Leading churches

Enfolding Others

Creating communities that show the world who Jesus is

Pastor after pastor will affirm: Churches need small gatherings in order for people to really make connections and care for each other. “Small groups” are nothing new; churches have been incorporating them into their programming for years.

But what if these small groups did more than study the Bible, share personal struggles and pray for each other? What if the purpose of their gathering was to fuel each other for the adventure of living out Jesus’ mission: pursuing the kingdom?

Here, read about the unique journeys of three different pastors who are emphasizing small, mission-oriented gatherings as the centerpieces of their congregations—not merely programmatic add-ons:

From traditional church to witnessing community

Eric Hesse pastors Grace Community Church in Richland Center, Wis. For years he had been pondering how small groups could better “deploy” ministry. He’d seen it happen powerfully while in college; he wondered if it could truly work in a traditional church.

Finally, with the demands of solo pastoring draining him, he launched into a year of prayer—asking God for an experience in the body of Christ that more closely resonated with the Book of Acts.

At the end of that year, Eric and his leadership team and their families formed what they call a LifeGroup—a vibrant witnessing community that connects deeply with each other and gets involved in the lives of nonbelievers. They spent another year walking this out, before each of the four leadership couples launched its own LifeGroup. The church now has nine such groups (for a church of 160 people) and very few traditional programs.

“Our goal is to keep it simple,” Eric says. “It’s about loving God; it’s about loving others; it’s about making disciples. We don’t want to fill people’s schedules with church-y activities. Instead, we want to free them up to spend time in their communities and build relationships.”

That “spending time” is as varied as each individual in a LifeGroup. And yet they don’t have to build relationships alone; the group gathers round so that they truly are a loving, witnessing community.

As LifeGroups blossomed at Grace Community Church, Eric found that he, too, was coming alive. “Now, people were coming to our Sunday gathering hungry, eager to know how to talk about their faith because they were in relationships with nonbelievers.”

This was what he’d wanted as a pastor all along.

“The mission Jesus launched is different from the church,” he says. “I’d become so serious about building the church that I’d forgotten about the mission. The goal is to take the church on-mission; that’s when the church is built.”

Sunday morning is important for the proclamation of the Word and the building of the saints, but the weekly community gatherings are, in Eric’s eyes, even more important. It’s there that nonbelievers—invited by their friends and neighbors—truly experience the love and honesty of the body of Christ. In fact, one measure of “success” for a LifeGroup is whether it includes nonbelievers.

EFCA leader Zach Hoag wholeheartedly agrees. In fact, that’s how his congregation, Dwell Missional Church, even got started.

Once upon a time, in a living room

Zach serves as leader for teaching and direction at Dwell, located in Burlington, Vt. This 2-year-old congregation formed after four friends—all attending different churches—started hanging out and having meaningful spiritual conversations (with some food and laughter mixed in).

“In the process,” Zach remembers, “we also began to see some non-Christian friends enfolded into our organic mini-community. A couple of those friends came to faith, and we started getting inspired that this could be the beginning of something more.

“About a year and a half after we started gathering as friends, we realized this was church for us. So we said, Let’s call this what it is and take an intentional step.”

The church eventually outgrew the living room, as well as another meeting space in the neighborhood. Despite the growth, Dwell leaders fought to keep the same sense of intimacy and honesty. Eventually, they were following a gathered/scattered approach: one weekly, large-group gathering of about 70 and three smaller communities that meet during the week, in homes.

Sunday is important for Dwell, but not the most important part of the week. “The pinnacle of doing community and doing mission as a church comes down to those home gatherings,” Zach affirms.

“Our passion is not to develop more programs that keep people engaged at the church facility throughout the week. Instead our passion is to build relationships with folks who don’t know Jesus.”

While Eric’s and Zach’s ideas sound exciting to some church leaders and radical to others, yet another EFCA leader considers himself even less “typical.”

A network of missional communities

“I am a perpetual church planter,” says Desi Starr, who gives leadership to Ancient Paths Network—a Denver network of EFCA house churches.

“What we’re praying to see happen again and again, and birthed all over, are vibrant families of Jesus with easy access both geographically and culturally. Churches within walking distance for everyone.”

All of the gatherings occur in homes, and the entire Ancient Paths Network then meets monthly for a time of vision, teaching and training—expecting that God has something to say from each of the house churches. “It’s more like a family reunion,” Desi says, “with each house church like a nuclear family.”

All of the house church leaders, including Desi and his wife, Rose, are either urban missionaries who raise their own financial support or lay people who lead house churches while working regular jobs. And they are continually on the lookout for others to join them, to birth new faith families.

“For example,” Desi says, “if you’re involved in sports and think, I’d love to see something happen in the Little League crew, we want to help you dream about what it would look like. We want to give people examples of how they can live on-mission, because spiritual families can be birthed in places you never expect.”

Small community gatherings are the heartbeat of each of these EFCA churches—but they are not just “small groups” for the sake of jumping on the small-group bandwagon. Rather, these witnessing communities are the best way to live out a three-fold emphasis on God’s truth, nurturing relationships and an on-mission commitment.

Diane J. McDougall

Diane J. McDougall has served as editor of EFCA publications, both in print and online, since 1997.

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