Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way from the beginning: to the normal church outsider, small groups are weird. Those of us who are tasked with convincing people in our churches that joining a small group is something they should do have an uphill battle. Here are just a few of the perceptions that come along with signing up for a small group in a church:
- Carve out two to three hours a week from your already impossible schedule.
- Spend those two to three hours with strangers in someone’s home.
- Be prepared to confess all of your internal struggles to those strangers.
- Don’t forget to stop by the store every week to pick up a cheese-and-fruit tray for the group.
Sound like fun? It didn’t to me. My journey to being a small-groups pastor was not an easy one. In fact, I pretty much came to it kicking and screaming.
My Journey to Groups
I will never forget my first experience at an early morning men’s breakfast. I will admit that I am not by nature an early morning person. At that point in my life (early twenties and a musician), I had no clue there were two five o’clocks in the day. So I was not in the best frame of mind when I walked into the back room of the restaurant at 5:30 a.m. for the breakfast.
Everything about the meeting was great until it came time for the small-group discussion with the guys sitting around my table. The assignment was for each of us to confess to the table our biggest current struggle in our walk with God and then spend a few minutes praying for one another to overcome the sin. I had never met any of the men at my table, so there was no chance I was going to open the vaults to my deepest, darkest struggles. Instead, I silently prayed that no one would look at me to go first. We started going around the table, and it quickly became evident that a couple of the guys did not have the same inner boundaries that I did. They were confessing sins I am pretty certain were illegal in a couple of states. By the time it was my turn to speak, the confession bar had been set pretty high. I could feel disapproving stares burning through me as I looked down at my plate and muttered something about not reading my Bible and praying enough. You know, the adult equivalent of when I ask my kids what they learned in their class at church and they answer, “Jesus.” We finished the confessions, and I quickly left the restaurant, pretty certain that I did not want to have anything to do with any future men’s small groups.
Fast-forward twenty years and discover that I am now such a big believer in the power of community through small groups that I lead a groups ministry at a church that has over 90 percent of our adult members attending a group somewhere in our city.
Did a few men’s group experiences get less awkward? Nope.
Did people’s lives get less messy? Nope.
What happened is very simple: I discovered the power of real life change when I dropped the facade of being a Sunday Christian and began to live the raw truth of life with people as messed up as I am.
Until I decided to become vulnerable with a group of people I trusted, I thought I was the only one:
- The only one who sometimes questioned if God was real. (I am a pastor.)
- The only one who didn’t always feel like reading my Bible and praying. (Did I mention I am a pastor?)
- The only one who dropped the ball with my family.
- The only one who started with a smile on Sunday morning and finished with anger on Sunday night.
S. Lewis defined friendship this way: “The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’ ”
That is the secret sauce of a small group. When we help create environments where messed-up people like us are able to look at each other and say, “You too?” it frames the message of the gospel in a whole new way. Suddenly people understand grace in a context they never knew before. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are that brought them to this place. It only matters that someone else understands.
The journey from attending to leading small groups has not always felt like a successful one. After being on staff at Seacoast Church in Charleston, South Carolina, for ten years, my family and I moved to Greenville to launch a campus for Seacoast in the upstate area. I knew the best way to build community for a new church was to start small groups as soon as possible. So we did. We had purposefully picked our new home based on how easy it would be to host a large number of people. The kitchen was spacious for prediscussion time, and the living room had plenty of room to arrange chairs around the outside. We had as many as forty-four people crammed into our house at one time.
Our philosophy of leading groups at the time was to lead a group for a semester and then hand it off to an apprentice leader while we started a new group. Our first couple of groups averaged ten to fifteen couples, so we felt confident that the system was working and we were starting to figure out this small-groups thing. That was true—right up until we opened the sign-up sheet for the third semester and only one couple committed to our group. Even though we continued to invite (or beg) other people to join, our small group stayed truly small the entire semester. It was never a difficult decision whether to cancel a group meeting or not. When the other couple couldn’t make it to group night, it was canceled. So much for my perfect record as a successful small-group leader.
Even though not every group we led through the years has felt like a home run, I will forever champion small groups with everything I have. I know they are difficult and far from perfect, but so is my life. I have come to the realization that the sole reason my small group is weird is because I am in it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Thomas Nelson Inc, Ln: Small Groups for the Rest of Us (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015).