According to a 2007-2008 Barna Group study of over 3,000 random respondents, 41 percent of adults attending a Protestant church associate with a congregation of 100 or fewer adults. An additional 23 percent can be found at a church of 101 to 200 adults, 18 percent in congregations of 201 to 499 adults, and only 9 percent of church-goers in congregations of 500 to 999. In other words, even though the mega-church that often receives the buzz, it is the smaller church in America who is ministering to the masses.
Geography, finances, and local demographics all impact how, and what, ministry is happening. Yet one thing is certain: God calls us to be in community with one another. But do small churches need small groups? After all, the existence of authentic community can be taken for granted when numbers are small and everyone seems to know everyone else—or can it?
The truth is, small groups in smaller churches provide three basic necessities for a congregation's healthy spiritual growth: accountability, forward momentum, and a missional identity.
Author and pastor Bill Search wrote the following on his www.simplesmallgroups.com blog: "So here's what hit me right between the eyes—God wired us for community. At the very beginning of the story he made humans in HIS IMAGE, which means we are created in the image of the God who lives perpetually in community as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We have a void in our lives that only can be filled through human relationships. God made us that way."
So if Biblical community started with three, that model prepares the way for group life in a church, whether that church has a membership of 75 or 750 or 7500. After all, isn't a major goal of small groups to give people connection points so they don't feel so alone and isolated in this broken world in which we live? Small-group life allows for a refocusing of relationships, drawing people into greater spiritual intimacy with one another and with God as they seek to know him, love him and serve him.
So maybe you've been thinking about starting a small-group ministry in your smaller church, but what you're hearing is:
- Why do we need small groups? We've all known each other for years.
- Small groups? That's for those mega-churches that want to create a small-church feel. We've already got that here.
- Who are you going to put me with? Brenda talks too much. Sarah argues too much. Rebecca preaches too much, and Jeannie cries too much. I don't need that in my life.
- We've gotten along fine without small groups so far. Why should we bother?
The bottom line is that, as the body of Christ, we should bother because "sin demands to have us by ourselves because when we're alone, it has power over us," quoting Greg Bowman. When we're alone, we're vulnerable and open to the temptation to walk (or run sprinting in the other direction) away from God.
In a 2009 Washington Times interview, Bill Search explained: "[Small groups] are the closest thing to the electricity of the early church. Paul wrote his letters to basically small groups run amok …. If we don't confess to each other and hear people affirm us, in the process we lose a sense of forgiveness. If we confessed what we really struggle with, that'd be electric."
As believers, we all need to be accountable to one another for our words, our thoughts, our choices, and our actions. No matter the size of the congregation, being able to do life together—with all of its ups and downs, struggles and celebrations, questions and answers, order and chaos—is what God intended when he created the world.
At the birth of the early church, the Holy Spirit rushed in and brought the winds of change to a people who were wondering how to carry on after Jesus died. Acts 2:42-47 tells of believers gathering together, selling their possessions, distributing the money to those in need, studying together, eating together, and worshipping God together. Their comfortable, familiar routines were cast aside for the sake of this new life in Christ.
And comfortable and familiar is how life can get in smaller church settings. Church can become the place "where everybody knows your name." Church can become the place where routines are established and traditions followed—either faithfully or blindly. Church can become the place where life becomes dependably stable and conformist.
And yet our non-conformist Creator God is constantly making everything new again. In Isaiah 43:18-19we read God's own words: "Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland." And Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!"
When we are living in Biblical community, intentionally growing those relationships with one another and with God, we have no choice but to be a work in progress—to be God's work in progress. "The best way for people to experience life transformation is when it happens in a small-group setting. There can be interaction, caring, support, and accountability in a dynamic setting where people are engaged in the process," explained Rev. Fred DeJong, a pastor and church planter in Plainfield, Illinois. For smaller churches, small groups can bring much needed spiritual momentum, growth, renewal, and rebirth.
A 2009 Barna Group study revealed that 88 percent of American adults said their religious faith is very important in their lives; 75 percent said they sensed God motivating people to stay connected with him, but in different ways and through different types of experiences than in the past. The bottom line is that people are hungry for a spiritual connection, and small groups can provide a missional focus that not only gives churches a sense of purpose, but also unites people's hearts outward around a common cause.
"People who are part of a smaller church think more organically," said DeJong. "They are looking for a sense of community, for answers to life's questions. For us, as we start this new church in Plainfield, we are communicating small groups as a core value. It's part of the DNA of who we are as a church."
Fortunately for smaller churches, their very size makes adopting, publicizing, implementing, and bearing out that small-group ministry mission easier. Smaller churches are innately set up to do small groups and do them well—if they have a vision and purpose and eyes that see the community outside the church walls. Because here's the catch: small groups, even when they're part of the DNA of a smaller church, can mutate and cause relationships to become toxic as cliques form and routine sets in.
Which is why DeJong advocates small groups that focus outward in some way. "Adding intentional mission efforts actually keeps transformation happening! Mission sustains energy, vitality, searching, prayer, and urgency. The ongoing 'newness' of people coming with their questions, perspectives and struggles creates a community environment where the Fruits of the Spirit and an others-oriented 'Father's Heart' is continually developing," he explained. "Put simply: mission feeds transformation!"
When Jesus shared his Mission with his friends, he started small with the eleven who were gathered around him and wanted to be like him. "Then Jesus came to them and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age'" (Matthew 28:17-20). Reach out. Invite in. Share God's Word. Be in community. Do life together. That's God's plan for his people where two or three are gathered in his name. Amen. Let it be!
—Rachel Gilmore is author of The Complete Leader's Guide to Christian Retreats and Church Programs and Celebrations for All Generations.