Are Your Groups Normal? Or Are They Making a Difference in the World?

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By M. Scott Boren - Shared with author’s permission.

In our modern questions about success, group growth, ways to “close the back door,” and strategies to survive through the ups and downs of overseeing small groups, most modern talk about small groups leads us to put pressure on the wrong things. We end up running from one flywheel to the next thinking that we are generating movement, but all we are doing is generating work. And while we might have lots of groups meeting, have tons of interested people wanting to join them, and have some of the best small group curriculum ever created, too often all this work is only producing normal groups full of normal Christians who live their lives much like normal people who don’t call themselves Christians. They might have more knowledge. They might be extremely committed to your church. And they might be moral people. But for the most part, there is nothing radical enough about the group to actually have impact upon the world around it.

In fact, within the normal small group experience, people might believe everything about orthodox Christianity. They might fully embrace the life of the church, but their lives are formed more by the patterns of life than by the ways God. Parker Palmer puts it this way:

“Churches, for example ask members to affirm certain religious beliefs and the mission those beliefs imply. But rarely are churches intentional about naming—let alone asking members to commit themselves to—the relational norms and practices that would support their beliefs and mission. As a result, the relationships within many churches are shaped more by the norms of secular culture than by those of the religious tradition." 1

If we want to develop ways of relating in groups that results in mission, then we as pastors must look at what we are emphasizing. In preparation for writing my book, Missional Small Groups (Baker, 2010), I read some old books about churches in the 1950s to the 1970s that were experimenting with small groups. They were definitely doing things way before the majority of the church was ready to hear about them. As I read their stories and what they were doing, a few things stood out to me, many of which we need to hear today. Let me simply list five points:

  1. Their primary concern was not on church growth, number of groups, or what percentage of the church was in groups. They realized that groups were not the end goal, but a means for accomplishing God’s greater mission. They had a vision for the redemption of creation and for empowering people to have a role in this redemption. Groups helped them do this and groups would often grow as a result. But there is little talk about how many groups, how people join groups or other technical questions like that.
  2. They had a keen focus on the quality of life going on in the groups. They were looking for the kind of life that reflected the Kingdom of God as represented by Jesus. These were not simply study groups that met once per week or twice a month. They were groups that knew that they had a call to be salt and light in the midst of the world. It was a radical call, one where Vice Presidents of large corporations were challenged to put feet to their faith. One story recounts a VP of an oil corporation participating in a group that helped people “dry out.”
  3. These prophets were not afraid to “draw a line in the sand” and be ready to let go of those who were not going to enter this radical call. They did not water down the vision in order to keep people. They let other churches take care of them.
  4. They trained. And then they trained. And then they trained some more. They realized that such vision for the church was radically different than the common experience in the American church. They knew that if it was to be practiced, training was crucial. They did not “lower the bar” to get people through classes. Instead they raised the expectations and then mentored people in the practical means of putting this training into practice.
  5. They experimented. They did not write about the need to find a structure or model for the next church, one that could be packaged and sold to others. They imply that the church should not go from one static form to the next static form called “small groups.” They were using small groups to experiment with different ideas of being God’s people out in front of a watching world.

The leaders in these churches seemed to emphasize and focus on a different set of priorities. Most of the talk about small groups today focuses on finding the right strategy. According to www.smallgroups.com, there are eight major small group strategies or models for organizing groups. The differences between them usually have to do with group organization, pastoral oversight structures, curriculum, whether group members gather around geography or interests, and duration that groups meet. All of these systems have been touted as a magical program in some form or fashion. But the magic is not in the strategy. I have seen all eight of these strategies fall flat on their faces. And I have seen all eight of them flourish and produce groups that live out MissioRelate.

Now there is a whole line of new materials that have hit the market that are promoting house churches, organic churches, simple viral structures, exponential movements etc. Some subtly imply and others overtly pronounce that the problem is the traditional church structure and if we simply get into organic, viral, house churches without any of the administrative trappings of the traditional church, then we will suddenly live out God’s mission in this world. GIVE ME A BREAK! I used to say such things and then I started working with and pastoring real people. Like all the small group structures we have invented, organic house churches can be an effective pattern, but the structure alone will not open the magical door to the lived experience of living as a community on mission.

In reflecting on my pastoring, leading, and consulting, I realized that different churches might adopt the same model of group structures—using the same training, the same oversight system, the same language, the same materials and give the groups the same level of priority in the church—but the lived experience within those churches would vary. While reading the last chapter of Craig Van Gelder’s book The Ministry of the Missional Church, I had had an epiphany that shifted my categories out of model thinking about groups to a lived experience thinking about groups. There he labels four different kinds of change people experience in life or in an organization: Improvement, Adjustment, Re-vision, Re-creation.

When I applied these four kinds of change to small group experiences, I realized that groups tell four different stories with the way they live. These are not prescriptive patterns for group life given to those groups. Instead these stories describe the lived realities that groups experience. In my opinion, we have enough training and resources on the various ways to organize groups. We lack resources that will help us focus on how to navigate and lead people through the realities of life as they live these stories.

Defining the Stories
It is an impossible thing to define stories. One can only live them and tell them, but for the sake of simplicity, I will seek to do what cannot be done and explain what I mean by each of the four stories. The first two stories depict normal group experience, while the third and fourth stories tell of missional life.

