Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part article. Click here to read Part 2.
When churches start small-group ministries, most hope that new groups will continue to grow both numerically and in relationship with Christ and one another. One of the keys to sustain this type of growth over time is something the Bible calls "oneness." Here's my definition of oneness: "Relationships characterized by unity of purpose and love for one another even in the face of extreme opposition or internal conflict."
Genuine oneness, while an internal quality, is almost always noticed by outsiders, drawing them to the source of that same oneness. That's why oneness is one of the main engines that will drive small-group growth.
In John 17:20, Jesus prayed perhaps his most urgent prayer for his disciple group: "The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, so they might be one heart and mind with us. Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me. The same glory you gave me, I gave them, so they'll be as unified and together as we are—I in them and you in me. Then they'll be mature in this oneness, and give the godless world evidence that you've sent me and loved them in the same way you've loved me" (The Message, emphasis added).
It's startling that Jesus prayed his disciples' oneness would be comparable to that of the Trinity! But he did. Because the result of that type of oneness is a changed world—one where Christ followers are in community with the triune God and in community with one another. And as a result, the unbelieving world will stand up and take notice of the source of that oneness, which is Jesus Christ.
Oneness does not come naturally in churches where there are crowds but little community. That is why in most church settings, a small group is a prerequisite to oneness. However, a small group is not a guarantee of oneness. This is why we need to prayerfully consider the selection of our "oneness strategy."
Funnels to Oneness
One way to think about the oneness pathway from crowd to community is to imagine a funnel. A funnel is a device that has a wide opening at one end and a small opening at the other. Funnels help get things into small, hard-to-reach places by making one end very small and focused and the other end broad end easy to access. Likewise, churches can use "funnels" to help guide diverse and relationally-distant crowds into smaller communities along their pathway to oneness.
Below are a few examples:
The Silo Funnel
The reality is that every church has small groups of some kind, whether or not they are aware of them. Every church has relational clusters that exist in Sunday school classes, choirs, specialized ministries, or even what some people call cliques.
One way to deepen oneness as a core value is to start with the relationships that already exist. As some church leaders would say, "All you have to do is add some intentionality to it—designate a leader, recommend a meeting schedule, provide a curriculum, draw a circle around them, and call them a small group!"
It may not be quite that simple. However, pre-existing relationships plus vision plus equipping can transform existing relationships into disciple-making communities. While pre-existing relationships help accelerate the group-life cycle and bring people into functioning biblical community more quickly, be aware that pre-existing relationships can also lead to carryover of pre-existing sinful relational habits that stunt the growth of oneness.