Which better describes your conviction about the primary purpose of your small group?
- The purpose of our group is to carry out the Great Commission by building relationships with people who do not know Christ and inviting them into relationship with God and the Christian community.
- Our group exists to provide an environment of Christian community where people can love and be loved, know one another deeply, and be nurtured in their growth as disciples.
In practice, most Christian small groups prioritize community over evangelism. Carl George, in Nine Keys to Effective Small Group Leadership, reports that in a given year, one Christian small group in four will "win someone to faith in Christ" (p. 6). That means that three out of four will not.
The tension between community and evangelism is most sharply focused around the issue of multiplying small groups. As group members come to know and love one another deeply, they want to stay together. As more people join the group, the group becomes too large to maintain intimate community. The group then has to choose which takes priority—evangelism or community? Do we multiply so we have room to keep bringing in new people? Or, do we stay together so we can continue to enjoy and nurture the community that is so important to us?
While most groups tilt the scale toward community, others make evangelism their primary mission. Some groups make it a goal to multiply the group every 6, 9, or 12 months. When groups multiply this often, it can take a heavy toll on community life. To begin with, it often takes longer than 6 to 9 months to develop the level of trust that intimate community requires. An even greater hindrance to community is that once a person has gone through changing small groups every year or so, three years in a row, she learns, "It's better to not get close to people in my small group, because I'll be leaving them soon anyway. It hurts too much to leave if we get close." Group members burned this way protect themselves emotionally by not entrusting their hearts to other group members or by dropping out of small group life altogether.
As small group leaders, are we doomed to live with perpetual frustration over this tug of war? I do not think so. In wrestling with this issue for more than 30 years, here are a few things have learned about how to live with this creative tension.
1. Affirm both community and evangelism.
Biblically, community and evangelism are inseparable. My favorite definition of evangelism is found in 1 John 1:3. John the evangelist is explaining his reason for writing this letter. It is an evangelistic purpose: "This which we have seen and heard...we declare to you also, in order that you may share with us in a common life, that life which we share with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ" (NEB).
The Greek word translated "share with us in a common life" is koinonia - community. The evangelistic invitation is not, as we so often misrepresent it in our individualistic culture, merely an invitation to a one-on-one relationship with Jesus. Rather, it is an invitation to enter into the life of a community with God at the center. If the evangelistic invitation is an invitation to join a community, then the prerequisite to evangelism is that we must have a community into which we can invite others. No community, no evangelism.
The challenge is to develop a healthy, deep sense of community, one that brings honor to God, nurtures us, and welcomes those who are hungry for God and community. In your group, acknowledge the tension between community and evangelism, but hold up both as essential. Neither is negotiable. Embrace John's definition of evangelism as inviting people into the community of disciples.
2. Nurture community with discipleship partners.
When I look to a small group of 10 to 15 to provide an environment of intimacy, I find that at least half the time I am disappointed. Whenever a new person joins the group, the trust level is lowered, and it has to be rebuilt. I have come to believe that expecting a group of 10 to 15 to meet my needs for intimate relationships is too heavy a load to put on that group. It sets me up for almost certain disappointment.
Since I am called to intimate community, that means I need to look for that intimacy in a different setting. My approach has been to meet with one or two discipleship partners of the same gender who get together for an hour or so either weekly or every other week, usually over breakfast or lunch.
- We share what is happening in our lives, especially our relationships with God and others.
- We listen deeply to one another and encourage one another.
- We pray for one another.
- We hold each other accountable to follow through with what we say God is calling us to do.
That is it. Some discipleship partners also include a study element such as reading and discussing a passage of Scripture or going through a curriculum such as Discipleship Essentials by Greg Ogden.
Both the biblical and practical principles involved in these discipleship partnerships are described powerfully in Greg Ogden's book Transforming Discipleship.
A slightly different, but also excellent, version of this concept is the Life Transformation Group described in Neil Cole's book, Cultivating a Life for God.
Lead by example. Meet regularly with one or two discipleship partners. Stay together for two to three years before multiplying your discipleship group. This gives you the time to develop real intimacy and accountability. (My favorite definition of accountability: someone knows you well enough that you cannot possibly screw up without him/her knowing it.)
Do some teaching in your group out of one of the above books on the importance and joy of meeting as discipleship partners. Help partners find one another, and encourage them to meet regularly. These partnerships can continue, even when your small group multiplies.
In looking for discipleship partners, I encourage people to look first within their small groups. This sets up a synergy between the discipleship partnerships and the small group, rather than further fragmenting relationships. Of course, sometimes it works better to have discipleship partners who are not in the same group.
I have learned to look to my discipleship partner(s), not my small group, to meet that need for spiritual intimacy. Then, when I do experience intimacy in my small group as well (and I often do), it is a bonus, and I celebrate that as a gracious gift!
3. Honor close relationships when you multiply your group.
When the time comes to multiply your small group, minimize the disruption to community by encouraging the new groups to form around the strongest relational ties. As much as practical, allow group members to self-select which of the new groups they want to be in.
Here is one technique that can sometimes help: In the weeks prior to the group's multiplication, divide into two groups when you pray for one another. The group leader can lead one group, the intern the other group. Allow each person to choose which leader to go with for the prayer time. After doing this for 4 weeks or so, sometimes the two new groups will have already formed around the respective leaders.
It also works to simply ask people which group they want to be a part of. Rarely do such groups form along the lines that I, as the leader, would have anticipated, but they usually work better than anything I would have come up with myself.
4. Keep the connection alive.
After the group multiplies, be intentional about keeping the two groups connected. Every couple of months or so, have a cookout or a game night together. You have invested a lot in each other's lives. These people are your friends. It is not okay to write them out of your life just because you are making room for new people in the community. Of course, if people know they will be keeping the connection alive, that makes multiplying easier.
Living with creative tension
I used to think there must be a right way to resolve the tension between community and evangelism in small group life. I have given up on that. I have accepted that this is a tension we will have with us always. While the tension is real, in a healthy Christian community the synergy between them is even greater than the tension. Evangelism, as John tells us, is the invitation to others to join the community of faith. The community thrives most when there is a steady flow of new life into the community
We can have both. In fact, to settle for anything less, is to miss out on God's best for our lives.