Philosophy of Small Groups
The concept of small groups has become an important topic in church growth discussions over the last number of decades. However, the proper method or philosophy of small group deployment within the local church continues to be debated. If the local church cannot explain its small group philosophy, then at best, it risks creating confusion and, at worst, it may undermine the true meaning of church. This paper provides an exploration of the philosophy of small groups and their deployment within Lives Transforming Discipleship Coaching and Counseling, which is a non-profit ministry focused on providing Christian coaching and counseling services. The analysis discusses an overall philosophy of small groups, explores the importance of relational groups in authentic disciple making, examines how missional groups help the body of Christ engage the community, and summarizes my personal status in regards to community living.
Philosophy of Small Groups
Several different philosophies exist regarding small groups. Rod Dempsey identifies three philosophies of small groups, which include a church “with” small groups, a church “of” small groups, and a church that “is” small groups. The basic definition of the term church (ἐκκλησία) means an assembly (cf. Acts 19:39), a gathering (cf. Acts 19:32, 40), or a community of people with shared beliefs. Accordingly, the distinctions of small group types should not theoretically be necessary as the phrase “small group” fits the true definition of church. However, due to the modern definition of church, which often describes church as an institution that emphasizes an event on Sunday morning rather than deep relational connections, a philosophy of small groups is necessary. According to Dempsey, a church “with” small groups is a church whose small groups are led by professional staff, lacks senior pastor involvement, and focuses on church as a building. A church “of” small groups is a church where paid staff develop programs, the senior pastor supports the small group as a ministry, and the members focus on both the building and the community. Finally, a church that “is” small groups is led by laymen and laywomen, includes the senior pastor as a group leader, and, although the church meets on Sunday morning, members focus on the community rather than the building. However, a small group that is church, as opposed to a church that “is” small groups, does not require a paid senior pastor, does not require a building that holds an event on Sunday morning, and does not fit the modern definition of the institutional church. The philosophy of small groups of Lives Transforming Discipleship Coaching and Counseling fits the latter description, where small groups become the church for participants. A group of two or more people that gather in a relational environment with shared Christian beliefs that focus on transforming lives is the church, anytime and anywhere.
A key to small groups being the church is that they must be relational. A Sunday School class, men’s Bible study, and Wednesday night prayer meeting may be a group, and it may be small, but authentic discipleship is an unlikely result of such gatherings without relationships–unmasked. John Lynch, Bruce McNicol, and Bill Thrall ask, “What if there was a place so safe that the worst of me could be known, and I would discover that I would not be loved less, but more in the telling of it?” In other words, the prodigal sons who avoid God altogether and the older brothers who attempt to manage sin behind a mask, where, as Dallas Willard observes, “transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message,” both fearfully avoid being “found out” by religious actors and actresses. Unfortunately, the most heartbreaking stories occur when the mask is finally unveiled, and the institution or institutional mindset parades the exposed underbelly across a stage of repentance before outsourcing the issue to licensed marriage counselors, Alcoholics and Sex Addicts Anonymous, or psychiatrists. Yet it is the holy moment of unveiling, taking off the mask, that the opportunity for authentic disciple making commences. It is on this holy ground that Dietrich Bonhoeffer asserts, the body of Jesus Christ is a visible body, a place where no area of life “would be allowed or would even want to be separated from the body.” Bonhoeffer astutely continues, to allow “Christians to participate in worship but to refuse to have community with them in everyday life…is to become guilty against the body of Christ itself.” Accordingly, it is within a safe relational environment where the worst can be known and the unmasked individual is loved more for the telling of it, where the disciple can reveal and take captive the ugliest of the thoughts (cf. 2 Cor 10:5), recognize and thwart the lies of the enemy (cf. John 8:44), and discover truth that sets him or her free (cf. John 8:32) by letting God renew the mind (cf. Rom 12:2). It is within a safe relational environment where the unmasked individual, as Bonhoeffer suggests, can receive, appropriate, and participate in God’s righteousness, instead of continuing finding one’s righteousness in the gods of the world – money, relationships, performance, other people’s opinions, religion etc. It is within a safe relational environment where the disciple can abandon the mask and confront sin. In sum, it is within a safe, relational small group environment where authentic disciple making can occur.
An eclectic mix of missional labels have evolved over the last number of decades including emergent churches, missional churches, missional groups, and even Alan Hirsch’s concatenated emerging missional churches. However, this analysis focuses on “missional groups,” which requires definition. Dempsey suggests that the terms “house church, missional community, and cell group are used interchangeably.” Alternatively, Jim Putman and Bobby Harrington separate the categories by suggesting a missional church, which has a “missional focus with a service-opportunity methodology,” is distinct from an organic church, which has “a fellowship focus with an organic methodology.” Milfred Minatrea may best summarize and define the components of a missional church as “a reproducing community of authentic disciples, being equipped as missionaries sent by God, to live and proclaim His Kingdom in their world.” Similarly, an adequate definition of a missional group is a community of believers that reproduces authentic disciples (transforming), equips individuals as missionaries (sharing), and lives His Kingdom in their world (serving). Accordingly, missional groups can help the body of Christ move out into the community in three ways: (1) sharing the gospel, (2) transforming lives, and (3) serving the needy. By removing any one of the components, the Great Commission is lost through a reductionistic theological framework.
