It takes personal relationships to earn the right to speak into someone’s life, it takes time to develop these personal relationships, and they are impossible to form within the four walls of the church during weekly services, so an approach must be found to use in the church’s endeavor to turn disciples into disciple makers.
For many churches, the answer has been found in small groups. Since every church is different, there will be diverse models, which correlate to the DNA of each church, but the premise behind all the models is you are either going to be a church “with” small groups, a church “of” small groups, or a church that “is” small groups.
As a new disciple is produced, they carry with them, in essence, genetic markers specific to their conversion experience, so making sure they are involved in proper discipleship and a small group is crucial in reproducing healthy disciples who will continue to share the same saving knowledge, love, and support they received. Too many believers think coming to faith is the finish line, but it is merely the beginning of the race to save humanity through faith in Christ.
With that understanding, this paper will explain this writer’s philosophy of small groups in general and in the context of Generations United’s ministry as well as the importance of relational groups in authentic disciple making. Because relationships are essential in the disciple making process, this paper will also show how missional groups can help the body of Christ move out into the community fulfilling the Great Commission. Lastly, this paper will demonstrate how to live within a community with other believers, while also maintaining a missional mindset inside that community.
PHILOSOPHY OF SMALL GROUPS
As Rick Warren said, “A church must grow larger and smaller at the same time. Larger through worship and smaller through small groups [And] when Jesus started His ministry, the very first thing He did was form a small group.” As Harley Atkinson demonstrates:
As the apostles proceeded to carry out the Great Commission, they utilized a two-fold approach of meeting in the temple courts for large-group meetings and in the homes for more intimate small-group encounters. Very quickly, the house church became the definitive expression of church in the early Christian movement. In the wake of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys, numerous churches sprang up and virtually all of the New Testament churches mentioned in the letters of Paul were in private homes. The house church remained the most significant context for early church worship, fellowship, and Christian education up to the early part of the fourth century, when Constantine legitimized Christianity.
Between the three small group options, a church “with” small groups is not a model that bears much fruit because the group acts detached from the vision and mission of the church, with no oversight from any staff member. Over time, these groups also tend to crystalize, preventing new people from joining and they also become more relational instead of being missional during their existence. Despite good intentions, even if they were started about the Father’s business, they end up just satisfying individual needs.
A church “of” small groups is intentional about getting people plugged into a group ministry as soon as possible. This group strategy has proven effective because they are connected to the church through a pastor and they carry the vision and the mission of the church as their ethos. The challenge in finding the right philosophy has to do with balance as Larry Osbourne proposes, “A group needs to be small enough that everyone has a chance to contribute, but large enough that no one feels forced to speak up or share more than they want to.” In addition, as Carl George suggests, “A healthy small group consists of people at various spiritual levels and must be led by a leadership nucleus.” As a result, this writer contends this system “of” small groups is the best system for most churches to strive for.
The final system is a church that “is” small groups and this is a complex system of groups that generally meets in their member’s homes, but is still connected to a senior pastor or point person in the organization. Perhaps the best example of this model is Larry Stockstill’s Bethany Church in Baton Rouge, LA who believes small groups are, “A group of people who have laid down their personal agendas to work together as a team and that as the relational “cauldron” heats up in a cell, the “scum” rises to the top [And is able to] be removed. It may not sound pretty, but it sure is healthy.” At one point in time, as Dave Earley discovered during his investigation of “cell groups,” “[Bethany had] more than six hundred cell groups and was growing like wild fire.”
As Joshua Knabb suggests, “Within the contemporary Christian church, community is heavily emphasized and encouraged. Drawing from the Acts of the Apostles, Christians are to, among other things, fellowship with one another, disciple one another, minister to those in need, evangelize, and worship together.” At Generations United, we have developed a small group system centered on care. The vision and mission of this church is rooted out of love, acceptance, and forgiveness to ensure that no one has to fight alone. With this mindset, we set out to place a leader over four to six families so when a need arose, that family or individual had someone to reach out to putting a cord of three not being easily broken to the test. The program has been in existence for just over a year now and we are already seeing the benefits. More people are becoming members so they can be involved in this ministry, we are finding out about more needs allowing the church to meet them, and we are putting action behind our vision and mission. As Knabb’s research showed, “Groups that scored higher on Care, i.e., loving one another and treating each other like a family, were more likely to add members to the group; whereas those who scored lower on Care had a smaller growth rate” and we are seeing the same results.
