The Sorting Hat Dilemma!

Sorting Hat

In J.K. Rowlings Harry Potter the new students at Hogwarts are sorted into houses by a talking ‘Sorting Hat’. Clever! If anyone has an issue, then don’t blame it on the faculty, blame it on the ‘Sorting Hat’!

On Sunday I received this anonymous question: ‘Can we please keep the same Home Group next year?’

Sure! Easy for me (Can’t believe we are already thinking about next year!). I love that you have enjoyed your Home Group so much this year that you would like more of that next year.

But before we lock that down, it may be helpful to consider some factors.

At the beginning of next year we have the strange task of sorting Home Groups again – placing newcomers and members in groups where they will study God’s Word, pray and support one another throughout the year.

Inevitably, this causes angst as members are torn between the safety and desire of being placed in the same group they were this year and the uncertainly and unfamiliarity of being placed with people they don’t know so well.

Staying in a group with those you know is great – deeper sharing, history and genuine love and care for those you know. Compare that with going into a group of strangers! A good argument for keeping all the groups the same.

Not so easy when other factors are added:

  • What about the groups where the leaders are finishing up or new leaders are stepping up?
  • What about the Home Groups which have not really worked this year?
  • What about newcomers?

The reality is that with the number of variables we have in operation at 5pm Church, it is next to impossible to keep the groups the same.

Let me suggest, that the angst and uncertainty that a new group causes is worth it in the long run and more, it is better for the gospel, and for our church fellowship.

What follows are some principles for sorting Home Groups.

Consider the small group of disciples which Jesus brought together. What a strange and eclectic group the twelve were! What must have been going through Jesus’ mind when he decided on these twelve to be his close confidantes – and to be the ones who would first witness to his resurrection? These twelve were called both disciples (c.f. Matt 10:1) and apostles (c.f. Mark 3:13-14). As disciples, the twelve were set aside as committed followers and witnesses of what Jesus accomplished whilst with them. As apostles, they were commissioned to represent and lead his church.

They were a diverse group – businessmen and fisherman: (Simon) Peter, Andrew, James and John; a tax collector: Matthew (Levi), a revolutionary: Simon the zealot, a disciple of John the Baptist: Phillip; Bartholomew, James (the younger), and Thaddaeus (who knows what they did), the skeptic Thomas, and Judas Iscariot who became the thief and betrayer and was replaced by Matthias as an apostle.

I wish we knew more about this merry band of brothers, but we cannot glean too much more from the gospel accounts. What is important is that they followed Jesus and it was in him that they were brought together, it was with him that they learnt the faith and it was because of him that they proclaimed the gospel.

We follow in their footsteps, because like them, we follow Christ. It should be because of Christ that we are brought together as a body at Church and at Home Group.

There are many factors which come together in the ‘sorting process’. If you have ever had to do the seating plan at a dinner function you would have an idea of what it is like – there are all sorts of agendas, preferences and situational factors which need balancing – not to mention the opinions of those who get placed in a group they were not expecting!

1. We are a gospel community and one which should be about connecting to the gospel.

This is paramount in my thinking. The spiritual health of the individuals who are at our Church will grow as we do business with God’s word – and so I want to place people in groups where they will be able to learn from the Word of God and most from people who are able to teach the Word of God. If I put all of the most experienced or mature Christians in the one group, then those who are younger in faith will not learn from those wise ones (as Titus 2 suggests). Downside – those most mature will probably not be placed in a group with the friends they know longest at church.

2. We are a community who welcomes newcomers.

Our social networks and friend groups are incredibly important. It is great to meet regularly with those we know best but unfortunately this does not help the newcomer who is trying to break into a group. If we do not give preference to the newcomer, then we are effectively saying that the newcomer has to do the work to break into our network. That is wrong and unloving. As an other-person centred community (which any Christian church should be), we need to ensure that we do the connecting with newcomers. What better way than at Home groups. And so in sorting the Home Groups, I want to ensure that newcomers are placed in groups where there will be others they might connect with – age, stage, job, gender are all factors which may help this. Downside – my default is not necessarily to put members with all their friends (because I figure there are plenty of other opportunities for friends to socially get-together).

3. Locations and Time and inevitable qualifiers.

People are not programs and I don’t want to push so hard on the structure that it totally inconveniences each individual. Although there are amazing saints in our congregation who are willing to travel wherever and go to a group whenever, it is important to try and consider where people live or work and what nights work best for them. As you might imagine, the variables here are huge and so this becomes one of the most important factors in the sorting process (or more realistically in the second or third phase of sorting – because the first sort highlights the issues!). The problem of course, is that this factor very often undoes the first two agendas – that is a shame.

4. Demographics do play a factor.

This is where our anthropology speaks louder than it should, but it is a factor. People like to be with others in the same life stage and age. This of course is not a factor in the new heaven where we are planning to spend our eternity, but in a church (especially a large one) it is a factor and can often be a helpful one. Again there are amazing saints in our church who are willing to be in groups where they can serve others regardless of whether there are people in the group in the same demographic. Each year, I have tried to ensure that Home Groups have a mix of married and single, men and women (with the exception of mid-week women’s Terrace Studies), profession or trade and age and stage.

5. Leadership matters.

We can be very thankful for the leaders that we have. Each week they prepare the studies, they play some part in pastorally caring for us, and they organise and communicate different aspects of our church life together. Each year we have folk step up into leadership and we have people step down from leadership. This inevitable leads to change in the groups.

Friends, I can assure you that Home Groups are wonderful – and the reason is because we have a wonderful God who gives us his wonderful Word and places us with people who are wonderfully made in his image (even if we don’t know them as well at the beginning of the year as we will at the end of the year!). I can further assure you that like the disciples, our differences might actually be a strength and will allow us to serve the gospel more broadly than we might otherwise – what is key, of course, is that we are drawn together because of Christ.

2 thoughts on “The Sorting Hat Dilemma!

  1. (this is possibly already done but not widely known)
    It seems that a compromise would be to 1/2 split the groups, move half the group around, allowing room for newcomers to be included, without feeling isolated because they weren’t in the group last year.
    & 1/2 the group remain constant providing some continuity to the home groups.
    Also by including a 2-3 yr rule ensures that within reason it will not be the same people moving groups every year and the others staying in the same group more than 3 years.


    • Hi Steve,

      Yeap – that is very helpful and the idea of doing half half will be helpful for next year (knowing there are the other variables mentioned in the article). As for rules, I am trying not to lead by making rules. Instead I deal with the realities and try make the best decisions for the gospel and for our 5pm Church family. Glad the Home Groups are such a highlight for so many.


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