Note: In part 1 of this article, Mike Mack discussed two keys of the relational church: leaders modeling relational community and leaders building a practical theology of community. Below, Mike outlines the remaining keys for moving from community "meeting" to community "living."
Restore the Relational Church Rather than Developing a New System
One of our tendencies as leaders is to take a biblical concept and try to build a structure, system, program, or organizational model around it. We feel like we must quantify it somehow. It's like building relationships is just not enough—it does not really count.
Often the first thing church leaders want to do to grow relationships in their church (or to close their "back door") is to start a small-group ministry. But realistically, that may not be the best place to start. Small groups are not the only place or the only size in which relationships happen and biblical community can flourish.
Be creative and find ways for people to connect and relate at a variety of levels in your church. Use large groupings such as your worship services and other large events for people to relate in the "public space." Use mid-sized groupings to help people relate on a social level with others.
At Northeast Christian Church, where I serve, we help groupings in our church plan regular events around affinities and in neighborhoods. This fall, for instance, we have picnics planned for blended families, adoptive families, singles, twentysomethings, older adults, middle- and high-school parents, as well as people from a couple of nearby subdivisions. It's important to utilize all kinds of smaller groups, both short- and long-term, to help people connect in a more personal setting.
There are also many books on the market about how to organize a small-group program in your church. If you feel the need to read these, I suggest you do so only after you have done the more vital work of developing relationships. Form follows function, and function follows values—all driven by a compelling vision. So, instead of starting with a program first, show people a vision of the relational church and biblical community by investing in relationships.
Reform Small-Group Meetings into Small-Group Communities
If your church already has small groups, consider how to transform once-a-week groups into truly relational communities. This starts with leaders' expectations and commitment to relationships, of course. Here are some other things to consider:
- Refrain from trying to count everyone and everything. While we do need to be good stewards of all that God has entrusted to us, we need to be careful not to make this ministry all about facts and figures. Developing relationships and spiritual growth are not easy to measure, and doing too much measuring can draw you away form living relationally.
- Consider how small-group members' minds and hearts can be transformed to living in community. Study community in Scripture. Help them to commit to God's Word and his will for living in his relational Kingdom.
- Rather than the church grouping people artificially, help people to find their own groups. While the former method may seem easier, it is less relational and organic, and I have found that it has shorter-term results. Instead, help people figure out where they are already in community with others—for instance, where they serve, where they live or work, what interests or activities they are involved in. We have found one of the best ways some people like to connect is through their kids' friends.
- Be careful not to make small groups "just one more thing to do in an already hectic schedule." Instead, as indicated above, try to help people see the vitality of being in spiritual relationship and to help them enter into these relationships naturally.
- Help group members reform their expectations of what a small group is. This will come from your practical theology of community. Train leaders to utilize a small-group covenant that spells out the small group's expectations and ground rules for living together in community.
- Encourage groups to study and apply the "one another" passages from the New Testament. They can simply take one of these passages each week and discuss how they will live it out in community.
- Encourage groups to connect in community between the meetings: play together, hang out together, and serve together. Encourage them to get involved in one another's lives—in things they already do anyway, like attending their kids' games together, eating together, doing yard work together, and so on.
- Of course, the small-group leader must go first, investing his or her life into the other members of the group.
Restoring the relational church will definitely not be an overnight occurrence. It has taken us nearly 1,700 years to get here, so it may take some time and effort to turn things around. Leaders, let us start the process with ourselves with full dependence on and surrender to God.
As Scott Boren observes, God is not in a hurry. So while many of us as leaders want to see biblical community in our churches grow quickly, we must learn to work "according to his rhythms and his speed." As we do, God will "do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us" (Ephesians 3:20).
—Mike Mack; copyright © 2009 by the author and Christianity Today.