Small groups have become a staple in the American church as a way of cultivating friendships, developing community, and encouraging spiritual formation. Pastors and other small group leaders often cite Acts 2:42-47 as the model for such community devoted to God and devoted to one another through shared time, resources, and space. But there is growing sentiment for small groups to fulfill the rest of that passage—-God adding to their numbers daily—-by extending the gospel of Jesus Christ to unbelievers.
We love to study the Scriptures and discuss the glorious truth of the gospel with one another, and we enjoy spending time with fellow believers. Yet we’re often fearful and uneasy about what will happen if we invite people who do not believe as we do into these environments. What will happen to our intimacy? What will happen to our deep community?
I worried about the same things when church leaders first asked me to transition my community group toward an outreach focus. Now, as a pastor seeking to foster community, I’m encouraging others to transition their groups, and they’re reacting with the same skepticism. One particularly apprehensive community group pushed back hard during a couple tense lunches. They feared the destruction of their friendships and community developed over the last three years as a closed group. This community group was the reason they stayed at our church—-even stayed in our city.
We all desire to be known in community, to have friendships with people we trust and enjoy. We long for a community like the one described in Romans 12:15 that rejoices when we rejoice and grieves when we grieve. But what if intimacy and community isn’t the end goal of small groups?
When Jesus Blew Up the Small Group Model
While most small groups aim to develop and maintain Christian community, Christ himself built a community around him that reflected a different goal. The group aimed to exalt God among believers and non-believers alike. They sought to spread worship and enjoyment of God above all things.
As I read the Scriptures alongside books like Total Church by Steve Timmis and Tim Chester, The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch, and others, I began to discover what the community groups I led were missing. Our community wasn’t a failure, but it was incomplete. Community had become an end to our mission rather than the context for it. We had embraced the blessings and transformation of the gospel as a community, but we did not seek to extend these benefits to others. I came to realize we needed to radically redefine our purpose for small groups.
We often seek to develop intimacy through conversation, confession, and prayer within a small group that grows together with time and trust. But actually, we tend to form our lasting friendships through shared experiences, shared time, and shared mission. This insight reflects what we see in Scripture with Jesus and his disciples along with the early church. Luke 10 show us Jesus opening up and sharing his compassionate mission with his disciples. They celebrate together when the disciples return from mission. The relationship between mission and community extends throughout the book of Acts.
In my own life, as my community has taken a concern for the people in my life who I desire to know Christ and follow him with their lives, our relationships have gone deeper. Our conversations no longer center on the surface level of catching up on activities since we’ve last seen one another. When they ask about the things I love the most (God and people), I feel more cared for and connected, because these friends reveal that they know my heart and share my compassion and mission for others.
The same thing happened in our church’s community groups that initially resisted change. Over the first year of the transition, they began opening their community and inviting co-workers, neighbors, and even their doorman. Their community began to grow to beyond capacity. Six months later, during a training meeting, another community group leader expressed the same concern about destroying community by expanding the group. I asked one of the other leaders to answer. “We were expecting it to hurt our friendships,” he said, “but it was the exact opposite.”
This moment felt almost scripted, but it was joyful to see the truths of Scripture and the promises of God lived out in our midst. It was a powerful celebration of God’s work as we fought through the fears and apprehensions to value the gospel of Jesus Christ more than our conception of community.
How Does This Work Out?
Practically, this shift does not require the community to sacrifice their conversation, confession, or prayer together, but it may realign the context and focus. Often we seek to cram Bible study, discussion, confession, and prayer into a two-hour block on a weeknight, which usually means one of them gets sacrificed (often prayer because we this time will lead to drawn-out requests).
Instead, we may develop gender-specific, Christ-centered accountability groups outside our regularly scheduled small group meeting. This may seem like an additional burden, but it’s part of approaching your regular life with more intentionality. I’ve often heard it said that you don’t have to do different things, but do things differently. Jeff Vanderstelt of Soma Communities describes this as living an ordinary life with gospel intentionality.
Many small groups have only a façade of intimacy because they do not help members reach friends and neighbors they want to know Christ. A small group that reflects the focus of the Acts community to love God, one another, and others becomes a community on mission with depth of intimacy.