By Michael C. Mack
Two of the most common questions I hear church leaders ask is, “How do we connect people? What is the best method for assimilation?”
I’ve given those questions a lot of thought and study, and I have been frustrated trying to figure out what methods the early church used to assimilate the 3,000 believers baptized on the Day of Pentecost (as well as all those who continued to be added to the church).
We know what their values were and some of what they did together. We know they met in homes and the temple courts. We know they considered their groupings that met in homes to be “the church.” We know the results. But it’s unclear how they decided to group them and what other assimilation methodologies they used.
Maybe there’s a reason we know so little about their methods. Perhaps we’re not asking the right questions.
Another problem is one of emphasis. According to Scripture, connecting people is not our job. In his discourse about the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul says, “God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be” (v. 18). Arranging the parts of the body is God’s job. He puts them all in the right places.
But what about getting them connected in the first place? In verse 27, Paul states, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” When the church operates as the body of Christ, then God places every Christian exactly where he or she is supposed to be connected, although they may not yet be functioning properly.
Let’s consider a new set of questions: If God orchestrates connections in the body of Christ, then what is our role? How do we allow God to do his vital part of connecting while doing our parts without getting in his way? How do we partner with God to make connecting in spiritual community easy and natural in our churches? These are crucial questions for church leaders to ask as we strategically think about assimilation.
The following strategies may seem radical to some and simplistic to others. But your best plan will be radically simple!
1. Restore a New Testament definition of church.
In his excellent book, The Relational Way, Scott Boren points out that “the modern definition of church emphasizes the organization, the building, and large group worship.”
However, the biblical definition of church is the body of Christ. Wherever two or three, or more, gather in Jesus’ name, that is the church.
2. Restore your “operating system.”
A remaining pattern to restore in our churches is the New Testament’s relationship-centeredness. Boren maintains the first thing we must do is restore the operating system of God. God’s kingdom is a relational kingdom (see the Great Commandment in Luke 10:27, for instance), so if we are to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33, New King James Version), we will seek to do so in relational community, not programs.
A good example comes from the research of Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam. According to an August 2007 Boston Globe article, “The Downside of Diversity,” Putnam’s research found the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people participate in it. “In the most diverse communities,” the article says, “neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogeneous settings.”1
For decades Christian strategists have debated the use of homogeneous versus heterogeneous groupings. Putnam’s research might prove to some that homogeneous groups would work best. But not so fast. Don’t disregard the fact that Putnam researched secular community, so his findings, while interesting, describe the community of a different kingdom.
Also, Putnam’s study noted one conspicuous exception to the rule (a fact noticeably missing from the Globe article). “In many large evangelical congregations,” the researchers noted, “the participants constituted the largest thoroughly integrated gatherings we have ever witnessed.”2 When it works according to God’s Word, the kingdom of God runs on a different operating system than the kingdom of this world. Our strategies, therefore, must be aligned with God’s relational kingdom as revealed in Scripture, not secular thought.
3. Lead the “way.”
Boren makes a strong and crucial point: “Group structures only facilitate the experience of community when leaders embrace a way of living that manifests the practices of spiritual community. . . . If we don’t practice relational community in our leadership, then we should not expect community to result within our groups.” A vital first step in restoring a relational way of living as the church is for church leaders to lead the way!
Of course, the preaching minister has a big voice—by words and actions—in restoring the relational way of being the church. When the people hear and see a consistent message from the pulpit about the vitality of connecting in spiritual community, they are much more likely to do so themselves. And, research shows, they are much more likely to stay in the church and grow in their faith.
4. Develop a relational strategy.
During this stage, you begin to figure out where God is already moving, how people in your church are already connected, what ways of relating and connecting come natural to your church, and what culture you already have for connecting.
This is the hard work of asking the right questions, doing your research, and then implementation. This step will take longer and require more work than simply implementing another church’s methods, but it will provide you with a strategy more likely actually to work where you are.
Start by putting together a team that discusses the “Connecting Strategy Questions” (see sidebar). This team is much more than merely a planning team, however. They must first be in spiritual community themselves, having dinner together, hanging out with each other, sharing their histories with one another—becoming real friends. For Bible study, they can study and apply the “one another” passages from the New Testament.
Your church’s resulting relational assimilation strategy will not happen overnight. In fact, it will be a continuous process over years of leading the way, vision casting, coaching, and communication.
A good place for the team to start is to define the “practices of spiritual community.” At Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, we came up with three general practices in which we want every group to participate: (1) know God (discipleship); (2) connect in real community; and (3) impact their communities. Beyond those, we expect every group to develop new leaders and eventually launch new groups.
Again, be careful not to make your definition or practices too rigid or controlling. Allow groups to develop their own personalities and specific ways of carrying out their practices. Trust them to connect people where they will grow spiritually and make an impact.
5. Equip God’s people to do the connecting.
Your role as a leader is not to connect everyone into small groups. Your job is to “equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12, New Living Translation). God’s people need to be equipped, set free, and mobilized to connect with others. This is a “priesthood of all believers” theology.
Part of your strategy will include allowing God’s people in your church to have the freedom and flexibility to form a variety of types of groups. You may have place-based (i.e., neighborhood) groups as well as affinity and interest-based groups. You could have target groups, ministry groups, serving groups, recreational groups, Bible-study groups, and others.
6. Deploy new leaders and new groups.
A vital part of your strategy must include the discovery, development, and deployment of new leaders. It is the only way to strategically continue to connect people over the long haul. The best way is to emphasize the development of leaders within current groups, but that is not the only way to discover new leaders.
A beneficial attitude comes from Home Depot: “You can do it. We can help.” The best leaders are often those untrained, everyday people everywhere in your church. Many of them already have connections with others. Let them know they can launch a small group with their groups of friends, equip them to do it, and have coaches available to help.
7. Help people connect wherever they are.
A vital role of leadership is to make connecting into small groups as easy and accessible as possible. This includes using a variety of different-sized groupings. Make it easy to connect with a group where people already are in your church. At Northeast, for instance, we help people connect in small groups through our children’s and student ministries.
We also help groups in our church host midsized “connecting events” throughout the year. This fall, groups in our church are hosting picnics for singles, 20-somethings, blended families, adoptive families, and in two nearby neighborhoods. These are social gatherings at which people meet, develop relationships, and maybe consider a “next step” in their relationships with God and others.
These seven strategies are only a beginning for helping people connect. Thinking about these issues, and asking and answering the right questions, will help you assimilate people into small groups and begin to restore the relational church—the body of Christ—that Jesus founded.
Michael Mack is the small groups minister at Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of several small group resources, including his most recent, I’m a Leader . . . Now What? from Standard Publishing.
Questions to Consider as You Develop Your Connecting Strategy
Asking the right questions is critical for building an assimilation strategy for your church and groups. Discuss these with your leadership team or focus group:
• What is spiritual community?
• How do we transform our church to become more relational? How do we build a culture of relational connecting?
• How and where are people already connected? Where is God already arranging people exactly where he wants them to be?
• How are commitment to Christ and connecting in community related? Which comes first?
• How do we provide strategic opportunities to help unconnected people to connect?
• Who is in our church’s (or in our groups’) spheres of influence?
• How do we help make connecting easy and accessible?
• How do we strategically continue to help people get connected (i.e., through weekend services, classes, etc.)?