Doing Life Together with Others Follows Christ’s Example

In a world that is pushing against community, the church must pursue authentic community.

Community matters.

There are few things in which the church can be more counter-cultural than in the way it practices community. There are few things in which the church can manifest its missional nature more than in the way it pursues community.

Community matters.

It’s a biblical non-negotiable. Transformation is not an individual task. No Christian is an island. The model Jesus gave us for disciple making is one of shared experience and learning in community. Christ did life together with his disciples, and he expects us to undergo life transformation as a community.

Community matters.

Churches that are serious about developing and cultivating authentic community are going to have congregations that are involved in transformational small groups. There’s no getting around the fact that any church that wants to make an impact on its people and a difference in its neighborhood will pursue and cultivate small groups.

Transformational Groups Matter

Transformational groups matter. Small-group ministry is essential to the health of any church. These small groups take a variety of forms: cell groups, Bible studies, life groups, Bible fellowships, discipleship classes, home groups, Sunday school classes, and other gatherings that promote relationships within the community.

The question is: what’s the primary reason for having small groups? It’s important to note that all groups have three purposes:

  • All groups have a connecting function.
  • All groups have a formation function.
  • All groups have a mission function.

Depending on the makeup of your congregation, your overall discipleship plan, and/or your small group strategy, you’ll find that one function will become predominant over the others. And that’s okay. You can actually structure accordingly to accomplish all three functions.

Decide on a Purpose

The first question we have to ask: what is going to be the primary function or purpose? Connecting? Formation? Mission? The answer depends on several different factors. The discipleship strategy of your church is a pre-condition that is the most important question to decide which function will be the focus.

If the preaching and teaching in your church is predominantly characterized by biblical exposition, it would be wise to consider the connecting or mission functions for your small groups. This doesn’t mean your small groups won’t study the Bible. It’s just that their intended purpose will be along the connecting or mission trajectories.

Conversely, if the preaching and teaching on Sunday is more topical and intended as a front-door experience for those who wouldn’t be considered the core of your community, you probably want to consider small groups centered on Bible study and spiritual formation.

Decide on a Structure

The next question to consider is how will you structure your small groups to carry out the primary function?

For example, let’s say that you’re focusing on missional communities. Missional communities are communities that are intentionally mission focused. These communities are engaging and serving those around them as an outgrowth of the gospel.

This doesn’t mean that missional small groups are not a place for congregational members to be building meaningful relationships with one another. They are connection points. And it also doesn’t mean that missional small groups do not seriously engage in spiritual formation in the lives of its members. It’s just the opposite. Missional small groups are strongest when all three functions of a group are present, with mission being the primary focus.


There are a couple of cautions I need to point out.

The first, I’ve alluded to above. Focusing on one function of a group alone is not healthy. Transformational small groups thrive when they are practicing all three functions with one as primary. A solitary focus on missions tends to be unsustainable to groups that are not primarily college students. Groups that are solely focused on formation tend to lead to a spiritual deadness in the lives of the people and in the life of the church.

This is why the Sunday School movement has seen a lot of decline over the past few years. Many Sunday School classes are focused on knowledge formation. There’s really not enough else happening within the dynamic of the small group that would rise to the level of spiritual formation. The recitation of knowledge without any connection or mission leads to a sense of dryness.

On the flip side, if we’re developing a small group as a connecting point for friendship and social interaction only, the result is pretty shallow spirituality. In fact, people will hang for a while and enjoy the relationship building. But since there’s nothing more to the group, after a few weeks or months, they simply won’t stick around.

Our research shows people believe there must be a purpose for their gathering. That’s why they’ve come to church. Not simply for connecting, but for something bigger than themselves. And I’ll suggest that something bigger is found in the Word. Small groups that are serious about transformation will have some kind of Bible study or spiritual formation component to them, even if it is secondary to the connecting or mission functions.

Holistic Approach

Every small group should have all three elements of the purpose and function of groups, but one element will be predominant based on the overall discipleship strategy of the church. And that’s the sweet spot.

Transformational small groups that are going to serve the church well are going to flow out of the church’s strategy for discipleship and mission. And they are going to be most effective when they augment, rather than duplicate the weekend services.

If you’d like to explore more in depth about the role of small groups in the life of the church, my colleague Eric Geiger and I have published a helpful book, Transformational Groups: Creating a New Scorecard for Congregations.

How is your church doing with small groups?

> Read more by Ed.

 Would you like to learn more about the power of small groups? Connect with an Auxano Navigator and start a conversation with our team.

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Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Previously, he served as Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He serves as interim pastor of Moody Church in Chicago.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
— Glenna Hendricks
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright

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