Feb 13, 2017


Making the most of 8 months: College Small Groups

We’re revisiting this article from Cole Penick, campus minister with the Arkansas BCM, who writes about the lifespan of college small groups and what should happen in each stage of their lives.

Every organism  has a lifespan. From twenty-four hours for the mayfly to hundreds of years for a whale. Whatever the timeframe, a certain sequence must be followed to avoid extinction. Shorter lifespans require more speed and intentionality.

The lifespan of your college small groups is just eight months. September 1st to May 1st, in most cases. In eight months they go from fledgling startups to healthy reproducers. But ultimately they end up just fond memories. Most small group analysis is written for a much longer life expectancy, which gives more room for error and delay. As college ministry leaders, we need to make the most of just eight months. That starts with recognizing how each stage is different.

STAGE ONE: Infancy
Timeframe: September and October
Characteristics: Frailty and a flurry of activity
Focuses: Growth, Introductions, and Language Accusation

We have a newborn in our house. I have to give him lots of attention, be willing to stay up late, and put up with dirty diapers to make sure he grows as he should. Small groups start frail (just two members in most cases) and without lots of extra effort they may not survive. Most small groups can’t launch with only a few “Bible Study Meets Here” posters in the dorm and a couple text messages. Small group leaders have to be willing to put in the legwork to meet potential members, follow up with them, and risk the “dirty diapers” of rejection. This increased level of activity gives new members the chance to feel known by the leaders and other members. Freshmen don’t know what’s cool yet and constantly feel the need to prove themselves. Helping them feel known and included is the first step toward opening them up to all that your small group will offer. This process will accelerate as they pick up the disciple-making language within your ministry culture.

STAGE TWO: Adolescence
Timeframe: November and December
Characteristics: Awkwardness
Focuses: Community Building and Rhythm

Middle school was awkward for everyone. During puberty, you start to develop healthy adult characteristics but don’t yet have the wisdom or experience to use them perfectly. The second phase in the life of college small group is similar. The hectic pace of infancy is over but the awkward work of norming is next. These groups have been together long enough to build a small rhythm but not long enough to have built the deep community necessary to be on mission together. This can be especially hard on sophomore small group leaders who struggle not to contrast the relative shallowness of this November to the rich depth of the community they experienced last April. But consistent community building and time will cure this drought.

STAGE THREE: Full Maturity
Timeframe: January, February, and March
Characteristics: Healthy and Missional
Focuses: Raising up new leaders and Transferring DNA

This is the sweet spot for college ministry small groups. They have spent enough time together to be past norming and into performing. Their brand new spring schedules add lots of new time to do life and mission together. This is also the perfect time to identify faithful, available, teachable, and hungry students who could be raised up as leaders. Invite them into more responsibility within the group and challenge them to grow as disciple-makers. In the shortened lifespan of the college small group, there are just a few more months to transfer spiritual DNA to next year’s leadership. To compensate, increase the amount of time spent together and never miss a chance to press spiritual DNA deeper into their lives. Be sure to focus on the “dull and obvious.” Often we’re too busy trying to replicate all of the clever uniquenesses about what we do that we fail to transfer the most basics hows and whys.

Characteristics: Multiplication
Focuses: Release, Celebrate, and Mourn

Now it may seem depressing to speak of your groups’ impending dooms but actually it’s very necessary. It pushes your current leaders to finish strong while encouraging future leaders to take on the mantle of reaching your campus. Just like everything else in a short lifespan, it should be done with intentionality. Finishing the semester with a commissioning celebration solidifies the calling of the new leadership across the gulf that is summer break. It gives everyone a chance to mourn the end of the group, to celebrate what God did that year, and releases leaders into the work of starting new groups the next semester.

College ministries can’t rely on unintentional rhythms to produce multiplying small groups in just eight months. Right now is the perfect time to press the DNA of reaching the next crop of freshmen through small groups into this crop of freshmen. Remember the old saying, “When an old man dies, the library burns.” The only solution is to pass all of the wisdom to the next generation, even if that generation is only one year behind in school.

What are the lifespans of your small groups?

How do you help students lead in each stage?

about the author

Cole Penick

Cole is the Campus Minister for the Baptist Collegiate Ministry at the University of Arkansas. He and his wife, Caroline, live with their four adorable children right in the middle of campus, their mission field. They enjoy family walks on campus, watching and playing sports, making and eating good food, and oh so many books.