When Lake Pointe began more than thirty years ago, we started two midsized Life Groups for couples. One group was for those who were over forty years of age and one was for couples younger than forty. In addition, we started one men’s Life Group and one ladies’ Life Group. This served those who preferred to meet and study the Bible separately from their spouse, those whose spouse refused to attend, or those whose spouse was working in our childcare area at that hour. Today we have a total of 156 midsize, on-site Life Groups that meet each week.
Very quickly we found that more of our people moved into our Life Group tribes when they fully understood the five purposes of these groupings and the needs met there that could not be provided in a larger service format. The first unique purpose of a Life Group is interactive Bible study. Obviously a large service format does not allow an abundance of questions and answers, individual application, and then personal encouragement to follow through on biblical insights. Interestingly, this vital interaction is what many people are seeking to avoid by not attending Life Groups.
Some people fear that by attending one of these groups, they will be asked to read aloud, pray aloud, or answer a complex spiritual question about a biblical passage. This is why we guarantee that Life Groups are interactive on the attendees’ terms. They can ask any questions they desire and volunteer to give input as they like, but no one will initiate interaction without their prior approval. Life Groups are a safe place to listen and learn on the participants’ terms and at their comfort level.
Because interactive Bible study is a part of the Life Group, all of our Life Group teachers are trained to lead Bible study discussions rather than lecture. They are required to serve as an assistant teacher and attend a four-week training course for new leaders before leading a group. Before they can lead their own group, they are also required to fill out a questionnaire that requires them to share their church background, salvation experience, and doctrinal beliefs.
After interning as an assistant, taking the training course, and filling out the questionnaire, they are then interviewed by our board of elders. At that interview they are asked to verbally affirm that they will be faithful in their giving, be loyal to church leadership, and abstain from the appearance of evil. This is in addition to the commitment they are asked to make to support the values of the church and adhere to basic biblical disciplines that should be a part of every fully developing Christian’s life.
The process is demanding because, in a lot of ways, as the small group tribe goes, so goes the church. A staff member or lay volunteer then provides continuing coaching to each Life Group leader to foster his or her ongoing development.
Each Life Group has two leaders, the primary teaching leader and the care leader. While the teaching leader is the recognized and primary spokesperson for the group, the care leader is responsible for helping organize members’ care and ministry projects as well as facilitating smaller home-based Growth Groups and accountability partnerships.
The second purpose for Life Groups is fellowship. God’s Word makes it clear how important it is to have close Christian friends. Ecclesiastes 4:9 says “Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their efforts.” Life Groups provide the environment in which it is more likely participants will develop lifetime and Christ-honoring relationships. If someone has been a member of Lake Pointe for several years and complains of being unable to develop meaningful friendships, I will ask the person about their Life Group participation. Life Groups are where those deeper relationships are formed.
One of the disappointments that I have as the pastor of a larger church is that I don’t have the opportunity to know everyone in the church. I’m not the only one who feels this tension. One of the complaints I hear from time to time about Lake Pointe is that we are “just such a large church.” People are even hesitant to join such a large church for fear that, unlike the church they attended before Lake Pointe, “they won’t know everyone.”
But large numerical growth doesn’t have to exclude meaningful relationships. I love baseball and I love going to see the Texas Rangers play. Over the years the massive size of the crowd has never bothered me. A big crowd usually means the team is on a winning streak (or that it is opening day). Why does it not seem to concern me that I do not “know everyone” at the ballpark? Two reasons: First, I know that I am a part of a larger tribe called Rangers fans and that for the most part—except for those pesky Red Sox and Yankee fans living in our city—most of the people seated around me, even if I do not know their names, are cheering and hoping for the same outcome. Second, I always attend the game with a smaller tribe—my wife, Marsha, and another couple, our grandkids, or three or four buddies who are also Rangers fans.
The baseball metaphor illustrates a similar dynamic that happens in a local church. It does not matter how large the church gets, if you are involved in a smaller tribe or Life Group with which you are experiencing ever-deepening friendships. Building healthy small group tribes is an essential fellowship component to every tribal church.
