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Small Group Ministries in Evangelical Churches

Updated on July 31, 2015
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Chris spent 50 years in the Evangelical world as a layman, as a student at a prominent Christian University and as a missionary and pastor.

Small Group Bible Study

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The Model of Small Group Ministry

The modern concept of small group ministry is based on the example of the earliest Christian believers in the city of Jerusalem. Following the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, people began accepting the message of the Apostles and forming, in a very organic fashion, the first church. In the New Testament book of Acts, chapter two, verses 42 through 47, the example of these believers is recorded and has become the template for small group ministry in many Evangelical churches today.

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Putting this model into practical use is actually very simple. A particular church’s regular attenders are split up into small groups of roughly six to sixteen people. These groups meet at predetermined times in homes, restaurants, coffee shops, businesses etc. The purpose of the group is fellowship, caring for each other, prayer, Bible study and worship. Often, the study time will be developed around a particular topic or question on which everyone is encouraged to comment. Ideally, each group will bring in new people, eventually necessitating the creation of a new group. The frequency of meetings is usually up to the group itself. In ideal circumstances, relationships will be created and developed so that each person’s spiritual and social needs are met by the combination of the larger church and the small group.

Small Group Ministry: "The Office" Parody

A Modern Example of Small Group Ministry

The organizing of small group ministries can be a massive undertaking, often necessitating additional staff for the church. Saddleback Church of Lake Forest, California is the eighth largest church in the United States and has 5000 small groups meeting throughout the week. These groups may be the ones which meet for fellowship and study, or they may be organized around particular themes, such as recovering from divorce or support for women who have had an abortion. The average attendance at Saddleback is about 20,000, but there are over 100,000 on the attendance rolls of the church. Pastor Warren had the following to say, in an interview, about being the senior pastor of a church the size of a city:

“So you have to build it so it’s not built on your personality. There’s no superstar pastor who can personally care for the needs of everybody. And so I actually pastor about 14 other pastors. And these 14 pastors take care of about 450 full-time staff. And those 450 full-time staff take care of over 10,000 lay leaders in different small groups. And those 10,000 lay leaders in different groups and ministries take care of 100,000 people.”

Pastor Rick Warren, "Small Groups With Purpose"

Does Small Group Ministry Work?

But do small groups work? After all the time and money spent on staff, training and materials, after all the recruiting of lay leadership and participation, do small groups produce what Acts 2 describes? In a 2011 article in the Christian Standard, Brian Jones, pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley in Royersford, Pennsylvania, says that it’s time to euthanize small groups in American churches. He goes on to say that “The Achilles’ heel of the modern-day small group movement is simple: Small groups don’t create disciples; disciples create disciples. And modern-day small groups are led, for the most part, by people who have attended the church, had a conversion experience, led a reasonably moral life, and can read the study-guide questions, but are not disciples themselves.” Pastor Jones concludes the article with the following statement: “In my humble opinion, the Americanized small group is a remnant of an impotent religious institution that can’t transition effectively into a post-Christian, postmodern world.”

Other Pastors and church leaders obviously disagree. Bishop John R.W. Stott (27 April 1921 – 27 July 2011), one of the original architects of twentieth century Evangelicalism had this to say about small group ministry: “I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that small groups or fellowship groups are indispensable for our growth into spiritual maturity.”

The Cross of Christ by John R.W. Stott

Some Observations About Small Group Ministries

Both sides of this debate believe that the jury is in on this subject, and the verdict was in favor of their particular agenda. Looking closely at Acts 2:42-47 is helpful at this point. Nowhere does it mention that the Apostles organized small group ministries. It has the appearance of a spontaneous phenomenon carried out by people who were genuinely excited about their spiritual experiences. Does that mean organized, small group ministries can never exactly reproduce what happened in the early Church? Probably. Does it mean that small groups have no value at all? Probably not.

What Acts 2 most certainly reveals is that people have a need for close fellowship. That need will never respond to being force fed, but it will respond to being encouraged and nurtured.

National Lutheran Youth Gathering in New Orleans, Louisiana, 2001

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My Closing Commentary on Modern Small Group Ministry

I was very active in my own Church as a teenager, but I was also friends with other teens who attended different churches. Our respective churches provided for our spiritual and social needs by organizing youth groups. I attended my own youth group and several others simultaneously. I wasn't responding to the formal organization of such ministries but to the people, my friends, who were part of these various groups.

But the best times I can remember as a teenager regarding my Christian life were the spontaneous Bible studies and worship times that were organized on the spur of the moment by my friends and me. The pastors of our churches and the church boards had no idea we were gathering in these informal ways. But these spontaneous meetings were the most spiritually influential times of my youth.

When a church attempts to start a youth group or other small group ministries, they begin by emphasizing the need for fellowship. Then they find ways to break the larger fellowship into smaller cells. Strangers are put into groups with strangers and are then instructed to have true fellowship.

This is why I believe small groups which are organized by the church do not and will never work. They begin by attempting to create fellowship. But an effective small group will be the result of a sense of fellowship that already exists between its members.

Rather than forcing this broken model on its members, churches would do better to simply teach the need for close fellowship, suggesting practical ways for people to actually do it. Real Bible study, worship and fellowship can happen when friends join with friends and practice these spiritual disciplines.

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    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Johan, I believe you are right about that. People are attracted to each other for different reasons such as social and spiritual. Thanks for sharing.

