Joy is indispensable to Christian living! The beloved apostle John wrote a letter to promote fellowship knowing that joy would be the result (I John 1:3-4). Things that enhance fellowship are worthy to be pondered. We have been thinking about the value of small groups in the life of the assembly, noting in the first article of this series (see July Vol. 3, No. 4) some of the Scriptures that provide a basis for the idea.
Now we want to look at the goals of a small group ministry in the church. The expression “a small group ministry” hints that this is something purposed, orderly and fully supported by the leadership, not just a splinter group of people doing their own thing. Simply stated, the primary goal of small groups is fellowship. Wherever the grace of God comes, warmhearted fellowship will be present! Who can think of a greater need in many churches today than Biblical fellowship? Fellowship means growing together in the things of God.
If we evaluate our assemblies in light of the four items in which the early believers continued steadfastly (Acts 2:42), we note that historically, they have enjoyed the finest of Bible teaching (apostles’ doctrine). And what can be compared to the weekly gathering around the Lord Jesus in remembrance and worship (breaking of bread). Although numbers for prayer have often been small, most of our assemblies have made quality time for prayer meetings. But what of fellowship? Without a shred of Biblical support, it has come to be assumed that unlike the other three, fellowship has no formal setting and is left to be cared for by the individual believer outside the formal meetings of the church or perhaps to informal times “between the meetings.” In some churches, the only time the word “fellowship” is used is to describe the snack between meetings. One older man had become so used to this association of ideas that he wryly commented in my hearing “I don’t need fellowship; it makes me fat!” Certainly these activities have their place, but is this all there is to fellowship? When was the last time you heard of a “fellowship meeting?”
Just for a moment, think of the heart or essence of these four items. Apostles’ doctrine tells us that God speaks with authority to His gathered people. By the breaking of bread, we confess that Christ is central and worthy of worship. Through prayer, the church demonstrates its dependence on the Lord. But what is the essence of fellowship? The importance of relationships! It was not through correct beliefs but through loving relationships that men were to recognize Jesus’ disciples (John 13:35). We can now see a great weakness in many churches. Doctrines may be impeccable but relationships may need help. Enter small groups(!)—the believer-to-believer aspect of church life. Whatever the format, the underlying goal must always be to strengthen relationships, first with the Lord and then among the saints. As to specifics, elders must prayerfully consider how to provide a structured yet informal environment for addressing “people needs.” Here are some suggestions just to stimulate discussion. A small group is:
1) a place of really getting to know one another through honesty and openness
2) a place not just to pray, but also of learning how to pray (Luke 11:1)
3) a place not only to communicate, but a place for learning how to communicate.
4) a place to share insights and discoveries from the Bible;
5) a place to discuss the message preached on Sunday, to ask questions and to weigh the practical implications and applications of truths learned (Acts 17:11);
6) a place for burden bearing (Gal 6:2).
Make a study of the 100 “one anothers” mentioned in the New Testament—here we find rich material for Biblical fellowship. These activities are needed by the young believers among us and our experience has shown that some of the richest blessings come to the older saints in this way as well. There are other goals, also. Small groups encourage accountability, a place to ask how the morning quiet time is going for which prayer may be requested, or how the witness to a neighbor went. Additionally, small groups help to train future elders and leaders. A man who can shepherd 8 people is being prepared to shepherd 200. By de-centralizing pastoral care, that is, spreading it among the leaders of several small groups, the workload of elders is reduced. They can now attend to the most serious needs and devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4).
One important goal of small groups is outreach. People who may not “go to church” may go to a neighbor’s home for coffee and informal discussion of spiritual concerns with a few friends. This in turn suggests another long term goal: the possible planting of a new assembly in another area (more on this in the next article in this series).
The benefits to any church from strengthened relationships—in families, between parents and children, among fellow believers—are limitless. True fellowship promotes unity. Where division comes, it is a sure sign that fellowship was superficial. Some will prefer other methods of ensuring that fellowship has depth and is kept warm, especially in very small churches. But for growing congregations, having a dynamic small group ministry is often a key to healthy relationships. In fact this writer believes that it isn’t the differing doctrines of gifts and the Holy Spirit that attracts so many people to charismatic groups at all. It is their understanding and outworking of the importance of loving and healing relationships among people who worship together!
In the next article we will suggest some ideas on how to proceed with suggestions for a workable plan.