Many churches believe their small groups must choose either an edification focus or an evangelistic focus.
This argument goes that for small groups to be a place where mature Christians grow there needs to be deep theological conversation and regular accountability. These both require time and trust, which are hard to come by if new non-Christians drop in with any frequency.
Furthermore, some suppose, if you want to share the gospel with unbelievers, you need to focus on the basics. This is stuff that longtime Christians already have “down” and, quite frankly, will be bored with.
So if you want to have a productive small group, aim it at one or the other. Mature Christians or non-Christians.
As you can tell by the title of this post, I disagree. This is not an either/or. It’s a both/and. There is a way to evangelize unbelievers and edify mature believers at the same time, in the same small group.
The false dichotomy between evangelizing and edifying assumes some things about Christians and non-Christians that are false. Are we really willing to say that unbelievers are such a hindrance to the growth of longtime Christians that they should be segregated? Do we really think thoughtful unbelievers can’t contribute to an in-depth discussion about a passage of the Bible? Is their contribution pointless just because they haven’t put their faith in Jesus yet?
When you raise the magnifying glass to the edifying/evangelizing distinction, you realize it has too high of a view of people who have followed Jesus for a long time, and too low of a view of people who might be on the cusp of becoming a new creation in Christ.
Therefore, I’m arguing that you adopt a balance in your a small group to benefit mature Christians, new Christians, and hopefully-new-to-be Christians simultaneously.
Why do I think this balance can be effective for everyone? Here’s three reasons:
1. The “short-term missions trip” effect
Have you ever heard someone share about their short-term missions trip experience? They often share about how much they grew in their faith because they were thrust into situations outside their comfort zone and God showed up and did an amazing work. They are left glorifying God – they certainly couldn’t accomplish those things on their own strength – and they trust him more than ever.
Instead of having that experience every other summer, why not go for every other week in your small group?
Small groups are a great place to foster this same kind of growth. You will not grow less if turn the academic level of your Bible study down from 11 in order to accommodate people who are new to the Bible. As you see them come to faith through your discussions, you will grow even more.
2. The contagious excitement of watching people grasp basic theology for the first time
One of the ways my wife and I got to know each other during our dating months was by watching each other’s favorite movies together. I remember the renewed sense of enjoyment I experienced when she laughed hysterically at my favorite Bill Murray movies What About Bob (“I sail now! On a boat on the lake, very far away from the dock, into the wind with the sky and everything…Ahoy!”) and Groundhog Day (“Sweet vermouth on the rocks with a twist”). It was fun to watch movies I practically knew by heart with someone who was seeing them for the first time.
As you see people get excited about the gospel for the first time, you will gain a renewed excitement for the basic truths of our faith, too. I dare say that it will give you more joy than winning a debate about infralapsarianism vs. supralapsarianism, as important as the distinction between the lapsarianisms is.
3. Breaking down Christian stereotypes by going deep in heart and hand, not just the head
Don’t hear me say that you need to slam the breaks on how “Christian” your small group is so that unbelievers feel more comfortable. I am, in fact, arguing the exact opposite. I am saying put even more of what Christianity is into your small group – more than “deep Bible study and discussion.”
When you put true Christianity on full display in your small group you will break down barriers and stereotypes that hinder people from believing the gospel.
When your group meets, show unbelievers the love Christians have for each other by praying the most mature prayers you can. Think of Paul’s prayers, where he prays for others rather than himself. And when he does ask for prayer, it is that he would be able to share the gospel with others. That kind of selflessness is a hallmark of Christian maturity, and it will be winsome to people who are kicking the tires and peeking under the hood of Christianity.
Show unbelievers the love you have for God by having raw conversations about sin and temptation. You will surprise a non-Christian in (at least) two ways: they will be shocked to learn that you struggle with similar temptations to them, and they will be even more shocked to hear you freely mention in conversation what they are so desperately trying to hide. This, Lord willing, will show them that true security is only found in the forgiveness offered by the cross of Jesus.
Multiplying onramps for your church
This is Holy Week, and many people are more inclined to attend church this week than any other week of the year. Inviting someone to church may be an effective way to bring someone to Jesus.
But there are other people who will never, ever, ever step foot in a church. But they will sit down on the couch in your living room.
There are those who would never listen to a sermon from a “Bible basher” on Sunday morning. But they will engage in a conversation about the Bible on Sunday evening.
So I suggest that you open your small group to such as these. You will be edified. The lost will be evangelized.