Christianity has been practiced in the midst of our "holy huddles." There is a lack of Christian energy being expended on reaching the lost. We are using it all up at our gatherings.—Bob Muni(1)
Frequent moves have left my husband and me far from extended family. In our early years of marriage, I found this very painful. I now realize that the small groups we have belonged to have been our family support network. In many ways we have become closer to people in our small groups than to our own family members because of their availability and compassion. Still, this closeness also has a downside.
Just as our small town wants to preserve its small-town feel of comfort and security, once we start feeling comfortable with our small groups and those bonds begin to strengthen, we are tempted to sit back and bask in the secure feelings they give.
People need an environment where they can feel cared for and safe. The danger is that when they become too comfortable, their primary concern becomes their own welfare and how to keep that feel-good atmosphere. When their main focus is their own well-being, it is hard to care about others.
Long-established churches often suffer from this malady. After years of having vital ministry, churches may morph into a social club where people's main concern is feeling comfortable. Though some members may still have a heart for reaching unchurched people, they often do not know how to go about it because they are so entrenched in old habits and systems. Leaders can prevent this from happening in small groups by training members to see beyond themselves and to consider the welfare of others.
Stepping Outside the Circle of Comfort
Evangelism may not be the primary concern of small groups, but members should still make efforts to reach out since all Christians are urged to share the Good News. What better place to teach people to put feet on their faith? We often fail to reach out because we do not know how, but when people come together for a common cause, it is amazing to see what can be done in Christ's name. Holding special care and compassion events is one way of getting people out of their holy huddles. One of the most basic ways, however, to reach out to others and prevent the bunker mentality starts with something very fundamental—the room-for-one-more attitude.
Room for One More
Keeping group membership open rather than capping it off at a certain number is one safeguard against holy huddles. Members learn to care about the welfare of others. When new people join a group, existing group members must readjust their thinking to include one more. Doing so prepares them for future outreach. When members bend their wills to allow one more, they are more likely to develop hearts concerned with reaching others for the Kingdom.
The "World" May Have Infiltrated Your Group
At his group's first meeting, a leader asked each member to tell how he or she became a Christ follower. He was surprised when several members explained that they were still seekers and had not made that decision yet. One of these seeker members died of a heart attack a few days later. Though no one was sure if he made a commitment, it was reassuring to know he had the opportunity to think one more time about what it meant to follow Jesus.
Leaders should never assume that all group members are Christians. Small groups can be a discipling environment not only where people grow in maturity, but also where non-Christ followers make a decision to commit to Christ.
Leaders who know their members' spiritual status in advance can avoid Christianese (the Christian language and concepts so alien to many unbelievers and new members) and heavy biblical concepts, and explain what these concepts mean as new members assimilate into the group. With a little care and a lot of prayer, these members may eventually make a commitment to Christ.
Outstanding Outreach Opportunities
The world does not always come to our door, although, in the previous example, you can see that it sometimes does. If we want to reach out to others, we must usually go out into the world.
Evangelism is not necessarily a door-to-door event. Why would God ask us to do something so unnatural for us and at which most of us perform poorly? Evangelism and missions go hand in hand with benevolence (caring). They are often so parallel in interests that it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
Evangelism's main purpose is to reach non-Christ followers with the Christian message. Many mission opportunities are present in our neighborhoods, churches, and schools. Small groups can experience the joy of reaching out and giving in a variety of ways.
While evangelism's central purpose is to tell others about Christ, benevolence work is more concerned with the physical needs of the less fortunate, though people may enter a relationship with Christ because of the compassion individuals or groups show them. People worrying about where their next meal will come from or needing medical attention have difficulty hearing the message if their needs are overlooked. Jesus said, "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me" (Matt. 25:35-36).
James 2 talks about the importance of caring for people's physical needs: "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead" (vv. 14-17).
Benevolent outreach allows small-group members to put feet on their faith, take the focus off themselves, and concentrate on the welfare of others. By reaching out, groups develop the healthy habit of caring for others and touching them with Christ's love.
Hands-on charitable giving and involvement can be much more powerful than writing out a check for charity. The giver sees the transformation firsthand. People are energized when they participate in person because it moves them from passive giving to active giving.
Our church participated in a church-wide campaign that encouraged small group community service. Individual groups decided where and how to serve. Some small-group members were skeptical of our church's community service campaign, but after going through the study and participating in a project, the skeptics had a change of heart. Small groups took on a variety of projects: serving Thanksgiving dinner to the underprivileged, cleaning up a widow's backyard, building a ramp for a wheelchair- bound man, and hosting an after school snack and mentoring venue for at-risk teens at a local high school. When groups set aside their own interests and focused on others, they experienced a joy of giving that spilled over onto the recipients. In many cases, the contact changed lives, all because these groups decided to do something selfless.
If your groups choose an outreach project, have some of the participants share their experiences with your church body and small-group leaders. Their accounts will fuel excitement about charitable acts and motivate others to become involved. Even though our church's campaign is over, people still want to serve. One new group has chosen to make periodic community service a part of their core values. Small-group missions and benevolence is still making a difference in the lives of our attendees and the people they touch.
The campaign stretched people to think about others outside of their comfortable surroundings. The first hurdle to move people to benevolence and mission-mindedness is to train them to become alert to opportunities and needs. Encourage members to brainstorm benevolence activities. Develop a plan for how your group can get involved. It will not only change the lives those they minister to, but the lives of group members as well.
Note:1. Bob Muni, "Will We Get the Message," The Forerunner, http://forerunner.com/forerunner/X0625_Will_We_Get_the_Mess.html (accessed October 5, 2007).
This article is an excerpt from "Successful Small Groups from Concept to Practice," (Chapter 10, Beacon Hill Press, 2007) by Teena M. Stewart