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Grand Rapids, MI

Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

Small Group Intimacy & Impact


I’ve been thinking a lot about a particular issue related to small groups.  One of my responsibilities in my position is oversight, development, resourcing, and training of small groups, what we call LifeGroups.  I’ve been planning a small groups mini-conference this fall on August 24-25 called “Be Transformed“.  One of our speakers is Denise VanEck, who recently left her position as Community Pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church and is now working as a consultant in her firm Deep Shift Coaching and Consulting and with Brian McLaren on his upcoming tour, Everything Must Change.  We were meeting in preparation for the conference, and got into a wonderful discussion about groups that has caused me to think differently about a few things.We were discussion the heart of how transformation happens in group life, why it happens, and how to help leaders guide their groups in joining God in what he is doing in their hearts, in their churches, and in their communities.  We began to talk about some of the changes in small group ministry happening at Willow Creek Community Church, one of the flagship churches after which so many churches have patterned their small group ministries.  In fact, we brought Bill Donahue in last year to do some coaching with our staff and leaders around small groups.  Then we got onto the topic of intimacy in groups, and the missional impact of groups in the community.  Here is what we talked about merged with some of my own follow up thoughts.  First, the intimacy that we try to create between people who meet regularly over a study may be a false kind of intimacy and a false community.  We may be asking them to do something that doesn’t merely come through meeting and studying together.  One of the questions that’s important, is what percentage of groups actually find that intimacy that we tell them will come if they meet together?  It’s a smallish percentage that find it and find themselves committed to one another.  Many groups struggle with commitment.  How many times have I heard, “My group doesn’t seem committed.”  “They aren’t doing their homework for small group.”  Could it be because there is something else going on?  And is intimacy the highest value of group life?  Is something else required to forge commitment?  I had called our conference “Be Transformed” because of a phrase that God laid on my heart a couple years ago that goes like this, “God is more interested in your transformation than your amounts of information.”  Now, I might add something like, “God is more interested in transformation and recreation than he is in your amounts of information.”  Not only is God interested in my transformation, but in the transformation of all of his children and all of creation until it returns to its original intention in the created order prefall.  Anyway…

Secondly, Denise reminded me of the times when some of the greatest intimacy and commitment are demonstrated are with the military platoon and the church mission trip.  Her contention was that these groups - often very diverse groups who are not “affinity groups,” who are of different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, are forged together with a deep bond of commitment.  Her idea is that the glue to these groups is actually being on mission together, particularly on a mission that is difficult and dangerous.  In her time at Mars Hill, she sought to bring this idea to their neighborhood groups, or house churches.  So, could it be that being on mission drives not only intimacy, but both personal and community transformation?  Could it be that even the church is transformed on mission?  That’s been one of my quandaries for the last 10 years - whether amounts of information lead us to transformation and then into mission, or if, as we are on mission, the church is changed.  (note… Jesus formed the disciples on mission)  I bought into that idea long ago, but never made the transition to group life.  Thanks Denies.

So… here are some things I’ve been drawing on the wall (when can I get a drawing feature on a blog?  Come on… keep up with FaceBook).

Here is the traditional group idea:

Affinity –> Intimacy –> Transformation/ Growth –> Missional Impact

One of the things I notice with this way of doing it is how many groups (like churches in the same way) become insular, ingrown, and have zero missional impact.  It is the rare small group that moves beyond group intimacy and study to community impact.  Here is, I think, what Denise was suggesting:

Missional Impact –> Intimacy/ Commitment/ Transformation/ Growth and affinity is built around Missional Impact and Kingdom work

When I spoke with my small groups team about this, they wanted to be less linear and thought that these all interacted together on some sort of complex level.  However, how do you  help group leaders to focus and lead in a way that participates with what God is doing and leads to personal, community, and church transformation and kingdom impact?  I look forward to interacting with some of these ideas at our upcoming conference, and I’d love to hear your ideas.

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