It's been well established that relationships play a significant role in people's journey to Christ. We seldom come to Christ without someone we know and trust showing us the way of Jesus. However, a person's journey to a local church community is not always marked initially by a close relationship to someone in that church community. We may get invited by someone we know, but many make their way to church communities because of special programs, reputation of the church, or location of the church building. The entry point is typically the large group gathering. For that reason, we have put a lot of effort into making our worship services places that are welcoming to visitors who don't already have a close connection within the church. For the most part, our worship services and large group gatherings have been the front door of most churches.
But what about when people find their way into the church community first through a relational small group experience?
It's becoming clearer that not only do many people find Christ through a relational experience with one or a few people, but many find their way into a local church community through a relational small group experience. And, in fact, a small group community may be the only way some will ever enter a local church community. Since we typically think in terms of moving people from large group to small group experiences, how does the upside-down version of that work? How do people assimilate into the life of the larger church when they enter through a small group first?
A Case Study
For the past seven years I've been involved in a "church of small groups" where the emphasis has been on making small groups the front door of the church. We've invested a lot of time, vision, values, and resources into developing a strategy where most of our outreach success comes through small groups. And, in fact, most of the new people that become associated with our church do so through relational small group experiences first. And, as time has gone on, we have seen the number of people in small groups grow significantly larger than the number of people who attend our weekly large-group worship gathering.
It's been said, "What you win people with is what you keep them with." That holds true with the way people enter the church as well. We have found people who enter the church community through a small group are loyal to the small group more than to the larger church community. Our experience has been that, of those who became members of a small group first, most have struggled to incorporate into our large group worship. Why? Many say they have a connection to another church worship service and if they attend, they will go there. Others say weekend worship is difficult to add to their lifestyle.
Maybe it not surprising to hear these reactions? After all, part of the reason these folks are being reached through small groups is that large group worship may not be appealing to them for a variety of reasons.
But, is this OK?
That answer depends on what you are trying to accomplish. If making disciples in your church setting is dependent on participation in the large group worship, then your assimilation challenge will be adding those won through small group outreach to your larger church.
If disciple making is not dependent on your large group worship participation, then you may be able to go without assimilating group members into big group worship. If you are in this category, the next big question will be, "What about group leadership?" Will you allow non-big-group participants to lead small groups? In our setting, we said we could make disciples without large group participation; however, the group leadership question was not as straight forward.
For our church, group leadership requires an extra level of support not completely provided from within the small group. Our larger group gatherings help supply that support. As leaders, we still discuss the group leadership requirements from time to time, but, for now, we have drawn the "line in the sand" and said group leaders must be active large group worship participants. This has stifled leader development in some cases; however, that's a trade-off we are currently willing to make.
The Big Picture
It really boils down to your purpose and vision for small group outreach in the context of your overall evangelism and discipleship strategies. There's no question that in today's Western culture a significant number of people will only enter the life of the local church through a small group experience first. That's why independent house churches and small groups are going to play an increasingly significant role in outreach. However, if your situation includes both large group worship gatherings and smaller group gatherings, and you are actively seeking the unchurched through small groups, then here are some questions worth thinking about:
- If your small groups begin reaching the unchurched to small group life first, what type of small group community do you want them to experience?
- Do you envision new small group members assimilating into your large group worship?
- How will small group members connect with large group worship?
- Will you require group leaders to be active large-group worship participants?
It's exciting when small group outreach is fruitful, and it really can and needs to be fruitful. It's even more exciting when those reached through small groups are becoming disciples and functioning in the context of your overall local church body!