Note: This article is excerpted from our Training Tool Become a Church of Groups.
A traditional Sunday school church wants to deepen community, so they start home small groups. But they soon realize that all they have is a less organized Sunday school program meeting in homes.
A suburban pastor sees how people are disconnected, scattered, and lonely. But how do overly busy people add yet another activity to their lives? They try weekly small groups, but it's too much. So they settle for a social meeting once per month, which lasts for seven months and dies off.
After doing groups for ten years, a pastor hears about the vision for missional community. With great passion and vision, they change the name of their groups to missional communities, but the groups keep doing what they've always done.
You want the experience of community—the kind that is infectious, life-giving, and offers hope to the world. We are made for relationships. It's part of God's design. But how do you form a ministry of groups that offers community like that? Where do you start the journey to groups that live out community and mission?
No matter the journey, the best way to get there is to start from where you are. While this sounds incredibly obvious, I've found that this is probably the most overlooked step in the process of leading a church into group life.
In the three real-life situations depicted above, all of the churches were focused on their vision—what they wanted to accomplish. And while that's good to keep in mind, when I started working with these churches, it became obvious that they lacked any awareness about the current state of the church's strengths and weaknesses. They had lost touch with the life patterns of the people in the church. And they had not done any work to understand the context in which the church was set.
They thought the problem was about the way they did groups. But the problem was that these churches failed to implement group strategies that took into account their context.
Groups are about people. As soon as we think that the issue is structural in nature, that a strategy will fix the group problem, then we undermine that which makes groups work in the first place: relationships. In order for a church's relationships to work differently, we have to understand the way the relationships work now. We can't lead people to a new place if we don't understand where they are currently.
For instance, if a church has been shaped by decades of programmatic church life that requires clergy direction, fixed events, and printed curriculum, it doesn't matter how much you talk about relationships and community. Those old church patterns are part of the unspoken way that church works. If the leadership does not understand this fact, they can't lead the church into a new way of relating.
Or consider a church where most people say they're committed to live in community with one another and reach their community with the gospel, but the reality is that people just want things to return to the way the church did things in the 1970s. And they want the pastor to fix it. Bringing in a new strategy might brighten things up for a short while, but it won't result in great small groups.
When preachers attend seminary, they take classes on biblical exegesis, a technical term that simply means deep understanding or critical interpretation. When we preach or teach Bible classes, we aim to do so with a sound knowledge of what the Bible means. We start from where the Bible is coming from, and then move those truths into our lives.