Monday, February 18, 2019

Why Small Groups?

Small group meetings have become kind of a "Thing" in churches today. 

Everybody seems to be doing them. But why? What is are their purpose?

If you ask pastors and lay leaders why they have small groups they will give you some mumble jumble about fellowship, church growth, or discipleship. But - in many cases - the real reason a church decides to start a small group ministry is that they have seen successful churches with small groups. We pastors and church leaders like to copy success.

Secular society has also discovered the "small group" phenomena. Manufacturing companies have incorporated small groups as a means of maintaining quality control. It was these "Quality Circles" that transformed the Japanese automobile industry in the '60s and '70s which nearly wiped out the US car industry until they too caught on.

Some see the "small group" phenomena as the result of Post Modernism, but small groups have been around for hundreds of years.

John Wesley's revival that transformed England in the 18th century and led to the Second Great Awakening in the US in the early 19th century, resulted in part from small groups. George Whitefield was a great revivalist in England and America before the Revolutionary War. According to Wesley, the great weakness in the Whitefield led awakening was the failure to draw the newly converted people into a close, corporate discipline. In a sermon in 1778 he observed that,

"...the people had no Christian connection with each other, nor were they taught to watch over each other's souls."

Methodist class meetings or societies were the focal point of the Wesleyan revival in England and were just as effective on the American frontier. Wesley quickly realized that many were coming to faith in Christ without any knowledge of how to grow in this new life. As a result, Wesley formed his movement into three different-sized groups for varying levels of spiritual growth and support. 

  1. “Societies” were essentially congregational churches. 
  2. “Classes” were mixed groups where no more than fifty individuals would gather for instruction and prayer. 
  3. “Bands” were single-sex groups of no more than ten individuals who met every week to discuss direct and probing questions in order to bring about character formation and Christlikeness. 
The groups became the basic medium within early Methodism;
  • for spiritual growth, 
  • for relationships and
  • for personal spiritual accountability. 

In the smaller sized meetings were found;

  • intimate human fellowship 
  • and discovery of intimacy with Almighty God.

Classes, or societies, were formed in a new community by the itinerant preacher who might preach one or two days and then form a class and select a leader. 

Perhaps the supreme moment in the communal experience of the Methodists came in the "Love Feasts" Each quarter all of the members in a circuit were brought together for a joint meeting. The love feasts, a part of that meeting were normally closed to all but members and usually preceded or immediately followed the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Opportunities were given to share Christian experiences, offer scriptural verses, extemporaneous prayer and hymn singing. 

Fuller Theological Seminary has done extensive research on the subject of groups in the church and has discovered several important factors, that coincide with Wesley's methods. People find comfort when three basic levels of relationships exist. 

    • A large group of people with common interests.
    • A group of people they know and can have fellowship and share opinions.
    • A smaller group with whom they can share feelings.
Churches that are successful provide all three of these relational experiences. Before people talked about "small groups'" the church had them but did not call them that. They called them "committees" the "choir," or prayer groups.

There is a negative side to small groups that most pastors have encountered. The first small group meeting that my wife and I attended was a gripe session aimed at undermining the pastor. We did not stay there long and eventually that group leader left the church and took most of his group with him. This happens, but is not a reason to omit small groups, it is only a reason to monitor them carefully.

The small group can become "closed" or remain "open." In a closed group, the members will grow spiritually but not numerically. An open group will grow numerically, but spiritual growth will be slow.

If your purpose is for the group to grow spiritually, you must let it close. You do not have to do anything about it because it will naturally close as people develop an intimacy. 

On the other hand, if you want groups to be used to help grow the church numerically, then you must take action to keep the groups open. You will have to consider splitting them when they reach a certain number (10-12) and keep feeding new people into them.

We will continue discussing small groups in later posts.


1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed this article and the historicak basis from a Christian pov on small groups. Sharing this.