And this model isn't new. Bill Hybels took the same approach when he started Willow Creek Community Church in 1975. He writes,
One thing I really got right is that I started Willow with my friends. The founders are still with me today and we're still best of friends. I had an incredible team of proven people around me, and we had established a loving and joyful community before we held our first service. That I did right, by the grace of God. So if I were starting fresh, the minute I felt I had clarity on the vision for starting a new church, I would present that vision to close, trusted friends who I wanted to come along with me on this adventure.
According to Hybels, having a small group of close, trusted friends is essential to starting a new church because they won't "bail because something goes a little wrong. The glue, the adhesion, is already in place and will hold together."
A Mission to Reach People
Beyond starting with small groups, these church plants are very different. All three churches are in different cities with different missions. While The District Church has a mission of justice in a city full of young singles, Lincoln Park|Old Town focuses on serving people in some of the more affluent Chicago neighborhoods. And it's safe to say that the church plant in Charlotte will have a different focus, too, simply based on the demographics and culture of Charlotte.
One of the strengths of church plants is their ability to focus on a unique neighborhood and mission, reaching people who may not be reached by more established churches. Small groups help church plants in this by allowing them to build relationships with a small group of individuals, focusing on discipleship, apprenticeship, and mission that will allow them to impact their community as they launch—and for the long haul.
My own church is a 10-year-old church plant. We are deeply committed to the community, and our small groups are focused on discipling others who will then disciple others. A few years ago, my small group met Allan, a homeless man living in a day-to-day motel. Through our relationship with him, he started going to a small group and to church. He's also found permanent housing. His renewed commitment to Christ has deeply impacted him, and he intentionally seeks others to serve and help.
Allan is the type of person who is more or less invisible. He's isolated, has no means of transportation, and has no family. He never would have walked into a church on his own.
Over 70 years old, he stands out in our young, contemporary service, singing along to new worship songs—though he admits he prefers the choruses from the 1970s. But a church plant ministering through small groups, committed to the community, and focused on mission was exactly what Allan needed to draw him to Christ.
Stories like Allan's are exactly why Steven M. Pike says church planting is the best way to reach the lost in America. But any small group can have an impact on the community—whether or not it's part of a church plant. If small groups will take the stance of a church plant—choosing to truly see the people around them, reaching out to those far from God, discipling people who will disciple others, and developing leaders—they will impact their communities in huge ways.
—Amy Jackson is managing editor of SmallGroups.com.