IMPORTANCE OF RELATIONAL GROUPS IN DISCIPLE MAKING
As Jim Putnam illustrates, “The relational group forms the backbone for discipleship [And] the key is that the small group’s purpose is defined as encouraging discipleship – not primarily fellowship or counseling or even outreach.” From the beginning, the nature of the small group must be defined because if this is not established it opens the door for the group to constantly be in transition and lacking purpose. Granted, each group starts at the relational level, but must strive to evolve into fulfilling some part of the vision and mission of the church they are attached too, unless they are using some version of the church “is” model. Over the last decade, there has been considerable literature geared towards small group ministry and as Knabb illustrates, “Several themes permeate this growing literature base for lay audiences, including a biblical emphasis both on deepening relationships within small groups and on utilizing small groups to further the Kingdom of God and become more like Christ. Thus, small groups play a central role in relational development within the contemporary Body of Christ.”
Putnam identifies the leader of the group as a shepherd with the primary goal of, “Creating an environment in which people shepherd one another [And] in the end, he [or she] seeks to teach the group’s members to become shepherds themselves in their families and in future groups they may lead.” Being relational is all about doing life together and that means helping strengthening the weak, caring and praying for the sick, and sharing one another’s burdens much like Jesus did during His ministry. Members of a small group are in essence a spiritual family where teaching takes place and where authenticity and accountability run deep. These traits make it possible for people to feel safe in the group setting while also allowing one another to speak truth and life into individuals without our natural human defenses going up. John Baergen adds that:
When stripped of their masks (and we of ours), there is invariably an underlying longing for connection. Loneliness stalks Christians and non-Christians alike. Belonging to a church provides no guarantee against this deep sense of aloneness. In reality, this does not occur in the Sunday worship service nor does it automatically transpire in smaller settings such as Sunday school or small group Bible studies. Small groups don’t simply happen; they require careful, intentional planning. Healthy small groups will share a similar profile of characteristics as they focus on questions and needs that are real to the participants.
Whether your church uses the “of” model, or the “is” model, Dr. Rod Dempsey offers great advice pertaining to building and maintaining healthy small groups and he stresses the importance of the why and who more than the what and where when dealing with relational small group discipleship. To be successful and relational, Dempsey offers the acronym “SMALL GROUPS” to highlight each trait or characteristic, which are imperative:
Secure God’s vision in fulfilling the Great Commission by enacting the Great Commandment while also engaging the entire body of Christ in the vision.
Make sure the senior pastor is in the lead position casting the vision and the group is part of the team working towards the same common goal. Without the support and backing of leadership, small group ministry is doomed to fail.
Adopt the model that fits who you are and where you are. This means you must understand the history of your church, location, and context, while also discovering and recognizing the DNA of the organization.
Leader training is essential as well as learning to recruit, empower, and deploy. Jerry Falwell said it best, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” Critical to the success of every small group are the qualifications of the leader because it is up to the leaders of the church to find capable people who, with a little help, can discover their giftings and put them to use. The training process should be a fun positive experience if done correctly, because you are not imposing or forcing someone outside their comfort zone; you are simply helping them develop the gifts God has already given them through the indwelling of the Spirit.
Launch the groups with the ultimate goal being groups forming new groups, as members become leaders through the discipleship process. This is a sink or swim moment, so making sure you set the ministry up for success is critical. Public relations, marketing, and recruiting are essential is this process and must be ongoing to ensure the survivability of the ministry.
Grow the groups in quality as well as quantity and make sure the group is lead by a strong leader or is overseen by a mentor who can act as a coach. Quantity and quality are not an either or; they are a both and status quo, so you must not sacrifice one for the sake of the other. Initially quantity is what everyone gauges success on and while quantitative growth is important, so is the qualitative aspect.
Reward the right behavior and continually retrain the leaders, while also understanding you cannot bring correction without first bringing instruction. By focusing on the good rather than the bad, you are encouraging future good behavior. Stressing the importance of having regular meeting times is also critical, so people can get used to meeting regularly every week or at the least twice a month.
Over-communicate the vision of the church to the small group so the end result is believers who know Christ, grow in Christ, and then go forth in Christ’s name proclaiming the good news. This process begins by opening God’s word, spending time in prayer, and meditating on what God is truly calling you to do. It is a pleasure to be involved in something especially when you know what is going on and even more so if you were involved from the inception. Lack of communication has destroyed everything from fortune 500 companies all the way down to small groups, so it is imperative to stay in constant contact with your leaders and members so they can continually feel the pulse of your vision and mission.
