I was recently asked to write to articles for publication on using small groups for ministry. I decided to put them up as blogs on Parson’s Pen. Read the other article on Military Small Groups here.
A healthy church is built on community, which includes concentric and overlapping rings of interactive small groups. I know that is a bold statement, but I firmly believe it is true. These small groups go by various names and have various purposes. Some are called “Sunday School” while others are called “Ladies Bible Study” or “Men’s Prayer Breakfast” and even “choir.” These are all examples of small groups. I do not believe that any church reproduces itself solely from the pulpit ministry alone, no matter how great it is. The pulpit is greatly used by God, but the “one another” passages are practiced more outside of the Sunday morning worship/preaching/teaching service.
Jesus, our role model for ministry, used small groups extensively. He had groups of three, 12, 70, and 500. He sent them out two-by-two for ministry. The early Church used this model in Acts as they went house-to-house to observe the Lord’s Supper while teaching and preaching in those same homes.
Most educational authorities will say that 12-20 adults in an interactive small group is the ideal style and size for the best adult pedagogy. Unfortunately, most learning in churches consists of four one-way teaching sessions: most Sunday school classes are taught lecture style which is really not much different from the pulpit ministry on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night.
Over 22 years ago, the church I pastor moved from a traditional Wednesday night service to small, discussion-oriented groups focusing on the application of the Sunday morning message. Our leadership saw a great deal of Bible teaching in our various groups, but we were concerned that there was not a great deal of practical application of how to live out the preached Word from the Sunday pulpit.
We developed a system to help the small group leaders: the sermon outline is in the bulletin across the page from the small group lesson. I teach our people that the sermon is like a teacher reviewing for the test and that in the small group, understanding and application of the review takes place. The people internalize the truths from Sunday’s message so that they can explain the practical impact of these truths in their lives. If our people cannot explain that, then the pulpit really has not communicated God’s eternal Word in a manner that is understandable for them to use in ministry. Our motto is “Ministers – Every Member”! Our Care Groups are one of the prime places for us to fulfill this motto of producing true ministering disciples.
Each small group, whether Sunday school, ladies Bible study, or an interactive discussion group MUST have no more than four primary purposes. Our midweek small groups have four: assimilation, accountability, application, and advancement of leadership. Our Adult Bible Fellowships (the adult Sunday school hour) has two: Bible study and fellowship. We hold our morning service at 9:15 a.m. and the ABF hour at 10:45 a.m. to encourage a higher percentage of attendance to ABFs.
What are some of the challenges of this philosophy of ministry?
- “We’ve never done it that way before.” We tend to worship the form of our church rather than its actual purpose or function. We forget that the great Wesley and Whitfield revivals were centered on small group, midweek discussion groups and in-home Bible studies.
- “Leaders” no longer can sit and nod; they have to talk. This can lead to complaining about other issues, but the real issue is the expectation that these long-time pillars in the church can actually converse about the message after it is preached.
- Training leaders to direct interactive discussion is difficult since leading a group is more of an art than a science.
- Groups can stray away from the message and form theological cliques and divisions.
- Writing a good interactive discussion guide based on every Sunday morning sermon is time consuming.
- Tracking attendance and participation is much harder when groups are in different locations as opposed to the historical “all-in-one-room” Wednesday night service.
- Multiplying groups after they become larger and very close-knit can be difficult.
- Multiplying leaders of character and quality can be very challenging.
- Keeping the purpose and style of teaching and leading differences clear between Adult Bible Fellowship and Care Groups is difficult.
- Allowing groups to disband when they need to without unnecessary drama can be difficult.
There are answers to each of these challenges, but we should never think of this leap into a different style of learning and transference of values as something that will be easily accomplished. It is not and will not be.
What are the values of this system that we have experienced?
- We have found future pastors among our small group lay leaders. A man’s ability to develop leaders or to lead people to theological truths in his small group could be a signal that this is a man God wants to set apart for His service. We have had that happen in our church.
- We find out what people are NOT learning or remembering from the sermon. The most humbling experience for the senior pastor or teaching pastor is to sit in an interactive small group after he has spent hours studying and crafting his sermon notes AND the small group guide questions and finding out just 72 hours after the sermon that the people cannot answer a simple question about the point of the sermon or its application.
- We find that the small discussion groups create a deeper bond and caring for “one another” than our Sunday school classes do. As the senior pastor, I rarely get involved in a host of “care-for-one-another” type ministries. Our Care Groups handle those issues naturally amongst themselves.
- We find in the discussion format what newer believers do not know or what false teaching they have absorbed that we would never have otherwise known. It is fascinating that, when given a chance to speak in a place of friends, both younger and older believers will ask questions or make comments that reveal their need for growth or for a better understanding of Scripture.
- We find more lay people studying and listening to the sermon, even downloading it when they could not be present on Sunday, so they can intelligently discuss it during the Care Group time.
- We find more people taking careful notes on Sundays and taking those bulletins to their Care Groups so they can take part in the discussion. I have walked into church members’ homes and have seen the bulletin with a filled-in outline attached to the refrigerator door.
- We find more people meditating on the sermon through the week.
- We find more openness to accountability to the group and individual leaders because of the transparency that develops over time in a group.
- We find our corporate prayer time being extended both in the meetings and then outside the meetings as each group takes on personal responsibility for prayer requests within their group.
- We find a larger church becoming “smaller” and more relational to those who regularly attend the Care Groups because they truly gain real friends as they share life and obey naturally the “one another” commands in Scripture.
Is this organizational training and discipleship structure that Tri-City practices mandatory in Scripture? Absolutely not! However, a study of the “one another” Scripture passages reveals both commands and examples regarding this small group structure. It is apparent that many modern independent Baptist churches are not purposefully organizing themselves to fulfill these biblical practices in a natural setting. Where do we naturally “confess our faults one to another”? Where do we naturally “pray for one another”? Where do we naturally “admonish one another”? How do these and many other “one another” passages happen organically without an extensive, purposeful organizational structure? These passages were fulfilled as part of the normal life structure in the New Testament-era local church that met in homes.
My observation is that after 20 years of structuring our church along these lines, the benefits outweigh the difficulties. It is never easy to encourage change in people who have been trained to sit and not talk or to simply use church as a social club. They need to develop into Christian leaders who share their faith with believers and unbelievers alike. This Care Group interactive discussion, based on the Sunday morning message, seems to be a positive step forward in changing the status quo into something fundamentally New Testament.