Imagine. A church of small groups that meet in homes, based on geography rather than affinity, whose purpose is to not only share life together around the Scriptures but also to transform the neighborhood or section of the city from which the small group is gathered by living out what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Imagine.  Small groups that not only raise up disciples but also take responsibility for transforming the neighborhood or section of the city in which they live.  Is that a dream worth pursuing? If so read on.

Two Seminal Books

Over the past several months two books have opened my eyes to something I was aware of but I hadn’t processed the absolute importance of their message.  The two books are MissioRelate by Scott Boren and The Road to Missional by Michael Frost.  Both of these guys have had an enormous influence on my thinking the past few years.

I first was impressed with Boren in his book Making Cell Groups Work. It was so practical and down to earth and fit nicely into my understanding of small groups and how they could fit into a local church. But over the years Boren’s thought shifted more toward the relational and outward focus of small groups on their neighborhood.

My first contact with Michael Frost was the book he co-authored with Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come in which they shared their concept of incarnational Christianity (if you need a refresher course on their use of “incarnational” click here.  At the time I read this book I was intrigued with their message but not convinced of its practicality. There didn’t seem to be anyway to connect their message, which was clearly biblical, with my understanding of the Christianity and the local church. It seemed that either the church was institutional or incarnational.

Still something about the message of this book haunted me. I knew there was something I was missing. I had several conversations with Alan Hirsch about the radical nature of his and Frost’s writings. We clearly were not on the same page in the beginning. Over time Alan moved more to the center and I moved more toward understanding what he and Frost were proposing. Still I knew that whatever the church of the future was going to look like all the forms of church couldn’t be free-standing from the local church; there had to be some form of institutional Christianity for it to survive.

But the convergence of MissioRelate and The Road to Missional has pulled the pieces together.  The local church can be incarnational and institutional at the same time. Let me tell you how this can be.

Both books lay a foundation for small groups, institutional or otherwise, that make a difference in the community.  Frost talks about the absolute necessity of Christianity reforming neighborhoods and communities instead of focusing on bricks and mortar and trying to get people to come out of the neighborhood into the church. I have to agree with him; purely attractional churches are on their way out.  Christians have always been a “sent” people beginning with Abraham and culminating in Jesus.  And surely you remember this one -“As the Father sent me, so send I you.”

A Change of Heart

Now the problem – almost every local church has small groups but not many have small groups that make a difference in the community.  Most are nothing more than a bad form of Bible study. In this book Scott shows us how to develop small groups that not only grow people but make a difference in the neighborhood and city. He suggests that every small group have a mission in their neighborhood.  The goal of the small group is not Bible study or caring for one another.  The goal is to develop disciples who transform their community.

Being a Methodist I resonate with this approach.  John Wesley’s class meetings had a profound effect on England and some say were part of the reason England didn’t collapse like the rest of the continent.

However, for small groups to be able to affect their community they must be based on geography not affinity.  Oops. For years I have advocated small groups based on affinity – gathering people with like interests together to grow in their faith with no consideration of geography.  No more.  Now I’m convinced the time has come for small groups to be formed based on geography so that every small group can have an outward focus on the area in which they are meeting. The reason I’m making this shift is the rapid secularization of our country. People no longer come to church, now we must go to them.

What a Difference it Would Make

Would it make a difference in your church and the lives of your people and community if every small group had quarterly backyard Bar B Qs and invited the neighborhood? Would it make a difference in the lives of your people if some of your small groups provided tutoring or baby-sitting, or neighborhood cleanup, or gave free water away on hot days, or cleaned the streets of a neighborhood, or  – you fill in the blank.

Just think how it would change our understanding of small groups if the focus wasn’t on the small group but on the neighborhood.  For years now I’ve worked hard helping people see that having a “data dump” isn’t the purpose of small groups or discipleship. We are so caught up in what I call “content discipleship” that when we think of discipleship all we can of is having another course or bible study. It seems we have come to believe that the more we learn the closer we are to Jesus.  I’m here to tell you that’s bunk!  Jesus discipled by hanging out with the disciples. He helped them grow by allowing them to see how he lived and how he cared for people.  He discipled on the job not in the classroom. We need to do the same.

We are discipled as we help others. We are discipled on the job. We need to change the focus of our small groups. Instead of focusing on themselves we need to focus them on changing the neighborhood. And when we do, guess what? Like Cornelius we will find that God has already moved into our neighborhoods. All we need to do is find out how to come alongside of him and become backyard missionaries.