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Small Group Ministries in Evangelical Churches

Updated on March 12, 2018
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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.

Openly Shallow Small Groups.....(Comedy)

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.”

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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