First, regarding sharing the gospel, it is not primarily about inviting people to an event on Sunday morning or prompting people into saying a prayer. According to Dave Earley, sharing the gospel is about helping people understand they are not “good enough” and then helping them “become good enough” through faith in Christ within relational environments full of care. Next, regarding transforming lives, it is not about studying the Bible or praying together–it is much more. Dallas Willard suggests that spiritual formation requires thinking, which includes capturing thoughts to determine if they are aligned with God’s Word. Accordingly, missional groups must create safe environments of transformation where unhealthy thoughts are revealed, taken captive, and juxtaposed with God’s Word in a climate of inquiry and empathy where unhealthy thoughts are replaced with God’s transforming truth (cf. Rom 12:2). Finally, regarding serving, it is not primarily about parking cars or singing on a stage, but deeply caring for those in need. Bonhoeffer recognizes the importance of service and asserts: “To deny them (believers) the provisions necessary for this earthly life, or to leave them knowingly in affliction and distress, is to make a mockery of the gift of salvation and to behave like a liar.” Although written with Christian’s in mind, Bonhoeffer’s quote applies to Christians and non-Christians alike. Thus, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of relationally serving those in emotional and financial distress, which must involve both personal time and money.
Personal Community Involvement
Personally, I live in a community with other believers in the context of the Lives Transforming Discipleship Coaching and Counseling. The community of believers consists of discipleship coaches, licensed counselors, shepherds, speakers, as well as participants in the ministry. In regards to being missional, the Lives Transforming Community shares the gospel in large group, small group, and individual relational environments, and transforms lives by creating safe environments that assist in mind renewal. Furthermore, the Lives Transforming Community serves by supporting the emotional health of individuals through individual and group sessions, and supporting participants financially by providing thousands of dollars of financial support each year to the indigent who need coaching and counseling. My specific status involves sharing the gospel on an individual basis, transforming lives by coaching leaders and participants in the ministry, and providing tens of thousands of dollars of funding to discipleship initiatives each year. More specifically, by way of example, yesterday I shared the gospel with a friend whose son is addicted to heroin; this morning I coached the wife of a pastor of one of the largest institutional churches in Indiana who has decided he is a homosexual; and last week I gave a pastor $4,000 to pay his taxes because he simply did not have the money. In sum, I agree with Bonhoeffer, that if we cannot provide for those afflicted and in distress we make a mockery of salvation. Finally, I am grateful for the train wreck God allowed me to experience a couple decades ago that resulted in discipleship not being a program of an institution or a notch in a belt, but instead, a way of life.
This paper provided an exploration of the philosophy of small groups for the Lives Transforming Discipleship Coaching and Counseling ministry, which is a ministry where small groups are the church. Within the context of Lives Transforming’s small group philosophy, an exploration of relational groups revealed that it is within a safe relational environment where the disciple can abandon the mask, confront sin, and engage in authentic discipleship. Furthermore, Lives Transforming small groups with a missional purpose help the body of Christ move out into the community by sharing the gospel, transforming lives, and serving the needy. Finally, my personal involvement in community involves relational connections with the leaders of the Lives Transforming ministry and being missional by sharing the gospel, transforming lives, and serving the needy with Lives Transforming participants. Several practical applications exist from the research. First, all churches need to clearly define and explain their small group philosophy to support relational connections within its local body. Second, all disciple makers must seriously consider the benefits of creating radically safe environments where believers and non-believers can share life unmasked to support the discipleship process. Third, every believer must live a life on mission, which includes sharing the gospel, transforming lives, and serving others with both emotional and financial support.
Arndt, William, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Discipleship. Edited by Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey. Translated by Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003.
Earley, Dave, and David Wheeler. Evangelism Is: How to Share Jesus with Passion and Confidence. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2010.
Earley, Dave, and Rod Dempsey. Disciple Making Is…: How to Live the Great Commission with Passion and Confidence. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013.
Hirsch, Alan. The Forgotten Ways. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2006.
Lynch, John, Bruce McNicol, and Bill Thrall. The Cure: What If God Isn’t Who You Think He Is and Neither Are You. San Clemente, CA: CrossSection, 2016.
Minatrea, Milfred. Shaped by God’s Heart: The Passion and Practices of Missional Churches. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004.
Putman, Jim, Bobby Harrington, and Robert E. Coleman. DiscipleShift. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.
Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. New York: HarperOne, 1997.
———. Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002.
 Dave Earley and Rod Dempsey, Disciple Making Is…: How to Live the Great Commission with Passion and Confidence (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013), 279.
 William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), 303–4.
 Earley and Dempsey, Disciple Making Is, 279.
 Ibid., 279.
 John Lynch, Bruce McNicol, and Bill Thrall, The Cure: What If God Isn’t Who You Think He Is and Neither Are You (San Clemente, CA: CrossSection, 2016), 38.
 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 41.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 225, 234.
 Ibid., 255–59.
 See Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2006), 66.
 Earley and Dempsey, Disciple Making Is, 260.
 Jim Putman, Bobby Harrington, and Robert E. Coleman, DiscipleShift (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 26–27.
 Milfred Minatrea, Shaped by God’s Heart: The Passion and Practices of Missional Churches (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 8.
 Dave Earley and David Wheeler, Evangelism Is: How to Share Jesus with Passion and Confidence (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2010), 60–68, 121-128.
 Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 104.
 Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 234.