There are many kinds of small groups found in churches today. Some are formed to support what goes on inside the church building on weekends (parking attendant groups, usher groups, worship team groups, etc.). Other groups that meet off-campus are formed for Bible study, prayer, fellowship, outreach, or discipleship. Each has an opportunity to learn or serve or minister in the local church. Most are encouraged to do far more than their stated purpose, but, in my experience, few really do more than the task they are assigned or the stated purpose of the group. People are over-busy with work, kids, hobbies or recreation, and only motivated to get the assignments done for the commitments they have made to the church. Task and single-focus groups do what they are designed to do, but rarely do they do as much as a pastor would like them to do.
Holistic small groups (HSGs) are different and carry a special definition. In a nutshell, this kind of group seeks to live out the stated mission of a local church in which it is a subset and to minister to the members of the group in as many aspects of their lives as is possible. For the sake of clarity on these two points, let us delve a little deeper into the meaning of each.
Fulfilling the Mission of the Local Church
Instead of supporting or fulfilling just part of a local church's mission, a holistic small group works hard to live out the specific calling God has placed on that local church. For example, here is my home church's mission statement:
"Building a compassionate community that draws people from all cultures and generations into an authentic, intimate, and supernatural life with Jesus Christ."
Because the small groups in my church are challenged to fulfill our mission, we do not limit our time together to just study the Word, or just pray, or just serve the church body in some way. We exist to fulfill that for which God has set our church apart from all others. Our group's mission is to remain compassionate, to contain many cultures and generations, and to experience an authentic, intimate, and supernatural relationship with Jesus Christ.
Our mission is clear. We are a team of spiritual construction workers. We are to build a Christ-centered community that is compassionate and comprised of many kinds of people. This defines what we do in our weekly meetings, how we interact between meetings, and the kind of outreach we do as a team.
Fulfilling the Ministry Christ Gave Us
My holistic group is filled with people from many walks of life and ages. This fulfills the mission of my local church and gives us incredible opportunities to be stretched as individuals. In Acts 2, we find an assembly of Christians who remained together long enough to become one. It was then that they experienced the presence of God in such capacities that they were transformed and made powerful for the mission.
HSG members understand this important distinction between a task-driven group or a weekly Bible study. Each person has voluntarily agreed to meet with a small group to wait on God and get a powerful understanding of unity that affects the community around them.
As the New Testament believers remained together in the upper room, they had no choice but to accept one another and minister to one another. They moved beyond conflict and into community where the Holy Spirit moved. This is the goal for a HSG: to band together in such a way, and for a length of time that allows Christ's indwelling presence to transform them.
Holistic small groups can also be characterized by their goal to fulfill both the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-34) and the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18). To simplify this, many have chosen to follow four directions. The first two fulfill the Great Commandment, and the last two fulfill the Great Commission.
The time devoted to individual and corporate prayer in a HSG is substantial. Prayer is given the highest priority because it is where the group members discover and fuel their mission as a believer and follower of Jesus Christ. Healthy HSG members pray daily, pray with other members outside the group, and pray fervently during meetings for one another and for those who have yet to receive salvation. In my HSG meetings, we typically pray together for a half hour or more.
A healthy HSG does not focus on the weekly meeting alone. The members seek to "overlap" their lives in such a way as they have what Dr. Will Miller calls "refrigerator rights." In my group, we are constantly spending time together hanging out, eating a mid-week meal, doing chores together, talking on our cell phones for no particular reason, or taking a long walk to get exercise and simultaneously having our accountability time. While we are all as busy as a one-armed wallpaper hanger, we purposely carve out time to relate to one another between meetings.
A healthy HSG does not care about its own members and its own comfort level so much that it does not reach out to others outside the community. The members fully understand that the koinonia they experience with the Upward and Inward components of group life will become stale or even rot like the manna given to Israel if hoarded. The community must be expanded so it can be fully exploited by God to build the kingdom. My HSG diligently creates barbeques, parties, and outings where we can invite our unchurched friends to meet our fellow group members and create new relational connections. Dave Earley, the author of 8 Habits of Effective Small Group Leaders, said it best when he wrote, "Win the person to you, then win them to your group, and then you will win them to Christ." This is so true. When my unchurched friends grow close to other members of my group, they find the love of Jesus and do not fall away.
