The Four Stories of Small-Group Life

Exploring the differences between "traditional" and "missional" communities

Note: This article has been excerpted from Missional Small Groups: Becoming a Community That Makes a Difference in the World, by M. Scott Boren.

While reflecting on the various stories I know from small groups and the various rhythms that produced them, I recognized four different stories within small-group life. These stories help us understand how missional groups are distinct from the normal groups that are so predominant in our churches today. The stories are connected to the lift rhythms we play in our culture. As we look into these stories, we will see how "Pat" is affected as the rhythms played by the group change.

The first two stories are taken from normal small groups that seem to operate relatively easily in our fast-paced FedEx life, while the last two invite us into a way of living that stands in contrast to the patterns of our culture. These last two stories help us grasp what it means to live in missional community.

The Story of Personal Improvement

Small groups that live out this story play rhythms that sound something like this:

We get together because life is tough in this world and we need a few friends. It is not always convenient for us to meet every week, but we do meet when we can. Usually we meet in short six- or seven-week periods or we meet a couple times a month. We get together, talk a bit about God or study the Bible, and share what is going on at work and in our family. I am not sure that we are close, but it is good to have a place where we can share a little about what is going on in our lives. Being in my small group has improved my life.

This kind of group provides an opportunity for people to improve the normal rhythms of their normal lives. For instance, Pat might attend a small group because it is a place that helps him manage the circles in his life a little better. Little or even nothing about the rhythms of Pat's life changes except the fact that he attends a small group when it is convenient.

In this story, the focus lies on whether the group is beneficial to Pat's life. Pat attends if he likes the people, if the group leader is competent, and if the material is about a topic in which Pat is inter-ested. Such group experiences are often better than nothing. People feel supported, taste a sip of love, or learn a bit about the Bible.

But this is far from the only story about small group life.

The Story of Lifestyle Adjustment

The rhythms played by a small group in this story sound like this:

This group has become a priority to us. We have adjusted our schedules to meet together at least every other week, but usually we meet weekly. In our meetings, we either study the sermon preached by our pastor or use a Bible study guide that we all find personally beneficial. We truly enjoy each other's presence, and we put a high priority on the group and the members in the group. We even do something social once each month. We rise to the occasion when someone has a need, and there is a sense that we are friends.

When Pat enters this story, it requires some adjustment to his life rhyths. Group life is not just added on top of all the other stuff Pat does. Room has been made in his weekly schedule for this group of people because the meeting is a priority and the group members have become friends. There is usually a range of adjustment here. Some might simply choose to not work overtime so they can get to the group meeting on time, while others plan a social outing or host the meeting. Usually the biggest change involves social priorities.

While the Improvement story is about convenience, the Adjustment story is usually about commitment to formal gatherings. The group members have committed to playing rhythms that focus on attending weekly meetings and other scheduled group events.

In my experience, most small groups in North American churches are living the Adjustment story. For the most part, the people in those groups are living lives that are an adjustment from the predominant life of the wider culture. In other words, the group experience is simply laid on top of the typical American way of life. Church leaders know how to establish group systems, small-group leaders know how to lead good group meetings, and group members know how to participate in group discussions. But the general rhythms of life look a lot like the general rhythms of most of the people who don't attend the groups or church. And I have yet to find many who will admit satisfaction with this story. God has planted his Spirit within us that causes us to yearn for more.

The Story of Relational Revision

When a group of people play the rhythms of this story, the song has a distinctive sound:

Our group has a weekly meeting, but I am not sure that you would call it a meeting in a formal sense of the word. When we get together, it is the culmination of the rest of the week when we have been in one another's lives. It is a time of sharing what God has been doing, praying for each other, and talking about how God is using us in our normal lives. Yes, we do have a weekly lesson, but the leader usually only asks one or two questions from it.
The most important part of our group, however, is not the meeting; it is how we are connected the other six days. I have never been part of a group in which people are so willing to sacrifice time and energy for each other. And this connectedness actually spills out into our neighborhood. It seems like we are always interacting with, praying for, and serving people who live near us. And in some ways, they are just as much part of our group as those of us who call ourselves Christians.
I am not sure how I was able to do life before having this group. This might sound a bit utopian, but it is far from it. Sometimes it is hard. Recently we have had to wrestle with some relational conflict and hurt feelings. In the past I would have run away from such en-counters, but not this time. It was not easy, but we pressed through. We are still learning what it means to be God's family.

The basic element to this story is that a group of people is intentionally learning to do life together differently. They are a learning community who know they have not arrived and that they must intentionally practice what it means to be a community that is distinctively Christian and experiences the love spoken of by Saint John of the Cross. They know that they have a mission of "putting love where love is not" and that they must develop rhythms of love that mark them as different from the rhythms of the world.

When Pat begins to live out this story, much more happens than a simple rearrangement of circles. Actually, the way the diagram is constructed begins to change. Instead of Pat as an individual being at the center, Pat becomes part of a community and begins to do life out of a different center—a set of relationships with five to twelve people. But even more importantly, the focus of these people revolves around the presence of Jesus in their midst, moving in and through them as a group. The group has chosen to do community with one another by making the presence of Christ central.

If we were to redraw Pat's rhythm diagram, it might look something like the image to the right.

You might notice that there are still quite a few circles in Pat's life. The real world still exists, and Pat has to deal with real stuff. But with the group at the center instead of Pat alone at the center, opportunities are created for some overlapping of circles. Practically speaking, this means Pat's wife does not have to deal with ailing parents alone anymore. The group knows them and has helped to provide food for them, and one person has even stayed overnight at the hospital so that Pat could get some sleep.

The Story of Missional Re-creation

The rhythms of this story stand in stark contrast to the predominant story of our culture. It might sound something like this:

We have developed a way of connecting with each other and God that has resulted in some rather unpredictable developments. Two couples and a single person in our group live within walking distance of each other. So as a group we decided to adopt their neighborhood. We started with a block party. At first it was hard because no one knew us, but after the first party, we started becoming a presence in the community. Then one person started a summer children's Bible study, and as she got to know the neighbors and their needs, we began to pray. Now we have come around a single mom who has three kids, and we include her as much as we can in the life of the group. She has yet to fully understand who Jesus is, but we feel led to embrace her and the kids and see what God does in her life.

Some see the potential to reach people in the community through groups in this story and want a list of things to do so they can join in. But it does not work that way. In the Relational Revision story, a group develops rhythms over time that allow for this kind of dynamic creativity. The hard part of talking about the Missional Re-creation story is the fact that when groups play these rhythms, the actual manifestations of them are always different. There is no singular form or function for what a group might look like here. Some groups might look just like most other small groups except that they are being used in very creative ways to engage their neighborhood. Others might establish a house church that looks nothing like typical small groups.

—Excerpted from Missional Small Groups by M. Scott Boren, copyright 2010 by Baker Books (a division of Baker Publishing Group). Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.

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