As Christians, our ultimate goal is to bring Jesus to the greatest number of lost people by making disciples. Often, in the world of small groups, we believe discipleship happens through Bible study, accountability and prayer. We fret over picking the right studies, vetting our leaders and having the right systems in place. But what if the most effective form of disciple-making and reaching the lost is through strategic small-group serving opportunities?
We often think of discipleship as something that happens after conversion, but the Engel Scale tells a different story. Developed by James Engel, the Engel Scale represents the journey from no knowledge of God to spiritual maturity as a Christian believer, a scale that ranges from -8 to +5. Traditionally, the church has only accommodated the last half of the scale, helping people grow deeper once they’ve made the decision to follow Jesus. But if we look at our daily interactions with non-believers as a valid form of discipleship, perhaps taking a coworker in our secular workplace from a -8 to a -6 by repetitively showing her kindness, then our perceptions—and therefore methods—of discipleship need to go beyond our church buildings and into the world. Likewise, providing avenues for our small groups to serve the marginalized in our cities now becomes a legitimate, powerful and necessary discipleship tool.
I have found that there are two ways to effectively serve our cities through our small groups: Our groups can serve their city on a macro level or they can serve one-on-one individuals on a micro level.
Groups Serving Cities
“Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” —Jeremiah 29:7
One of my favorite ways to spread the gospel in our local community is having our small groups serve at unexpected events around the city. We pick up trash at motorcycle rallies, organize our local city-wide Halloween and even cancel Sunday services twice a year to host a city-wide serving event called Love Tulsa—an event led by small-group leaders. Nothing bonds a group together quite like getting your hands dirty, both physically and metaphorically, and making a tangible impact in your city. Our small-group leaders choose an organization that they feel passionate about and simply ask them how the group can serve them. Some of the organizations are openly Christian, some are secular and others fall somewhere in-between.
If a group chooses an overtly Christian organization, such as John 3:16 Mission or Manna Girl’s Home, they’re helping the organization spread the gospel by serving the staff and facilities. Whether it’s a beautification project, working with the youth or serving a meal, they’re alleviating a felt need and making it easier for the organization to make an exponential impact for the kingdom of God.
If a group picks a non-Christian organization, such as our local state-run foster care shelter or a public elementary school, they’re able to show an unusual level of sacrifice and kindness that opens up the possibility for discussing the gospel. We have had people ask, “Why are you guys doing this for us?” and “Aren’t you missing out on a day of offerings by cancelling service?” These questions allow us the opportunity to explain why we’re serving them: because Christ served us first. It shows our community that the church doesn’t just serve itself and its own interests but that we are truly here to help our city prosper.
Serving these organizations creates a trusted relationship that can be called upon in the rare event that tragedy or disaster strikes. At one of our Love Tulsa events we served a local gymnasium in an impoverished part of town that caters to underprivileged kids who would otherwise be on the streets after school. Unfortunately, a tornado hit the establishment last year and tore down most of their building. But because we had served them in the past, we were one of the first organizations that they called upon for help. God will show your leaders the right organizations to serve; he knows the relationships that will be needed in the future to help glorify him in the midst of tragedy.