Small Groups and the Missional Renaissance (pt. 2)

What is God doing through the missional church, and how do small groups fit in?

Note: This article is Part Two of a two-part interview. Click here to read the first half of this discussion. You say you're not against curriculum, so what do you see as the value of curriculum in a small-group experience?

Reggie McNeal: I think it helps to convene and frame the experience. Bible studies and other curriculum certainly have the capacity to be truth launchers, because my life experience doesn't necessarily reflect the truth of the Bible. So I think curriculum can speak truth into our lives.

But if people just know the truth and don't deal with the truth, we're not making progress. In fact, I'm afraid we sometimes inoculate people against the truth when we don't go deeper and deal with our own lives—if truth is just an idea we discuss instead of something that we're holding up as a way of life.

So if "Bible study" is as far as a group goes, then it's not going to be very helpful.

Well, yeah. If curriculum consumes the majority of our group time, we can be duped into thinking that because we've dealt with the curriculum for tonight, we've dealt with people. But that's not true. People development is laborious. It's hand-to-hand combat, or maybe heart-on-heart combat.

For instance, we have a small group at my house, and we're going through the red letters of Jesus. We're in Mark, and we're just biting off one set of red letters every week. It would be easy just to leave the discussion out there. For instance, this week it's Jesus commanding a demon to come out. Now, a group could get all hung up on the reality of evil and spiritual warfare and all that, and they would probably have a great discussion. Be we chose to focus more on questions like: What kind of resistance are we meeting in our lives? Is the lack of resistance to evil in our own life a symptom of not really following Jesus? Does following Jesus mean you're going to run into stiff resistance?

That's how our curriculum was framed. It was a mirror for us all to look in.

Let's look back at the first shift: internal to external. You use the phrase "blessing strategy" a lot in your book. What do you mean by it?

Again, that attractional thing is so big in us that, in the past, we thought our job was to invite people to church so they could get fixed there—as opposed to us becoming agents of the kingdom right where we work, live, play, and eat. But people aren't desperate for church; they're desperate for God. And Jesus didn't teach us to pray, "Thy church come." He didn't say, "I come to give you church and give it to you more abundantly."

So I tell congregations not to have an evangelism strategy, because that's not working anyway. Most churches aren't growing, right? And even when we do "evangelize," we're actually inviting a lot of people just get converted in the church culture—to become like us. Here's what I say instead: Have a blessing strategy and watch what happens to your evangelism.

I think we have got to recover what it means to be the people of God. If you go all the way back to Genesis 12—where the whole "people of God" thing gets going and the metanarrative begins that we're swept up in, you and I as followers of Jesus—the deal that God cuts with Abraham is that he should be a blessing. God basically said: I'm going to bless you, Abram, so that you can turn around and bless everybody who is not part of your tribe, not part of your clan, who voted democrat—everybody who's not like you.

So the Bible really sets up the external focus from the get go. It was never the intention of God to build a reservoir of blessing in Abraham; it was supposed to be a conduit of blessing to the world. That's why I only have one sermon I preach these days everywhere I go. I'm just challenging people to go out and practice being the people of God this week. Go out and bless three people. I'm talking about intentional acts of blessing, not random "rake and run" kind of stuff. Try to initiate three intentional acts of blessing, because they open up spiritual conversations. And that was the whole point.

I usually tell people this with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek: "Go out and bless three people this week. Don't bless more than three; you don't want to wear this out. But make sure that one of the people you bless doesn't deserve it." But it's funny how church people don't get that. I've had one associate pastor get up and repeat what I said without even grinning: "Remember, we're going to bless three people, and make sure one of them doesn't deserve it." That's when I just wanted to scream, What part of the gospel did we miss? None of us deserve it. That's the point!

To help people out, I sometimes give them this question to ask: How can I ask God to bless you? That's a great question. I mean, that is such a better pick up line than, "Do you know you're going to go to hell and fry like sausage?" Do we really want to open up people to truth, or do we want to shut them down and become adversarial and blunt our capacity to introduce spiritual conversation?

And I find that the people in pews are very open to this because they actually think they can do it. This is much simpler and much more promising to people than presenting the Four Spiritual Laws or convicting someone of their sinful lifestyle—that's the Holy Spirit's work. Our job is to share the truth in love, yes, but let's open up that conversation by being a blessing to others. And I think that that's a biblical notion.

You said this in your book: "Prayer may be the most untapped and underused resource available to the church for accomplishing its mission." That resonated with me as a place where small groups can contribute. So can you talk just for a minute on why prayer is underused and untapped, and how people can dip into that together?

For most of my life I was instructed in prayer in a way that helped me get the right thing said—whether that was an acronym like ACTS or CAST or whatever else I learned. But Jesus tried over and over to model and teach us that praying is not about informing God of what's going on. How crazy is that? Prayer is God's informing us about what's going on. It's not about getting him over to our wavelength, but him tuning us in to what he's doing. So I ask leaders all the time, "What are you doing that you see God doing?"

It's a shame when our small groups use prayer as a laundry list for God—"let's jump on Santa's lap and give him all of our wish lists." Of course God is aware of those needs. Of course he cares about those needs. But what if small groups spend as much time listening? "Lord, what would you have us do?" What if we actually began to really pray and say, "God, what are you saying to us? How do you want to deploy us? How do you want to use what we have?"

So how do you see small groups as a whole fitting into the missional movement in America and around the globe?

I really think that small groups will be a primary delivery system in the missional movement, because missional stuff almost always gets really personal. The rise of the missional church is really a shift from church as a "what" to church as a "who." As long as church is a "what," it's something outside of me. I go to it. I belong to it. I write checks to it. I hire staff to run it. I support it. I want to make sure it is successful. In other words, church becomes an "it"—a something out there. But that is so non-biblical.

In the biblical notion, church is a "who." It's the people of God and our mission with him. Once we see church as a "who" it allows for an expanded bandwidth of the expression of Christianity in the world, especially the emergence of missional communities—which small groups are already primed to be. It all starts when I understand that I am the church because I am the ongoing incarnation of Jesus in the world today. And if we really understand this commission that we're under, then we've got to ask ourselves: How do I live that out? Well, I'm going to need the support of people to live that out. I can't do it on my own.

In fact, I talk a lot about how people can belong to a program church and not even like the people they're going to church with, or even the church leadership. But you cannot be in a missional community and be out of sync with the other members. It requires a much greater depth of followership and mutual submission and covenant. And so small groups probably are one of the best ways of moving people into a missional life.

My last question is: what's missing? What's the next step for small groups?

Well, I go back to those three shifts we talked about at the beginning. How are we going to play to those three shifts in community? If a small group currently doesn't have a reason for being outside of itself, we need to figure out what that is. How are we serving other people? How are we serving together? So I would make sure that every small group has an external focus.

And then I think we have to become much more intentional about real life. As part of the small-group experience, we need to ask the tough questions: Is my marriage better? Is my outlook on life better? Am I a better parent? Am I hearing the voice of Jesus clearer? Am I loving my neighbor as myself? In other words, we've got to get the scorecard down to a personal level. It's not, "How is our small group doing?" It's, "How is Reggie doing?" That's the people development.

So I think a real good assessment along the lines of those three shifts would really help any small group.

—Reggie McNeal serves as the Missional Leadership Specialist for Leadership Network; he is the author of several books, including Missional Renaissance.

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