With many churches implementing or retooling their small group ministry, there is no lack of books that seek to instruct pastors and ministry leaders on the subject. In Community: Taking Your Small Group off Life Support, Brad House begins with a timely warning for those leaders desiring to equip Christians by adding small groups: "Lifeless community begins when we don't have a clear understanding of why we are in community in the first place. . . . We generally ask how we can get more people in [small groups], rather than addressing the question of why they exist" (p. 31).
House answers this question by keeping community at the center of why the groups exist. He explains that small groups do not exist simply to keep people in the church or so that we have a means of caring for one another. These are healthy benefits, but they are derivative of the main purpose of small groups:
We have community groups because we have seen the glory of God and we have been given the grace to live our lives to exalt the Christ. We have community groups because we have been reconciled to God and one another. . . . We have community groups as a proclamation of the goodness of our God and testimony to the completed work of the cross. (p. 43)
The strength of the book is that it is not a polemic for a new kind of small group or innovative method for how to do small groups, but rather an extended argument for the necessity of community within a healthy church (and in every spiritually healthy Christian). House states plainly what functions small groups should have in the church and spends the book expanding upon these functions. These functions are discipleship, pastoral care, and mission.
In the first section House describes the foundation of community using the metaphors of image, body, and ownership. In the second section he describes the practical outworking of these concepts within the church. The third section is a helpful tool in implementing the vision for community that had been cast throughout the book. Even chapter 10, "Boot Camp"—which I initially thought would be beyond the reach of small and mid-size churches—was insightful for how to implement this vision.
Pastors and ministry leaders in the church will probably benefit most from the foundational principles of community and in the vision that is cast for why small groups are essential in the life and outreach of the church. Additionally, the book is a helpful tool for assessing how well the church is doing on mission. House points out that evaluating a church's missional health helps to diagnose the church's health as a whole.
If a group is missional, it is because the members of that group are missional. If a group is not, this is indicative of a deficiency in the participants of that group. In this way, community groups are great barometers of how well the church understands the gospel. If they have been transformed by the gospel, then it will show in the community life of the group. (p. 93)
Chapter 5, "Neighborhood," is particularly effective in showing why small groups need to be mobilized on mission and why using small groups for outreach on a local neighborhood level promotes accessibility, ownership, and effective outreach.
A weakness to the book is that House overplays his strong argument on the missional nature of community in his otherwise helpful chapter on repentance. While I appreciate including this chapter (which would regularly be overlooked in such a book), he needlessly inserts the word "missional" into his definition of repentance when listing off a number of passages intended to show how repentance leads to a greater missional thrust of believers throughout the Bible (p.195). But isn't change the nature of repentance to begin with? Should we merely reduce this change to renewed mission? Rather than potentially confusing categories, perhaps it would be better to keep a reinvigorated missional focus as one of the many actions or attitudes that are changed when God's people are marked by a renewed love for God and desire for holiness. One other small quibble is why (inexplicably) all the Scripture references are endnotes. In preparing to teach about small groups, most leaders would probably prefer that the references are easily accessible. Apart from these minor nuisances, however, ministry leaders will be greatly helped by this thorough and biblically compelling book on community in the local church.