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Most people who have been around a church for a while have a pretty good idea about what a small group is. Or do they? The following definition may give new understanding to the term “small group.”

A Small Group is an intentional gathering, meeting regularly for the purpose of joining God’s mission.

Let’s break this down. A Small Group

  • is an intentional gathering. This group of people agree to share life together. They plan where and when to meet and arrange their schedules to be there. They have a purpose for getting together.
  • meets regularly. A small group has a regular meeting time and schedule. The groups know when to expect their next gathering.
  • for the purpose of joining God’s mission. People in small groups desire to be formed as Christ’s disciples and as such they will naturally join in God’s mission.

This definition brings us beyond groups that meet for coffee when it’s convenient, groups whose sole purpose is to assimilate new members into the church, or groups that learn a lot of good information. These groups take seriously practicing spiritual habits that form hearts and lives into being disciples of Jesus who live as his sent-ones. These groups are concerned with discovering how to be salt and light in the context in which God has placed them.

What does it mean to join God’s mission? Jesus made this clear when he said

“Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love you neighbor as yourself”. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

These instructions from Jesus help us understand how a missional disciple of Christ will live. We are to:

  • Love God
  • Love others
  • Go and make disciples

Small groups designed to disciple people for mission pay attention to all three of these instructions. Each is essential and to leave one out leads to incomplete discipleship. It’s when they are experienced and lived out in balance that missional disciples are formed.

In their book, The Tangible Kingdom, Hugh Halter and Matt Smay give deeper understanding to how we are to go about loving God, loving others, and making disciples. Their words, communion, inclusive community, and mission describe the three primary aspects of life that Jesus describes.

  1. Communion: Things that relate to our intimate connection with God  
    1. Communion involves the commitment of members to grow in relationship to God together.  
    2. It includes spiritual formation, Bible study, devotions, prayer, worship, spiritual disciplines. 
    3. It is being willing to hold one another accountable for spiritual disciplines.
  2. Inclusive Community: God’s work in uniting diverse people together in Christ
    1. Relationships begin by welcoming all who come, getting to know each other, and remembering the stuff of their lives. 

    2. Relationships are built by praying, caring and supporting one another. 

    3. It’s the result of unlike people committing to love and serve each other and the world.

  3. Mission: God’s invitation to participate in his redemptive work 
    1. Join together in God’s mission for you, your group and your church. 

    2. Engage the community by determining needs and asking how the group can meet them.

When communion, inclusive community and mission are lived out in balance, transformation happens; disciples are formed. It’s where these three things come together that the Kingdom of God is experienced. Small Groups need to be places where this balance and harmony are found if they are to be places where disciples are formed who will join in God’s mission.


Love this. I find it much easier to point out what small groups are NOT than what they ARE......and this is a great start on that road. Plus, as you point out, it necessarily eliminates some groups who try to pass themselves off as "small groups".

Three Questions:

1. I notice you used no numbers.....probably intentional. I wonder if you think the 80's CRC "Care Group" model many churches still use is capable of achieving this or if a scrapping of those would be a necessary stump to grow upon.

2. At our church, we're seeking to exit the "program" era of our church and base most things out of our small groups. Do you see "programmatic" approaches to ministry as an inevitable enemy of small group development?

3. I love the "missional" element of your model, but a chicken-or-egg question for you......does a missional church create missional small groups or do missional small groups build a missional church, in your opinion?

You ask really good questions, Mark! I'm anxious to hear how others respond.

1. I'm not sure what you mean by "numbers." If you mean how many people are in a group, I think it's safe to say a small group has to be more than 2 people but is best if it doesn't exceed 12. Of course, the purpose of a group will help determine this.

2. While "enemy" is a pretty strong word, it does seem that if a church has most of its focus on building multiple programs, there is naturally less focus on building a healthy small group ministry. Mostly, it's a matter of time. How many different programs, groups or other ministries can people be involved in given our busy lives? Books like "Sticky Church" and "Simple Church" are examples of approaching ministry with less focus on programs so that time and energy is prioritized upon going about discipleship and mission through the community that forms in small groups. Halter and Smay also point out that consumerism, individualism and materialism are "enemies" of developing the kind of shared life that leads to transformation. Read "The Tangible Kingdom."

3. Wow! That really is a chicken-or-the-egg question! Do I dare say it can be a both/and? A church that takes mission seriously will be much more likely to develop missional small groups. I can't imagine a missional church doing ministry without them! Church plants have the privilege of starting this way. But I do believe that if a group of people committed to figuring out how to do mission together would intentionally start a mission-shaped small group, they will lead the way for the rest of the congregation. Once the stories are told about how God is using their groups to transform lives or neighborhoods, others will catch the vision. If a church could even get to 30% of its small groups being intentional about forming disciples for mission----watch out world! A good starting point may be to invite the most mission minded people in a church to form a small group that is intentional about mission

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