A pastor friend recently asked me out for coffee and put the question to me directly: “What are your thoughts about missional small groups?” I smiled. Both of us have led small group ministries in various church contexts, so I knew that he was pushing me a little. There was a question behind the question. Is it possible to share life together through small groups while being outward focused? This is what he was really getting at.
The question is challenging because our typical small group practices tend to be inward looking and oriented to our own needs and concerns. Of course, it’s good to share time in prayer and Bible study with trusted friends. This is why we typically gather in small groups. But if this is the only way that we gather beyond Sunday worship, we can easily end up fostering a sheltered, secluded life that revolves around ourselves.
We had a good discussion together. I appreciated my friend laying down the gauntlet. Missional life and learning is something that we both care about, but we also know the difficulty of rejigging our routines. So we dug into that together. How do we become more missional in small group when our instinct to turn inward is so strong?
Shifting the Frame
I think the place to begin is with our calling. It’s amazing that the early Christians not only met in each other’s homes for study, prayer and table fellowship, but in a way that was open to the wider community. They shared an ongoing life together in visible, public ways while inviting others to join in. The effect was amazing. Luke tells us that they “enjoy[ed] the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (2:47). This wasn’t the outworking of some grand strategy. They were simply giving expression to the “new commandment” Jesus had given them: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34).
Together with the first Christians, we are called to gather in the interests of loving one another and, through that love, pointing people to Jesus. We are also called to serve in the broader community and to welcome others so that they too might find belonging in Christ and share in his love. This is so important to remember. It helps us to shift the frame and begin to live with new intentions and aspirations.
Learning New Practices
Remembering our calling is important, but how do we begin practicing a more outward focus in our life together? This can be tricky because not many of us know what shared life might look like beyond our close friendships and family. Let me suggest a few things that cropped up in the conversation with my friend:
Go with What You Know
If you are in a small group that tends to be inward looking, don’t be anxious or feel guilty. Embrace who you are and make small moves as you can. One of the easiest ways to become more outward focused is to highlight the areas of life that people in your group actually live in and begin to treat those spheres as ground for mission. So what would it be like to study, pray and share life with a view to ministry and mission in the workplace, at home, in community? That is a game changer, and you don’t necessarily have to change your routine—at least at first. Instead you are simply noticing what is already going on in your lives and coming awake to the possibilities.
Consider Serving Together
Perhaps you are in the church choir or worship band. What would it be like to take your voices and instruments out into the community? Or perhaps there are helper types in your group. Why not cook together for a soup kitchen or serve with an organization like Habitat for Humanity? This isn’t simply about meeting needs. More importantly, it’s about taking the love that you share for one another– the love that points people to Jesus–and letting it find expression in the midst of community life. This is what it means to be salt and light in the world. It just happens to be accompanied by the clatter of pots and pans and the sound of hammers and saws.
Scatter Some Seeds
What if you started fresh with one or two others from church to share life in your neighborhood? This recently happened to me. A friend who was going through a difficult time invited me to a local pub. I arrived early and connected with a few regulars. It turned out the pub has a dart league, and I love darts. Before my friend arrived, I had lined up a few times to play. The two of us then invited others from church, and all of a sudden we had a small group that was naturally mixing and mingling with people from the neighborhood. The conversations that we’ve had about life and faith have been remarkable–all among people who have very little experience with Christian faith.
Don’t Forget to Have Fun
Sometimes the language of “mission” can make the Christian life seem overly serious. We need to keep a fresh view. Learning to have a more outward focus in small groups requires intentionality, but it’s not complicated, and the little moves we make are more important than we realize. They’re also fun. Let’s remember that Jesus promised an abundant life and calls us to a kind of restful work. This is as true in our small groups as anywhere. May we discover the joy of following him where he leads.