Do you think the apostle Peter was nervous before he preached at Pentecost? How many people do you think he thought would respond to his message? Before you answer, remember, there were no churches, Christian organizations, or church history present when this took place. So what do you think? Twenty-five people? Thirty-five people? A hundred people?
Of course we know that more than three thousand people were saved through that first day of preaching! In other words, the first Christian church was a megachurch from day one. So how did the disciples respond to make sure that everyone was cared for and that the initial explosion of growth did not create a chaotic environment that would hamper the spread of the gospel?
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:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
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, TN: B&H Books, 2012).