By Reid Smith
Did you know that outreach has a way of actually turning small groups inside out? Struggling groups and small group ministries have found help not by focusing on their own internal issues, but by looking beyond their problems and giving attention to the needs of those beyond their immediate relational circles. This article will present how missions benefits small groups and how small groups can reach out together.
First let’s define what is meant by the terms “mission” and “missional.” Mission is the intentional crossing of boundaries from faith to non-faith to proclaim by word and deed the Good News of Jesus Christ. Missional is a way of describing the thinking, nature, and behavior of Christian churches, organizations, and believers whose intention, passion, or goals seek to introduce unbelievers to the person of Jesus Christ.
I have given my life to building the community life of churches through small groups because they are essential to empowering God’s people in mission. Small groups aren’t meant to create new comfort zones for people. Rather, their purpose is to embolden believers to go beyond their comfort zones to do things they never imagined doing. Every group can find a way to be missional in a manner that is natural for its own unique group dynamic. To not do so is a big miss. Tragic really.
The Problem with being Inwardly Focused
There’s a natural slide for small groups to become inwardly focused. Many small group leaders have unknowingly adopted a certain kind of thinking that’s protective and territorial. Leaders may believe that their group doesn't have the time or capacity to reach beyond their own relationship needs and issues.
But the group-life that results from this mindset is contrary to the nature and purpose of the body of Christ. Groups that remain self-focused eventually fall apart because of the dynamic that’s already been created from being inwardly focused for too long.
God wants every believer to share His grace with the world around them (2 Cor. 5:17-20), so how could small groups not be utilized evangelistically? I encourage all groups to reach out. I don’t prescribe how groups should reach out. Instead, I present different opportunities that appeal to different kinds of groups depending on their make-up and focus. I might take more of a campaign-style approach and present something church-wide during some seasons.
What does Missions do for small groups?
Mission builds up group participants and benefits small groups. Communicating these insights about small groups and missions to people in groups provides the explanation and encouragement they need to push outward to the edge of their comfort zones. Small group missions – both near and far…
- Enable believers to reach out in ways they couldn’t do if it were left up to them alone.
- Enlarge the potential to make connections with people already in our sphere of influence because it gives us a new social network to work through.
- Provide platforms for invitational evangelism and ready-to-go outreach teams for missions that help believers enter into new territory and cultures for Christ.
- Bonds a group together in ways that groups with a pure diet of Bible study does not (James 1:22-25).
- Ensures group-life is well-rounded, helping believers to be well-rounded too.
- Provides a way to take your church’s community-life beyond the four walls of your church building so that your surrounding community can see the love of God with skin on it (John 13:35; 1 John 4:12).
- Allow believers to “go deeper” in their understanding of God’s Word more than if one were to give their attention solely to Bible study.
- Results in stories of life-transformation that inspire others to use their time and resources to reach out and make a difference in the lives of others.
- Brings new believers into God’s Kingdom and the group, which the Lord always uses to refresh and enliven a group dynamic.
Making Room for New People
God blesses groups that look for ways to show His lost children the way home – He will make room if we make room (Luke 15:10, 22-24). He inspires new growth in us when we expand the relational circle of our group-life to touch the lives of others. In Luke 17:33, Jesus says, “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” This same economy of the Kingdom applies to a small group’s community-life and how open it chooses to be to missional thinking and action.
Sometimes people feel like the presence of newcomers will negatively affect the friendship-forming happening in their group. This is a myth. When a group takes a protective (territorial) posture when it comes to its size or acceptance of newcomers, it suffocates itself. A group needs to breathe. New participants feed a group’s dynamic like oxygen feeds fire. They bring new life to the group. Consider this: There are more options for dealing with challenges that come with growth than there are in dealing with the problems of decline.
Prayer that is Externally-focused
There are many ways small groups can engage in local or cross-cultural missions. Ask the Lord how He wants to use you and your group in missions. Start with prayer and think in baby-steps. Your group probably won’t start with organizing its own mission trip halfway around the world. But most people are open and ready to begin praying for the people in their lives who don’t yet know Christ. An externally-focused prayer has a way of cultivating missional hearts.
Prayer also ignites brainstorming about outreach. This is critical to do in the group and with the group. Small group leaders can bring options, but more importantly, they should involve everyone in the process of determining how the group can expand its circle of influence together. Take time to share the benefits of outreach, answer questions, and give everyone a part to play in organizing how to engage in missions together.
Making a Difference Near and Far
The Lord will show your group how it can make a difference near and far. You might begin by thinking through what constitutes Jerusalem (local-citywide), Judea (citywide-regional), Samaria (statewide-countrywide), and the ends of the earth (countrywide-worldwide) for your group (Acts 1:8). What does each sphere look like and what opportunities exist within each?
Ask the group to come up with examples for each sphere. I have found excellent ideas from servantevangelism.com, kindness.com, or serve-others.com. For guidance on how a church can engage in cross-cultural/global outreach through its small groups see thepeaceplan.com.
There are a variety of ways your group can reach out together:
- Invitational – Invite your friends to your group and your church.
- Event-based – Link your group outreach to your church events and serve together during the weekend services or for special outreach events.
- Community service – Go to idealist.org, charityfocus.org, volunteersolutions.org, or volunteermatch.org. Identify needs in your community that touch your group’s heart and then serve together (e.g. community clean-up day, providing school supplies for underprivileged kids, food delivery, helping the homeless, etc.).
- Web-based – Social networking sites, e-vites, blogs, interactive online sharing, strategically-placed ads and alerts (see more at webevangelism.com).
- Sponsorship – Support a child (compassion.com), a family or village (harvestofhope.org).
- Focused Prayer – adopt a people group in prayer (joshuaproject.com or adoptapeople.com).
- Mission trips – Contact your church’s pastoral leadership team and share that your group would like to go on a mission trip together. Learn about what your church is already doing and get a couple of recommendations on organizations that can help with planning it.
Step Outside Safe Boundaries
Growth is a good thing. People naturally think of it as being a positive. Yet the road we need to travel to get there sometimes feels very unnatural and even negative. Missions carry this kind of weight in the hearts of many and creates an unpleasant tug-of-war on their insides. However, when we overcome this resistance and serve those on the other side of our world (figuratively or literally), we discover new passion and purpose in our lives and our groups.
Recently, our church partnered with a missions organization to send two teams to Nicaragua’s capital city dump. In this dump lived thousands of families. Most children never stepped outside the landfill and they end up on drugs or are forced into prostitution so they and their families can survive. In response to this desperate situation, our church partnered with a missions agency and raised money to build a house of hope on the outskirts of the dump where kids could live, learn, laugh, and grow in Christ.
Our church came back with new eyes and hearts, filled with a desire to go back and serve. Their stories continue to touch the hearts of our church community, inspiring others to go. Our members are being inspired to reach out locally and some are also adopting kids out of the dump. People who aren’t a part of our church, including nonbelievers have also contacted us wanting to join our teams for next year’s trips.
Missions have a way of multiplying people to make a difference in the lives of others. For example, one small group in our church is going to Nicaragua this month. Their group recently birthed a new group out of its existing one so when the other ‘half’ heard of what they were planning they wanted to go too! The group leaders actually had to create a lottery system to decide who was going to go.
The Worthwhile Risk
Small group missions is not only about reaching those outside of our groups, it’s about reaching those inside of our groups so they can discover things within themselves they would have never found if they hadn’t ventured beyond their comfort zones. Your small group members and the many lives – near and far – that will be touched through their self-giving love makes overstepping the bounds of what feels safe and familiar a worthwhile risk for everyone involved.