Most small groups do at least two things well—fellowship and Bible study. However, at their best, they can be so much more!
Group life is a great way to live out the Great Commandment and Great Commission in community. As Rick Warren points out in the Purpose Driven Church Strategy, the five purposes for Christian life together are worship, evangelism, discipleship, fellowship, and ministry. A key component to the overall health and success of G3 is balancing these five areas. This is so important to the church family that we have implemented community groups through a launch resource, with the phrase Living the Five, which means living intentionally into each of these purposes.
All groups are encouraged in every gathering to incorporate these five habits:
The benefits to this balance are numerous. For instance, our need for membership care from staff and pastors has diminished greatly because the people are caring for each other. This frees the staff to spend more time equipping laypeople for ministry and preparing for the weekend services. By having more than three hundred groups actively seeking ways to engage in ministry opportunities in our church and community during each study, we are able, as the body of Christ, to do so much more than we could through a single church-wide emphasis.
One of our community groups—a small group of women—meets weekly to prepare backpacks for children who do not have enough food each weekend. As part of their weekly gathering, they stuff seventy-two packs for at-risk children in our area. Another community group prepares and distributes hygiene kits for the homeless. These projects are completely autonomous. The groups handle everything themselves, including coordination and funding. At Christmas, for the past few years, we have gathered together with our community group hosts to hear their outreach stories. It is overwhelming to hear of projects, which range from malaria vaccines to tutoring, being planned and done by these community groups!
The emphasis on inviting those far from God to join the groups also helps the church reach out with the good news. Through the G3 process, community groups attract many people who have not yet come to corporate worship. In other words, they have not attended church yet, but they are meeting weekly in homes with their friends to learn more. This is great! And it helps our people live out the Great Commission.
As you approach the G3 system, consider expanding your thinking about what group life can look like. Instead of thinking about Bible study, cell group, or small group, we encourage you to use the label community group. The word community implies that the group is open to everyone in your area, the entire community. In our culture the church may not always seem open to everyone even though we may mean for it to be open. For people who don’t attend your church, they may not know if they are really welcome to come in your doors or participate in your groups.
The use of the word community has been so beneficial to changing our church culture, in fact, that we now use it in most of our church advertising. For example, invitational cards and billboards may read: “You’re invited to a Community Christmas Celebration.” For people far from God, it gives them permission to belong.
The term community also opens up our groups to a wider audience. Recently, during our membership class, we met a woman who had never been to church before. Yet, there she was, in a two-hour course about what it means to be a member of the family of God and part of a congregation. Curious, right? She explained that she had been attending a community group at a neighbor’s home and found it to be life changing. When she was told about the membership class, she wanted to hear more about the church. After meeting us, she said, “Who knows? Maybe next week I’ll even come to hear you preach.”
Some people aren’t ready to come through the doors for worship. But they may be open to going over to their neighbor’s home one night a week for snacks and a video-based lesson. And if that is a positive experience, it might be their first step toward a relationship with Christ.
While Jen was shopping recently, she met a delightful woman who stopped and said, “Hey, you’re the woman that leads my community group.”
So she replied, “Oh, do you come to Harvest?” The woman replied, “Oh no. I don’t go to church, but I do go to my neighbor’s house for Bible study. You’re that woman on the screen, right?” Jen introduced herself, listened to a little of her story, and then told her that when and if she got ready to try out a service, Jen would be one of the people ready to greet her.
By simply adding the word community, a great deal is communicated. The outside-in point of view lets those who have doubts and questions know that “yes, you are invited.”
It’s a difficult lesson to learn, but great leaders know that you can structure for control or growth, but you simply cannot have both. This has been one of the harder but more meaningful lessons for us to learn over the years. As you will see, as we get into the process of G3, anyone (really, anyone) is allowed to grab a resource and gather friends for the community groups.
Because the biblical teaching is delivered by a skilled biblical communicator through a DVD resource, you don’t have to worry about the quality of the teaching. The people who take the materials from the table are not teachers.
The hosts don’t lead the actual study; the DVD video leads the study. The hosts are friends and neighbors who get together with people they know to do life together and explore God’s word. By lowering the bar in terms of their preparation and expertise, more people are able to engage.
