What are the long term “spiritual health” benefits of creating a strong small group ministry in the local church?
Small groups provide the opportunity for every spiritual gift to be exercised. In a larger worship service, only a few people exercise a spiritual gift, the pastor exercises the gift of preaching or teaching and Worship Pastor and team use their spiritual gifts and talents to lead the church in worship, but most people are spectators. Even in a typical Sunday School Class, most people are passively receiving instruction.
If someone senses God’s call to become a preacher or teacher a good place to start would be in a smaller setting in the small groups (minus the pulpit, and not more than a 20 minute message :)). In essence small groups can become a healthy “farm system” for ministry, where every spiritual gift can be put into play. When this happens, the burden is light and well fitting for everyone.
Just as little leaguers learn baseball skills in little league, the small groups are a smaller setting where there are opportunities to flex the spiritual gifting muscles of every participant. Imagine if every small group asked a young future worship leader, to lead worship and learn the ropes in the small group first. That certainly would take some maturity, as the group would really have to understand that worship is more “heart than art.” What better place for training eventual worship team members?
In a Small Group there is the opportunity for every spiritual gift to be exercised for the benefit of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). Each person has been given a spiritual gift for the benefit of the body of Christ, and the small group is a wonderful place to begin that contribution, humbly and submissively.
Program Base Designed Ministry requires more professional paid staff. Historically, the rule of thumb is that a pastor is needed for every 150 to 200 people to run an effective ministry. When you reach people through a program, you have to continue to provide bigger and better programs to keep people coming. But if you reach people through relationships, through authentic love, people don’t leave those they love. We believe that Small Group Ministry is a relational based ministry where authentic Christian community is what causes people to stick. They are part of a spiritual family where they are loved to within an inch of their lives. Who would want to leave, where Biblical love is extravagantly flowing amongst the people?
By developing a tiered leadership ministry where everybody is cared for by somebody, pastors are able to shepherd larger numbers of members in a healthy fashion. The shepherding of the people is shared by a larger group, so that the pastor’s burden is light and well fitting.
It is easy for people to get comfortable in a large church, thinking that the Pastor’s job is to witness to the visitors who are brought by the people. People are therefore taught to bring someone to a program and the Pastoral Staff will do the evangelism. The Staff are considered like “hired guns” to do the work of ministry, but this is not the Biblical model found in Ephesians 4, where the pastors are to “equip the saints for the work of service.” Some have the gift of evangelism, but we are all to do the work of an evangelist as Paul instructs in
2 Timothy 4:5 “As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
There is certainly a place for mass evangelism where people come to the faith through the major events. Yet it is statistically proven that the most effective means of evangelism is “relational evangelism.” People come to Christ best on the arm of a trusted friend, who can lead them and teach them and help them to learn to walk with God as a way of life.
Quality Biblical Care –
The challenge for every large church is to care for every person that God entrusts to their care. Unfortunately, people too often attend for years and never get connected to the church family in a meaningful way. People fall through the cracks, and the heart of God is grieved. Small groups become an effective tool for providing “quality care,” to every member. We tell people that we cannot care for them as they deserve to be cared for unless they are in a mall group.
Fruit that Remains
This is what is called “retention,” seeing visitors stick and remain in the ministry as Paul talks about fruit that remains.
John 15:16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.
How do we hang on to those who join? When people join the church, they want to feel a sense of ownership, where they can make a contribution, and be known in name and need. By connecting people to small groups, we have found that the retention rate goes up as they have a sense of belonging. People immediately find that there is a contribution to make in a small group and they have a place to bring their pre-Christian friends where spiritual questions can be investigated in a non-threatening environment. Once people connect to a small group and become functioning members of the spiritual family, they can most readily be equipped in the basics of the faith, leading them to become fully devoted followers of Christ.
1 Peter 2:5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
The ministry is often limited to only what the pastor(s) can do. People feel that they have not really been prayed for unless they have been prayed for by a pastor. People have not really been ministered to in the hospital unless it is by a pastor. The Biblical principle of the “priesthood of the believer,” means that every Christ follower is a minister, and if the Pastor is doing all of the ministry, then the other ministers in the congregation (the believers) will miss out on the blessing of seeing God work through them.
House to House Ministry
Paul writes in
Acts 20:18 “…You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house,”
The church expanded as they taught in public and house to house. That ministry was not limited to what could happen in one facility.
Many churches operate where all ministry happens in the church facility. As the ministry grows, it eventually leads to “facility strangulation,” where the Children’s Ministry is competing with the Youth Ministry, who is competing with the Adult Ministry for space. There are also parking issues that can cramp a ministry’s style, when everything happens at the church.
It does not take a brain surgeon to figure out that it is expensive and non-productive to limit what can be done by the church to the walls of it’s existing facility. The New Testament church maximized their impact through small groups as they met from house to house! They used their homes as places of worship and the church continued to grow to the point where, in the first century of the NT Church, it grew to about 100,000 people. Even today, the largest churches in the world are all organized around small groups, because they exist in the two-thirds world where people are poor and they cannot afford the buildings and programs that the western church requires. They simply make disciples from house to house and multiply their ministry to more houses as leaders are equipped. Easy peavy! So why don’t we do that? Great question…!