Utilize and develop coaches while also being united in serving is fundamental to showing members their role in the group and also by embodying how Jesus came to serve and not be served. As a general rule in life, you should always have someone in your circle who is less mature in faith who you can personally help grow and you should also have someone in your life who is more mature in faith who can help you grow by serving as a mentor. Tom Landry said it best, “Coaches make you do what you do not want to do, so that you can achieve what you have always wanted to achieve.”
Pray for one another, pray together, and use your interaction as a catalyst to fuel the mission God has called you to fulfill. Also, pray for the lost, the members in your church, your leaders, and for opportunities to share the Gospel and what God has done in your life personally. God answers prayers, so prayer must be vital in your small group ministry.
See God’s blessing in recognizing as you fulfill the Great Commission, God promises He will be with us as we make disciples.
These goals and initiatives form the umbrella of a healthy group and while the list is not exhaustive, it is a great starting point for those wanting to transform their small group ministry. Baergen also demonstrates:
Healthy churches know the fundamental difference of viewing small groups as one of many ministries of the church or as the basic building blocks of the church. When small groups are viewed only as a ministry, it becomes obvious the church does not understand that life-change occurs in small groups. Natural Church Development states, “The essence of true church is worked out in small groups.” When small groups are fully valued, pastors of healthy churches agree it is actually “more important … for people to be involved in a small group than to attend church.” That places small groups in proper perspective.
HOW TO USE MISSIONAL GROUPS IN THE COMMUNITY
This writer agrees with Steve Sjorgren that, “Every small group or church needs to have some form of evangelism going on in order to maintain health.” However, as Joel Comiskey highlights, “Small-group ministry constantly faces a dilemma: maintaining the intimacy of a small group while fulfilling Christ’s command to evangelize [with] the ultimate goal of each cell [being] to multiply itself as the group grows through evangelism and then conversions.” Ultimately, using missional groups in the community must first start with prayer and sound spiritual disciplines. Praying about what God is calling you and your group to do must be the priority because as Donald Whitney illustrates, “To abandon prayer is to fight the battle with our own resources at best, and to lose interest in the battle at worst.” As believers, we must continue steadfastly in prayer and pray without ceasing so that the line of communication with God is never broken. Dave Earley demonstrates, “After 25 years of leading small groups and coaching small group leaders, I have come to one clear conviction: prayer is the most important activity of the small group leader.”
Perhaps the best example in scripture of being mission minded in the community comes from the parable of the Good Samaritan. Just prior to this story, we are presented with an expert scholar attempting to perplex Jesus by asking, “Who is my neighbor.” Instead of answering the man’s question directly with a response to who his neighbor was, Jesus told the man what a neighbor was, He responded with what the neighbor needs, He told him what a neighbor looks like, and then He said, “Go and be a neighbor.” This story is so powerful because at the time the Jews hated and despised the Samaritans calling them half-breeds and would intentionally go out of their way to avoid traveling through Samaria. The art of community and God’s radical design to love your neighbor flows directly from His nature and it is from the heart of God that the Great and New Commandment resonate. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap. The lowly He sets on high, and those who mourn are lifted to safety. Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise, says the Lord and I will protect them from those who malign them. He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; He will crush the oppressor. Though the Lord is on high, He looks upon the lowly, but the proud He knows from afar. God has a heart for the needy and He will always arise to protect them.
A great modern example of loving your neighbor is a paradigm shift that is taking place in South Africa where Jurgens Hendriks demonstrates how:
Congregations in South Africa empower [their members] to become involved in development work as a way of serving their neighbor. It also opens the possibility of working interdisciplinary without compromising theological and faith values… The new paradigm is a missional one, taking the focus on God as its point of departure and describing the identity and purpose of the church by looking at God’s identity and plan or mission with creation and humankind. Social development is seen, as being in line with God’s mission and as such the church should not have difficulty in working with those who pursue the same goals.
