Using Small Groups to Cultivate Fellowship

Article
08.23.2010

A lot of churches these days are building their ministries through small groups. How do we employ small groups at our church in Washington, DC?

OUR VISION FOR SMALL GROUPS

We view small groups as a means of allowing the congregation to shepherd and disciple each other, within the bounds of pastoral oversight (Eph. 4:f11-13). They facilitate relationships for mutual edification.

They are not support or counseling groups, and they are not pure study groups. Rather, they are used to cultivate spiritual fellowship together, a fellowship informed by Scripture and pursued through prayer, study, and interpersonal reflection.

In a very real, but informal way, small group leaders are tasked with an extension of the elders’ pastoral ministry—the encouragement, exhortation, and building up of a particular group of people in the church.

WHAT ROLE DO THEY PLAY IN THE LIFE OF THE CONGREGATION?

In thinking about discipleship, it’s helpful to think of a spectrum, with the whole congregation at one end, one on one relationships at the other, and small groups in the middle.

CONGREGATION — SMALL GROUPS — ONE ON ONE RELATIONSHIPS

On the one hand, our church attempts to prioritize the gatherings of the whole congregation, because that’s where the primary teaching is done and where the entire body, with all its diverse parts, most reflects the gospel of Christ. On the other hand, we recognize how effective individual discipleship can be. In between these two ends of the spectrum, we have small groups working to connect the benefits of our ministry to the whole congregation and the ministry going on between individuals. Small groups provide the context in which what the church is learning as a whole can be applied more individually and deliberately. It’s the context in which members can pray and spur one another on to evangelism. It’s the context for facilitating discipleship relationships.

We are not a cell church in which the entire membership is organized into a pyramid of small groups with staff and elders at the top. Nor do we, in most cases, employ small groups as our way of doing target ministry to particular groups of people (there are several exceptions; see the section on “structure” below). Instead, most of our groups are “general community groups,” so that every group looks more like a microcosm of the whole church. We want the culture of the whole to be reflected in the parts.

Very often in churches, community is seen as an end, or goal, and small groups are the means to achieve that end. We understand community to be both a by-product of and a means to foster individual discipleship. Therefore, we have tried to think of small group ministry not as a ministry to groups with the aim of producing good groups. Instead, we have approached small group ministry as a ministry to individuals, in the context of community, with the aim of producing faithful Christians.

We take care to ensure that small groups are neither a substitute nor a competitor with the church as a whole. Rather, they are an extension of it, a particularization of the whole community. This is particularly important in today’s church culture, where many Christians are accustomed to thinking of the small group, rather than the church, as their primary spiritual community. It’s possible to be a biblical Christian without belonging to a small group. It’s impossible to be one without belonging to a church.

HOW DOES AN INDIVIDUAL JOIN A SMALL GROUP?

At the end of every membership interview with me or one of the other pastors, we ask member candidates if they want to join a small group. We then have one of our pastoral assistants identify an appropriate group, contact the small group leader, and ask the leader—space permitting—to invite the new member.

If a church member who does not belong to a small group decides suddenly to join one, we simply direct them to that same pastoral assistant.

In short, small group participation is encouraged, but not required. Furthermore, if someone indicates that he or she is able to participate in either a small group or the church-wide Wednesday evening Bible study, but not both due to the constraints of time, we would encourage that person to join us for the church-wide study.

HOW ARE SMALL GROUPS STRUCTURED?

With the exception of groups based on gender or devoted to couples in their first two years of marriage, all our groups are open to anyone. We recognize the benefits single-sex groups can have in facilitating a healthy vulnerability and accountability, especially for the large number of singles in our church. And young married groups led by older married couples can be used to help newlyweds put their marriage on good biblical ground. But beyond that, we are hesitant to particularize much further, since we want our church members to understand—as we continually remind them!—that one of the gospel’s first implications in our lives is learning to love people who are not like us.

Small groups are limited only by the capacity of the meeting place and the ability of the leader. Groups generally have a leader and co-leader, the former discipling and preparing the latter for leadership. And groups typically meet weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly, depending on the schedules of its members.

Small group leaders are given a lot of freedom in deciding how to use the time. They might choose to study a book of the Bible or a book on Christian living. There are a number of books that our church constantly recommends as good for Christians to read, which our leaders often use. Or leaders might decide to use the time to review and make more individualized applications from Sunday’s sermon. Whatever they do, we simply ask them to get a pastor’s approval first—and to be open to his suggestions.

WHAT EXPECTATIONS DO WE HAVE OF LEADERS AND MEMBERS?

We expect the following of small group leaders. They must

  • be members in good standing;
  • regularly attend both Sunday services, since our Sunday evening service is quite different than the morning service and dedicated to the fellowship, evangelistic activity, and prayer life of the whole congregation. It’s hard to stay up on the life of our church without being at both, and we do not want to hold up people as leaders and models who are unable or unwilling to make this a priority;
  • be prepared to study and prepare content coordinated and approved by a pastor;
  • communicate regularly with the church office about pastoral issues;
  • be willing to create an open culture, and accept new members;
  • generally care for the group;
  • facilitate discipling relationships;
  • attend quarterly training events.

We expect the following of small group members. They must

  • be a member in good standing (or in the process of joining);
  • not avoid whole church gatherings, using the small group as a substitute for church;
  • regularly attend and participate.

HOW DO WE TRAIN SMALL GROUP LEADERS?

Every quarter, we hold a small group training session, each of which is devoted to a particular topic. The types of topics which would be covered include

  • how to lead an inductive Bible study,
  • how to build community;
  • how to facilitate discipling relationships;
  • how to lead a book study;
  • small group evangelism and mission;
  • how to raise up new leaders.

Once a year, we also lay out our overall vision for small groups at a special appreciation luncheon for the leaders.

WHAT ABOUT NON-CHRISTIANS AND NON-MEMBERS?

Our church also offers evangelistic small groups for non-Christians. These typically involve a study through the Gospel of Mark.

As for non-members, we are happy for our church members to organize their own Bible studies, for instance, with other Christians at their work place who belong to other churches. Yet we would not count that small group as something our church does, insofar as it would be outside of our pastoral oversight.

It’s worth adding, however, that we deliberately do not allow individuals who attend our church, but who won’t join the church for one reason or another, to participate in our small groups. We have adopted this stand because we believe that the ministry and life of the church as a whole is that important in a Christian’s life. We don’t want to do anything that facilitates this kind of casual, non-committal attendance. Rather, we encourage friends like these to find a church where they can formally commit to the entire church as a member, and then join a small group in that church.

CONCLUSION

As a church grows, small group leaders increasingly do important ministry and pastoral care. Less and less is it possible for staff elders, or even all the elders, to know everyone in the church. It’s tempting to think that all the small group leaders put together could know everyone. But even they can’t. Rather, small group leaders have the privilege to help facilitate and equip the only group in the congregation that can adequately shepherd the whole congregation, and that’s the congregation itself.