I was recently asked to write two articles for publication on using small groups for ministry. I decided to put them up as blogs on Parson’s Pen. View the other article on Care Groups As Mid Week Service here.
Through an amazing set of circumstances, in 1991 God abruptly changed the plan I had for my life of ministry. That summer I raised my hand and swore an oath to uphold the Constitution and defend our land against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
I was a direct commission officer. That means that unlike almost every other chaplain, I stepped on Beale Air Force Base in July of 1991 never having attended an officer’s school, a chaplain’s course, or even spent any time in the Guard or Reserves. I was 27 with two small children and a very gracious wife. I did not know how to salute or march or even how to put on a uniform, but on the first day I was a First Lieutenant which meant that about 80% of the base saluted me, even though I did not know how to salute them back!
I have now served 27-and-a-half years. Five of those years were on active duty. Over 22 of those years have been in the Reserves or Guard. I have deployed three times to war zones and have about 30 to 35 TDYs (temporary duty assignments) away from home. I currently hold the rank of Colonel and am the Arizona National Guard state chaplain leading 25 chaplains and chaplain candidates and 24 religious affairs specialists.
Back in 1991, I was handed a small African-American congregation of 15-20 in a dilapidated World War II chapel on the main base ten miles from housing but right across the street from the single airmen’s barracks. While there, I analyzed the needs that I saw in the military. Within nine months of that appointment, I deployed to Saudi Arabia. But I returned home with a plan.
The Air Force, then and now, has a young demographic. The majority of airmen are under the age of 29. This age group in every generation is always less inclined to faithful worship attendance or to pursuing a relationship with God.
This age group is very mobile. My son is an Air Force Academy graduate and a KC-135 pilot. At his first base, he deployed five times and his average time spent away from base was about 200 days per year. The deployment rate then and now as well as the temporary duty assignments (including required schooling) often leaves one parent alone half the year or more. Plus, most families move every three years.
It is also ethnically diverse. I say the military is a “Mayberry” in its small town feel but a major urban center in its diversity. The diversity of the military reflects the diversity of America but scattered all over the world on small bases.
This group often comes from very broken and emotionally crippled environments with the vast majority coming from fractured homes or no home at all. They simply do not know what a real community looks like. In the five years I was on active duty, my wife estimates that we fed 500 different airmen in our home. Of those, we counted only five whose biological parents were still happily married. I wrote a journal article entitled “The Cinderella and Sleepless in Seattle Syndrome” to describe this generation of young airmen and the challenges they face and solutions for them to build relationships within the church and with each other.
Since the New Testament describes the church as the “body of Christ,” think about the body of Christians and non-Christians that I had inherited to pastor: they were less inclined to worship, more inclined to be gone, lacking good family role models, and hesitant to worship together because of cultural differences even if they were on base together on any given Sunday.
I knew this body of Christ would solidify only if we built community. I define Christian community as “individuals who have internalized Christ’s love in such a way that His values become naturally shared with those around them.” The application of this definition is multi-faceted. It means that the community of believers do not seek out the pastor when they see a need to give grace, mercy, rebuke, exhortation, forgiveness, etc. They meet needs as Christ has met their own needs. His values flow out of them as naturally as perspiration off the brow of a house roofer in the Arizona heat in July. Community is honest. Community is merciful. Community is loving. Community exhorts to holiness. Community is sacrificial. Christian community reflects the very nature of relationship within the Trinity.
Back to 1991. Our congregation consisted of 15 people in a dilapidated World War II chapel. I set to work with a singles group on Friday nights. My goal was to teach the singles God gave me to know that they were different from the world. Some on base told me that I would never get the singles out of the clubs on Friday nights and should try a different night of the week. I would respond, “We will have a great time AND remember it the next day”! For this group I used short discussion format booklets on a variety of Christian worldview themes like service, money, purity, marriage, talent, vocation, etc. The format was very free-flowing and discussion-oriented. I wanted them to feel safe to discuss a worldview that they did not even know they had. It had been so easily absorbed from their secular education and media that they did not realize how their presuppositions affected their behavior. After the discussion time, we would go out to eat, to the gym on base, to a bowling alley, or to some other activity. I rarely returned home before 11:00 p.m. Fridays always began at 6:30 a.m., but this group saw a number accept Christ, and I was privileged to baptize many.
We began a “steak fry” the first Friday of the month. The maintenance guys cut a 50-gallon drum in half, put it on a trailer, then I pulled that grill to the dorms and cooked steaks for hundreds of singles every month. I called this the “Dorm Dweller Dinner.” Senior enlisted and officers came out and cooked with me and then the married women of the base got involved to fix side dishes and homemade desserts. This created “community” on the base and between many dorm unbelievers and believer families in base housing. Out of this came our Friday night small group growing from one to 45 in just two years. I discipled an 18-year-old man in this group who today is a pastor in Illinois. I discipled a 22-year-old man who pastors today in California.
Out of my counseling and visitation around base, I knew I did not have time to counsel all the couples who came to me. Some days I would see eight young couples in eight hours. And I was just 28 at the time! So I sat with four or five older couples (in the military, that means late 30s) and asked if they would start some couples small groups with me. They agreed to do so. So in our home and one other home, we started two couples small groups designed for discipleship and marriage-building. We ate a meal together, created childcare, and then spent an hour discussing marriage. Our groups grew to the point of about fifteen couples in each group and those groups multiplied into four groups of seven or eight couples. Again, they were used as entry points to the church and numerous couples accepted Christ. The older couples who partnered with me grew as they were challenged to help other couples who grew up in spiritually broken homes.
On Sunday nights, I drew two or three of my best singles into helping me lead a teen small group. This group began with three or four and within two years had thirty each Sunday night. Again, I wanted to find out what they thought and how they viewed the world. We used very interactive discussion curriculum to get them to talk to me and our leaders. I wanted them to talk about anything that they questioned and left the environment very open for that type of discussion.
For the children, I gathered several mothers together and they were able to begin AWANA as a Wednesday afternoon after school program. I had the privilege of leading the Bible time almost every Wednesday and saw several children come to Christ. We even created a small group community for our children. We averaged about 75-80 kids every week and even got Civil Engineering to paint an AWANA circle in the parking lot of the chapel where we could run our games.
In less than three years and with my being gone five months during that time frame, the chapel attendance went from 100 in three different services to nearly 400, with the service that I pastored growing from 15 to 225. I led and trained leaders for four small groups each week in the evenings as well as an afternoon program for children. During these three years, I had the privilege of baptizing about 80 people who had professed faith in Christ (twenty of those were military who had deployed with me in Saudi Arabia). I even had the chapel purchase a portable communion table that converted into a baptistery.
The AWANA program that started in 1992 is still active on the base. I recently ran into a chaplain from Beale AFB, and he told me he had used that baptistery recently. He wondered how an Air Force chapel had a baptistery for immersion, and I was able to tell him the whole story.
Small groups are an effective tool in creating community in a young, mobile, broken, and ethnically diverse society. It was a privilege to be a part of God’s plan during that season on that base.