Over the last 25 years as a writer, editor, trainer and consultant about all things small groups, and I’ve come across many different motivations for doing small groups. Some of the primary reasons provided for doing small groups include:
Church Growth. Small group ministry is a key ingredient to growing a church. All of the largest churches in the world have some form of small group structure.
Closing the “Back Door” of the Church. Small groups are used as a way to connect people who attend on Sundays. This seems to be the prominent goal of most small group resources that are on the market.
Evangelism. Statistics have proven over and over again that most people are led to the Lord through relationships with either a friend or a family member. Small group evangelism is dependent upon friendship connections with the lost.
Church Health. Research on church health factors has revealed that small groups have the most impact on church quality. In fact, all of the healthiest churches around the world have developed effective small group systems.
Personal Growth. People grow in their relationship with God when they have the opportunity to process what they are learning with other people. Small groups provide the environment for this kind of processing.
Biblical Model. Ardent advocates of small groups adopt this approach to ministry because they want to return to the way of doing church demonstrated in the New Testament.
Going “Missional”. Now groups—both small and mid-size strategies—are being adopted because pastors want to move their church in a “missional” direction.
All of these reasons for doing small groups are valid at some level. Most pastors like these reasons because they are very practical in nature. Each reason points to tangible results that small groups can offer. However, none of these reasons actually deals with the real issue that we face as leaders. Each one pointed to the church itself; improving the church was the end game.
I’ve found that the reason we do small groups also becomes our focus, that upon which we place our primary attention.
We need to make sure that our reason to do small groups—and therefore our focus—lines up with Jesus’ agenda. To discover this, I had to look beyond the church itself and discover the bigger intention of God. The first words of Jesus recorded by Mark are, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14, NRSV). Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God, something much bigger than the structures of the church that would follow his ascension. He pointed to something that extended beyond the realm of the religious struc- tures. He came preaching the kingdom of God, calling people to align their lives with the good news of the kingdom. The kingdom comes first in the order of God, not the church or small groups.
Jesus instructed us, “Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). I often find church leaders seeking first the development of their church through a small group structure. They seek church growth, closing the back door, evangelism, church health, personal growth, a biblical model, and missional strategies. All good things, but the good is often the enemy of the best. Many times, the good results that we seek stand in the way of the kingdom of God. Jesus says that if we seek the kingdom, he will take care of all our concerns. This means that he will take care of the concerns of church leaders: growth, evangelism, health, interpersonal con- nections, personal growth, and being a biblical church.
In a dialogue with a prominent church growth consultant about prioritizing the kingdom of God in my teaching on small groups and church leadership, he expressed that the goal of seeking the kingdom was too idealistic. He commented that we just need to know what to do. We seem to assume that we already have a good theology of the kingdom and all we need are practical strategies that will produce results. After all, don’t we seek the kingdom through things like church growth, evangelism, and the like. If we develop small groups that close the back door, aren’t we seeking the kingdom?
But maybe not.
I don’t think it wise to assume that we know how to connect the dots between our theology of the kingdom and our small group practices. And if we jump straight to pragmatic approaches for building small groups that get results (numbers) then we must question if we are building groups on the right foundation. So in this light, let me propose a few things that the kingdom means for us as we develop groups:
- The kingdom is about life, the way we live, not just about the way we do church. The two are not mutually exclusive, but if we focus on church first, then we may actually be working against “abundant life.” What does it mean to develop groups that promote life and not just a small groups program?
- The kingdom is about the restoration of all things, not just about advancement of the church or the building of great small groups. Again, the two are not mutually exclusive, but if we start with church, then we may actually be building the church in a way that competes with the restoration of all things. What does it mean to focus on the restoration of all things when we are responsible for the development of a small group system?
- The kingdom is about the ways of the King—the non-violent, cross-dying Messiah. What does this have to do with the way we develop groups?
- The way of the King in this kingdom is the way of the Spirit. Jesus said, “I will build my church.” This means that God is active in the building of the church.
What does this mean for your small groups?