John and Mary recently joined First Church professing their faith in Jesus. They attended an Inquirers’ Class and heard the pastor describe the church’s basic beliefs. They were sold on the church and its message because of the attention the pastor and other leaders lavished on them as they got involved. Now they are members and the leadership seems focused on the latest group of newcomers. How do they connect with others in the congregation? It’s an important question because if they don’t connect within a few months or so, they will be gone.
Bill and Sue are struggling at home with a variety of issues. The cumulative effect is their relationship is being destroyed. What can the church offer? Is there a safe place for them to deal with some of their problems?
For parents, children can be the source of great joy…and considerable pain. What role can the family of God play in addressing the dramas and the tragedies that occur in our homes?
In spite of the wealth enjoyed by many in our church family, significant numbers of us are burdened with thousands of dollars in credit card debt. Add that to car payments, mortgages and all the other bills due every month. Is there help in the Christian community? Too often difficulties at home end in an affair and then the disintegration of the marriage, leaving parents and children with horrible wounds that never heal completely. We believe in the sanctity of marriage. But we also know that Jesus calls us not simply to hold up a standard, but to offer help to those painfully aware of their failure.
Perhaps the most common problems voiced are those related to a job loss, an accident, serious illness, or the death of someone close. Is there a support system in the Christian family that extends beyond the initial crisis? If all this were not enough, many Christians simply don’t know the Bible. As important as that is, at best it’s a first step. The Bible must be taught, not simply as an abstract philosophical system, but with the life-changing message it carries in the power of the Spirit. Small groups are another means of addressing the situations described above.
Much has been written about small groups and millions participate in them. Groups are defined as usually three to fifteen people meeting regularly for a common purpose. There are support groups, therapy groups, fellowship groups, those addressing certain needs or interests (i.e. alcohol abuse, auto repair), and those committed to common tasks (a choir, etc). A group within the church ought to have a Christian purpose and that will often include significant Bible study.
I have been involved in such groups since the mid-1960s. Secular groups were beginning to proliferate and as the methodology was brought into the church there was a backlash. Some of the criticisms were justified. However, congregations began to see groups as a way to help people get to know each other and God in a better way while providing pastoral support for fellow members.
Groups in the church are not a recent phenomenon. Sunday school has been around for well over 200 years, and it has been mostly a small group movement. In fact, the demise of the ongoing adult class in the 1960’s and the beginning of adult electives in Sunday school accelerated the need for another small group model. Where ongoing classes have been reconstituted, the issue is the distinct role adult Sunday school and small groups are expected to play.
Let’s take a closer look at small groups.
It is no coincidence that the growth of small groups paralleled the cultural upheaval we experienced over a generation ago. The civil rights movement. The war in Vietnam. The search for truth. A desire to wrestle with ultimate questions. Baby boomers wanted some way to break down the sense of alienation and isolation reflected by the warning to “never trust anybody over 30.”
We’re not grappling with ultimate questions today. The search for truth has been abandoned. We’re united in our war on terrorism, and the attacks on September 11, 2001 temporarily shook many into a search for someone beyond ourselves who could offer help and solace. Racial reconciliation is still a long way off, but there’s something of a truce, a willingness to live and let live as people of every racial and ethnic group attempt to accumulate all the stuff necessary to live the good life. With some notable exceptions, the poor and diseased of society have been forgotten.
Groups today are often a lot less intense than they were 25 years ago. The boomers who once felt alienated by the system now run it. Families are fragmented, literally and figuratively, like never before. Neighborhoods have ceased to exist. We don’t even know the family next door. Networks of friends have become casual acquaintances or business relationships. This has also happened in the church. That’s where the small group can demonstrate its worth.
In a typical congregation, it’s possible to attend for years and hardly know anybody. I discover this every time I lead a group in an introductory activity. Recently I heard, after people had shared some basic information about their backgrounds and interests, “I’ve worshiped with these people for years and tonight I learned things I never knew.” The casual greetings exchanged in many congregations hardly provide a basis for sharing the burdens that threaten to overwhelm us. One means by which people can begin to get connected is through the Sunday school. Another is involvement in special activities. Service is the means by which some make friends. For many others, it’s the small group.
However, if groups are to maximize their effectiveness, getting assimilated into the life of the church is just one component. Groups need to be part of the disciple making process. Using Matthew’s 28:16-20 record of the Great Commission, there are two principle ingredients, baptism and sound teaching.
Baptism could be defined as introducing people to Jesus. Using the word baptism suggests that evangelism is the work of the church. Evangelism can happen in a small group, where real people with real struggles help each other honor Christ in various activities and circumstances of life. The person who doesn’t know Him will see what it means to follow Him and perhaps begin the pilgrimage.
I have had great experiences with groups made up of the people in the church and those interested in exploring the basics of the Christian faith. Materials are available to assist with such a group – among them John Stott’s Basic Christianity. The big challenge will be gathering a group. Addressing certain areas like the issues facing those separation or divorce will attract people outside the Christian community. Their needs might be great enough that they will be receptive to the gospel. Beyond that rests the challenge of integrating them into the life of the larger congregation. Both should be in view as you work and pray.
The second principle of disciple making is teaching to the end that we will obey everything that God has commanded. A group in the church should move beyond fellowship – even if it entails significant sharing. To fulfill a Christian purpose, issues need to be evaluated by the biblical message. One can grow out of the other, starting either with the Bible or a concern. The small group is probably the best forum for that in today’s church. Such a Bible study will lead to great prayer times.
Effective disciple making groups don’t just happen. It’s so comforting to hear Jesus telling us He has the power. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” and “I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.”
One additional component in a Christian group is a willingness to take on a task. That produces at least two things: someone is helped and the bonds that knit you together are brightened.
Groups, like any activity, can become problematic. There are some where dissatisfaction with the church becomes a major topic week after week. That’s destructive no matter how much it’s couched in language suggesting the desire to make things better. This is not to say that churches don’t have faults, sometimes glaring ones. The small group, however, is not the forum for dealing with such issues.
It’s relatively easy for a group that has clicked to become ingrown, in the same way that some churches do. In such a setting the newcomer is made to feel like an intruder. My practice has been to have groups go for a year, occasionally two, then start over. However, all it would take to change the dynamic would be one or two new members. That might mean that the same member would need to cycle out because of the size, though there are groups that grow well beyond fifteen or twenty people. They spend part of their time together and part in small groupings.
Another factor is whether groups should be open or closed. My strong preference is for an open group. I have found that it is much easier to assimilate new people than is sometimes suggested. This, too, keeps a group from becoming ingrown.
Given the nature of small groups, there will be opinions expressed that might make us cringe. For the most part these will die a natural death. A greater concern is to exercise enough control so that there is confidence in the leadership. If a group leader is off track, the group will be too. Either that or the group will likely disintegrate.
An End in Itself?
Sometimes the small group becomes a substitute for participation in the worship of the larger body. I have occasionally encouraged group members to attend Sunday services more regularly, but there wasn’t a positive response. Yet those same people would do everything they could to get to a small group meeting.
A bit of perspective might be in order. I’m happy to have a person involved in a small group even if he or she doesn’t attend anything else. Better some involvement than no involvement. It is helpful to keep in mind that we want group members to be involved in the full orbit of life in the congregation. I’ve seen people go from virtual dropouts to highly committed church members, in part through involvement in a small group.