When a small group of about 11 people at Great Exchange Covenant Church in Sunnyvale, Calif. noticed one young woman’s absence, a member called her to follow up. It turns out she’d stopped coming to the meetings because she couldn’t afford the train ride.
“The small group members just totally felt for this girl,” says Great Exchange Pastor David Chae.
So the group paid for her train rides to the meetings.
“She was so moved by that,” Chae says. “That’s what churches ought to be. We’re just trying to create containers and environments for how God wants to move.”
Shaping those containers with not-yet-believers in mind has been a part of seeker-friendly churches for a couple of decades. But today, even those churches are questioning the philosophy of an outreach that expects other people to take the first step—a giant leap from postmodernity to the inside of a church.
Rather than turn to an alternative program or a different evangelism methodology, many church leaders are looking to shift the model of ministry focusing on two biblical priorities: sharing Christ and creating community.
Ken Wilson is a bridge engineer in Zelienople, Pa. Evangelism is not his spiritual gift, he says. He has had little training in apologetics. And he stutters. But after he completed a one-day training course on seeker small groups, he wanted to lead one. So he found a co-leader and began planning and praying.
But after going door-to-door in his neighborhood to invite men to join a group discussion of spiritual matters, Wilson’s enthusiasm waned.
“Eighteen guys turned us down,” he says.
He and his co-leader later realized that the people who did accept their invitation were those with whom they’d already built friendships. “The key ingredient to our successful invitations was an existing relationship with good rapport,” he says.
Eventually, Wilson’s group of 10 men met over the course of nine months, bringing biblical truths into a practical study of how to be a better husband and father.
But when the group broke up for the summer, and one particularly skeptic member still hadn’t verbalized an acceptance of Christ, Wilson was discouraged. “Then a few weeks later, my apprentice and I were at this guy’s house for a relaxing evening, and he gave his life to the Lord. How cool is that?”
It’s easy to get excited about changed lives, says Lynn Reece, director of women’s ministry at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky. Last summer, she was so passionate about generating that excitement outside church walls, that she converted the summer Bible study program to seeker small groups called neighborhood groups.
In a congregation accustomed to ministering to one another, Reece is outspoken about the call to reach the unchurched. “They’re self-centered when it comes to Bible study,” she says. “I don’t think people take Matthew 28 literally.”
That summer, some 1,000 people attended seeker small groups led by Southeast and a dozen other Louisville-area churches. About 75 percent of the participants were unbelievers.
Says Reece: “It’s about the people who aren’t in the church.”
Inside Seeker Small Groups
Recently, Outreach assembled a panel of leaders with unique insight and experience in launching, leading and growing small groups that appeal to and resonate with unbelievers. On the following pages, they share what they’ve learned over the years about small groups, including who’s most likely to attend, keys to success, the failure factors and why so many churches struggle with the holy huddle syndrome.
As the founder of Salt Shaker Ministries (saltshaker.org), Rebecca Manley Pippert travels the world (her latest visit was to Malaysia) training Christians to start and facilitate seeker small groups. She speaks to churches and at conferences, equipping believers to reach the unchurched. Pippert will be a keynote speaker at the 2006 National Outreach Convention.
The director of evangelism at Willow Creek Community Church (willowcreek.org) in South Barrington, Ill., Garry Poole has taught thousands of Christians how to lead seeker small groups. He travels nationwide, challenging church leaders to make evangelism a priority in their congregations. Poole was raised in a Christian home but says nothing quite compares to cheering on seekers as they take spiritual steps toward Christ.
David Chae says he felt God calling him to plant a multi-ethnic, Gospel-centered church in California’s Silicon Valley, where an estimated 87 percent of the area’s population is unchurched. Since beginning Great Exchange Covenant Church (greatexchangechurch.org) in 2001, Chae has used small groups to connect people to Jesus Christ and each other. Great Exchange, he says, is a “church of small groups, instead of a church with small groups.”