When thinking BIG means thinking small

When thinking BIG means thinking small: Growing communities of faith in a postmodern world

The value of reaching contemporary people through small-group meetings rather than through traditional congregations

David Cox is director of personal ministries and church growth, British Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Watford, Hertsfordshire, England.

Though contemporary Western societies in general are less responsive to traditional evangelistic approaches than they used to be, they still present the church with unprecedented opportunities for healthy growth. We could be just steps away from the biggest and most impressive results ever, if we think small enough. Small enough? If that sounds contradictory, consider the needs of postmodern people in relation to the mission of the church.

People's needs today

Though much has been written about the felt needs of contemporary people, I suggest that postmodern men and women have two basic needs: the need for identity and the need to belong. Most, if not all, the specific people-problems that we address inside and outside the church (except those with a physiological cause) are related to, or symptomatic of, these two basic needs. Besides this, the need for identity and the need to belong are themselves closely related. Because there is a need to belong, there is a need for more definite identity, and vice versa.

Of course, the need for identity and to belong have always been part of human experience. These needs have the same root. Today, however, these needs are more evident than ever before, if only because postmodern people are generally more ready to acknowledge them than previous generations have been. Postmodern people are more open than their modern predecessors were to explore unconventional ways of satisfying those needs. That's where the church's mission comes in.

Two basic, related tasks

Just as postmodern people have two basic needs, the church has two basic tasks responsive to these needs: to make disciples and to build community. Of course, nothing is quite that simple. We often feel all but over whelmed with a complex multitude of tasks. But again, in reality, we have only two principle mandates: The Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) and the Great Commandment (John 13:34, 35). These mandates comprise the mission of the church: to make disciples and to build community. Like humanity's two basic needs, the church's two basic tasks are related. We cannot properly accomplish one without the other.

Discipleship is the New Testament word that embraces the entire process by which people become and remain committed followers of Jesus, starting long before baptism and continuing for as long as life lasts. The term disciple literally means "apprentice," someone who learns a skill or trade by working along side an expert. So Christian disciple-makers are not experts who know all the answers, because they are and must always be disciples, or apprentices, themselves.

Community, or oneness, was the supreme goal for which Jesus prayed (John 17:20-23). His dream of intimate community ("may they be one just as We are one") was to be the goal of discipleship, while community ("they may be one, that the world may believe") was to be the context in which discipleship took place.

Jesus-followers do not grow well in isolation. God has designed that we grow together. When we are baptized into Christ, we are also baptized into His body, His community, the church. And from Him the whole body grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work (1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 1:23; 4:16). In order to grow "individually and together" we need to be connected with one another. So the Great Commission (to make disciples) and the Great Commandment (to love one another) belong together.

Two tasks, two needs

Thus, the two main tasks of the church in the postmodern world and the two main needs of postmodern society go together. As searching men and women become disciples of Jesus, they rediscover their identity who they are, why they are here, and what they can become through the grace of God. And disconnected people, separated from God and one another by sin, become part of God's new kingdom community and once again belong. It is something like this:

Two Tasks: (1) Make disciples and (2) build community belonging

Two Needs: (1) Need for identity and (2) need for belonging

Christian discipleship is a lifelong journey of discovery that is really all about understanding who we are together!

Connecting resources with needs

The key to an abundant, even unprecedented, harvest in the post modern context lies in the church's willingness and ability to focus its available resources on its two-task mission. Its available resources are enormous, because they include, on the human level, every member who is a committed follower of Jesus, and on the divine level, the Holy Spirit and all the gifts He gives (to each body member), along with all His angel messengers and their unceasing ministry. After all, their mission and ours are the same.

What is the best way to connect human and divine mission resources with postmodern need? Apart from all available research, which points consistently in one direction, Seventh-day Adventists have their own prophetic directive, which is remark able in its simplicity. If we want to think BIG, we have to think small!

Here is what I mean: "The formation of small companies as a basis of Christian effort is a plan that has been presented before me by One who cannot err."1

When Ellen White wrote these words in 1902, she knew nothing of contemporary cultures and their needs. But such a vision was given to advance the mission of the church; even with the here and now in mind.

What Ellen White referred to as "small companies" was what we would call today holistic small groups, which, in the context of this article, means small groups that facilitate the process of discipleship and the building of community. The fact that they should provide "a basis of Christian effort" implies that discipleship and community "happen" better in such small groups than anywhere else.

The genius of the holistic small group

With rare exceptions, churches that experience significant growth in a postmodern context take holistic small groups seriously. That's because they actually do connect human and divine mission resources with real postmodern felt needs. A postmodern church will almost certainly be a small-group church. Specifically, they:

  • are the most effective way of creating authentic, biblical community.
  • have the potential for engaging every believer in gifts-based ministry.
  • serve as an effective base from which outreach and service ministries can take place.
  • provide a bridge for the seeker's journey between the secular world and the church.
  • offer a safe environment and the necessary support for seekers and believers alike to explore issues necessary for growth in their relationship with God.

Besides this, pastors and leaders need this personal-growth environment as much as anyone does!

To think BIG, then we must think small. Significant discipling among postmodern people requires a vessel small enough to contain it. And that vessel is the development of small communities.

Small life-development groups and centers2

By definition such development groups are actually holistic small groups, as described above, in which several (perhaps three to eight) Adventist believers enter into biblical community with one another, and to which they at the right time invite their non-Adventist or non-Christian friends to join.

In a large church there could be a network of many such small groups linked together in a form similar to the "Jethro model" described in Exodus 18. Small-group meetings usually (though not always) take place in the comfort of someone's home, at any time convenient to the participants.

Involvement of non-Adventists and non-Christians in small groups will happen almost naturally if we:

1. Pray for a heart that is truly concerned for the good of others, and for God-given opportunities to start new friendships or develop new ones.

2. Cultivate unconditional friend ships on a one-to-one basis with acquaintances, colleagues, or neighbors, especially through the sharing of common interests (this is not the time for "God-talk" unless our friends initiate it). As it takes time and energy to cultivate meaningful friendships, three for each group member is the suggested goal for the first 12-month period.

3. Introduce friends to other small group members through social events, felt-needs seminars, work shops and video/discussion groups, or community-service activities.

4. Invite friends to the holistic group when the group begins a new series of discussions/Bible studies on a subject of interest to them.

The small-group community becomes like a second family to seek ers who become connected to the church in this way. Like most families, of course, small groups will grow until they are no longer small (more than 12 or 13 people, and it's time to "give birth" to a second group). But the small-group experience remains as a permanent part of the new disciple's growth toward maturity and to fuller involvement in the congregation of the church.

Welcome to the big adventure

Growing such small life-development communities as a significant part of your church's strategy to reach people with the love of God in Christ may be one of the most challenging things you and your congregation have ever attempted. My guess, how ever, is that it will also be one of the most exciting and rewarding. This is a BIG, BIG adventure that happens by thinking small!

1 Eilen G. White, Evangelism (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.. 1946). 115.

2 For more details on how to form small life-development groups and centers, visit the <LIFEdevelopment.info> Web site.



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David Cox is director of personal ministries and church growth, British Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Watford, Hertsfordshire, England.

March 2003

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