The way we lead people is the way people will follow. If we lead in a programmatic way, then people will follow in a programmatic way. If you lead in a relational way, people will be much more likely to follow you into that way. Small groups, missional communities, cell groups, house churches, etc. are inherently dependent upon healthy relationality. So the question for us is: Are we leading in a relational way?
In part, leading relationally depends upon the focus in our leadership. Sadly, I've found that we tend to lead groups and pastors tend to to lead group systems by focusing on a "what" instead of "whom." Let me explain:
I've been working with churches to help them small group systems for over 20 years now. I've seen trends come and go. I've experienced models rise and dissipate: Cell church. Meta-church. Groups of 12. Church of small groups versus church with small groups. Semester-long groups. Church-wide campaigns. Missional communities. Organic churches. Closed groups versus. open groups. Geographic groups versus gender-based groups. Smaller groups (7-10) verses mid-sized groups (20-30). And more will come. There are merits to each of these strategies, and I actually equip churches in practical ways to do most of them. However, none of them work when the strategy becomes the focus.
All of these strategies depend upon group members and leaders who are living out God's relational way in real life. None of these strategies has ever created a relational environment just because a church adopted it. The success of each depends upon people encountering people. To put it another way, if a group of leaders are leading in a "relational way" there are a lot of different strategies that will work. However, we tend to focus on the idea (The What) of the church strategy more than we do the people (The Who).
Before small groups (or missional communities) became cool, a pastor from north of Chicago asked me: "At what percentage of church member involvement in groups are we aiming? 75%? 80%? 100%?" I'm not sure how I responded—it's been a long time—but I wished I had explained how that question leads us astray. It causes us to focus on outcomes, The What, and when we do this we turn our focus away from what actually makes small groups effective. Ultimately it reveals that we are more in love with the idea of some form of relationality than we are in actually loving people. We love the idea of becoming a certain kind of church more than actually loving the people in the church.
Deitrich Bonhoeffer puts it this way, "Those who love their dream of Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even through their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial. ... Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly." (Life Together, 36).
Over the last 20 years, I've heard more speakers and read more books than I can count that idealize the structure, the leadership model, or the specific strategy for getting people in groups. We idealize things like, "Getting 100% of your people in small groups" and now we idealize something called "missional community." We talk about percentages, growth rates, leadership development plans, discipleship models and curricular strategies. We want the results of relational ministry, but when we focus on the results then we are no longer relating. We want relational life, but we want it because of the impact it will have on our small group system, not for the sake of persons. (I must admit that I'm adapting this point from Andrew Root's book The Relational Pastor.)
The What of the structure—the exact group structure you choose is in some ways irrelevant—only works because we know how to focus on the Who. When we idealize a model or set an ideal standard for others to live up to, we are no longer relating to people. We are relating to the ideal, which means that we have a strategy to which the people must conform. And the people become a means for accomplishing that ideal. When we do this, we set up programmatic leadership processes.
Here's one way this plays out in practical terms: When I coach pastors who oversee groups, I commonly observe that that the pastor is so busy he or she does not have any time to actually be with leaders and groups and encounter them as persons. Notice my language "be with" and "encounter as persons." They run a small group program. They recruit. They organize. They deal with problems. But they don't have time to just be with people. Often these pastors are working 60-hour weeks, with no time for real relationships. They try to oversee small groups or missional communities like one would a ministry program. Oh they may very well follow Andy Stanley's advice about being a member of a small group, but the small group is just another meeting on their busy schedule, not a space for encounter. They want small groups that experience community and mission, but the way that they lead undermines the relationality that is central to the vision.
People in our small groups don't do what pastors and leaders teach. I don't care how much you talk about the need for things like community and mission. They do what they observe. I'm not against new ideas and innovative strategies. We need them. But we need more than that. We need leaders who are going to lead in way that embodies the relational way that they envision others living. Lead the way you want others to live.