Small Group Ministry is strategic, because every church has many homes that can be used for having an ever expanding ministry. Ministry can easily expand through those homes and there is no cost, if people are willing to share their homes for ministry purposes. As the first century believers met from house to house they eventually turned the world up-side right, and we have the opportunity to join them in God’s call to world revolution.
A “Gift Based” and “Passion Driven” Ministry
God gives every believer a spiritual gift with the purpose of using that gift to bless the church (1 Corinthians 12:7). What does the ministry look like when everyone is making a contribution to the larger church by putting their spiritual gifts into play and they are passionate about doing so? It looks like Jesus! The world sees a picture Jesus as every member contributes to the larger body.
Paul comments in
Romans 12:11, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.” Being fervent, means to be bubbling over. This is a picture of having the love of Jesus passionately bubbling out of our lives as we interact with others.
Imagine what a church would like like if everyone was using their God given spiritual gifts to benefit the larger church and they were doing it with passionate zeal. That’s the kind of church that Jesus promised he would build and that is the kind of church that will remain.
What does this kind of church look like, let me give you a snap shot. Years ago, Carl George – Seminary professor at Fuller, shared a story of his involvement with a small group. Carl joined a little church and before long he was put in charge of a small group. A young couple was in the group, and the gal was pregnant. When the baby was born, the specialists and physicians said that the little baby girl was brain damaged, and there was nothing they could do. The family called Carl and asked him to come and pray for their little girl that she would be healed. Carl’s wife asked him, “you haven’t been telling people that you have the gift of healing have you?” Carl then thought that he was not qualified to pray for something like this since the doctors obviously knew what they were doing and all of them said that the little girls damaged brain was irreparable. So Carl called the pastor, asking the pastor to go and pray. But the pastor didn’t cooperate, he put the ball right back in Carl’s court by saying, “you take care of it. After you have prayed and you have done everything that you know to do, and there is still a need, then you call me. But not until then.” The pastor knew better than to take on everyone else’s burdens.
So Carl acquiesced and decide that he might as well go over and pray for the little girl, after all, God might choose to heal this little God and actually God did healed her. Then for years to come, every time that Carl saw that little gift, he is reminded by her hugs and smile that God heals people and is the God of miracles, in answer to believing prayer. Because the pastor saw the wisdom of allowing Carl to stand in the gap for the life of that little girl, Carl did not miss out on years of blessing watching that little girl grow up.
Key assumption: even pastors cannot really love and care for more than about 10 people max in the church. Now if you consider the average, ordinary person pew, it would be extra-ordinary for that person to handle ten relationships in church and still maintain contacts with neighbors and relatives… There is only so much time in the day to maintain close friendships.
Illustration of the power of attaching people to a Small Group!
“Reverend Dale Galloway, founding pastor of New Hope Community church, Portland, Oregon, was at home when he received a telephone call summoning him to a home in his community. A grisly and bizarre murder had taken place in a distant state, and the detained suspect was the alienated foster child of one of the families in his church. The child had been troubled for some time, and even as the rest of the family had come to Christ, the youth had left home and moved to that particular state.
“These people are going to need some moral support,” Pastor Galloway told his wife as he put on his jacket. “I’d better get over there and see what I can do.”
When he arrived, he feared he was too late. Local news teams were already filming the house from the street, and a crowd of reporters clustered around the front door.
As he rushed up the driveway, he saw one of the members of this family’s Bible study, called a “Tender Loving Care (TLC)” group, standing on the porch, guarding the door and detaining the journalists. The group parted to let the pastor through.
Inside, Pastor Galloway noticed another TLC-group member talking on the kitchen telephone, lining up meals for the family and screening incoming calls. He continued to the living room, where he found a third TLC-caregiver comforting the family. Pastor Galloway gave the grieving family a hug, led in a prayer, and asked what else he could do. “Nothing, Pastor,” they said. “Everything is under control. It was awfully nice of you to come by.”
He stayed an hour, at most, and then left, praising God for the handful of men and women in the TLC group, who had learned of their friends’ distress, come to the house, and begun providing meaningful ministry! Even if Pastor Galloway had been away or unable to visit, the family wouldn’t have been neglected; they were being well-cared for by the lay ministers who were prepared to look out for pastoral needs in their TLC group (Pg 86-87 Prepare Your Church for the Future, By Carl F. George).
The husband and wife were so moved by the care, that six months later they signed up to be trained to lead a group to give the same kind of care to others…
“I’m convinced that lay people take ministry to a limited-size group so seriously that they prefer a role in small group leadership to most any other office or honorific title in a church. Lay people want to make a difference in a way that touches a person’s inmost world!” (Pg 98, Prepare Your Church for the Future, By Carl F. George)
Recently a person called on the phone, bubbling over with excitement. Why? Because for the first time in her life she knew that God had used her to “help someone else!” I never tire of receiving those kind of phone calls, because God has designed every Christ follower to be able to make a contribution to His Kingdom, world without end by loving others in His name.