I was recently directed to an amazon.com review of my book with a concern about what I wrote in chapter two, dealing with the pastor's paradigm of small groups by employing a self-powered funnel strategy. The reviewer wrote:
"Neighbour contends that if a church desires to have small groups that are truly relational, then the groups must grow themselves through their own natural relationships. Neighbour would close the door from the worship service to small groups, and open it only from small groups to the worship service. While I agree with his premise, I find that he has swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. There has to be a middle way that combines using the worship service as a funnel to small groups, as well as promoting relational growth from within."
This is a solid assumption based on what I wrote, but comes from a traditional church paradigm and doesn't take into account what I did not include. If the reviewer had been a part of a group-driven church, he would have seen the beautiful dovetailing that large venue outreach can provide the small groups.
An excellent case study example would be LifeChurch in Katy, Texas. Lee Brockington is the lead pastor of this group-driven, Christ-centered church, and LifeChurch has a nice big facility that draws in folks from all over who have no relational connection to any group member.
Each week before his sermon, he shares a variation of this statement: "If you are visiting today and want to get plugged in here at Lifechurch and see if this is a place you want to make as your church home, accept one of the many invitations you've already received to visit and then join a lifecell. If you're only coming to these Sunday services, you are still on the outside, watching small groups of believers gather for celebration."
Take note of two things:
a. New families visit this church every week, but LifeChurch leadership doesn't launch new groups to keep these visitors coming back to the services. This is the heart of the chapter—the congregational service is about the groups coming together for celebration and for outsiders to see what group life is all about and get involved.
b. LifeChurch's assimilation process is organic and relational. Because the first groups were formed through relational connections with unchurched people and maintain this as a part of their healthy DNA, reaching out to visitors is something the members of the group do naturally. Plus, when the groups grow large with new folks invited from the congregation, they excitedly multiply the group considering it a sign of great success, not a divorce!
A few months ago, Lee told me a story about a woman who called the church office mid-week to visit with him on the phone. She said, "I need to let you know something that really bugs me about your church. Every week I get numerous invitations to visit a lifecell or go to lunch with a bunch of lifecell members from a group ... and I'm tired of it! Why don't you tell your people to back off?"
Holding back his laughter, Lee informed her they were doing exactly what they were supposed to do, and that while she might not understand it, he was very proud of them. He encouraged her to visit a lifecell and get involved and not just attend the Sunday services. He reiterated that LifeChurch is not the typical "go to church on Sunday" kind of church which she could easily find by the dozen within a five mile radius (inferring that if that's what she was shopping for, she could easily find it).
So to bottom-line it for the reviewer and anyone else who thinks I am not pro-worship service for the sake of attracting those new to a community, let me summarize...
In a healthy small group-driven church, there is indeed a "middle way" to bring weekend service visitors into group life, but it requires healthy group members who understand the power of biblical community and want to bring as many into it as possible. When groups are hastily formed by leadership to be the sticky part that keeps people coming back to the services week after week, the motivation will produce anemia in the small groups formed for this reason and for this purpose.
The largest churches in the world are group-driven and have hundreds of first-timers come through the doors every Sunday. New folks are assimilated into an existing healthy small group filled with members who understand that small group isn't a meeting or something done to keep people in a church. The difference is that these churches see the small groups as being the main and missional thrust of the church and the big gathering as an important part of keeping the main thing strong and pointed in the right direction.