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Millennial Perspectives on the Purpose of Small Groups

The class discussed various strategic and tactical decisions a small group point person must make, and one of those decisions involved open versus closed groups. While we didn’t come to complete consensus on this (not that we had to), I though one student’s comments were insightful:

The downfalls to having open groups are nothing in comparison to telling someone, “No, I’m sorry, you cannot join our small group. We are full.” I would hate to get that message from Jesus when I die about member capacity in Heaven!

As I taught about the history of the small group movement, especially in America, we noted how the purpose of small groups in the church has changed over time. While small groups began outside the church to reach the “broken people of our society,” as small groups pioneer Lyman Coleman has put it, eventually small groups were utilized within the church to “close the back door”; that is, to be an assimilation strategy for the church.

We also discussed the stages of social movements in general, and I asked the students to assess where they think the small group movement is today. The three main stages are emergence, coalescence/synthesis and bureaucratism. (See my article on social movements and the small group movement here.)

With that in mind, we discussed at length the purpose of small group ministry in the church today. The students agreed that the movement is at the stage of bureaucratism, but the vital question is, what does that mean for the small group movement in churches today? One student wrote,

Groups that are developed for the purpose of holding people to a particular church congregation have missed the point of the local church. The point of the local church is not to gather people into its building like a country club, but to send people out like Jesus did with His disciples.

Another student put it compellingly:

Small groups are not a way to “close the back door” of the church. No, they are a way of bringing in the lost through the backdoor, side door, garage door and maybe even through the window of the church.

The same student wrote about where he sees the small group movement going:

I believe that we are on our way back to seeing small groups moving and functioning outside of the church, in a missional way.

Where the Small Group Movement Is Today

Interestingly, many of the students believe the purpose of small groups movement may be at a stage of re-emergence, which means that new—or perhaps ancient—patterns for small group life are emerging. These patterns are more holistic; less gimmicky; much more organic, dynamic, decentralized and trusting; and more missional in nature. One student described the way they are developing groups in their church:

Small groups are the outposts in God’s mission where Christ’s love and life break forth into the world. Rather than simply being another among many different program offerings in a church’s menu, these communities are integral to the life of the church; it is difficult to experience the life that Christ intended without them.

Small groups being “another among many different program offerings” was a huge topic of discussion in class. We talked about three types of churches: churches with small groups, churches of groups and churches that are groups. One student said,

It is not enough to simply “offer groups.” Our church must be groups. Groups are where church life happens to the greatest extent.

Another put it this way:

A church with groups is consumer driven. It allows its members to pick and choose what they want and when they want it. It doesn’t promote community, but preference. A church that is groups focuses more on groups than it does corporate worship.

As a Boomer, I’ve found it interesting (and refreshing) to see how my Millennial students view ideals such as Sunday-morning corporate worship, church buildings and church programs. It’s not that they are against these things, but they are vehement that these structures are used wisely to carry out our kingdom mission, not to use them just because that’s what we do:

Our vision to become a growing network of Kingdom outposts boldly pushing the frontier forward will mean re-interpreting the modes and structures that we have accepted in the past. Rather than seeing Sunday morning as the center of church life, we must turn our perspective outward and work toward launching leaders outward into the wild with a burning passion to bring people into the triunited life that Christ has so gloriously initiated us into.