It may seem simple to welcome the unchurched into small groups, but, in fact, it’s challenging. Small groups, since the church’s origins, were distinct communities of the most devout – missionary teams, brotherhoods of monks, orders of sisters, scholarly communities. John Wesley boldly broke this trend, and in his revolutionary “class meetings” intentionally grouped diverse people for mutual support and accountability.
But Wesley’s class meetings, in our age, have reverted to that earlier form of the super-devout. Today’s small groups often attract those most committed to their church and spiritual growth. These are the “Certains,” those confident and clear about their faith, as Dr. Heather Wright terms it in her book, Small Group Leadership as Spiritual Direction. Can a Seeker find acceptance — and even appreciation — in a small group full of Certains? Let’s call these, “Small Groups Version 12.0” – committed to welcoming both Certains and Seekers.
What practices make a 12.0 Small Group?
Dr. Wright suggests one crucial practice – sharing life stories, and how members understand God at work in their lives. This is remarkably similar to Wesley’s structure for small groups, organized around the simple question, “How goes your soul?” Each Wesleyan group member would share the daily challenges to their soul, and what Christian virtue they needed to cultivate in coming days.
Bible Study, while essential to Christian formation, may not be a wise choice for groups that include Certains and Seekers. Divisive issues of interpretation, doctrine and familiarity with scripture may create more heat than love. Dr. Wright emphasizes the importance of creating safety in sharing one’s ideas and experiences, knowing you can come and not be judged, lectured to, looked down on.
Another ingredient important for a 12.0 group is the right setting. Small Groups 12.0 won’t be found in a church, but in participants’ homes, at the back table of a restaurant, in a meeting room at the gym, at community centers – where no one is an “insider” or “outsider,” a member or not.
Perhaps most important is a commitment to God’s Holy Spirit, on the move. Scriptures in both Old and New Testaments show how God’s spirit unites diverse people, calling them to journey together. From the Book of Numbers to the Acts of the Apostles, God has called diverse people to help and endeavor together. The alien and foreigner accompanied Israel in the Wilderness, showing Israel the way. The Gentile and outsider were among those who dined with and were healed by Jesus, and Paul proclaimed, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Small Groups Version 12.0 are not so much new, but a return to a biblical love for the outsider, and a response to the Holy Spirit.