    • Johan Smulders profile image

      Johan Smulders 4 years ago from East London, South Africa

      Informally developed small groups seem to me to be both biblical and effective ways of encouraging Christians to get to know each other and enjoy growth. Formal worship in large groups cannot do that.

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      FSlovenec, Thanks for checking in and speaking up. I want this article to deal in a well rounded way with the issue. Certainly there are good examples of successful small groups, and yours sounds like it is one of those. My best to you and the men you represent.

    • FSlovenec profile image

      Frank Slovenec 4 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      I am a Small Group Men in Ministry Leader. Nothing can be forced it all needs to be encouraged and nurtured. The testimony of the men from the small groups provides the momentum for growth. Men need a trusting venue for confession, support, encouragement and advice. All can come from an encouraging / nurturing small group. Thanks for the Hub this is not an easy subject...

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      PlanksandNails, that is an excellent article on the subject, and I couldn't agree more with the concept of euthanizing the small group ministry. It is artificial and isolates people from the real world, making them feel as if they are accomplishing something important. Thanks for reading and commenting. I really appreciate your visit.

    • PlanksandNails profile image

      PlanksandNails 4 years ago from among the called out ones of the ekklesia of Christ

      Cam8510,

      I am not a fan of Rick Warren and the apostasy he spreads. I agree with celafoe.

      Here is a link that you might find interesting that pertains to the theme of your article.

      http://brianjones.com/2013/04/why-churches-should-...

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      celafoe, I fully agree with your thoughts here. Well put. thanks for commenting.

    • celafoe profile image

      charlie 4 years ago from Planet earth. between the oceans

      small group ministries of a large" church" cannot be equated to home churches as in the new testament. Home churches are autonomous and are led from within, meeting the needs of that group. Home groups of large "churches" are led from without ( which is unscriptural) and are designed to meet the needs of the sponsoring" church". And the reason they came into being and are being promoted by the large "churches" is to keep the people under the control of the large "churches" so they do not leave to be part of a home church.

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      You are very welcome

    • FSlovenec profile image

      Frank Slovenec 4 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      I just began reading the book by Steve Gladen recommended by Rick Warren in your article.The book is great. Thank you again.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Good for you and good for SF as well, I'm sure. I am pleased you enjoyed the article. I sincerely hope all of your plans for small groups work out.

    • FSlovenec profile image

      Frank Slovenec 4 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Good Hub, we just completed our first flight of Men in Ministry Neighborhood Prayer Groups in San Francisco with 9 groups and 45 men. The results have been amazing. The men open up, pray for each other, discuss their real problems, their real prayer needs, create a closer bond of community..we expect to have 1.000 small groups in San Francisco by the end of 2017... a group within walking distance of every man! Thank you for the hub love Rick Warren... thank you

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Sonfollowers, Thanks for reading and commenting. I think you make a very valid point. The one pastor who wants to euthanize small group ministry seems to be guilty of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I do think, however, that a lot can be done from the pulpit to instruct people in the need to seek out fellowship for themselves. That way, when the end up in a small group it is out of a felt need, not obligation. Thanks for your input.

    • sonfollowers profile image

      sonfollowers 4 years ago from Alpharetta, GA

      The small group concept itself is certainly not a bad one that should be "euthanized." There may be issues with implementation, but the concept itself works. I really do believe that growth comes in circles, not in rows. We need to study for ourselves, discuss, and learn from each other. We also need accountability, which cannot comes when we sit in rows on Sunday morning. I have experienced great small groups and I've experienced bad ones. I've experienced great Sunday School classes and many bad ones. The worst groups are the ones that consider Christian Living books to be "Bible study"... They read a chapter in a book each week and come to discuss, and that chapter may have one token Bible verse in it. I think we can do better than that. Still, the model itself can be a good one if you do it right. That's my opinion.

      Very interesting reading. Thanks.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Johan, Thanks for stopping by and reading my hub. I appreciate your comments. Many of my best times were in the context of a smaller group.

    • Johan Smulders profile image

      Johan Smulders 4 years ago from East London, South Africa

      People need to interact and that does not mean attending worship situations where they are entertained. Christianity is not a spectator sport as it has become -see my article for more on that. Groups I believe encourage personal growth as more people are encouraged to study the Word actively.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Michael, Thank you for your very insightful observations. I always enjoy reading your comments.

    • Michael-Milec profile image

      Michael-Milec 4 years ago

      Hi Chris,

      In accordance with information provided in this article answer is YES.

      Apparently listed ministries basic guideline is the Book of Acts. Though some changes in form to adjust to each one particular need. As you've pointed out in small settings ministering is very effective .

      Quite appealing your quote ,' a spontaneous phenomenon carried out by people genuinely excited about their spiritual experiences ' - resonate while comparing to the early church. ( a personal experience within those groups might complete the picture of achievement.)

      Still a question remains in my mind at what level these ministries perform some other results recorded in the Acts . A hopeful quote,' that small groups or fellowship groups are indispensable for our growth into spiritual maturity ' - leaves open door to comprise everything The Lord Jesus had assigned to do , all those who will have faith.

      Voted up and useful.

      Blessings upon you.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Hi Aviannovice. Nice to see you again. The one person in my article that was down on small groups was the pastor of a church with 2000. As big as that is, it is among the smallest mega churches. I think I think the small group thing can get over organized and actually squelch real fellowship, but on the other hand, many will slip through the cracks if nothing is done. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Fellowship is fellowship no matter what the size. To me, these super churches like the cashflow, if they refute the idea of smaller groups meeting elsewhere.

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