By Mark A. Taylor
“We need to rediscover the midsize groups of 20-50 people,” Alex Absalom told our interviewer Kent Fillinger not long ago. When I read that quote, I knew I wanted to know more.
For years I’ve grieved the virtual abandonment of adult Bible fellowships—Sunday school classes—by most local churches. Among the many reasons for their demise is the fact that few Christian church/church of Christ leaders were taught how to use adult Sunday school as something more than a place for often-mediocre Bible teaching.
Early in my ministry I was trained to use such adult groups as bases for fellowship and springboards for evangelism. I’ll admit the former was easier to achieve than the latter.
Still I’ve wondered and worried about what we may be missing by converting our emphasis to a small-groups-only strategy. I asked Absalom about this in a follow-up conversation last week.
For starters, small groups generally stay small, he said. “The thing that makes a small group strong mitigates against its growth.” Those who build strong personal connections with each other form a bond difficult for a newcomer to penetrate.
And, when church leaders suggest a small group is large enough to split, “the result feels more like a divorce than multiplication,” Absalom observed. People will go through that once or twice, he said, but not again and again.
Furthermore, small groups often lack the resources to meet significant needs. How much time can a few married couples give to help a faltering widow? How many hours can they give to repaint a school building or establish a community garden? How much money can they give to support a new urban mission or encourage a foreign worker?
But Absalom is not suggesting a return to adult Sunday school. The midsize groups he’s suggesting, while avoiding some of the problems inherent in many small group approaches, have a special and distinct focus. These groups of 20-50 are organized around a missional purpose. They exist to help members live out a shared mission: reach young families, serve senior citizens, demonstrate Christ to our neighborhood. The possibilities for mission are as unlimited as the experience, gifts, and situations of every church member.
“Your mission context will determine how you operate,” Absalom says. This “extended family-size gathering” has “an open edge to it.” New families can join on their own terms, taking as long as they need before committing. Such a group is “large enough to dare, but small enough to care.” It has enough critical mass to make possible effectively serving in mission.
This kind of group can be fruitful in reaching folks who would not have come to church on Sunday morning, Absalom said. He believes it’s a vital component missing in the strategy of too many churches today.
He told me much more, too much to include in this brief post. His approach is explained in the book he wrote with Bobby Harrington, Discipleship That Fits: The Five Kinds of Relationships God Uses to Help Us Grow. Each relationship is unique and important. “Social,” the label describing relationships in midsize groups, is just one of them.
Some churches ignore one of the relationships. Some leaders confuse the potential in one of them as a purpose for another. Some try to make one relationship accomplish what only another one can. More about all that in this space next week.