The third critical activity that occurs in these Life Group tribes is care. When someone joins our church family, it is our responsibility to care for that person’s spiritual, emotional, and, in some cases, physical needs. But, it is that individual’s responsibility to put himself or herself in the place where this kind of care takes place. At Lake Pointe that place is a Life Group. It is the Life Group’s care leader whose primary responsibility is to organize the tribe members to care for one another.
I do not know when it happened, but at some time in the history of the church, people began to expect the clergy to do all the ministering. I believe that is why 59 percent of the churches in America have fewer than 100 participants, counting both adults and children.1 That is about the number of people for whom one person can effectively care. According to Ephesians 4:12, it is the job of those in the pastor/teacher role to equip the saints to minister to one another. Which is also to say, it is not only the responsibility of church members to put themselves in a place to be cared for, but also for them to position themselves to care for others. It is amazing to me that there are those who become concerned when they do not get the attention they feel they need, but then have no concern about the unmet needs of their fellow tribesmen.
Whenever there is a death, sickness, or another kind of crisis in a Lake Pointe member’s life, we can tell immediately if that person has a meaningful connection to a Life Group. When I or another staff member show up, if that person is an active Life Group member, we find there is very little—if anything—that needs to be added to the ministry already taking place. The love expressed by the Life Group is both more meaningful and helpful because of the knowledge that comes from everyone involved having done life together deeply. If that person has not connected to a Life Group, we find most times that the ministry from our staff is the entire ministry they receive.
One of the ways we have empowered our leaders and helped them to be seen as true ministers is by encouraging the observance of Communion in Life Groups. In addition, many times Life Group leaders will baptize the members or family members of their own Life Group.
The fourth unique benefit from Life Group involvement is meaningful service. All of our Life Groups are commissioned to adopt at least one ministry project for their tribe. Many of our groups have taken on multiple projects, giving their participants a variety of opportunities, including those that are local, national, and international. In other words, Life Group members not only study God’s Word together, they also put God’s Word into action together. There is a deeper intimacy that comes to a tribe when they serve God together.
When our church first began, the connection between Life Groups and individual ministry involvement was not as strong as it is today. In those early days, if you wanted to serve, you did so in addition to the time spent with your Life Group with those outside of your Life Group. Although some in our congregation still find a place of service outside of their Life Group, today most of our people serve with their Life Group.
We have also found that a greater percentage of our members now serve because of this paradigm shift. They are now motivated by an opportunity to fellowship with their tribe, in addition to the feeling of significance that service brings, and the realization that real needs are met by their involvement.
Finally, the Life Group is a critical part of the pathway to accountability. As pastor, I feel it is primarily my job to motivate those who are attending one of our services to engage with a Life Group. In turn, we expect the leadership in Life Groups to encourage their members to take the next step of participating in monthly home-based groups of 8 to 10 people we call Growth Groups. Fellowship, prayer, and support—rather than Bible study—are the primary activities of these home gatherings. Some Growth Groups have also chosen to do ministry projects together for their monthly gatherings. Over time, it is common for these relationships to grow into lifelong friendships and same-gender accountability partnerships that help our people grow to be more like Christ. Proverbs 27:17 says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.”
Many of our home-based Growth Groups start out much like a simple supper club. A new Growth Group begins when the Life Group care leader asks those not already connected to a Growth Group if they would like to form a group themselves or have their names put in a hat as new Growth Groups are being formed. It is then perfectly legal, after several months have passed, for an individual or couple to come back to the care leader and say, “I have really enjoyed fellowship with the couples (or singles) you put us with; however, we would like to try another Growth Group now so we can meet more people in our Life Group.” That, by the way, is code language for “I do not have anything in common with the yahoos you put me with and I would like to be in a different group.” As I said, it is perfectly acceptable for individuals or couples to keep changing groups until they find one with which they have a high degree of affinity. Once this takes place, we pray that they can stay with that group until Jesus returns.
Steve Stroope, Kurt Bruner, and Rick Warren, Tribal Church: Lead Small. Impact Big. (Nashville: B&H, 2012).