What’s Different About Our New Church?
Disclaimer: I use a lot of Christian jargon so any word or phrase with a * after it I define down at the bottom.
I never liked small groups*. I don’t think I ever have. I’ve tried to attend a few but they never work. I’ve tried to lead them, but the same thing. I just don’t like them. Most of my friends who are pastors don’t attend or lead small groups either. I needed to figure out why.
In the early stages of inviting people to the church I kept saying we would start off with a small group. It’s the thing to do. But something kept annoying me about saying that. Why would I start with something I don’t even like? I had to get to the bottom of my feelings, and figure out a couple of things: if we weren’t going to do small groups, then what would we do? And what is it about them I don’t like?
WHY I DON’T LIKE SMALL GROUPS
Let’s answer that second question first. Small groups are supposed to accomplish two things: community and discipleship*. I noticed, in many cases, they do both of those poorly. Most small groups are structured around 90 minute sessions. You enter and greet. You sit in a circle. You maybe sing a song for a few and read a passage. Then, you hear a mini sermon or have a discussion. And boom, all done, say goodbye, get out, see you next week. (Or maybe next month).
Most people don’t form strong bonds seeing each other for 90 minutes twice or so a month. Community is shaped on much deeper levels. There is chaos and hurt in true community. There is incredible joy and partnership. Those things just do not happen in 90 minute pre-planned sessions.
Discipleship is another story. When you ask most pastors how discipleship is going they will spit out their small group stats like, “We have 85% small group attendance.” In reality, small group attendance does not assume discipleship. It’s been proven in several cases, but most notably in Willow Creek Community Church’s “Reveal” case study. When I think about my own story of discipleship I cannot think of one small group experience. I think of going over people’s houses, prayer meetings, dinners, missions trips, tough conversations, and people who spent time with me.
So what is it that I don’t like about small groups? It’s the false sense of security it gives that community and discipleship are happening on a grand scale at your church. They may work for some, but it’s just not been my story or the story of people around me.
What’s my answer to this? Party time! Okay, that’s only half the answer. What we are going to do is rip apart the small group. The two fold purpose of community and discipleship will now be done differently. For community, we will party. For discipleship, we will invite.
When I think of having a great time with people I think of having fun, food, and fantastic prayer and worship (sorry I needed to get my third F in there). Showing up at a friends house to hang out in good company with no time limit set on my visit is the best. I go home feeling full, and need to read a book since I’m an introvert and we are weird like that. So every night we want to have a dinner party in the neighborhood. No RSVP needed. No 90 minute time limit. Lots of food and fun. And a time for us to center ourselves on God. All my best friendships have sustained themselves through the years with times like these. I want to share this with people in a city that’s so big, but still so lonely.
Discipleship is another story. It’s an invitation. An invitation one person makes to another to be a part of their life. Whether it’s someone asking to be discipled or the other way around. It’s much deeper than a 90 minute hang out with 15 other people a few times a month. The people that have discipled me have been people I lived with, people that know my darkest moments, and people that have celebrated my greatest joys.
I want to see a culture of invitations. Where people constantly invite others to take a deeper role in their life. The Bible is full of analogies of how God uses others to help us grow up. I am convinced that the Christian life is impossible to walk through alone. We need people that are willing to give selflessly of their time and lives to others. People who will invite others into the messiness of their home without shame. And allow others to peek into the life behind the Instagram perfection. How do I raise a kid? How do I stop an addiction? Can you help me pray? These are just some of the questions that start to get asked and answered when true discipleship happens.
No, we won’t be doing small groups. But we will be doing life together, and that’s a lot more fun.
*Discipleship: when someone mentors someone else in the Christian belief and way of life, sharing who they are with that person to get a practical look at what it means to be a Christian in our day and age.
*Small groups: generally weekly meetings that churches have during the week to debrief the sermon, worship, and pray together. They last 60 – 90 minutes and are a method used in most churches in America.
Join the discussion 19 Comments
Interesting. I’m a part of a small group and while it’s always good to sit with others and hear the word of God pray and worship I must say that I agree to some degree with you.
Thanks for the feedback Angela! I definitely think some small groups are better than others (a lot depends on who’s leading it), but the cookie cutter version of come, stay for an hour, then leave with no contact in between definitely doesn’t work.
It’s like every time I visit a new church, been there for a while, all of a sudden I am bombarded with that dreadful question “do you belong to a small group?” Like you I have tried it and it doesn’t work for me especially in the evening. In the past I hv attended evening Bible studies but I go to bed after my evening devotions. I find myself not wanting to even get chummy with people at church.
