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!"