When Jesus chose his closest confidants, he picked a rather unlikely group. Not only were they not religious scholars, tax collectors like Matthew and revolutionaries like Simon weren't exactly pillars of the local synagogue.
And when we look at the larger circle of people whom Jesus associated with we find prostitutes, drunkards, and more tax collectors—the ancient equivalent of the modern day loan shark.
When you contrast the people who were around Jesus with the people who fill most Western churches, you'll notice a stark difference. Gone are the sinners, criminals, and revolutionaries. Our churches look a lot more Leave it to Beaver and a lot less The Sopranos.
There have certainly always been exceptions to this, but during the second half of the 20th century, the church earned a reputation as a place that pushed away people on the fringe. Only the holy—or more often the hypocritical—were welcome. The good news is that in a lot of churches this is not only changing, it has already changed.
Krista Back is the First Impressions Director at National Community Church (NCC). Her stated reason for having purple hair? "You can't be judged by someone with purple hair." And Kurtis Parks, our Worship Pastor, has tattoos covering his arms because "more often than not, it leads to a conversation about Jesus."
It takes a lot more than tattoos and funky hair to reach people on the fringe, but they are a subtle way to say, "You're welcome here."
Yes, our seats are still filled with a lot of straight-laced middle-class WASPs (that's White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants) who grew up in the church and really do fit the mold. In fact, that largely describes me.
But we also count among our community homeless men and women, alcoholics, single moms, felons, and people who don't believe in Jesus. In other words, all of the people who you don't picture as churchgoers are here.
And I know my church isn't the only one. Communities like Ecclesia in Houston and the expansive Celebrate Recovery ministry at Saddleback in California are changing the conversation when it comes to church. And of course, the LA Dream Center/Angelus Temple takes this to a whole other level, as a church that not just welcomes but exists for those on the fringe.
The bad news is that it's probably going to be a while before people who don't fit the mold of a 1950s Baptist churchman feel completely at ease stumbling into the church around the corner, even if that church would love to have them.
This is where small groups can stand in the gap.
Adam Meier started bringing a group of guys from church to play basketball at the DC Youth Services Center when he was working for city councilmember Tommy Wells. I know "Youth Services Center" sounds like the local rec, but the YSC is a euphemistic name for DC's juvenile detention facility. Most of the young men and women there are awaiting trial, although a few are sent back if convicted.
It started with a visit that Adam and Tommy made to another of DC's juvenile detention facilities. Tommy saw the basketball court there and said, "We need to come play ball." So the first group that went and played was from the DC Council and even included a couple of councilmembers.
When we launched Second Saturday Serve—a monthly, no strings attached opportunity our church organizes to serve the city—Adam led a group of guys to play basketball at the YSC. Some of the guys really took an interest and started playing ball there every other Saturday. Now Josh Fisher leads a small group of men that visit the YSC weekly.
Recently the group of guys who head to the YSC monthly for Second Saturday Serve has grown so much that not everyone can play at once. This gives them the opportunity to sit down and have more intentional conversations with the young men. These are young men who literally can't go to church, but they are a part of a small group—whether they realize it or not. As a result, NCC guys are occasionally contacted by the young men who have been released.
The Living Room
One of my favorite groups at NCC was started a decade ago by my friend John Hasler. John has a heart for the under-resourced, and he recognizes the reality that when we're focused on helping "those people" who are "out there," we often do little good and much harm.
So John started The Living Room, a small group that aims to bring together people at NCC who have a place to live with those who do not. Like many other small groups, they have dinner, a Bible study, and a discussion. On any given Wednesday you'll find well-paid young professionals breaking bread with jobless and homeless neighbors.
Something I've learned over my many years of living in the city is that people who have significant physical need often aren't simply lacking for food or shelter or clothing. They're lacking deep relationships and a community of people who care for them.
And when our educated, driven, successful congregants begin to make friends with some people who are less fortunate, "those people" become friends with dreams and hopes and histories. They begin to realize that but for a single decision—often one beyond their control—their positions in life could be reversed.
Humility, grace, and gratitude take center stage. No longer is it about "fixing them" but about loving each other as friends, brothers, and sisters.
Bump, Set, Spike!
On the surface, volleyball doesn't seem like the most spiritual activity, but our volleyball group might be one of our most effective outreach ministries.
The group had been informally meeting for five years. But last summer, Amy Wall, one of the participants, decided to make it an official group when our summer theme for small groups was: "Have fun. Bring a friend."
Amy now leads it with Jodi Otto. They are both incredible women of God who don't just organize a volleyball game, but create space for conversation, and intentionally invest in the lives of those who attend.
And because there's no sermon, no devotional, and no opening prayer, group members feel free to invite coworkers, neighbors, and friends to come play. People who wouldn't think of darkening the doors of a church—people who would be turned off if asked to bow their heads and close their eyes for prayer before playing—are able to experience the church and the community of Jesus. This opens the door for conversations about faith.
Last summer, a young Marine who had started attending NCC showed up at the group. Amy and Jodi were encouraging folks to invite their friends, so he brought his Marine buddies, most of whom had no other connection to our church.
One of the Marines who began coming got married shortly after joining the group, so his wife started coming with him. The group, like any good small group would, embraced them with open arms. They had them over for Thanksgiving, threw them a baby shower when they got pregnant, and went to their house for dinner. The young couple was overwhelmed by the fact that they were loved even though they weren't part of the church.
The group eventually turned into an all day event: volleyball, lunch, and then attending our 5 pm Saturday church service together. Each week the couple would bow out before service, and while there were plenty of invitations, there was never any attempt to strong-arm them into coming.
One Saturday, they decided they wanted to check it out and snuck in without the rest of the group noticing. Later Amy told me, "I was able to go to church with them twice before they left for St. Louis. They only attended a total of three times, but it was a testament to all of those who were involved and loved on them. And then when they attended services, they felt that same love."
Small groups provide our churches with the opportunity to truly be all things to all people. If you are hyper-intellectual and aren't going to believe in Jesus until you have all of the evidence, there's an apologetics small group that would love to have you. If you're struggling with substance abuse, Celebrate Recovery will welcome you with open arms. If you have zero interest in faith, our volleyball group would still be glad to have you come play and eat.
Church services usually happen in a building, often one that a lot of people might not feel comfortable walking into, and they cast a wide net, needing to minister to a large swath of people.
Small groups happen in neighborhoods, restaurants, and parks. By their very nature they exist out in the community and often fill a specific niche or attract a specific demographic. With a little bit of intentionality, groups can be an incredible tool to reach people on the fringe—the very people Jesus would befriend.
—Will Johnston is the Small Group Catalyst for National Community Church in Washington, D.C.