Outreach Small Groups in the Church

One of the best arenas for outreach is the small group.

Jesus was serious about relationships. He spent all night talking to his Father. He hung out with his disciples, listened to their questions, and taught them patiently. He challenged the misguided. He had compassion on those with deep spiritual voids in their lives, and he encouraged even the smallest hint of faith. He loved deeply.

He wants us to do the same. When he called his first disciples, Peter and Andrew, Jesus' first words were, "Come follow me and I will send you out to fish for people" (Mt 4: 19). His final words as he ascended into heaven were "go and make disciples of all nations… (Mt 28:19). His challenge to all believers is, "you will be my witnesses" (Acts 1:8).

One of the best arenas for outreach is in a small group. In fact, small groups may be the new "front door" of the church. Small groups for outreach can be very effective, especially if we follow the underlying principles below and use Jesus' approach as our model.

Start With Where People Are, Not Where We Want Them to Be

Jesus met people at their point of need, embracing them just as they were. He wants us to do the same. When we start a small group with a goal of outreach, we should not start with where we are on our spiritual journey and ask unbelievers to join us. Why would they? Some might come just because they have a relationship with us and feel an obligation. The Holy Spirit's working might make someone open to join. In all likelihood, though, the people most interested would be those like us, people at a similar point on their spiritual journey. However, when outreach is our priority, we start with where others are on their spiritual walk, respecting where God is at work in them. Like Jesus did, we bridge the gap to meet them, rather than ask them to bridge the gap to meet us.

Be Intentional

To bridge this gap, we need to be intentional. Sadly, outreach does not come naturally for a lot of people. When we attain the community we long for, we tend to become exclusive rather than inclusive, and the people we say we are committed to reaching fall off our radar screen. We are busy people, after all, and we cannot do everything. Precisely—that is why we need to be intentional about reaching out.

Being intentional means looking for the relational connections God is putting in your life and expecting God to use you to draw others to Himself. Is it the cashier at the supermarket? What about your hairdresser? Could it be your next door neighbor? What about the moms in your preschoolers' play group? Not all of these people will be interested, but some will.

For my husband and me, it was a guy we met at a real estate open house. We found out he lives just down the street from us, and at a point of need in his life, he began sharing his struggles. We wanted to plug him into something beyond the two of us, so this past January we started a home Alpha group with three other Christians in our neighborhood. We all desired to reach out to our community and introduce them (or reintroduce them) to Jesus and the Christian faith. Using the relationships we had in place, we invited people to join us. We invited our new friend down the street. Twenty-six people attended our first meeting. We ended up with a committed core of two couples. Why so few? We were intentional, after all, but it soon became obvious that not everyone was at the same point on his or her spiritual journey. In the end, Alpha was what the remaining four people needed. Of those four, one embraced Jesus as Savior for the first time, two recommitted their lives to Him and to growing spiritually, and the fourth is asking lots of questions.

Provide Diversity

We are now evaluating our small group season and asking ourselves how to reach those who dropped out. Some said Alpha was too "churchy"; others had a scheduling conflict and could not come on the night we planned. Their answers underscore a second principle—that of providing diverse groups for diverse people.

People want choices. For some people, the entry point into a small group will be the need for support—a divorce recovery group, a cancer support group, or some other crisis group. Some will want to join those with similar interests or passions—a book or movie review group, a prayer group, or an inner city awareness group. People, both Christian and non-Christian, are motivated to join a small group for some of the following reasons: relationship building, felt needs, spiritual hunger, passions, affinity, and service-oriented tasks. We need to identify what would motivate the people we are trying to reach to join a small group and engage them there. Constantly ask this question: What kind of small group would people rearrange their schedule to join? Then, offer those kinds of small groups—multiple entry points—in order to reach people who are not connected to the church.

Empower People to Use Their Passions

The burning question then is, where will all these different kinds of small groups come from? The answer is, from the people God has impassioned to start those groups. God has wired us all differently—different looks, shapes and sizes, personalities, likes and dislikes, interests, and more, and yet we are wired the same—with a longing for Him. The route to finding God will be different for everyone. For some people, it will be through a Bible study small group. For others, it will be a small group that is service-oriented. Still others will find God through the healing support of friends in their support group. Through different paths and for people at different points on their spiritual journey but all groups leading people to embrace Jesus as Savior and Lord.

Empowering people to lead small groups according to how God is leading in their lives acknowledges the diversity God has created. It requires deep prayer, mutual accountability to agreed upon goals, submission to the mission of your church, and support for the leader. It also requires allowing the leader freedom to hear God's voice. It requires trust and respect for God's work in and through the leader, and it will also mean training for the leader. What it will not require is control.

Lace Everything With Prayer

God is the controller. We are the pray-ers and supporters. We are on this mission of reaching spiritual seekers together. We can trust God to guide us when we are open to all the ways that He is leading. The means God uses is such a surprise sometimes, but it is a great privilege to be used by Him to reach someone wandering in spiritual darkness. Expect to be used when you are open to Him. Jesus entrusted the future of the church to fledging leaders who did not quite get it, leaders who made mistakes from time to time but who were devoted to Jesus. We can learn a lot from His example.

Just Do It!

When we started our Alpha group in January, we did not know who would come or who would stay, but we started anyhow. We had prayed and prepared and promoted; now we needed to see who God would bring. The first week was exhilarating. Wow, 26 people! Our enthusiasm dwindled as the group did. We wondered if we had made a mistake, but we persevered. Then, as the weeks went by, the questions started and the gut-level sharing began. The smaller group and the increased trust as we built relationships with one another resulted in honesty and transparency. God knew exactly what He was doing even when we did not.

Now we are considering a new season of small groups and wondering how to reach the 17 that decided not to continue Alpha. Where are they? What do they need? How can we reach them? Are there others? We will begin again because God is at work, and He promises that His word will never return to Him empty (Isaiah 55). Who is God challenging you to reach?

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