This may be a struggle for you because as a leader, if you are like us, you may have gotten stuck on quality control. Many churches require a great deal of training before activating people into the role of a host. This seems like the right thing to do, unless it is limiting your effectiveness in advancing the purposes of God’s kingdom. If we aren’t careful we can develop a culture in which only a few people are “qualified” to do ministry. Has that happened in your church? Do only a few people lead Sunday school or ministry teams? In our day and time, with access to so much technology, we can harness mature teaching and put it into the hands of new seekers and less-mature believers.
Remember who followed Jesus? Primarily, it was ordinary people. Jesus trusted them with the message of the gospel. The G3 system follows that example and allows you to put good materials into the hands of your people, some of whom may even be far from God.
But, to be honest, when we first started the G3 system, we were nervous about loosening control. You see, we know some of our folk. We love them! But some of them are sketchy. Do you know the term sketchy? It means questionable. Our anxiety centered on what would happen if we put materials into Mr. Sketchy’s hands. Well, let us tell you what happened. Mr. Sketchy invited his sketchy buddies, and they got together and studied the Bible! In some cases, for the very first time. That’s a good thing, friends.
We can structure our churches and ministries for control or growth, but you simply cannot have both.
In our situation, we were stuck at 72 adult groups. But by trying the G3 system, in one week we went from 72 to 226 groups active in our community. We immediately found that people were willing to be in a group. They were interested. They weren’t too busy. They just needed a system that worked for them where they were.
Remember: don’t say but; keep thinking so. Consider the possibilities before you get stuck on your obstacles. By controlling the quality of the prepared material, we opened up the potential of who could be hosts in our area. We don’t call these people teachers; they are simply hosts. They are inviters, and their network of invitation is far greater than ours is without them.
One young adult who grabbed materials came up to us and said, “You know I’m an unwed mom, and I’ve always been too shy to show up at a group. I didn’t know what people would say about me and the mistakes I’ve made. Would it be okay if I grabbed one of the resources and got together with some friends, and we did this together?” Yes, absolutely. So now there are eight young women meeting regularly to seek God and study his word, aiming to live life in a new way.
Again, friends, that’s a good thing!
When people are given responsibility and begin to build relationships, their pronouns begin to change. They begin to see the ministry of the church as theirs, not just yours. They begin to think about what they can do, instead of what you need to do. This is a powerful shift.
By allowing anyone (really, anyone) who is willing to grab a resource and gather a few friends to take the materials, we had to rethink our ideas of how to do ministry and who can be involved. But we’ve found that by providing solid biblical materials, we are not giving an endorsement to any questionable behaviors people may have. We are simply saying, “Here; try this. We think it will help you and the people you invite.”
We also know that by loosening the constraints of who our inviters are, we are more likely to reach people far from God. To use the fisherman metaphor, the net gets cast into much deeper waters than just what the highly qualified church folk may be able to reach on the surface.
You may be like us and need to stop here and reread this section, perhaps several times. Most of us have structured our ministry with high control. This need often comes from a good and well-meaning heart, but it limits our ability to reach people who need God. Again, you can structure for growth or for control, but you cannot have both.
One of the keys to the success of the G3 system is to tie the community group materials to what is taught on the weekend. In other words, the community group materials and the message from the sermon are closely related. By creating additional material and creative questions for dialogue, you get several benefits:
(1) It is easier for people to interact because they have already been introduced to the topic through the weekend sermon. Therefore, they are more likely to contribute to conversation.
(2) It develops synergy within the community by giving your congregation a common theme to talk about. For instance, when they hear that a series is coming up about family, they know that both the weekend and the weekday groups will be on this topic. It sparks conversation in the community.
(3) It becomes easier for your church to advertise what’s coming next. The congregation knows that when we have a G3 series, the community group materials and the message will be linked. It becomes easy for them to invite their friends because they can cast vision based on the advertising we put into their hands.
(4) It is much easier to cast vision from the platform or pulpit and communicate the topic to our church and into the community by tying the group materials to the weekend message.
(5) It drives people from community groups to the weekend worship experience. Many times we only think about how we can drive people from the weekend service into groups. However, the G3 system can also drive people to the weekend worship experience from their community group. Since they have interest in the study, they are more likely to show up for worship to hear more on the topic.
As we go through the G3 process you will see that selecting sermon topics and group materials that complement each other will help the process run smoothly.
Jennifer Cowart and Jim Cowart, Grab, Gather, Grow: Multiply Community Groups in Your Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016).