Acts 2:46 tells us one of the keys that allowed the church to go from three thousand to countless millions was tribes: “And every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart.” In other words, from the beginning, the three thousand new converts were divided into small tribes, which met in homes to study together, break bread, and care for each other. This is why it is important for church leaders to understand a second layer of “tribes” at their church, the small group.
At Lake Pointe Church we tell every new member that it is vital for each person to find a small group or “tribe” in which they can become an active participant. This is first communicated at an orientation that is offered once a month on a Sunday evening. The purpose of this three-hour introduction to our fellowship is to help the new member along a clear path of spiritual formation and assimilation. In addition, we share the purpose of the church and expectations of each individual toward fulfilling our mission.
Why make this an emphasis? Because those who only attend the large church gathering tend to remain spectators. By joining a small or even midsize group (which we call Life Groups), they move toward accountability and as a result, greater spiritual maturity. I often say in those settings, “We are not really a large church, we are a collection of small churches, and there is a sense in which you haven’t really found your church until you have found a smaller tribe we call Life Groups.”
We happen to be a church that believes in on-site, midsized tribes as well as small home-based groups. Many other great churches only offer small groups in homes to accomplish the same ends and many of them do so effectively. We have chosen to offer weekly, on-site, midsized Life Groups that meet immediately prior to or following the worship services. These groups further subdivide into off-site Growth Groups that meet once or twice per month in homes. We believe on-site Life Groups are most effective for the following reasons:
- Time: When someone gives their time to attend a church service on one day and then must give up a second time slot on another day for their small group experience, they are less likely to do so. However, if they can attend their Life Group immediately before or after a service, even if they are on the property for 2½ hours, they consider it only one section of time. The majority of your most-committed people will give you two time slots a week, not three. If two slots are already required by a worship service and a “week night” small group experience, it is hard to get them to commit the third time slot to serve in a ministry. Others may come to service and serve but will not commit the third hour to the vital community they need to experience in the Life Group. As a result, most churches with only off-site small groups average at best 30 to 40 percent of their adult membership. Churches with well-managed on-site, midsized groups can see a participation rate as high as 80 percent.
- Childcare: Even the best efforts to provide home-based childcare, which range from “find your own childcare” to “stick the kids in a back room” to “one couple misses one out of every five gatherings,” fall short. On-site programming for children is easier to make safe, efficient, effective, and convenient. It is also my personal belief that some of our church members who attend Life Groups have not yet really bought into the small group concept, but they attend faithfully just to get a break from their kids for a few hours each week.
- Fear and Convenience: It is much easier to ask a new church member to walk down the hall and try out a Life Group while they are already in the building than it is to ask them to navigate their way to a home in a strange neighborhood. And here is the reality. If you go into a room to visit a Life Group on-site and you get uncomfortable, if you do not enjoy it, or if it just goes too long, you can always pretend to go to the restroom and not return. This is pretty difficult to pull off in a home unless you are planning to climb out of someone’s bathroom window! I have found that many new paradigm churches today only offer small home groups and do not offer midsized on-site groups. The common argument is that they cannot afford the building costs associated with on-site midsized groups. While I understand their concern, I believe that if a larger percentage of their people were assimilated through the use of midsized on-site groups, the necessary resources to provide facilities for such groups would exist. However, in the few parts of the country where land is so expensive that it becomes nearly impossible to provide the necessary facilities for on-site groups, I would suggest a modified on-site midsized group strategy. Here, the church could provide one or two midsized rooms with a capacity of approximately 80 to 100. The church could then invite several small groups that usually meet in homes to join together with other small groups for 4 to 5 weeks, utilizing those rooms before or after existing services and providing on-site childcare. Those who had not yet connected to a small group could then be invited to check out the collection of small groups meeting on the campus for that month. A new collection of small groups could then rotate on campus the following month. The small groups rotating on campus could be from a selected geographical region with various age groups, or they could be a collection of a particular age group from various regions.
- Group Psychology: It is a very large sociological leap for a person to take who is enjoying the anonymity of a large group of several hundreds or even several thousands to be thrust into a small group of 8 to 10 people. We have found that a midsize group of 25 to 80 allows the person to acclimate more slowly toward greater intimacy and accountability. After people develop trusting relationships, they are more willing to commit to an additional periodic time slot and the more intimate experiences in a home-based small group. By the way, there are some people whose personality profiles make it almost impossible to move them to the smaller setting without first transitioning through the midsize experience.
In short, it takes less time and courage, and there are fewer childcare complexities involved, in attending an on-site midsized group than a small off-site group.
Steve Stroope, Kurt Bruner, and Rick Warren, Tribal Church: Lead Small. Impact Big. (Nashville: B&H, 2012).