifts God has given you, and as part of the body He has placed you in.
Just as every church and every housegroup has the same mission, it is equally the case that every church and every housegroup is unique. It is a paradox of the Christian life: the more we become like Jesus, the more we become ourselves and unlike each other.
Churches vary in the details of housegroup organisation, but one feature is consistent: each housegroup has a significant degree of autonomy. To put it another way: housegroup leadership is real leadership. As a housegroup leader, you are responsible for the people in your group.
What does it mean to say you are 'responsible' for the people in your group? Clearly, it is a relative, not an absolute responsibility. It involves a variety of tasks, such as understanding where your people are, hearing what God wants to do with each individual and the group as a whole, and initiating whatever is needed to see His will made a reality for the group and the people in it - the leader included. Of course, there are always boundaries within which you are expected to operate, and these need to be clearly agreed with the congregational leadership. The key point is that a housegroup leader must act as a leader, and not just as a follower carrying out the instructions passed down from on high.
Housegroups are a vital part of church life, possibly the single most important part. The congregational leaders must be totally committed to the housegroups and their leaders. This commitment must be worked in ways that are both practical and obvious to the congregation - otherwise they won't understand the commitment of the leadership to the housegroups.
If the congregation understands that the housegroups are a vital aspect of the way in which God works in and through the church, housegroups will be given the prominence and priority they require. If it appears that the housegroups are ignored or sidelined by the congregational leadership, they will find it very hard to function as God intended.
It goes without saying that the congregational leadership should all be in housegroups. If at all possible, they should not be leading any of the housegroups - it is almost impossible to give the time and energy a housegroup needs if you are also responsibe for the whole congragation.
The congregational leaders must agree a policy on the amount of autonomy the housegroups are allowed to have. It is vital that this is clearly understood by all the leaders - congregational and housegroup - and almost as vital that it is written down in a simple and clear way and circulated to all the leaders.
Many of the common problems with housegroups happen because of confusion or inconsistency in this area. The congregational leaders and housegroup leaders share responsibility for the housegroups. If the manner of the sharing is not understood, you will find there are times when nobody acts because each group thinks the other is responsible and doing something, and times when the two groups act in contradictory ways because they both think they are responsible.
There will usually be some people within the congregation who cannot attend a housegroup but still need to be cared for, possibly by means of regular visits. There are several ways of organising care for these people, and one way is for the housegroups to share responsibility between them.
One serious problem in many churchs is that they fail to care properly for the housegroup leaders. This will not happen without concentrated and deliberate effort. Most of the time, leaders are working flat out on coping with problems and crises, or developing new plans and programmes - sustaining existing structures tends to take a lower priority and hence become neglected.
Support for housegroups must be expressed in a few key ways.
Housegroups cannot play their part in church life without effective and sustained communication. The following approaches have been found to be helpful.
Each congregation needs a small team to provide oversight of the housegroups. For some, the congregatiional leadership will carry this responsibility, but in many situations it is better for the responsibility to be delegated to another team. This team should include at least one member of the congregationaal leadership, and many or all of the members should have been housegroup leaders in the past.
The housegroup oversight team will make the health of the housegroups their primary responsibility. It is hard to maintain this level of interest in housegroups within a leadership group that is generally involved in many different issues and priorities concerning the congregation as a whole.
The housegroup oversight team will aim to keep in touch with all the housegroups on a regular basis, to know what they are doing and not doing, who is attending and not attending, and how a representative number of people feel about their housegroups.
They should be able to alert housegroup leaders to potential problems before they happen - at least, some problems some of the time. They should be able to talk with the housegroup leaders about their groups in an informed way, and to ask usful and relevant questions wen they meet the housegroup leaders.
They should, of course, be in housegroups, but not leading them, and they should not be expected to provide support for their own housegroup leader.
The housegroup oversight team will do their best to help new people find which group they will best fit into, help the housegroups with any planning or reorganisation where needed, and do their best to ensure that the meetings with the Elders are used as fully as possible.
Members of the housegroup oversight team must be given specific responsibility for the housegroups and their leaders. In general, it is helpful for this responsibility to be shared between two or three of the leaders: more than one, as you can be sure that not everybody will respond to the same personality and style of care, and rarely more than three, otherwise coordination of the housegroup care becomes too unwieldy.
In particular, these leaders are responsible for pastoral care of the housegroup leaders, not of the people in the housegroups. Of course, any request for help with people in the group should be responded to, but the idea is to help the housegroup leaders in their leadership of the group, not to take the job away from them. The form and extent of the contact should be negotiated between the team and the housegroup leaders.
There are many training resources are available to help people become better housegroup leaders. Some of these are specific (intended for an audience of actual or potential housegroup leaders), but much of it is generic (looking at skills and issues which are important to many people other than housegroup leaders). Types of training include:
There is a danger that the meeting can become the focus of housegroup life, rather than an expression of it. But a regular meeting is one key element for any successful housegroup.
Some form of planning is needed, but the plans can be flexible, and you do not have to follow the same format every evening. It is difficult to give enough time to everything in one evening - worship, sharing, study, prayer, planning and so on - so you may wish to emphasise some aspects more on some occasions, and the remaining aspects on other occasions.
In many churches, the primary function of the housegroup is seen as pastoral care. However, pastoral care is only one aspect of the more basic purpose, which is discipleship.
All the members of the church need to be growing. They all need to be exercising their gifts, serving one another, discovering practical ways to express God's love. Everyone has a vital contribution to make, and this contribution is often made in the context of the housegroup. People grow as the give, as they act, as they contribute, as they see God answering prayer, as they love.
Everyone also needs to be growing in their understanding, and the housegroup provides a unique and safe environment in which people can ask questions and explore issues which affect their everyday lives.