by Zach Below
Some of the most ridiculous photography I’ve ever seen comes from the covers of small- group brochures. Have you seen these photos? The universal picture of choice always shows a circle of uber-joyful people, smiling a little too much, sitting in a spotless room painted in soft earth tones. Everyone is laughing and sitting awkwardly close to one another.
What are these photos trying to say? “Come on in, our groups are natural and inviting.”
That’s the claim we make within the church. Small groups are natural; an easy place to fit in and feel comfortable. The interesting thing about this claim is that it is both entirely true and completely false. The truth of this claim is predicated by your circumstances. In my life, I have both agreed with and scoffed at these claims.
The basic structure of groups didn’t change. There were always couches, food, people, lessons, and icebreakers. It was simply the circumstance surrounding my involvement in those groups that changed. I have experienced groups as a pastor, an outsider, and an insider. As a result, what was true at one time became entirely false at a later time.
There are three camps of potential group members. Your agreement or disagreement with the claims of small groups will depend on where you reside. As leaders we have to be aware of how each camp experiences our groups, and then respond in kind.
- You have been a member of the same church for years. You know everyone and everyone knows you.
If you are in Camp One, you probably don’t know what all the fuss is about. You know everyone at church and everyone at church knows you. For you, church is easy. Your small group probably meets at a friend’s house and is made up of people you have known for years. If you are in Camp One, the claim that small groups are natural and inviting is absolutely true. I’ve been in Camp One. It’s wonderful. When I was in Camp One, I wore sweatpants to group and didn’t worry about combing my hair. Camp One is comfy and nice.
- You are a believer, but trying to get involved in a new church or group.
In 2009, my wife and I moved to Nashville, TN. We knew no one and thought finding a church would be a great place to start. Even as an ex-pastor, the process of joining a small group was awkward and painful. It started with a small-group open house sign-up event (nothing screams “unnatural” more) that felt more like speed-dating, and ended a few months later with us knocking on the door of a stranger’s house. That’s not natural–that’s stressful. Just because small groups are held on comfy couches and easy chairs doesn’t automatically mean that they are inviting.
Most people in church leadership reside in Camp One. Camp One leaders need to be aware that second level connection (connecting beyond Sunday morning service) can be an intimidating process. We have to look at small groups from the eyes of those in Camp Two and wrestle with the question, “How can we make groups a more natural process for Camp Two?”
- You are an explorer; new to all things church and God.
For those in Camp Three, our claims are an outright lie. If we are honest, there is nothing natural or inviting about walking into a stranger’s house, making small talk, eating their snacks, and talking in a circle. I’ve picked the brains of my non-churched, non-Christ following friends in depth, and they think the small-group process is beyond bizarre. One they would never participate in.
Chances are, if you are reading this, you are in Camp One. We call it natural and inviting because we are on the inside. As a Camp One Christian, it is not hard to walk into a group and get assimilated. Even those in Camp Two are at least familiar with the process–no matter how agonizing it may be.
As church leaders, we must think beyond Camp One and Camp Two. We have to ask, “Are our claims true not only for believers, but for people far from God?” Take some time to think about your current groups. Ask someone that was once in Camp Two how they felt about the process of getting connected. Finally, look around. Is there anyone there from Camp Three? If not, how can our groups create natural connections, natural environments, and real value for those far from God looking to explore Christ?