By Allen White
A group’s location says a lot about the group. If a group meets in a classroom at church, it feels like Sunday school. It’s formal. Sometimes the room is distracting because it’s normally used as children’s space. I remember leading a group for Pete Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality in a third grade classroom. A child had created a poster for Diary of a Wimpy Kid. While I really wanted to help people work through their ennagrams and get to their family dynamics, I kept thinking, “No, it’s chocolate. Really!”
This is why off-campus groups are just better:
1. Better for the Group.
A home is more personal than a classroom. While a group could cover the exact same content in both environments, there is something about a home that reframes the meeting as “group life” rather than just a class. Hospitality has become a bit of a lost art. Growing up families would regularly have each other over for dinner. Today, families are generally too exhausted to think about volunteering for another thing. Inviting a group into a home is a meaningful gesture. Group members can get to know the group leader by asking about family pictures or mementos from years gone by. What’s even better is having the group trade off homes. This way the group can meet in every member’s home and get to know them better as well.
A home is a more casual environment. The meeting doesn’t necessarily feel like a “church thing.” They are meeting with a group of people to encourage each other, study God’s Word, and pray for each other. Granted, it’s not a Thursday night poker game, but you can have that kind of community.
This can also apply to a third place like a bookstore, a coffee shop or a community room at an apartment complex. While these settings are not as personal as a home, they certainly are not as formal as a classroom. The other great thing about meeting in a third place is there is no cleaning up before or after the meeting, and possibly no refreshments to provide. Latte anyone?
2. Better for the Church.
Now, by better for the church, I don’t mean less wear and tear on the building or giving the childcare workers a night off, but that’s not a bad start. Most churches do not have adequate educational space to house every small group who meets. When I served at Brookwood Church, groups met every day of the week, Sunday through Friday, morning, noon and night. Even though there were a couple hundred groups, we completely ran out of space. We weren’t going to build anything else, so where do you turn?
Once we embrace the idea that the church is not merely a building, but the body of believers, suddenly the church has all kinds of space. In fact, churches have millions and millions of dollars worth of property that they aren’t even utilizing — the homes of their members. No need for a capital campaign or building a new building, the church has buildings. They just need to plant group life there.
3. Better for the Neighborhood.
Pastors debate whether their churches should be missional or attractional. I would argue they need to be both. Churches should offer a weekend service where unchurched people would feel welcomed and interested. A place where they friends can invite them, and they can hear the Gospel. But, the church should also go to them. When our church in California, New Life Christian Center, launched our first self-produced curriculum (read more here), we encountered a result we didn’t count on — people who had never darkened the door of our church were meeting our pastor in the homes of their friends. As our group leaders reached out to friends, neighbors, and co-workers, they were invited into a comfortable place, their friend’s home, rather than a church service where they might not feel as comfortable. After a few weeks of watching our pastor on video, the leader asked if they like to come to church with them. When they came to a service, they felt like they already knew our pastor because they had just spent a few weeks with him at their friend’s house.
4. Transitioning Your Groups without Transitioning Yourself Out
There are some exceptions to where groups meet. There will certainly be some resistance. In some places, there will be a flat out sense of entitlement. After all, didn’t the church members fund the building campaign, so why can’t they use the building?
As I mentioned, when I first arrived at Brookwood Church, the vast majority of groups met on campus, and I wasn’t about to change that. It’s not that I’m a chicken. I just lack the gift of martyrdom. After all, what we were doing was working for a lot of the groups. If it ain’t broke…
I made two commitments to the existing on-campus groups. First, while we were starting many new groups off-campus, I would never ask them to move off-campus. Second, I promised them I would never split up their group if they exceeded 12 members. That’s for another day. Remember, if you kick them out, they might just kick you out.
Now, over the course of the next four years, we started hundreds of new groups off-campus. And, we started a few groups on-campus. Now by “few” I mean four groups. A couple of people could not figure out another way to have a group, so I gave them a room. Then, we started a group for single moms. Not only did I give them a room, I gave them free childcare, free curriculum, tickets to a Chonda Pierce concert (with free childcare) — the whole works. After all, single moms and their kids are our modern day “widows and orphans.”
Once we changed the expectations for most groups to meet off-campus, they figured it out: meeting place, childcare, and whatever other objection they had. They didn’t feel like second class citizens. They just understood that we were out of space. We may have missed starting a few groups along the way, but the groups we started were better in so many ways.