The Secret to Open AND Authentic Groups

I recently read a tweet and blog post that assumes an either-or viewpoint toward small groups. You must choose, the author says, between being an open, outward-focused, welcoming, numerically growing group (or class) and living in authentic, accountable, abiding community. You can’t have it both ways.

This often-repeated reasoning emerges from the idea that if a group desires to grow in radically real community—the kind in which people open up and share their whole stories, confess readily, love sacrificially, and hold each other accountable—it cannot regularly invite and welcome new people. And of course, the opposite is true, they say: If you desire to reach the lost, invite new people, and grow in numbers, you can’t dive into the deep end of community life; instead you must offer a lighter version of community.

This line of reasoning overlooks two vital points, a biblical one and a practical one:

Biblical View

The Bible is abounding in both-and examples. The Godhead, our foundational model of radically real community, is, of course, both authentic/accountable/loving and missional in nature. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are both inward- and outward-focused.

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I’ve heard the argument that Jesus’ discipleship group was an intentionally closed small group, and for about three years it certainly appears to have been so. Yet Jesus constantly sent these men in his group outward on mission. While the 12 apostles stayed constant, many other followers traveled in and out of this grouping. The group was a great example of both-and.

Perhaps the clearest example is the early church, as described in the familiar Acts 2:42-47. Look at this passage verse-by-verse. Which of these verses are inward-focused (building authentic, accountable community) and which are outward-focused (reaching out, serving, growing numerically)?

42: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. [inward]

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43: Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. [outward]

44: All the believers were together and had everything in common. [inward]

45: They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. [outward]

46: Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, [inward]

47: praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.[outward]

This pattern of focusing inward on developing community and then outward on mission is repeated throughout the New Testament. It’s simply who they were. In fact, the addition of new people came out of the overflow of their deep community life with one another.

Practical View

One of the reasons people often believe in the either-or lie is that they mistakenly view small group community only as a meeting. They think in terms of everything, inward- and outward-focused, occurring within an hour-and-a-half gathering once a week. With that mindset, the either-or dilemma makes natural sense. But true small group community is more than a meeting! It’s a way of doing life together. It’s the context, or environment, in which we carry out the mission of making disciples.

While small groups do have weekly gatherings, much of what makes a small group great happens outside of meeting times, and that takes both intentionality as well as spontaneity as group members do life together. Phone calls, texts, visits, lunches together, serving together, praying for one another, recreating together—all these occur between meetings in a healthy, life-changing group.

Small Group Overtime

One secret to making this happen is what I call “Small Group Overtime” or “the Meeting After the Meeting.” Every group meeting is open to new people, and members regularly invite friends and neighbors to come along with them. But let’s say group members want to discuss matters of a deeper, more personal, more confessional or accountable nature. What do they do? After the end of the “official meeting,” several group members can slip into the next room to huddle up and talk and pray for one another while several other members stay with visitors to talk and eat. This can happen naturally and without much fanfare, but sometimes the members who stay in the room can casually mention that the other members want to discuss more personal issues and support one another. That communicates to the new person that this is a safe place as well as a very caring place.

But remember, Small Group Overtime is not the only time group members can or should care for and support each other. Loving one another is a 24-7 value, not a once-a-week program.

What other ideas do you have for transitioning your group’s mindset from a once-a-week meeting to a group of friends who are doing life together 24-7?

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