Summary: People attend small groups because they’re starving for Kingdom community. But, Kingdom community can’t be manufactured. It must be developed. Most small groups never grow into Kingdom communities because they’re never trained in how to do so.
One of the church’s common answers these days to how someone can grow in Christ is “get into a small group.” Finally, we’ve admitted the church service is of little value. In fact, many churches have so totally given up on the church service model that a buzz-phrase that has gone around for a while now among administrators in these types of churches is “We’re not a church with small groups, we’re a church of small groups.”
Basically, people are so totally over church as they know it, even the language that is being used is trying to escape it! There are even books being written about it…
But, is a small group really the answer to growing in Christ? Or is it just the latest fad soon to die out like the rest?
The typical small group meeting
In the typical small group meeting, you’re likely to find some or all of the following parts:
- members that typically see each other the most in weekly or bi-weekly meetings.
- a small group leader who
controlsleads the group in discussion about a spiritual topic.
- a pre-planned spiritual agenda or a curriculum for spiritual guidance.
- the eating of (usually unhealthy) food together.
- icebreaker games to encourage people to get to know each other.
- an expectation of commitment
- common beliefs about life
If and when people dig deep enough, they find that the real reason they attend churches isn’t to sing songs and listen to sermons (although this is what churches are built around). The real reason they attend is because they’re searching to belong to close-knit-organic-body life-Kingdom community. This search is in every Christian’s spiritual DNA. When they aren’t in it, they feel (even unknowingly) that they’re in a wilderness. This is because Kingdom community is a Christian’s home.
The small group is the church’s latest answer to manufacture it. The problem is…community can’t be manufactured. This is because authentic community contains life, and life can’t be manufactured. You can’t build a living thing on an assembly line.
But this is the way it’s attempted in small group programs. The thought is that if all of the parts above are “put together” by following the instructions, then Kingdom community will “be built.” But, it’s being learned the hard way that this just isn’t the case.
Myths about belonging to kingdom community
In fact, there are a lot of beliefs about how community develops that just aren’t true. Despite the small group program’s effort to help fill the gap, the book The Search to Belong by Joseph Myers shows us many “Common Myths of Belonging” that these programs embrace. They include…
More time = more belonging.
While time is a crucial factor in the facilitation of community, spending time together itself does not develop community. You can spend a ton of time together, but if the maturity to love one another through conflict isn’t present, the development of community will be stopped right in its tracks before it ever gets rolling.
More commitment = more belonging.
While commitment is another crucial factor in the facilitation of community, showing up every time there’s a meeting does not mean that community will develop. Ever come across a married couple that simply doesn’t get along very well, but you know they’ll be together until they die because they made a commitment and they’re going to stick to it? They have commitment, but they don’t have community.
More purpose = more belonging.
While sharing a common purpose might be enough to get people together, wanting to see the same outcomes in life does not mean that community will develop between people. I’ve been on plenty of teams where everyone wanted to win, but their ideas about how to accomplish that kept them from letting community develop.
More personality = more belonging.
While interaction is an important part of community developing, being outgoing/funny/witty/smart or whatever doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got healthy relationships in all the ways you need them. In fact, it’s typical to find outgoing people that exhibit attention-seeking behaviors because they’re starving for Kingdom community. You can also find people that are very introverted, but feel plenty of belonging.
More proximity = more belonging.
I’ve said many times on this blog that close-knit Kingdom community simply isn’t possible without living in close proximity to one another. But, you can live in close proximity to one another and not have Kingdom community. How about all of those neighbors that live within shouting distance of you whose names you don’t even know?
Small groups don’t equal great relationships
All of these have something in common. They may help to provide an opportunity for quality relationships to develop, but they actually don’t directly develop them. And this my friends is why small groups tend to fail to provide belonging. The people within them have to rely on these things because they haven’t developed the spiritual maturity and/or have not been trained in the skills it takes for Kingdom community to develop.
You can be close, be there all the time, never miss, believe the right things and be outgoing. But, if a group of people isn’t trained into maturity in how to live in the Kingdom, the chances are slim to none that the group will provide lasting belonging; and slim left town :).
Now, I didn’t say the group wouldn’t last. There are small groups that have been around forever, providing some level of surface-y social belonging for their members. But, if we hope to belong to true Kingdom community where members are being formed into “little Christs,” we’re going to have to learn a lot about relationships, how they develop and how they are grown.
Well written and to the point. We have to become skilled in genuine, intimate relationship skills. Looking forward to hearing more of what God has laid on your heart concerning this matter.
Thanks Jodi! Looking forward to learning together.