Personal Improvement
This is the small group experience where individuals participate because it is beneficial to them as persons. They are either drawn to the topic or to the group of people and they participate as long as it is convenient to them. There is nothing about their personal life that is required to change as a result of group participation. Instead the opposite is true: They expect their personal lives to benefit from the “goods and services” provided by the small group experience and as long as that expectation is met, they will continue to participate.

Lifestyle Adjustment
This story is a continuation of the last. The group is viewed as beneficial and therefore group members are willing to adjust their life schedules to prioritize the attendance of a weekly or bi-weekly meeting. There is usually a bit more of a long-term commitment to group membership, but not much more than that. In fact, this story usually plays out in such a way that small group members attend meetings until they hit a time of conflict or struggle in the relationships within the group. While they adjust their lifestyle to prioritize a meeting they typically do not adjust their lives to make room to work through relational issues within a group. As a result they either quit attending, attend the meeting but in a way that is disengaged, or they look for another group that meets their needs better.

Relational Re-vision
While the move from the first story to the second was a continuous progression, the move to this third is discontinuous. This story requires intentional practice to live. The fact is the habits of the average person in North America are so contrary to a life of mutual love and self-sacrifice that if a group does not choose to practice a distinctively Christian way of life, nothing radical and Kingdom-like will be experienced. This story is only told as a group develops a new set of rhythms, like a person does when first learning to play the guitar. Lots and lots of intentional practice is required. Here is where a group discovers distinctively Christian practices like:

  • Worship
  • Encountering the Presence of God Together
  • Communion
  • Hospitality
  • Mutual Generosity
  • Making Time for Each Other
  • Entering the Neighborhood

I presented this to 60 people at a Lutheran church, where 40% of the crowd was over 55. I have never been able to communicate well with those that fall in that demographic, but when I presented the four stories to them and explained in depth the importance of Relational Re-Vision and how it prepares a group for mission, they expressed a keen sense of interest. The pastor at the end of the day told me, “I need that tool in order for me to do what you are talking about.” His comment propelled me on a writing spree that has resulted in the practical part of Missional Small Groups.

Missional Re-creation
As groups begin to practice these rhythms and gain proficiency in them, much like a novice guitar player will begin to expand her horizons beyond the notes on the page, a group will explore new ways of creative existence. They will engage the neighborhood and determine needs, meet them and as a result, that experience will change how they exist as a group. Some will develop into house churches of 50. Others into groups of 5 meeting at a coffee shop. Others will adopt a home for mentally challenged individuals. And still others will come around a family that lives in a mindset of poverty and walk with them into a new way of being. The key is not the form that it takes, but the maturity of living the practices that are introduced in Relational Re-Vision. Missional Re-creation flows out of a set of practices into an unpredictable structural future.

The stories of Relational Re-Vision and Missional Re-creation speak to what it means to be missional small groups that are trying to make a difference in this world. But let me be quite clear: there is no missional small group strategy or structure. The last two are illustrative of a missional story. They are so because when we live according to this story, we are learning to live out ways of the Kingdom of God. We are also recognizing the broader culture is a lived story and that it is not shaped by the Kingdom of God. To be a community on mission means that a group of people are living a distinctive Kingdom story in the midst of people who don’t live that way.

By contrast, when we live out the stories of Personal Improvement and Lifestyle Adjustment, we fail to recognize the difference between the story of the Kingdom and our part in that story and the story of the world around us. As a result, the story of the broader culture sneaks into our lives as the people of God and we settle for less than what God has for us. This might sound judgmental or blunt, but if there is the chance that the primary ways that we think about small groups in North American don’t measure up to what God has for us, then don’t you think that we need to at least consider the possibility of something else. While I do think that the first two stories play an important roll in the church in preparing people for the stories that are missional in nature, too often we simply settle for these normal group stories as if getting people in groups like this is the goal.

The following chart can be used to demonstrate the differences between the four stories:

Four Stories Chart

In the first two, community is attractional. If the group is made up of the right people, if the leader does a good job leading the study, if the people are nice … on and on the list could go, people will participate. From this perspective, getting the group “right” is foundational to making the group work. And of course, making the group work is founded upon keeping people happy.

As God’s people, we are called to be a “light to the nations.” Often we apply this to taking the message of the gospel to unreached people groups. And while, of course, this is part of the meaning, if we understand what it means to be “light,” we see how it must mean much more than that. When God called Israel to be a “light”, he was not challenging them to send missionaries throughout the world to set up churches. He was sending them on mission as a people into the world to live in his way. As they lived his way, this people would be a light, which, of course, would mean that some groups would be sent out to other nations.

The two stories to the right of the black line are missional. These groups form communities where people learn together to be God’s light in the midst of the darkness. They are not simply groups to give people a Bible study or close the back door. They are groups that empower people to discover God’s ways live out God’s story. They are experimenting with what it means to be a community that makes a difference in the world.

Resources that Promote Missional Group Life:

For more on what it means to be a group that lives on mission in the world, I have written the book Missional Small Groups. This is a guide for group leaders and even group members that will help them discover together what it means for them to find God’s unique call upon the group. Specifically, it helps a group develop patterns of Relational Revision that will naturally produce Missional Re-creation. Instead of providing a model or plan for missional small groups that can be imported from another church, this book helps groups listen to the Spirit that lives within them and then follow where the Spirit leads.

In the Fall of 2010, I am releasing a book entitled MissioRelate: Leading Your Church into Missional Group Life. This book is for pastors, small group point leaders, and leadership This book is for pastors, small group point leaders, and leadership team members. It is designed to help leaders discover the unique systems that fit their church situation needed to promote and to support missional life within groups.

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