As Christians, our ultimate goal is to bring Jesus to the greatest number of lost people by making disciples. Often, in the world of small groups, we believe discipleship happens through Bible study, accountability, and prayer. We fret over picking the right studies, vetting our leaders, and having the right systems in place. But what if the most effective form of disciple-making and reaching the lost is through strategic small-group serving opportunities?
We often think of discipleship as something that happens after conversion, but the Engel Scale tells a different story. Developed by James Engel, the Engel Scale represents the journey from no knowledge of God to spiritual maturity as a Christian believer, a scale that ranges from -8 to +5. Traditionally, the church has only accommodated the last half of the scale, helping people grow deeper once they've made the decision to follow Jesus. But if we look at our daily interactions with non-believers as a valid form of discipleship, perhaps taking a coworker in our secular workplace from a -8 to a -6 by repetitively showing her kindness, then our perceptions—and therefore methods—of discipleship need to go beyond our church buildings and into the world. Likewise, providing avenues for our small groups to serve the marginalized in our cities now becomes a legitimate, powerful, and necessary discipleship tool.
I have found that there are two ways to effectively serve our cities through our small groups: our groups can serve their city on a macro level or they can serve one-on-one individuals on a micro level.
Groups Serving Cities
"Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." —Jeremiah 29:7
One of my favorite ways to spread the gospel in our local community is having our small groups serve at unexpected events around the city. We pick up trash at motorcycle rallies, organize our local city-wide Halloween, and even cancel Sunday services twice a year to host a city-wide serving event called Love Tulsa—an event led by small-group leaders. Nothing bonds a group together quite like getting your hands dirty, both physically and metaphorically, and making a tangible impact in your city. Our small-group leaders choose an organization that they feel passionate about and simply ask them how the group can serve them. Some of the organizations are openly Christian, some are secular, and others fall somewhere in-between.
If a group chooses an overtly Christian organization, such as John 3:16 Mission or Manna Girl's Home, they're helping the organization spread the gospel by serving the staff and facilities. Whether it's a beautification project, working with the youth, or serving a meal, they're alleviating a felt need and making it easier for the organization to make an exponential impact for the kingdom of God.
If a group picks a non-Christian organization, such as our local state-run foster care shelter or a public elementary school, they're able to show an unusual level of sacrifice and kindness that opens up the possibility for discussing the gospel. We have had people ask, "Why are you guys doing this for us?" and "Aren't you missing out on a day of offerings by cancelling service?" These questions allow us the opportunity to explain why we're serving them: because Christ served us first. It shows our community that the church doesn't just serve itself and its own interests but that we are truly here to help our city prosper.
Serving these organizations creates a trusted relationship that can be called upon in the rare event that tragedy or disaster strikes. At one of our Love Tulsa events we served a local gymnasium in an impoverished part of town that caters to underprivileged kids who would otherwise be on the streets after school. Unfortunately, a tornado hit the establishment last year and tore down most of their building. But because we had served them in the past, we were one of the first organizations that they called upon for help. God will show your leaders the right organizations to serve; he knows the relationships that will be needed in the future to help glorify him in the midst of tragedy.
Serving is so important to Jesus, and therefore to us, that we even work it into our small group model intentionally. On top of the twice-yearly Love Tulsa events, all of our groups have a monthly serving focus at an organization of their choice. Building these faithful and dependable relationships of sacrificial servanthood garners us an unusual amount of trust and influence with many organizations throughout our city. When we serve our city with no agenda, God increases our influence, connections, and discipleship.
Groups Serving Individuals
"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." —James 1:27
In our formal discipleship models, we often take the second half of James 1:27 to heart. We have accountability groups and times of prayer to keep us motivated to stay pure of heart. But how seriously do we take the first half of the Scripture regarding serving the displaced in our society?
In order to explain how small groups can serve on a micro level, I must take a second to introduce you to a revolutionary idea. Born in a small town in Texas, a software system was born that is transforming communities and the way the church interacts with the hurting in their city. It's called the Care Portal, and it's connecting churches directly to specific needs in their area.
This is how it works: A need is identified by a human welfare worker and, instead of citing the family for wrong doing, putting a child into foster care, or removing the elderly from their homes, they identify what it would take to keep the family intact and enter it into the Care Portal. The Care Portal then notifies the five closest churches to respond to the need. The Care Portal effectively identifies the needs of at-risk children and families and brings them to the church, allowing us to meet the need before intervention is required, often preventing intervention altogether.
Here are a few examples of actual entries in the Care Portal:
Zip Code: 76301
Request Purpose: Needed to reunify a family
Type of Service: TIER 1 - Physical Need
Description: A family is in need of 2 sets of bunk beds to be able to have their 4 children begin to start staying overnight in the home as an effort to reunify the family. The parents have made necessary changes in their lives for the department to consider a monitored return of the children in order to keep them from remaining in foster care. The family only has one bed at this time, 2 sets of bunk beds with mattresses and bedding will be needed in order for the children to return home.
Zip Code: 76301
Request Purpose: Needed to keep a child safe
Type of Service: TIER 1 - Physical Need
Description: This is a family of 5 and one child has special needs. The family is in need of heaters for the house. There is only one working gas heater in the living room where they are all currently sleeping at night.
In addition to Tier 1 physical needs, there are also Tier 2 relational needs and Tier 3 family needs. This means churches can provide bunk beds, mentors, parenting classes and everything in between.
My favorite part of this technology is that it removes the government as mediator in the face to face interactions with the afflicted families. It allows real people, from real churches, making real sacrifices to connect with the family and introduce them to Jesus. The family then has a connection in the community with real people they can call upon in the future if another need arises.
Here is where we, as small-group pastors and leaders, come in. What if our small groups all registered with the Care Portal or a similar service? What if we truly became the missional communities we proclaim to be and started meeting the needs of those that live two streets down from us? What if we were eager to bring the light of Jesus into difficult situations instead of expecting someone else to get their hands messy while we gather down the street for a nice potluck dinner?
What if we invited that hurting family to our group, started bringing them meals, prayed for them when we delivered the crib they requested? What if we started mentoring their children, or going with them to court appearances, or connected them with our Celebrate Recovery classes? What if our small groups stopped playing church and actually became the hands and feet of Jesus?
Small Groups on Mission Together
"He called his twelve disciples together and began sending them out two by two, giving them authority to cast out evil spirits." —Mark 6:7
"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me." —Matthew 25:35
"What good is it, my bothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." —James 2:14-17
There's no shortage of verses in the Word that exhort the church to serve those around us, especially the marginalized and downtrodden. We're to pull the lost out of the fringe of society into our communities of grace, love, and acceptance by serving them sacrificially. Whether we engage at the macro or micro level, our small groups should be a vital part of reaching our cities with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our groups were not made to take the gospel to the ends of our tables or living rooms, but to the ends of the earth. God didn't send his son only for the people who end up walking into our buildings, but for the sick and the afflicted and the ones who believe they'll never be good enough.
I'll leave you with my favorite verse, one that keeps me motivated when leading servant leaders gets tough and messy: "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching" (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Do not get discouraged in your good works, faithful servants. Point your small groups outward and be motivated by the city transformation that is sure to follow!
—Amber Day is the City Groups Director at City Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Check out these 5 resources you can use with your group to make a local and global impact.