By Michael C. Mack
People often ask me why I am so fanatical about small groups. I could provide many theological and statistical reasons, but my personal passion comes from one source: my life has been personally, profoundly transformed, many times actually, in the authentic, Christ-centered community of small groups. Beyond that, as a minister and small group coach and consultant, I have the privilege to see God use the community of healthy groups as the environment where discipleship occurs.
If you were to compare your group (or church) to the New Testament model of authentic community, how would you stack up? (See the sidebar, “Assess Your Group: Are We Restoring New Testament Christianity?” on the next page) When we evaluate ourselves against the New Testament example, we find much of what we call “community life” in the church today is still far from what Scripture calls us to. Lay down our lives for our small group friends? First let’s get them to show up for meetings! Our work, our kids’ schedules, even our church activities compete for our attention.
A normal reaction many small groups make to this busyness is to lower their commitment to their group, shifting from weekly to every-other-week meetings, for instance. I have never seen this work. Lowering your commitment level will not make you more committed! See more on this vital topic in my blog series on “Small Groups and Commitment” (www.smallgroupleadership.com; go to the blog and click on the Commitment label).
We have moved so far away from the authentic, self-sacrificing, daily-life-together community of the early church! Today, it seems, “Christians want change without challenge, strength without suffering, community without commitment” (Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson, Building a Church of Small Groups [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001], 58).
We must relearn how to live in healthy, sacrificial community, as God created us to live. A good start may be to understand one simple biblical truth: we belong to each other (Romans 12:5), not to our jobs, possessions, favorite TV shows, social media, kids’ activities, or, well, you fill in the blank.
And just like a tree needs a healthy environment to grow, bear fruit, and reproduce, a Christ follower needs this kind of healthy community in which true discipleship can happen.
Resisting Spiritual Growth
But what do you do as a leader when you want to see your group members grow, and yet they seem reluctant, resistant, or even rancorous toward making a commitment to grow spiritually?
I remember a conversation I had with Bob, a small group leader at our church. Bob has a very intimate relationship with Christ that exudes from him. He told me about his frustrations with some of his group members who are not committed in their relationships with Christ. As Bob shared with me, tears welled up in his eyes. Bob wants so much more for them, and his heart aches that they don’t seem committed to Christ or growing in their relationships with him.
I repeated to Bob what my friend Murphy Belding always says: the only person we can disciple is a willing one.
As leaders, we must trust God to do what only God can do in a person’s life. That means I will pray for that person constantly. I will invest into his life. I will encourage. I will offer to disciple him. I will ask if he’d like accountability for what he commits to. But I cannot make him do it. I do not want to make this commitment to discipleship legalistic.
Jesus does not force his way into our lives to make us grow. He stands at the door and knocks (Revelation 3:20). This passage was written to the church, to people who already claim Christ as Savior. Jesus is inviting his followers into deeper fellowship, deeper commitment, deeper intimacy with him. And then he waits for us to respond to his voice and to open the door for him to come in. There is no legalism or judgment here. There is simply an invitation and an expectancy that we will respond to him.
Now, imagine you are in the room with a group member who seems uncommitted to Christ and to growing in him. Your job is not to answer the knock on the door for him. Neither is it to push him to the door. It’s to lovingly encourage the person to respond and to show him the way by the way you respond to Jesus.
It’s in this authentic, biblical community of a healthy small group with a healthy shepherd-leader that we encourage one another to respond to Jesus and model what it looks like. I’ve seen it happen countless times. And that’s why I’ll always be fanatical about disciple-making community.
Restoring Our Vision
The New Testament church met primarily in homes and kept growing, bearing fruit, and multiplying. As Acts 2:42-47 describes: they devoted themselves to doing life together in authentic, Christ-centered, Holy Spirit-empowered community that enjoyed “the favor of all the people” around them, and “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (v. 47).
Imagine this vision, coined by small group guru Rick Howerton: “A biblical small group within walking distance of every person on the planet, making disciples who go and make disciples.” To accomplish that vision will take a commitment from you and me. It won’t happen through safe and comfortable small groups. If you, like me, are excited about that vision, you can be a part of a new multidenominational initiative called Groups Matter (www.groupsmatter.com) that is seeking to see 100,000 new groups—whether they meet in homes, church buildings, workplaces, or coffee shops—launch all around the world. Go ahead and pledge how many groups you plan to launch!
Michael Mack leads church training events and consults with churches through his ministry, Small Group Leadership (www.smallgroupleadership.com). You can e-mail questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
7 Guidelines for Biblical Community
How is your group or church doing at restoring biblical community? Here are some questions to help you answer that question. Ask your members to assess your group using a 1 to 5 scale, 1 being “not at all” and 5 being “100 percent.” Then discuss how you can grow as a group in each of these.
• Are we devoted to one another in brotherly love? Do we honor one another above ourselves (Romans 12:10)?
• Do we “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way . . . fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2)?
• To what degree does our group/church “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21)?
• Do we “encourage one another daily” (Hebrews 3:13, emphasis added)?
• Do we “admonish one another” (Colossians 3:16)?
• Is our group/church a place where people can confess their sins to each other and pray for one another so that they can be healed (James 5:16)?
• Most importantly, are we growing “to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:15)?