I am utterly convinced that the Spirit of God is moving across the globe, creating a revolution in the church that is rooted in biblical community. In many parts of the world these biblical communities are simply house churches. In North America where we live with an image of “church” as a specially dedicated religious building, it might be more helpful to refer to these groups as “mid-sized communities” in order to distinguish them from the more familiar “small groups.”
Small groups don’t do evangelism well. Once a group is established, it’s hard for anyone else to join. If you are bold enough to visit an established small group, you will bump up against inside jokes and conversations that leave you on the outside. Group members already know a lot about each other and your presence as a newcomer makes conversations awkward. This is why many small groups choose to be “closed” groups that don’t take in new members. Pastorates are never closed. If you visit a pastorate, you will find half a dozen small knots of conversation and you can be welcomed into any of them. Relationships are more open, and people come and go from the group fairly regularly. As a newcomer to a pastorate you’ve also got a better chance of finding someone you can connect with. Because pastorates tend not to get as in-depth in Bible study and discussion as small groups do, newcomers are less likely to feel stupid, like everyone else knows the Bible through and through. Since a pastorate is larger -- 2-3 times as large as a small group -- there’s less pressure to know everyone’s name early on. It’s much easier to be a newcomer.
One person can lead a small group, but pastorates are far too diverse and too large for one person to lead. At a minimum it takes a team to lead a pastorate, and if the leaders are wise, they’re constantly delegating tasks out to potential leaders within the pastorate. Again, this kind of natural leadership development is structured into the pastorate model. Over time, people’s spiritual gifts and natural strengths rise to the top within the pastorate. Quite often, new leaders emerge who serve within the pastorate. These individuals may find that their gifts grow as they are used, and they may find new opportunities to use their gifts in a larger context. If their gifts allow, they can also feed back into the larger church, so the pastorate network becomes a leadership development engine for the whole church. Nicky Gumbel of Holy Trinity Brompton in London says that when, for a short time in the 1990’s, they gave up pastorates in favor of small groups, their leadership development dried up as well. When they went back to a pastorate structure after a few years, they began to see new leaders emerging once again.
Once a small group is established, it’s almost impossible to get it to multiply. From the very start, pastorates talk about multiplication. They actively seek to grow “too big” so that their pastorate can give birth to another. Because the relationships within the pastorate are less intense, less intimate as a rule than those in a small group, multiplication becomes a real possibility. Because leaders are growing and developing constantly within the pastorate, it’s natural to consider whether they’re ready to step out and lead a new pastorate on their own. This multiplication creates a sense of expectancy and excitement. The entire pastorate model drives toward this growth and multiplication. A large part of this growth happens because of the new leaders that are being developed. As individual leaders begin to realize their gifts, they are more confident to move into forming a new pastorate with the support of the larger congregation and the love and encouragement of their original pastorate.
Because small groups tend to focus on just one thing, it’s often hard to add in a missional aspect to the small group. Pastorates, however, are diverse and there is often a person in a pastorate who functions as a “mission champion” keeping the pastorate focused outward toward some missional activity. Some pastorates collectively sponsor an orphan through World Vision. Others financially contribute to support a missionary. Others adopt a local program to aid homeless people. Others volunteer to host a worship service in the larger congregation, serving as ushers and greeters. Others send some of their members to volunteer in the church’s Alpha course.