Part of understanding your community and how to be intentional in your missional focus comes from understanding who the needy are and how you can meet their needs. God hears the cries of the needy, even if they remain silent, so we must continually be looking for: orphans, widows, the poor, the sick, the unpopular, the outcasts, the neglected, and those who are left out because you can destroy someone’s’ life when you treat them like an outcast and the heart of God weeps for them. Christianity has already changed the world and it still has the power to continue doing so, but not until believers become active in evangelizing their communities. C.S. Lewis demonstrates how, “There are no ordinary people [and] you have never talked to a mere mortal…[because everyone is either an immortal horror or an everlasting splendor.]” Regardless of whether people believe it or not, they are going to have everlasting life; where they spend it rests solely on whether they have a relationship with God, so it is imperative in our mission to be Christ-like in order to love others to the same saving knowledge we have attained. Lewis believed, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
LIFE IN COMMUNITY WITH A MISSIONAL PUROSE
Jeffrey Arnold believes, “A small group is intent on participating with Christ in building his ever-expanding kingdom in the hearts of individuals, in the life of the group and, through believers, into the world.” The sad reality is the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few and the only way this dilemma will change is when missional groups become focused on making an impact in their local communities. Week after week, we go to church waiting for people just to wake up and decide today is the day they are finally going to go to church. This mindset is nothing more than a façade! For our communities to change, we as the body of Christ need to be active in showing the love, grace, and mercy of Christ to those in our own backyards. This only happens when as believers, we are intentional in making sure all we do and all we say is centered on bringing glory to God. The people in our lives should see Christ in us, but unfortunately because evangelism has barely made the radar in discipleship, the world knows more what the church is against than what we are for.
Seeing Christ in us is a mystery that Dietrich Bonhoeffer brilliantly explains as, “Our human eyes see Jesus the human being; faith knows Him as the Son of God. Our human eyes see the body of Jesus; faith knows him as the body of God incarnate. Our human eyes see Jesus in the flesh; faith knows him as bearing our flesh.” Understanding this depiction, Martin Luther would say, “To this human being you shall point and say, ‘Here is God’” If those in our life do not see something in our lives that they want, in most cases, then we are not living a life which reflects the image of Christ. Bonhoeffer further explains, “The body of the exalted Lord is likewise a visible body, taking form [in] the church-community… [And] a body lacking differentiation is in the process of decomposition.” As a result, our spirit, our reactions, our wants, and desires should represent the salt and light in this dark world. The definition of darkness is the absence of light, so the only way darkness can overtake people, communities, and nations is either when we as the body of Christ hide the light, or when Jesus ultimately removes the lampstand.
As Christopher Beard suggests, “The missional church movement has emerged as a voice calling for a return to the church’s inherent missionary nature and identity. As a part of that call, “discipleship” has been identified as the key to success of the movement as well as the success of the Western church as a whole.” One of the key components missing in most discipleship models is teaching believers how to make an impact in their neighborhoods, at their workplace, and in their daily interactions. Every day there are countless opportunities to speak truth and life into the people’s lives around us, but until we are intentional in how we conduct our lives, we will never earn the right to. We have to be willing to pay the price to earn the right to enter into a conversation about how Jesus loves us and how Jesus loves them. Beard suggests, “Missional discipleship is the experiential process of identity formation which results in a disciple who exhibits tangible evidence of mission, community, and obedience in his or her life.” This is the heart of what life in a community with a missional purpose is all about and Ralph Neighbour illustrates why the early church was so successful using homes as their base for ministry:
There is a very important reason for the early church to be shaped in homes. It is in this location that values are shared. It may be possible to transmit information in a neutral building, but few values are implanted there. Value systems are ingrained through living together in a household. Something stirs deep within when life is shared between the young and old, the strong and the weak, the wise and the foolish. In the house groups, all participated and all were impacted by the values of the others as Christ lived within them.
Small groups are all about relationships and it takes personal relationships to earn the right to speak into someone’s life and it also takes time to develop these personal relationships. Because these relationships are impossible to form within the four walls on the church during weekly services, small groups have become the ministry most churches are turning to. Since every church is different, this paper has detailed you are either going to be a church “with” small groups, a church “of” small groups, or a church that “is” small groups. As a new disciple, proper discipleship and being involved in a small group is crucial in reproducing healthy disciples. As demonstrated, everyone is our neighbor; this means the people we like, the people we dislike, and even the people who hate us. Jesus died on the cross for all of humanity, He gave his life even for the people who spat on Him, beat Him, and crucified Him. If He can forgive and love us, the least we can do is love and forgive our neighbors as ourselves. Lastly, maintaining a missional mindset in everything we do will keep us focused on fulfilling our purpose and destiny and it is through this process where we will find true joy, peace, and happiness. Baergen reminds us, “Where aloneness, disconnection and fragmentation define life, small groups offer the opportunity for a life-changing connection. Acts 2:46-47 sums this up: ‘They broke bread from house to house and ate together with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people’” and now as Banks stresses, “The challenge to the early Christians was to redeem a network of existing relationships; our challenge is… to create community where little has existed before.”
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Putnam, Jim, Bobby Harrington, and Robert E. Coleman, Discipleshift: Five Steps That Help Your Church to Make Disciples Who Make Disciples. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013.
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