CHICAGO, IL – If you think community is an important part of healthy church life, and I hope you do, then small groups should also be important to you. They are actually crucial to the life of any church. I’m not the only one who thinks so—we have the research to back it up. For the book Transformational Groups, which I co-authored with Eric Geiger, we conducted a survey of churchgoers in the United States and Canada. The results were telling.
Almost 8-in-10 (79 percent) of those surveyed agreed that small groups are very important in the church. Two-thirds said that their church regularly starts new small groups. We saw widespread agreement, but perhaps not widespread engagement.
What’s the Right Engagement?
Some would say that 50 percent of your Sunday morning attendance should be in small groups. I would say that is low, because I believe all of the people who are involved in your church should also be plugged into small community in whatever form you offer it. Realistically, though, I don’t think 70 percent is an unreachable goal for churches that rightly emphasize small groups. I’ve been in traditional churches with 94% involvement in small groups (in this case, Sunday School). That’s a lot, but it’s doable. And it’s important because relationships within the church body are important. Let me say that again, it is important because relationships within the church body are important.
Why It Matters?
I find that a lot of Christian discipleship deals with what you need to know, not who you need to be with. That is sad, because if we get the relationships right, the information will follow. If we connect people in real gospel community, they will learn. But the opposite is not always true. We’re too often concerned only with conversion and information download, and we don’t take community and relationship-based discipleship seriously enough.
You can’t build community by way of programming, but you can use a program to create a pathway through which community can happen. Maybe you should read that sentence again; the difference in the two is subtle. Programs do not community make. However, programs can create the pathway—the opportunity—for birthing healthy community.
The Value of Community
When we preach the gospel to one another in close-knit community, there is spiritual growth that changes us individually and as a whole. That change causes us to position for an outward focus and encourage gospel transformation in the communities outside the church walls. As much as I love gathering with the whole of the local church for corporate worship, there is something powerfully unique about an intimate gathering around a living room, a small classroom, or a dining room table that forces us to think differently than when we are in a big room for worship.
Small groups, in fact, are where much of the theology taught in our pulpits begins to be fleshed out in conversation and action. If you want your church to be on mission, teach it from the pulpit and equip your people to wrestle with it in small groups. It’s messy that way, but it’s fruitful. Recognizing that, there are four factors we found in transformational churches that were foundational to small group success.
1. Personal Discovery
First, personal discovery happens in small groups better than large groups for a number of reasons. You can learn, ask questions, involve yourself in the lives of others, and generally make yourself vulnerable among other people who are doing the same in small groups. You just can’t do that in sermons. There is no conversation, no feedback, and no questions. There’s no room to challenge the preacher or even question any part of what’s being taught. Spiritual growth happens better with others, in community, with open lines of communication and freedom to speak into one another’s lives.
2. Smaller Communities Are More Effective
Second and closely related to the first, smaller communities act more like, well, communities. That may seem like a given, but the bigger the group is, the less like community it feels. The kind of community I am advocating requires a level of intimacy easily lost as numbers grow. You simply cannot know everyone beyond a certain point, and you certainly will not open up about your struggles and sins in a large group of people you don’t know.
3. Deeper Friendships
With that in mind, the third factor is that small groups deliver deeper friendships that double as accountability. When people know you, really know you, your life becomes far more transparent, including your sin. Others learn to read you and will call you out for those sins, creating opportunities to deal with real life difficulties as they surface. This is part of what we should expect from good friends.
4. Maximum Participation
Finally, small groups deliver maximum participation. There are opportunities to discuss the issues with others in the church. Church life issues can be discussed openly among trusted friends. Mission can be planned out and participated in together. Lives are sharpened and leaders developed. Small groups are an absolute necessity for involving as many people as possible in the life and ministry of your church.
Make Space for Community
Community matters enough to be prioritized. It needs to be more than an afterthought, but needs to be part of our focus. We often say there is not more important ministry in the life of our church that our small groups. It’s that important. Whatever your plan or program for small groups, keep these principles in mind. Understand why groups are good and take advantage of the good they can bring into your church.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center, Dean of the Wheaton College School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership, and is interim teaching pastor of Moody Church in Chicago.