During the last decade of our life together in ministry, we’ve lived in five cities and have been a part of five different churches. In each place, we’ve been actively involved in (and often leading) a small group.

With each move, I (Ann) have found myself longing for the friendship and camaraderie that can come in a healthy, life-giving small group. And because I’ve been hungry for meaningful friendship, my tendency is often to want to huddle with the friends in our small group, rather than reaching out to others who might need community.

My sinful tendency is to want to hoard my friendships, because they seem so difficult to come by.

My sinful tendency is to want to hoard my friendships, because they seem so difficult to come by.

I (Michael) am the pastor of the small-group ministry at our church, and our team works to create a culture that is both inward-facing and outward-facing (see Acts 2:42–47). Cultivating this type of culture is not something that happens overnight, but small changes can reap great fruit when we aim to live as church members who love those within our small group while also keeping a compassionate, missional eye toward those outside the group.

Here are four ways you can seek to cultivate a culture of both loving community and missional outreach in your small group.

1. Choose a way to minister together.

Our church promotes four core practices of a healthy small group: Bible study, prayer, caring for each other, and some form of outward-facing service or missional outreach. While the emphasis on each of these four elements ebbs and flows depending on the need and season of each group, the aim of being service-oriented is always present.

What might this look like? For some groups, it looks like helping someone in our congregation who needs financial and spiritual support. Other groups are praying together for opportunities to share the gospel with unbelievers in their lives. Our current small group has decided to pursue outreach to a local state university, and we are communicating with on-campus ministry leaders for the best ways to help in this season.

No matter how each group chooses to reach out, our small group ministry training emphasizes that small groups don’t exist only for themselves. Even as we encourage and challenge each other, we are called to be a blessing to the broader church and community.

Small groups don’t exist only for themselves.

2. Keep your group open (as much as possible) to newcomers.

When we lived in St. Louis several years ago, we visited a church for three months. During that time, we asked multiple people if we could join their small groups. The answer, every time, was “no.” Their groups were full, or it wasn’t the right time of year, or they didn’t have room for more children in their childcare. I (Ann) remember feeling hurt—and shocked.

We didn’t join that church, in large part because we felt like there wasn’t a place for us. Still, we didn’t give up on church overall. Michael was in seminary, and we weren’t going to give up on the church because four or five small groups had blocked us in a particular church.

I wept, though, knowing that others who might be testing the waters of Christianity would not bounce back from such rejection. The vulnerability of needing community and being excluded would push others away from that church—and perhaps from Christ.

Yes, it can be tricky to build trust and intimacy in a small group if the members are constantly changing; consistency is needed for growth and camaraderie. But our tendency toward selfishness can turn small groups into cliques if we aren’t open to others joining in. This means all small-group members should be encouraged to hold the group with open hands (not clenched fists), thankful for the opportunity for deep friendship and exhortation, while simultaneously aware that others need community just as much as they do.

When group members are encouraged to keep their eyes and ears open for new people who need a small-group home, it helps us keep the mission of the church at the forefront: we are disciples of Christ Jesus who are making disciples, who then make disciples.

In our small groups, we are not trying to seal ourselves off from others; rather, we are pointing to the immeasurable gift of Christ, who makes strangers part of God’s family (Eph. 2:19).

3. Adopt a missionary family to pray for and support.

One of the best ways to keep a small group outward-facing is to keep our hearts attuned to others who are doing the work of ministry. Our church supports multiple missionaries, and by “adopting” a missionary family, a small group can focus on others who may not be present physically, but are part of the larger body of Christ.

Through prayer and financial support, and through sending care packages or letters, we are reminded that God’s work is taking place all over the world—not just in our small group or individual church. We also learn to better attend to the needs of others who are sharing the gospel and to those they are ministering to, whether in our city or across the world.

4. Expect service as part of membership.

Not everyone in a small group is necessarily also a member of the church, but when service is an expected part of church membership, the culture can shape everyone’s experience in the congregation.

At our church, members are asked to join a service team, whether it’s serving in children’s ministry, as a parking attendant, or as an usher. Some serve in our youth group as mentors, and others love to work on the church’s landscaping.

When service is an expected part of church membership, the culture can shape everyone’s experience in the congregation.

Because these service teams often connect to people’s interests rather than stage of life, there’s opportunity for cross-hybridization with other members of the congregation. Members from different small groups will most likely serve on the same teams, providing yet another opportunity to get to know others in the congregation that wouldn’t otherwise overlap. This helps us stay connected to the church at large, rather than just our individual small groups.

Small groups can be a rich and meaningful aspect of the life of a church, providing unique opportunities for intimacy and friendship. With a little effort, we can also nurture a culture of outward-facing believers who welcome others in to the body of Christ at every turn.