By Chris Surratt
The idea of smaller groups of people meeting together for fellowship and Bible study isn’t a new concept in churches.
In fact, we see in Acts 2 that the first-century church relied on them as “Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple, and broke bread from house to house” (Acts 2:46).
Most churches today allow people to be a part of some version of a small group. They may call them small groups, Sunday School, life groups, community groups, or various other names.
But the goal has primarily stayed the same from the early church: To disciple fellow believers to be more like Christ through biblical community and the study of God’s Word.
We’re now at a turning point in history where I believe one major shift must take place for the church to not only survive but thrive in what will be the “new normal.”
Churches can no longer offer groups as an option for assimilation and spiritual growth for members, but they will have to be the option. Small groups of 20 people or less in homes are now the church.
Gone (at least for the near future) are mass worship gatherings with people packed into a Sunday-morning service at one location.
Even though some areas of the country may start to allow them to return sooner than others, it will be a long time before many people are comfortable attending them.
We’ve already seen this trend away from larger gatherings and buildings with the acceptance of multisite churches, but social distancing guidelines have pushed it even further.
Any gathering of over 50 people could be seen as dangerous for months, and possibly, years to come.
Now, I don’t believe this is a move toward autonomous house churches with little-to-no spiritual oversight and governance. We still need the guidance an organized local church brings to the body of Christ.
I do see the future church, however, as a more robust organization of small groups meeting in homes to fellowship, study, and worship together under the umbrella of ordained pastors and church leaders.
So what does this mean for right now? For churches to make this pivot, they’ll have to strategically think differently in several areas.
The primary focus in most churches has been on the weekend experience. The current staffing levels and budgets reflect this priority.
The new reality will require less dollars spent on creating amazing live experiences, and more on creating scripturally based content to help groups and families have gospel conversations in their living rooms.
Question: Do we have the right people on board to create and curate at-home discipleship content?
The current assimilation process for most churches is an upside funnel with the weekend service at the top.
This will now be flipped. Small groups will be the entry point for most people into the life of the church. Growth tracks will now be facilitated by small group leaders instead of church staff.
Questions: Is our current assimilation process now upside down? Are we relying on paid staff and large gatherings to help people take their next spiritual steps?
If churches haven’t been releasing the work of ministry to lay leaders up to this point, it’s being exposed through this crisis.
In this new normal, churches have to better equip their members to shepherd people in their care through small group gatherings.
Question: Do we have the right processes and staffing to develop and release leaders to truly do the work of the ministry?
It’s fascinating to see how the church is being brought back to what she was designed to be. More people will now be discipled and equipped for ministry than ever before!
Small groups are the history—and the future—of the church.
CHRIS SURRATT (@ChrisSurratt) is the discipleship and small groups specialist for Lifeway Christian Resources, a ministry consultant and coach with more than 20 years of experience, and the author of Leading Small Groups: How to Gather, Launch, Lead, and Multiply Your Small Group.