In the last 30 years, three models have stood out: the Attractional Model, the Communal Model, and the Missional Model. These models were built by overemphasizing one of three important aspects of every church: Worship, Relationship, and Service. What your church focuses on will greatly determine the effectiveness and impact of small groups.

Over the last 30 years, the Attractional Model has reigned supreme. Worship services were designed as the entry point for the unchurched. Pastors offered relevant, felt-need sermons. Groups were an option, but not essential. While there are certainly exceptions like Saddleback Church and North Point Ministries, many attractional churches focused solely on the weekend and whatever staff, resources, and volunteers it took to pull off the weekend service.

The Communal or House Church Model focuses on relationship and personal growth over large group gatherings and worship services. The real work of making disciples is seen in the living rooms and coffee shops with believers pouring into each other. While disciples were making disciples, often churches in this movement succumbed to lack of a unifying vision.

The Missional or Incarnational Model focuses on living out what Jesus called believers to do. Serving takes priority over worship and relationship. The problem is that if emphasis is placed on what people do over what they are becoming, then a significant piece of the equation is missing.

This may be an exaggeration of each particular model, but I think we can all agree that the Attractional Model emphasizes worship over relationships and service. The Communal Model favors relationships over worship and service. And, the Missional Model leans strongly on service over worship and relationships. There is an imbalance to each model.

In the book, Intentional Churches (Thomas Nelson 2020) by Bart Rendel and Doug Parks break it down this way:

“[The Baby] Boomer said, ‘Hey, we can learn a lot from business and marketing principles and apply them to our church leadership. The prospective customer is most likely going to walk through the door on a weekend, so let’s place most of our resources there!’

“Gen Xer said, ‘You silly boomers! Bigger isn’t better. Closer is better. And customer? We need relationships and generational commiseration. Community is where it’s at, and the gathering is just a by-product of rich relationships and shared life, anyway.’

“Millennial said, ‘You lazy Xers and crazy boomers. If we took just half the money we put into a building and got off our rumps, we could do so much good in the world.’”

While groups can certainly thrive in the Communal Model, the other missing pieces eventually cause the movement to lose steam. While churches using the Attractional and Missional models can appreciate groups, the leading indicators in both models are worship attendance and service respectively. Groups are more of a lagging indicator.

While we can all agree that disciples are better made in circles than in rows, if groups are not connected to the larger body, they tend to lose focus and momentum. Sermons don’t make disciples, but sermons can start a conversation that will continue in groups, who will discuss and apply the topic from the worship service, then take action by setting goals for themselves, holding each other accountable, and serving together.

Most churches need realignment and balance to effectively serve in the coming years. The Attractional Model has lost its luster in many ways. The idea of a healthy, megachurch pastor is almost an oxymoron in some cases. As Baby Boomers are aging and Millennials are coming on strong, if pastors want to stay relevant, they must become “missionaries” to understand a new people and a new culture.

These models can work together. Worship services and events can inspire and call for commitment, but it’s just the first step. In order to truly impact people’s lives and catalyze lasting change, the first step must lead to a next step. The sermon should lead to a group discussion guide where the Truth of God’s Word can be worked out and applied to people’s lives. I would dare say that marriage conferences have created more problems in marriages than they’ve ever solved. By painting an idyllic picture of marriage, conference speakers often raise expectations which are not going to be achieved overnight. If you don’t believe me, just look back at the Promise Keepers movement. While there was great intention there, the lack of follow through caused Promise Keepers to quickly become promise breakers. But, if a marriage conference led to a commitment to improve marriages, which offered a next step into an on-going marriage group or class or counseling, then the event might have catalyzed some good instead of setting off a bomb.

Jesus summed up 613 commandments into just two of them: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. The church has a mission to reach the world with God’s love. That mission starts with the neighbor next door. Mission must be tied to relationship. Church members love their neighbors and serve them. There’s a relationship there. After all, ministry is not something we do to people. While community-wide serve days can elevate a church’s brand and get their name in the paper, service divorced from relationship is missing something.

Groups must connect to the larger church body, serve together, and reach others to remain healthy. A small group is essentially the microcosm of the church. What the church is called to do, the group is called to do. But, where do groups fit into the whole?

If a church has a balance of attractional, communal, and missional, then groups make perfect sense. If the church is more attractional, then groups will help by connecting the congregation and keeping them motivated to attend, to serve, and to give. (See the Senior Pastors Guide to Groups). Groups and the communal model go hand in hand. If the church is based more on the missional model, then groups provide the teams and the relationships to accelerate ministry and outreach.

Which model does your church follow? How is that model helping or hindering groups in your church?

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