I’m going to have to push back on the article. You lead the reader to so many un-substantiated and forgone assumptions and conclusions. And to top it all off, the title of your e-book,. “8 Tips….” You’ve just stated building community takes so much but now you will attempt to tell readers they can do it with 8 Tips. Just wondering if you are a pragmatist or a theorist.
Thanks for the thoughts. The ebook won’t be a comprehensive manual to building community. That will probably never exist. The tips will be more like “thoughts,” not a formula. “Tips” just seems to work better for titles. Sorry if it misled you a bit. I’d be open to better suggestions.
In simple words, these “small groups” you mentioned lack discipleship. There is that sense of other things mentioned but there is the lack of sense of discipleship which actually contributes to the growth of someone who is part of a small group. We can only take Jesus’ ministry as a concrete example for a small group. He had numerous followers (those who followed him around) and performed miracles before thousands of people. But he had a close and focus group of people (12 disciples) where he poured out everything. And by everything, I mean everything. Not just time, purpose, commitment, personality, and proximity. But everything. He basically taught his disciples to live. Sorry to say but if what was stated above is believed to constitute a small group, we’ve got it all wrong. There has to be discipleship for a small group to be a small group. So those that are part of it grow (just like how the 12 grew as they lived with Jesus). And as they grow, they branch out and form other small groups and the process repeats itself. The same way as Christ discipled the 12 then commanded them to “Go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19)”, then ascended to heaven. It’s about raising up a follower of Christ that he/she may carry out what God has called him/her to do, to go and make disciples of all nations. We’re all called to make disciples. But we’re called to different nations to make disciples. Nations could be our workplace, our location, our school, our families. Discipleship is relationship. It can’t get simpler than that.
Good words Darryl. Yes, the typical small group is not the type of thing Jesus was a part of. He was a part of a Kingdom community where discipleship took place.
That’s where we get to a chicken and the egg situation. Disciples aren’t made outside of the type of interpersonal community that Jesus was a part of. But, that type of community doesn’t exist without disciples. I guess whichever way it starts, it happens spontaneously through the motivation of the Holy Spirit.
For discipleship to happen, we only need to be intentional; as Jesus was intentional with the 12 he called his disciples. He didn’t wait for them to all come together then he discipled them. But he went out to where they were and intentionally called them to “follow” him.
It’s sad to read that this is how we define small groups, or the fact is that this is how most small groups are. I firmly believe the change is but simple. It starts with ourselves having that intention to go and make disciples of all nations. And not just being a part of an interpersonal community but HAVING A PART in an interpersonal community.
Through the motivation and the moving of the Holy Spirit can we be part of an interpersonal community with discipleship in mind. Without discipleship in mind, I’m just going to be part of an interpersonal community because of the unhealthy munchies like pizza and whatnot. Because yeah, I love pizza. 🙂
Darryl – I love pizza too :), but that love isn’t quite enough to stick around when the community fun ends and the hard work begins . As you say, you’ve got to have people that want to grow with each other, or they won’t mature through it.
Exactly. And so that’s why I would say it’s not the format of small groups that is the problem. Instead how we format the small groups. It’s the whole idea of doing small groups, I mean it should be the whole idea of doing small groups, that we want to grow with other Christians (like how the disciples did with Jesus) where we can ask the questions and/or give the answers to questions. Without that sense of discipleship, we’re just meeting for pizza or whatever… which is still good but then it would still be pointless.
I believe it’s a struggle that a lot (most) of small groups have now because we know discipleship requires our sacrifice of time and the sharing of life. We always have the excuse of being too busy from work or school and other things and so we neglect the importance of discipleship. We end up thinking and believing attending a small group is enough and will get us through our Christian life. I guess for people to grow, or for people to WANT to grow, as small group leaders we need to step up the game and be intentional. We don’t have to be intentional with a minimum of 5 people. 1-2 people is enough to form a small group and be devoted to share and learn life with them.
I would rather disciple 1 person than help lead 10 people to Christ through evangelism and leave it there. I would rather witness to one person and help that new Christian grow in his/her walk with Christ than witness to 10 people and not be able to devote my time in their growth as new Christians. I mean let’s face it. We all have something to do aside from our ministry in church. If I was a full time discipleship pastor or whatever, then yes, bring in those 10 people and I will disciple. But for most of us, that’s not the case. So it only takes 1 person for us, as individuals, to disciple. Eventually, we all have to drop the milk bottle and begin eating solid food.
Yeah, we can label Kingdom community anything we want (small group, house church, cell church, organic church, whatever), as long as it follows Kingdom community principles. Regretfully, most small groups are more like social clubs, personality cults, self-help groups and a host of other things.