How to Shift Small Groups to Missional Communities

When I started my first full time job as a Pastor of Community Life, I couldn’t have been more excited.

I was thrilled to land a job where my primary focus would be the multiplication of small groups. I channeled all of my energy toward studying biblical community, small group theory, and leading groups myself.

The first couple years in my new position could be considered a success: I visited groups, trained new leaders, developed coaching structures, and grew the number of groups from 40 to over 80.

But looking back, I’m realizing that something about small groups just wasn’t working.


Small groups got hijacked

Sure, some great stuff was happening in some of our groups, but the vast majority did not reflect biblical community. Countless speed bumps along the way suggested that something was off. Instead of ordinary people doing life together and joining God’s work in the world, I noticed that:

  • We talked more about politics than following Jesus.
  • We preferred studying popular books more than the Bible.
  • We prayed more for other people’s problems than our own.
  • We remained closed to outsiders rather than open and inclusive.
  • We were defined by affinity and shared interests more than diversity.
  • We consisted of people coming to get rather than to give.

Now, let me be clear, I’m not against small groups. The problem isn’t with small groups. The problem is that small groups have been hijacked by the subtle power of consumerism.

Instead of using their collective time and energy to engage their communities, small groups focused on consuming the latest small group curriculums, often jumping from one 40-day study to the next. “Studies” became the point with videos of celebrity pastors replacing actual local leadership.

Of course, the elephant in the room for most small groups is not only a lack of mission, but also a lack of discipleship. “Studies” don’t produce disciples. Disciples produce disciples.

The format of socializing around appetizers, working through some study guide questions, and praying for other people effectively left discipleship out.

But again, I’m not down on small groups! The original passion I felt in seminary to catalyze biblical community still drives me today, and my conviction is that true biblical community has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.

But when it has been tried it almost always turns into a movement that revitalizes the church, mobilizes ordinary people to join God’s mission, and turns the world upside down.

Putting missional discipleship at the center

If small groups have historically been a catalyst for church revival, what are we missing? How can small groups be reclaimed as effective vehicles for the equipping and mobilization of the church?

The short answer is that we must find ways to put missional discipleship at the center of our shared life together.

The matrix below provides some helpful categories for us to consider what this shift requires:

Community Mission Matrix

Notice that missional communities are different from a Holy Huddle (i.e. most small groups), which often focus exclusively on growing in relationship with Jesus, and investing in each other, without any outward mission.

Missional communities are also different from a Stale Sunday School class, which typically focuses on studying God’s Word with only a limited sense of community, and clearly no engagement in the local community.

Finally, missional communities are also different from an Isolated Evangelist, who may be growing spiritually and actively sharing his or her faith, but is doing so alone without community.

Within missional communities, people are committed to growing closer to Jesus, doing life together, and joining God’s work in the world. In other words, missional communities embrace worship, community, and mission as a holistic life of discipleship.

Making mission a priority

The key shift for the majority of small groups will be identifying a missional element for their community. A missional focus that they can engage in alongside one another on a regular and consistent basis.

(Please note that this is not the same thing as being a small group while tacking on an occasional service project. Service projects are NOT mission! Rather, this is a group of people who have discerned what God is up to in their neighborhood or community and have organized their life together around participating in God’s activity.)

Here’s what I’ve noticed: when groups make mission a priority, amazing things start to happen.

Recently, we had a group of high school students decide to be consistently present at a group home for individuals with disabilities. On a regular basis they committed themselves to being present, befriending, and loving residents with special needs in the way of Jesus.

About three months in, our church was approached by those leading the group home asking if we would be willing to host A Night to Shine, a prom night experience centered on God’s love for people with various special needs. Needless to say, this was an incredible opportunity to show God’s love in a tangible way.

As this group of high school students exercised the courage to join in God’s work, their faithful participation led to an even greater opportunity for our entire church. And it was largely the result of our students shifting from the typical Wednesday night small group format to a community living on mission alongside one another.

What I love most about this story is that it started with high school students. I couldn’t be more proud of this group and others in our church community that are making similar shifts to break out of the small group mold and join God in both surprising and risky ways.

Next steps to shifting small groups toward mission:

  1. Start a conversation with your existing small group about joining God’s work in your community. If you are not currently part of a small group, prayerfully make a list of people you can invite in on the conversation.
  2. Discern mission as a group by making a list of areas in the community that God might be inviting you to step into. This could be a place like your neighborhood, a partnership like the group home story above, or a people group that you feel especially called to serve and love.
  3. Develop some rhythms to support your life together that includes regularly seeking God, connecting in community with one another, and engaging your shared mission together.

As you step into mission as a community, think presence more than projects. How can you be intentional and consistent in being present among a group of people as a community? Then simply keep noticing where God is at work and join him there!

Questions for discussion:

  • Have you attempted to move small groups toward mission?
  • What have you discovered?
  • What questions do you still have?

Leave a comment below and join the conversation!

This work by Gravity Commons is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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  1. Brad on July 25, 2017 at 3:56 pm

    I live/work in a context in which people’s lives are very full. Most often, husband and wife both work. Many do not have family in town to help with childcare. And work schedules are generally demanding. Given these realities, it often (not always) seems to be the case that the main mission field for a person is their workplace.

    Typically, when we speak of missional communities, we hope for a group to adopt some mission together. Do you think it’s viable for the community to exist in order to support the individual missions people have in their workplace?

  2. Ben Sternke on July 25, 2017 at 4:47 pm

    This is a great question, Brad! I think it’d be worth another video, probably, but I would say that there is something vital that we miss if we are only individuals on mission in our workplaces – there’s something about the Body of Christ that isn’t revealed until there are 2 or more (not least because love among the Body of Christ can’t be displayed when there’s only one member of the Body of Christ present on mission!).

  3. Eric Johnson on July 27, 2017 at 12:41 pm

    When I was in the private sector while serving in ministry as a volunteer, one of the shifts God made in my heart was to stop seeing my career as my primary mission. I had to view my income-producing activity as the means that supported the stuff God was calling me to do. Now, the mistake I made was to not more actively look for people of peace in my job, but I found myself with more energy for mission outside of the workplace when I stopped seeing my workplace as my mission.

    There are some who can leverage their workplace for mission, but only if people of peace are present. There are others who can leverage the income they earn to release them for mission outside the workplace. Teaching people to discern which it will be for them may be helpful in this.

  4. Dave+ Kulchar on May 13, 2019 at 2:20 pm

    “Presence more the Project” as rule for start up makes so much sense. Plus it works!

  5. Derek on June 4, 2019 at 9:29 pm

    How do we encourage young adults who are career driven, to be more missional? At times, they are more invested in making money for themselves instead of showing interest in building God’s Kingdom?

  6. Ben Sternke on June 5, 2019 at 10:23 am

    A good question! I think the best approach is to do what Jesus did: help them name their desires and offer space to discuss why they want what they want… what they hope the money will do for them, etc. and then see if they’re open to a different story. If not, we let them go away sad, like Jesus did with the rich young ruler. Nobody ever really changed because someone told them they “should,” so we have to hold open the same kind of space Jesus did with those who came to him with these kinds of questions. 🙂

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