I love this!!! Thank God I’m not crazy or weird, I feel the same way LOL though I like small groups to a certain degree but as you stated, when we do life together the relationships become more real and we learn to apply the Word to our REAL situations TOGETHER!! Great read!!
Yes! Exactly! You got it
I am a 37 year old Pastor, and I was a radical convert at 19, straight from drugs and partying into a relationship with God that has completely changed and redeemed my life.
Most of the deepest times of growth and development, especially early in my faith, have happened in my life as a result of being in small groups with other more mature friends. Led well, full of room for spontaneous response to the presence of God with us.
I appreciate your article, and don’t disagree with you, but I definitely had a better experience than you are describing. Not saying your observations are wrong, just not categorically right either. Peace.
Thanks for your feedback Jack! Really glad you had such a great experience. It’s awesome to hear you had great leaders that were able to make your small group experiences life changing. I definitely do not think all small groups are bad. I know some really great ones personally. At the end of the day I think it will be more effective to split up the two purposes of small groups (community/discipleship) so you have a better focus and excellence at those two goals. Great small group leaders I know do this anyway. Appreciate your thought!
Thanks for this interesting observation: practical and down to earth. I remember a certain group of young people who would hang out at 529 58th Street, eat together, laugh together, and also pray together. There was a mix of both: really being in each others lives, challenging each other to grow, sharing meals, having parties, and also getting together for an organized group meeting (small group, cell group, home group, prayer meeting, whatever decade and iteration it was). I get what you’re saying. This encourages people to move away from the formulaic and into something more genuine and organic. A lot of those young people became radical disciples and movers and shakers of their day. You know some of them intimately.
It’s amazing to look back at that group and see how God used that group of friends. So many churches and ministries started through it! I do think we need balance like you said. We moved so much to the formula of things we have almost lost the organic, unless you have a leader that is intentional about that part. I don’t want to move so much to the organic that we have no formalization. We’ll be thinking through that with the team to make sure we can do both. Always love to hear from you Daphne!
The problem is the time. When I get together with people for small group, it is usually a 3 hour ordeal with food, fellowship, and then discussion. With a full belly and a cup of coffee, people are more likely to open up.
Sounds like you have a great small group! Food is definitely the way to go.
You are on to something new and exciting. You’ve nailed it. Can wait for your congregation to officially kick off this weekend. Praying your strength in the Lord.
[…] nights ago we had our second dinner party. (If you forgot what that was, you can read about it here). Tomorrow we have our second gathering. In September we will have our first service. Sometimes it […]
I’ve been a pastor for 25 years, and we’ve had small groups in various forms for pretty much all that time. However, like you, my leadership team and I really don’t like them that much, and so often it feels like we’re forcing it, and trying to force relationships, rather than allowing them to happen organically. So, I completely agree with what you’ve shared, but my questions is, what are some ways that we promote people in the church doing “life together” in a way that feels natural, and in a way where people actually want to participate?
Jeff Dutra…yes…I would like some discussion on this as well…
As an introvert, I absolutely hate small groups. I don’t like conversing with random strangers. I am far more likely to form a community with people who have similar interests (I have some pretty nerdy interests). It would be great if the church offered a way for me to meet others in the church who share my interests. Maybe hobby clubs.
I feel the same way about church on Sundays. I believe there is need for corporate worship but for the most part, lives are changed when people are discipled in the way you described. What if we all met on Sunday mornings in homes with fellow believers doing life together; worshipping, growing together in the Word. Then, maybe once a month, rent out a large venue to corporately worship together. I believe large group church doesn’t foster intimacy which is why churches try to incorporate small groups which, as you say, don’t work out either. I think we have church flopped. It should be discipleship in homes Sunday mornings and maybe once a month large group church.
I don’t think small groups work for everyone. Maybe there is that one person who is a newer Christian and needs the message regurgitated to them during the middle of the week….but no small group has ever resulted in me gaining one friend. I’ve been in churches now for over 30 years, each one for several years and they are all the same. They use small groups attendance as a measure of your spiritual level. It’s such a joke. Most of the people I’ve encountered were either self righteous or wanted nothing to do with people outside of the group. And I’ve tried making friends for so long it makes me want to give up attending entirely when “small group” is apparently the measuring stick of maturity as a Christian. And what do small groups do? Literally nothing. Not one of those people truly knows me or has tried to get to know me. It’s worse if you are a single person. You get reduced to lower and lower on the church totem pole of acceptance. I hate it. It’s not what Jesus would do at all. Most people go to them to find community. But what about when you go and find none? Or the expectation of attendance is insane when it’s far away and late at night, and even moreso when you are like me and feel totally left out of things.