A good friend in ministry and the founder of smallgroups.com is Mike Mack. In a lesson he wrote in a curriculum book entitled, Moving Forward, he describes a family whose children grew up, graduated from college, but never moved out of the house. In a healthy HSG, the members of the group are not content to sit and soak in a small group as a member forever. They are being discipled to grow up, "move out of the house," and start a group of their own as the first part of their kingdom leadership potential. The leader(s) of a HSG are always giving away ministry opportunities both within the meeting and among the members outside the meeting to train and develop members into future leaders.
Many churches have attempted to launch holistic small groups and have failed. The groups formed simply do not love God enough to pray consistently or deeply. The members do not love one another sacrificially between meetings. The group does not reach out and never brings others to Christ and into the community, and, sadly, no one wants to lead a new group.
I fully believe these lackluster results stem from a programmatic mentality. When a church recruits potential leaders, trains them with materials over the course of a few weeks, and launches as many groups as possible with the primary goal of congregational assimilation, they are doomed. The groups will probably be anything but healthy.
However, when a church takes an organic approach to launching holistic small groups, everything changes. The groups are healthy and each person is purpose-driven, to borrow a phrase from Rick Warren.
In an organically grown holistic small group ministry, church leaders learn to live out the four directions of HSG life first (Upward, Inward, Outward and Forward). This gives them the ability to lead by modeling and demonstration, not theory. Then, they befriend church leaders who are also living out the values of HSGs or who have a heart for it. As these church leaders live in biblical community, reach friends for Jesus, and begin to disciple them through a deep relationship (as opposed to a discipleship class), the makings of the first groups have formed.
In other words, the goal is personal transformation, one person at a time. It is viral, and the lifestyle of the disciple is passed on through deep relationships, not a launch strategy.
Where to Start
If you wish to launch HSGs in your church, here are a few simple pointers to get you on your way:
Live out the four values of an HSG yourself.
Make time for God and other believers. Then, involve unchurched people in your life and spend enough time with them to gain refrigerator rights in their homes. Soon, you will have reached them for Christ, and you can begin discipling them to do the same thing. If you do not make the time to do this personally, you will not be successful in launching HSGs in your church. Period.
Ignore the desire to grow big.
Focus your time and energy on helping others find personal transformation in Christ and in the midst of a biblical community. Remember, this is all about quality, which naturally or organically produces quantity. HSG-driven churches who are growing into the hundreds of thousands of members around the world never had a goal of being big. You shouldn't either. If it happens, great! However, it should never be our driving motivation.
Remain faithful to your church's mission.
Israel enjoyed protection from the elements and provision for many years because they followed God's cloud on their journey. Remain in the shadow of your church's mission and make that mission the single goal of your group(s) and you will succeed. Move away from it at your own risk.
Train members, not leaders.
Far too many churches make the mistake of training leaders for new groups instead of developing Christ-loving, others-serving, soul-winning members. If you disciple believers to do these things, you get new group leaders for free.
Never appoint existing leaders to start HSGs.
Just because someone was a Bible study leader, Sunday School teacher, deacon, or elder in your church in the past does not qualify them to lead a HSG. Qualified persons are currently demonstrating leadership potential by participating in a HSG and have successfully embraced all four values of HSG life. Then, and only then, should they be given the opportunity to lead an HSG—one filled with people they have personally reached for Christ or whom they have partnered with in community and relate to deeply.
The most successful churches in the world are based on holistic small groups. Each has a passion to help every individual find personal transformation through a relationship with other believers and Jesus Christ. The growth of their groups was slow and determined, much like the story of the tortoise and the hare. If you desire for your small groups to be more than task groups or focused on one aspect of church life, you must live out the required values and pass them along as a father might teach his son the family business.
Randall Neighbour is the author of four books for holistic small group members and leaders and the President of TOUCH Outreach Ministries. He and his wife, Etna, live in Houston, Texas, and serve as small group coaches in the Vineyard Church of Houston.