They say the “right” thing.

“Sunday morning isn’t the main event. The real ministry happens in our small groups.”

“Life change happens in circles, not in rows.”

More ministry leaders are arriving at an intellectual or spoken conclusion that effective ministry is relational. They may say that person-to-person interaction leads to far more spiritual growth than a speech from the pulpit. But do their actions really support this notion?

I’ve heard pastors from high-profile mega-churches tout the ultimate ministry payoff through their small groups. And I’ve heard youth pastors boast about the number of small groups they’ve started. But a closer examination of their weekly priorities may tell a different story.

Though many verbally acknowledge the value of their relational ministries, they devote very little of their time or attention to these ministries. Though they may say people ultimately gain more from conversations and interactions with others than from their sermons, they spend 30 hours in sermon prep–and 15 minutes in small group prep.

It’s often said you can accurately determine people’s real priorities by examining two things–their wallet and their schedule. So, what might a church’s financial and staff time commitments tell us about the church’s true priorities? How much time and resources are devoted to small group involvement and other relational ministries–vs. what is devoted to the Sunday morning service?

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

While working on an upcoming documentary film on the state of the church in America, I ran across a church in Louisiana that pays more than lip service to its relational ministries. The pastor, Wayne Northup, regularly lays out the priorities for the congregation–using the metaphor of a meal.

Notice the emphasis here. He names the Sunday morning service the Appetizer, “a place where you can get your taste buds going.” The Main Course, however, is small group involvement.

And he’s very sincere about the weighting of this meal. Wayne devotes major chunks of his time and attention to the Main Course. All small group leaders go through 16 weeks of training–on group dynamics, leadership, care-giving, theology, and personal growth. They’re required to read five books and do multiple practical assignments.

The real work of ministry happens within these little mini-congregations. They care for one another, discuss the Bible, celebrate birthdays and anniversaries together, help one another with residential moves, engage in community service, handle personal crises, and make hospital calls. Group leaders and members are accountable for outreach, discipleship, group multiplication, and prayer support.

They are the church, the Body of Christ.