"I'd like to be in a small group, but we just don't have the time right now."
I have heard that phrase 7,463 times since getting involved in small group ministry, but who's counting? It used to frustrate me every time it was uttered in my presence. Sometimes I would argue with the anti-participant, using my best Biblical and sociological case for group involvement. That never worked. As a small groups minister, I have used all kinds of promotions and campaigns with only limited or short-term successes. I have tried making it easier for people to be in a group. I have used interest-based groups, for instance, also with some success, but that has not been the answer for everyone. So what gives?
As small group leaders, you and I know the value of being in Biblical community. We know that it is transformational. We understand that if you are a part of the Body of Christ (in other words, a Christian), that by nature you must be in community. We realize that as Christians we are supposed to invest our lives and our time into what is truly important, and to God nothing in the world is as important as people. He values people, so we do too. We get it. We have our priorities straight. We know all that about the significance of community, but how do we let everyone else know?
To begin with, your senior pastor must be on board and in community. It must be a priority to him for people in your church to make it their priority. When he shares illustrations of his positive experiences with and spiritual growth from being in community, it sends a clear message and casts a compelling vision for the church. If he is not on board and not in community, you will face constant frustration in your efforts. If you have a passion for being in real community and helping others grow in community but your senior pastor does not share that vision, you will probably remain frustrated and may need to make a very difficult decision. (Note that I am being very careful not to say your pastor must be involved in your church's small group program. What is ultimately important is not the program but that he is in authentic Christian community.)
Beyond the role of your pastor, what can you do? I have learned a lot from Jesus and the disciples about inviting busy people into community.
When Jesus called His disciples, He went to where they were—to their turf. He went to the seashore, the tax-collection booth, to Galilee. He took the time to step into their busy worlds. He modeled the importance of community by making time to build relationships with them. Only then did He ask some of them to be in his discipleship group. Jesus was an intensely relational leader. He did not pass around a sign-up sheet or put an ad in the Temple Newsletter. Are you intentionally building relationships with people? Are you going to where they are or expecting them to come to you?
Before calling the 12 into His group, Jesus stopped to pray: "One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles" (Luke 6:12-13). Are you asking God who should be in your group? Are you seeking who God is calling into community? His call will help you know who to call, and it will help them better understand their priorities.
Call Them to a Cause
Jesus did not invite people to meetings; He called them into a relationship with a reason—community with a cause: "Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." The people Jesus called were busy men. They had hard, stressful jobs. Some had families. Some were involved in their communities, political action, and social insurrection. Jesus called them to something significant—something so vital that they would even leave their jobs and interests behind. For many people, especially busy people, a small group is just "one more thing" to put on their already crowded calendar, but when people are called into transformational community with a cause—a purpose bigger than themselves—I believe they will respond much differently. Are you inviting people to meetings or to a mission?
A study of Jesus and the disciples may redefine community for us. Community is more than just caring for each other within our groups. Biblical community always has a purpose beyond its own. Early in the group's life together, Jesus sent out the disciples—two by two so they were still in community—to minister to others. His overall purpose was to disciple and develop them and then to deploy them for ministry.
In the August issue, I contended that small groups should be described as "dangerous" rather than "safe." I believe that. Eddie Cocke, a small group leader in our church, put this into a helpful perspective. Small groups should be a lot like football games, he said. At first, I recoiled at this depiction. I remember using the term "holy huddle" as a derogatory term for groups that become unhealthy cliques. However, Eddie explained the huddle is a safe, secure place—a place of community where you can put an arm around each other and yet still look each other in the eye. It is a place to take a moment and catch your breath, but its primary purpose is to prepare the team for the battle on the field. A huddle where no play is called, no strategy discussed is useless. The purpose of real community is always outward-focused.
Go to War
It seems to me that those who best understand community are our military in the middle of war zones. These brave men and women care for each other. They depend on one another and will lay down their lives for their friends, but a military unit never focuses only on one another. They are trained to focus on their mission, but they carry it out together—in community. They are a community with a cause. How about your group? What is your community cause?
Take No for an Answer
Along the way, Jesus invited many people to follow Him. Some refused. Others argued with Him. Some began to follow, but then realized the costs were too high or His teaching was too difficult, and they walked away. Jesus never hid the fact that there were costs involved with being a part of His group. He let people walk away. This fact has helped me to understand that not everyone will respond positively. Some may look at the things they would need to give up from their worlds and not be willing to pay that cost. They are not ready. Perhaps, unfortunately, they never will be.
Do Not Forget Jesus
This may, at first, seem like a silly statement, but when Jesus called these men into His group, He was calling them into much more than just a group of men; He was calling them into a community in which God would always be present. That is obvious, since Jesus was their leader, right? However, His presence did not end when Jesus was no longer physically with them.
- "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).
- "For where two or three gather together because they are mine, I am there among them" (Matthew 18:20).
That is why John could say with confidence, "We are telling you about what we ourselves have actually seen and heard, so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3). Who does not have time for that?Focus on Transformation
Jesus called these men into this divine community to disciple them—to walk with them and shepherd them so that they could become more like Him. That did not happen overnight, but that was His purpose for them—to be transformed. Invite people into a life of transformation, to living life to the full—the abundant life. It will happen, with Jesus' presence and power. Nothing in life can compete with that.
When we as leaders realize just what we are actually inviting—no, calling—people into, and when we approach this calling as Jesus did, priorities become clear and excuses fade away. Be concerned more about your response to God than others' response to you. That takes surrender, and that is the right priority.