In the last 15 years I’ve talked a lot about community as it pertains to creating and cultivating it in the church. I’ve helped churches transition from program-based to cell-based, from a church with small groups to a church of small groups. I’ve witnessed different models such as G-12 groups, Geographical groups and Free Market groups. I’ve tried 12-week, 8-week, 6-week and 4-week groups. I’ve implemented church wide campaigns that simultaneously launched dozens of sermon based small groups successfully. I did all of this with an expectation and hope that the efforts would lead to hundreds of people finding meaningful relationships and lifelong friendsdoing life together.
And then there was reality…
- After the transition, when difficult decisions had to be made about whether to kill a program or let small groups thrive, the church would compromise for the comfortable and let both exist.
- When the model just needed a little tweaking because it was too rigid, the church would overreact and throw it out altogether so they could move onto the next model.
- When the campaign was over, the small group leader decided to go into early small group leader retirement while others complained that the group they attended didn’t quite seem to fit.
- Though more people were in small groups and there was a buzz of life within the church that did not exist before, it appeared like more people were glad it was over.
I actually have come to expect these things now, but at first they caught me by surprise. You see, I had done my part in dealing with the barriers that prevent small groups from being successful in the church, but I did not deal with barriers in people’s lives that prevent small groups from becoming a community instead of short-term commitment.
Here are a few barriers that must be broken down in the lives of people if you are going to create and cultivate authentic, God-breathed community in the spiritual life of your church…
- The Barrier of Busyness – People are on the go. They can’t stop, wont stop usually until the wheels fall off their life in some form or fashion. They are picking up kids here, dropping them off there. They are spending more time in traffic than they are with their families. Drive-thru dinners are a way of life as they try to get to the church campus on Wednesday night in hopes that this time they will find the oasis of community in the small groups you are offering this spring. They show up the first 3 weeks ready to roll, but then fall off the map the next 9 weeks never to be seen again until summer small groups begin.What is the solution? We must teach people how to rest before we require them to be in a small group. The first time I implemented a one-month Sabbath in a church calendar, there was an unholy uproar… “We can’t stop, people will not survive the break! They will die spiritually.” I’m not kidding. This, of course, was a false cry, because if people can’t survive 30 days without programmed life, we are not creating or cultivating God-centered community. Instead, we are creating people that need us. After we required people to rest (because it’s biblical) our groups and leaders always came back refreshed and strengthened.
- The Barrier of Being Needs-Focused – Creating small groups to meet people’s needs is a false premise for having small groups. When people go to a small group only to get something, over a period of time they will suck the life right out of the group. For example:
- If someone is going to a small group to find a friend, but they don’t ever take time to be a friend.
- If someone is always asking for prayer but are never willing to pray for someone else.
- (Getting even more practical) If someone is coming to partake in the small group potluck, but are not bringing any luck to the pot, they become a burden not a blessing.
The Message paraphrase says it perfectly in 1 Corinthians 14:26: So here’s what I want you to do. When you gather for worship, each one of you be prepared with something that will be useful for all: Sing a hymn, teach a lesson, tell a story, lead a prayer, provide an insight.
In my opinion when we promise people that they are going to find this and that in a small group community, we create a faulty premise for being in a small group. Successful small group communities have prepared people how to crucify self-centeredness and give of themselves. They teach people that their participation in the small group will create community, not their consumption of what the small group offers.
I’ve seen these barriers pop up again and again. We do a great job at dealing with public barriers within church structures to create healthy small group systems, but many times we fail in dealing with people’s personal barriers that cripple our efforts to create and cultivate community.