Note: This article is excerpted from our Training Tool Become a Church of Groups.
A traditional Sunday school church wants to deepen community, so they start home small groups. But they soon realize that all they have is a less organized Sunday school program meeting in homes.
A suburban pastor sees how people are disconnected, scattered, and lonely. But how do overly busy people add yet another activity to their lives? They try weekly small groups, but it's too much. So they settle for a social meeting once per month, which lasts for seven months and dies off.
After doing groups for ten years, a pastor hears about the vision for missional community. With great passion and vision, they change the name of their groups to missional communities, but the groups keep doing what they've always done.
You want the experience of community—the kind that is infectious, life-giving, and offers hope to the world. We are made for relationships. It's part of God's design. But how do you form a ministry of groups that offers community like that? Where do you start the journey to groups that live out community and mission?
No matter the journey, the best way to get there is to start from where you are. While this sounds incredibly obvious, I've found that this is probably the most overlooked step in the process of leading a church into group life.
In the three real-life situations depicted above, all of the churches were focused on their vision—what they wanted to accomplish. And while that's good to keep in mind, when I started working with these churches, it became obvious that they lacked any awareness about the current state of the church's strengths and weaknesses. They had lost touch with the life patterns of the people in the church. And they had not done any work to understand the context in which the church was set.
They thought the problem was about the way they did groups. But the problem was that these churches failed to implement group strategies that took into account their context.
Groups are about people. As soon as we think that the issue is structural in nature, that a strategy will fix the group problem, then we undermine that which makes groups work in the first place: relationships. In order for a church's relationships to work differently, we have to understand the way the relationships work now. We can't lead people to a new place if we don't understand where they are currently.
For instance, if a church has been shaped by decades of programmatic church life that requires clergy direction, fixed events, and printed curriculum, it doesn't matter how much you talk about relationships and community. Those old church patterns are part of the unspoken way that church works. If the leadership does not understand this fact, they can't lead the church into a new way of relating.
Or consider a church where most people say they're committed to live in community with one another and reach their community with the gospel, but the reality is that people just want things to return to the way the church did things in the 1970s. And they want the pastor to fix it. Bringing in a new strategy might brighten things up for a short while, but it won't result in great small groups.
When preachers attend seminary, they take classes on biblical exegesis, a technical term that simply means deep understanding or critical interpretation. When we preach or teach Bible classes, we aim to do so with a sound knowledge of what the Bible means. We start from where the Bible is coming from, and then move those truths into our lives.
In a similar way, we need to do exegetical work to understand our starting point. We need to become aware of our reality. Only then can we develop an understanding of what is going on and what it will take to move forward. We must develop a deep understanding of three domains:
- The church
- The life of the people in the church
- The local context
Exegesis of the Church
When I work with a church, one of the first things I do is listen. Through a series of interviews and surveys, I gather their stories. I want to hear where they've been, what led them to this point in the journey, and how they feel about it. How can we understand where God is leading a church if we don't understand how God has been leading it? How can we see where we might be off right now, if we don't understand how we have been off in the past?
One of the hardest things for church leaders to do is have an accurate view of their own journey. I find that they either think they are far ahead of reality or they think they're much worse off than reality. This is the reason you need to ask questions about the church that you would not normally ask. For instance:
- What are the highs and lows of the church's life?
- Where have the main transitions occurred?
- What are the unique strengths?
- What are the weaknesses?
- What has occurred within the last three years that we should celebrate?
- What has occurred within the last three years that we should mourn?
- Where are the places that people are expressing a sense of urgency?
- Where are the places that people are stuck in complacency?
From a strategic point of view, the last two questions are especially crucial. Without a sense of urgency, at least within a pocket of people, it's hard to move a church into a new reality. People don't change because you have a great new idea. Change is an emotional issue and people refuse to change not because they don't want your new idea, but because they don't want to give up what they have. Therefore, exegeting the church is a way to help people develop a sense of urgency about what God is already doing and what God wants to do in your church. (Note: It's often helpful to get someone from the outside to help you see this reality accurately. As leaders of the church, we have blindspots, and others can help us gain a more accurate picture.)
Exegesis of the Life of the People in the Church
The deep understanding that comes as a result of this work is not directly about how churched people relate to the church vision or programming. Nor is it about moral issues. This is about understanding how people do life in your context. Questions here might include:
- What is the standard of living? Blue collar? White Collar?
- What is the ethnic makeup?
- What is the average commute to work?
- Describe work patterns of individuals.
- How do people spend their free time?
- Describe the involvement of kids in extracurricular activities?
- Where do people live in relationship to the church building? How has this changed in the last two decades?
- Identify how people relate to others, describing things like established friendships vs. transitory connections, and consistent contact vs. limited interaction.
- Outline the nature of the relationships and connectivity within the membership of the church, asking questions like: To what degree are friendships dependent upon church programming? To what level do people feel connected to others in the church?
Exegesis of the Context
Awareness of what is going on in the local context is something missionaries have done for generations, but it's not something that comes to mind when we think of developing groups in our own context. But it's crucial for two reasons. First, the church is called to be salt and light in our local context, and that requires that we understand our context. Second, it's helpful to understand how the relationship patterns of those within the church compare to the relationship patterns of those outside the church.
Questions to exegete the context might include:
- How has the neighborhood changed in the past decade?
- How does the neighborhood perceive the local church?
- What are the opportunities that we have as a result of what's going on in our context?
- What are the challenges that we face in this context?
After reading this, you might be wondering where the action is. Pastors are, after all, held accountable for what kinds of ministry they produce. And if your job is to get groups started or to take groups to the next level, you feel the pressure to do something to make that happen.
While you may be eager to jump in and get stuff done, I would argue that we've gone down that road for far too long. Without understanding our starting point, we set ourselves up for failure when we try to implement a plan. Do the work of understanding your context up front, or you'll have to do it later.
—Scott Boren is the author of several books including Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus (available February 2015); copyright 2014 by Christianity Today.
- Take an honest look at your church and answer the exegesis questions in the article. What new insights have you gained?
- Who on your team can you discuss these insights with? What other church leaders need to know these insights?
- How do those insights affect your plans for the small-group ministry?