Fish swim in schools. Birds fly in unified formations. And other animals like wolves, bears and even insects like bumble bees travel in packs.
Why? Because there’s strength and safety in numbers. Whenever an attack is near, the pack-traveling animals reduce the likelihood of becoming a predator’s prey.
The same is true for humanity. We are stronger together, than we are apart. And, when it comes to Christian small group ministries, the same strength and safety in numbers that animals enjoy in their packs can also be had for believers in their small groups.
It’s tempting to believe that best way to foster spiritual growth in a believer is to invite them to church – you know, the big service. The one where the choir or worship team performs their best song selections, putting the strongest and most beautiful voices out front. Or the type of service when the pastor dusts off his or her best illustrations and analogies in sermons that attempt to be as relevant to daily life as possible.
And while these indeed can be helpful, they alone are not enough to foster the kind of spiritual growth one needs to truly become an authentic disciple of Christ.
The Scriptures, especially the Gospels and the book of Acts, are rife with accounts of how Jesus, Apostle Paul and others met with and shared in small groups. Jesus’ first 12 disciples were a small group. And even within the group, Christ had an “inner circle,” of James, John and Peter who were especially close to him. Yes, Jesus taught in large synagogues, and yes He ministered in the streets of now ancient cities as He went.
But the approach was balanced. In fact, one of the best examples of the small group to large group balance is when Jesus told the parable of the soils to the large crowd, and then pulled his small group of disciples together to dig deeper.
Perhaps Paul gave the best scriptural mission statement for the importance of small group ministry in the context of larger group ministry when he wrote, according to The Message translation, “Every truth and encouragement that could have made a difference to you, you got. I taught you out in public and I taught you in your homes, urging Jews and Greeks alike to a radical life-change before God, and an equally radical trust in our Master Jesus.” (Acts 20:20-21).
The balanced church or ministry understands that every morsel of Gospel goodness, needed for spiritual nourishment, can’t be doled out in a 30 minute sermon on Sunday. The hallmark of the early church was the way it stayed in constant, daily fellowship with each other, in addition to their public worship.
Thus, small group ministry, when done right, can be one of the most effective tools a church can use to move Christians from spiritual infancy into maturity. Here are a few things to consider when building strong small group ministries:
1. Be Prayerful. It’s not a cliché to say that initiating small group ministries must begin, be sustained and end with prayer. Regardless of how carefully you try to plan it, it is the Holy Spirit who does the real work of creating community within a group of believers.
2. Be organic. As much as possible, please don’t relegate small group ministries to being just another “program” in the church. Be prudent in who you select as leaders. Make sure they are able, beyond Scripture knowledge, to cherish and foster the power of authentic community.
3. Be Missional. Don’t just turn small groups into a mini version of large group worship. Don’t let it become just another “holy huddle.” Think of names of people who struggle with their faith in Christ, or don’t have a relationship with Him to invite. Commit those faces and names to prayer. And ask God to provide open doors.
4. Be An Incubator. Structure small groups as a mechanism to not only help foster stronger disciples, but one that also develops Christian leaders who go out to reproduce their faith by making other disciples.
These are just a few starting points and nuggets to remember about small group ministry. Small groups can be anything from home Bible studies to what some churches traditionally call Sunday School.
The less you try to “programize” it, the more room you give for the Spirit to create the kind authentic faith community that leads to unprecedented spiritual growth.