Small Groups and the Emerging Church

Don't miss the forest for the trees.

In the early 1990's, I began working for an organization that consulted with churches in alternative ways of being the church. The founder of the ministry challenged the programmatic way of church life and promoted an organic way of being a missional people through small groups. Almost every day, I would field phone calls from pastors who longed to find a different expression of being the people of God. I remember one specific phone call. A pastor from the Allutian Islands (which is located off the coast of mainland Alaska) called sharing how they had been ministering for 30 years and had spent most of his ministry looking for an alternative expression of church that would impact his small island. I felt honored to listen to his story and offer a little hope.

However, something happened in the late 1990's. Small groups suddenly became the respectable way to organize a church. Large church pastors began promoting small group structures as the way to grow a church and to reach the lost. Overnight, our organization went from being a fringe outfit to a popular phenomenon with large churches, seminaries, and denominations asking us how to do church. From there, almost every large church in North America started promoting some form of small groups through books, articles, and training.

In 2004, I left this consulting organization to pastor again. During the last five years with that ministry, I became quite frustrated with what I saw going on in the small group movement. While small groups entered into the land of respectability, I felt like something was missing. This led me on a pilgrimage to survey the teachings of the small group pioneers from before the time of popularity. I found that the basic teaching was not about church growth, church structures, or even that of finding a biblical model for being the church. While they used different language, these pioneers were just seeking ways to be God's missional people in their local environments. The reality is that the early small group movement had a lot in common with the current movement that has been labeled "emergent." I saw seminal ways that innovators were wrestling with emergent/missional questions.

I also saw how the small group movement had gotten off track and small groups had been turned into a program rather than a way of facilitating organic missionality. Sadly, I realized the ways that I had participated in this derailment. The lure of credibility had attracted me like a moth to flame, and the missional perspective of the early small group vision had burned up.

Good old American pragmatism had turned small groups into a modernistic program that leaders could control and produce growth. (It is crucial to point out that producing growth in a church does not mean it is being missional in its orientation. We can produce all kinds of small group growth that just helps people live normal American lives.) As a result, I, along with many other small group trainers promised pastors and small group leaders a trip to the moon. Most of us bought into a set of small group myths that resulted in growth but little radical transformation. For most churches, they developed groups of people who were doing traditional church in their homes. The program was different, but it was still a program.

However, I am not ready to "throw the baby out" even though I am tired of the "water." I do not want to be one who disparages one approach without offering viable alternatives. As a pastor, I had to find such alternatives for facilitating community. To discover how small groups might fit into God's missional future for a church, we need much more than a set of strategies or a box full of ideas. We need conversation starters that can help us think about small groups in different ways. We need to identify the myths that hinder our ability to see how small groups and mission might work together. We need to ask different questions so that we can discover different answers.

I began asking questions: What are the missional elements that must be present to develop small groups which are much more than a popular program that gets lots of people to conferences? What are the ways of living in community that actually confronts rather than accommodates the average American lifestyle?

This led me on a journey—one that took about four years longer than I expected—to find ways to facilitate new conversations about what is emerging in the church and small groups. Along the way, I found ten key myths that have undermined the small group movement and kept it from entering into what God wants to emerge in the world. Realizing these myths has caused me to ask a new set of questions that are much more important to the future than were the answers that I used to provide.

I am now at a church where I wrestle with these same questions on a weekly basis. The answers emerging in our midst will not be the same that emerge in yours. Small group community is crucial to the future of the church. The exact form of it will vary. Small groups as a program is too simplistic, but small groups as a way to facilitate the journey toward becoming a missional organism holds unlimited potential.

If you are interested in exploring more about the common small group myths that have hindered God's missional/emergent future of the church, they are offered in the new book, The Relational Way: From Small Group Structures to Holistic Life Connections. You can download the Introduction and the Forewords by Alan Roxburgh and Randy Frazee at

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