small groups for the rest of usAt Cross Point, everyone’s welcome, nobody’s perfect, and anything’s possible. In fact, that’s become our mantra. Once you’ve made the decision that everyone actually is welcome, it opens up an interesting question for small groups. Are groups a place where everyone is welcome too? If not, where do we draw the line?

We have a strong conviction that no one sin should disqualify a person from experiencing community. This is true particularly if you plan on placing groups as a front door to your church. To reach the fringes, it’s going to get a little messy at times. Here are a few scenarios you may encounter if you haven’t already done so:

  • A person turns in a card on Sunday indicating they are new to the church and would like to join a small group as soon as possible. On the “Spouse” line of the card, they list a same-sex partner.
  • A heterosexual couple signs up online for a couple’s small group. You notice the home address is the same, but they are not listed as married and have different last names.
  • A couple identifies themselves as gay and approaches the small groups table after the service where the senior pastor has just asked for volunteers to host small groups over the next six weeks. They would like to host a group and invite their friends who don’t attend church.

Is this where we draw the line on community? Do we ask them to get cleaned up first before they are allowed into our circles? You could, and a lot of churches do, but that’s not the example Jesus gave us. He accepted all types of sinners into his inner circle before a lot of people would have allowed them in their church lobby.

Jesus took Simon, a guy with a major temper issue and known hater of Romans and tax collectors, and paired him up with Matthew, a tax collector.

He plucked a crooked tax collector out of a tree to host their traveling small group at his house that night.

He sat down late one night with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, to talk through what it means to be born again. Nicodemus later risked his life and reputation by standing up for Jesus in front of his fellow Pharisees and by helping Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus’s body down from the cross and into the tomb.

Try to imagine the disciples’ horror when Jesus made the decision to bring the woman at the well into the circle. Not only, according to Jewish custom, should Jesus have not spoken to a woman—much less a Samaritan woman—he started the conversation with bullet-pointing her multiple sins. Not exactly the icebreaker you would train your small-group leaders to lead with, but it worked pretty well for Jesus. The woman was not only accepted into the group but began inviting everyone she knew to check out the guy who knew everything about her.

Jesus created this crazy community out of people no one wanted anything to do with. As Pastor Pete says, “A lot of Christians would rather have conformity than community.” We are uncomfortable with people with different sins from our sins. In order to reach the far fringes, we have to design our small-group systems with easy and obvious entry points for people who do not look, act, believe, or vote like us. This radical change in behavior starts with preparing our leaders to think differently.

Not every leader will be spiritually mature enough to navigate the conversations that will come from inviting gays into the group. Nor will every group be able to handle the possible disruption it could cause. A small-group point person has to be discerning to know which leaders are ready for the inevitable questions that will come from opening the group to everyone. If a leader is prepared and has those discussions with the group before it happens, the results can be amazing. If the leader is not spiritually mature and the group is not ready, it can ultimately destroy the group.

The popular church cliché is to “love the sinner but hate the sin.” While it sounds nice, I don’t believe it is biblical. Jesus gave us instructions with the ultimate commandment:

“Teacher, which command in the law is the most important?”

Jesus answered, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and most important command. And the second command is like the first: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ All the law and the writings of the prophets depend on these two commands.” (Matthew 22:36–40)

We are asked to do two things: love God and love people. That’s it. Jesus did not say, “Love your neighbor, but make sure to hate their sin.” He just said to love them. What Jesus made simple we manage to make complicated. Billy Graham said, “It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict; it’s God’s job to judge; and it’s our job to love.”

If you train your group leaders to provide an environment where people are loved and the gospel is shared, God and the Holy Spirit will take care of everything else. When those two things are done, biblical community will happen and lives will change.

A few years ago we approached two of our strongest leaders with a dilemma. A gay couple had requested a community group, and we thought that their midsize young professionals group might be a great fit. Would they consider praying and talking to their group about the possibility of allowing them to attend? They were unsure but agreed to take it to their group for a discussion. A week later they responded that the group had talked it over and decided there was no way they could not invite this couple into their group. A few weeks later the leaders told us that just having the conversation bonded the group like nothing had before. It brought them back to the original purpose of why we do what we do. Everyone is welcome, nobody’s perfect, and anything is possible.

We recognized early on that just having our standard small-group options would not reach beyond the core of our church. We could continue placing people in groups who were brave enough to request them, but we would miss a large group of people not willing to wade through the process. That’s when we decided to launch host groups, an idea we borrowed from Saddleback Church. With host groups, if you have a few friends, neighbors, or coworkers to invite to your home or conference room, you could facilitate a small group.

Offering another category of small groups gave more people the opportunity to add God to what they were already doing: gathering with friends in their everyday environments. In the two years we have offered the host group option, we have had non-Christians, gay couples, business leaders, apartment managers, touring bands, missionaries to China, and many, many more use our curriculum to start conversations about God with the people in their circles.

Opening the door to the fringes will not be clean and easy. We have to occasionally navigate issues that don’t always bubble up to the surface in the typical small-group system. We have learned that walking alongside people whose lives are messy is hard. And it takes time. But if you put in the effort and stick with it, the stories of life change will follow.

Thomas Nelson Inc, Ln: Small Groups for the Rest of Us (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015).