“Community within the church today is hemorrhaging (p. 18),” says Brad House in his new book on small groups titled Community: Taking Your Small Group Off Life Support. Sadly, though the church is a community of believers it often does not function as a community let alone a life giving community that fosters growth among its members. Though small groups are often utilized to help foster community within the local church it often becomes a place to just share prayer requests, discuss some verses and eat some food. These small groups often do not provide the kind of community growth that House believes the NT has in vision.
Small Groups or Community Groups?
What is interesting about Houses’ proposal is that he is not necessarily offering a reworking of the typical small group idea. Most small groups center themselves around an age group, stage of life or a particular aspect that each person has in common like addictions or being a single parent. Usually these groups meet in different places within the church walls and sometimes they meet in the small groups member’s houses. In other words, they usually just meet for the spiritual needs of the church members in the group. The concept that House sketches out for us in his book is quite different. House calls them Community Groups which are defined as “scattered church grouping.” The name itself does not lend to a radical view of small groups but how he describes the nature of its function does. Community groups have three main functions:
- Discipleship – This is “about providing the means by which we begin to shepherd people in the direction of maturity (p. 49).” What happens with discipleship is to fit into the larger structure of what the church is accomplishing as a whole which ultimately to start with the pulpit ministry of the pastor.
- Pastoral Care – This is about the leaders of the community groups providing shepherding to each of its members. This “ensures that every member is being cared for and is caring for others (p. 59).” Since the pastor(s) cannot shepherd each member the same and meet all of their needs, equipping the community group leaders with the skills to do this will ensure that someone is shepherding each member of the church.
- Mission – This is about each community group and each of its members being actively involved in the mission work of God through the church. It is the whole church that is to be involved in the mission of God and community groups are an effective way to make sure this is accomplished.
In my experience and from what I have read this idea of small groups is much different than anything I have seen. This is a whole new model of small groups that calls for not just meeting the needs of the group themselves but reaching out to meet the needs of the world in their own neighborhood. This is a model of small groups that calls for the group to take the task of the mission of the church and to make it the mission and reason for their existence as well.
The book is broken down into three sections through which House sketches his vision for community groups.
Part One – The Foundation: Building Blocks for Life
Part one deals with laying the foundation for your small group. Often times small groups exist to fill a need or a want instead of flowing from the philosophy or mission of the church. This new foundation must be built on a correct image of oneself before God as an individual and group. We were created to be in community with God and each other. Sin has broken that and the cross restores it. Second, these groups must be an integral part of the mission of the church. Finally, in order for community groups to succeed their needs to be complete ownership on the part of the leaders and those involved. The vision and missional necessity must be clearly and passionately be communicated from the top down. Members need to believe in the purpose and mission of their community group and not merely agree with it (p. 71). This requires that the pastoral leadership train and equip the leaders and allow them to run with their group.
Part Two – Health Plan: Redefining Community Groups
Part two begins by comparing the difference between small groups that exist out of pragmatism versus small/community groups that exist out of conviction because it has flowed from the mission of the church. Pragmatic small groups tend to be reactionary, product driven, have a what-we-do identity, are event driven, tend to take the life from people, conformity oriented and function out of obligation. Small groups that exist our of conviction are visionary, purpose driven, have a who-we-are identity, are lifestyle driven, life-giving, creative and function out of a desire to be a blessing to other believers and the world.
Here House also fleshes out his idea of what it means to be a community group in a neighborhood. The best was for the mission of the church to be worked out in a mission minded small group is to exist and work in the surrounding neighborhoods of the members of the local church. House writes:
As gospel density increases with the growth of groups, these groups can begin to collaborate together to reach whole neighborhoods and regions of the city. As groups draw more people to Jesus, they replicate and increase the gospel density of their neighborhoods, increasing the likelihood that more of their neighbors will be positively impacted by the gospel. In this way we can strategically advance the gospel and see whole cities transformed by the death and resurrection of Jesus (p. 107).
In tandem with this neighborhood approach is the thought that small groups need to rethink where they meet (in homes or more public places like a restaurant), how often they meet (weekly or biweekly), the best time to meet based on the availability of the members and the typical work schedules of those they are trying to reach and offering more than one opportunity to meet without making everyone fell as if they have to attend every time.
Integral to redefining a churches view of small groups is the structural makeup of the whole ministry. Here House draws on what he calls the Jethro Principle as inspired from Exodus 18. Here Moses is the only judge and leader of the people and he cannot handle it anymore. His father-in-law Jethro confronts him and encourages him to train other leaders and divide the people so the work is more manageable and the needs are being met. First, there is one person who oversees the entire small groups ministry. Then there are head coaches who oversee a certain number of coaches who in turn oversee a number of small group leaders. How many small groups and coaches a church has is relative to the size of the church.
Part Three – Treatment: Effecting Change in Your Groups
So how does a church with a small group ministry who is pragmatic oriented change their way of thinking and doing small groups? In part three House gives two answers. First, House believes a church must repent. If community is an integral part of the Christian life and life of the church and small groups is the best way to accomplish that, then churches who do not accomplish this through their small groups ministry have failed to live missionally and need to repent. “As we repent of the sin and disbelief that have corrupted our communities and sidelined us from the mission of God, our hearts will be prepared for a new vision. This repentance looks like a people receiving the gospel and living out of their identity as a holy nation (p. 195).” House suggests that the change that needs to take place is missional repentance. Missional repentance is when God’s people repent of their sin which leads to “the advancement of God’s kingdom and the proclamation of his glory (p. 195).”
The second way in which churches can change their small groups into missional community groups is to provide some sort of boot camp. These boot camps are designed to provide training for small group leaders and coaches. House suggests a seven week program and gives the entire outline of what they do at Mars Hill Church. This chapter of the book is worth the cost of the book alone.
If churches were to take seriously what House proposes in Community then they will be forever changed. House is right when he says,
Transformational, life-filled community in a culture of quick fixes is hard to come by. Effecting change will take commitment, hard work, and patience. Changing the culture of community in your church will require a constant plan that starts with repentance on the part of the church and dependence on the Holy Spirit to impart change in our hearts (p. 192).
Change is never easy for churches but it is the power of the gospel that enables us to change our individualistic and pragmatic small groups into community groups that function out of conviction and mission. Community will forever change how you view your small group and make you ask yourself how you can begin to make the change.
NOTE: This book was provided for free and I was under no obligation to provide a favorable review.