In the previous article, we looked at the goals of a small group ministry and suggested that true fellowship grows best in an informal environment. Now let’s consider the basics of a workable plan for beginning some groups; something simple, practical and designed to meet needs while training younger believers. Three ingredients are essential: places to meet, good leadership, and a structure or format for the meetings.
First, homes make the best meeting places. Groups should be small; 5–8 are ideal. Once a group grows larger than 12 people, quiet ones may recede and cease to grow. Requirements for a host home should be minimal; adequate meeting space and parking, and a warm welcome. Make it clear that hosts need not be leaders. It’s better to share responsibilities. If the group wants to emphasize outreach, it’s fine to meet in the home of an unbeliever.
Second, good leadership is essential. Critics at times frown on the notion of people getting together to “just share.” But if leaders are prepared with a wise plan, small groups will do much more than this. Actually, the ideal form of leadership is a couple, a husband-wife team (see Acts 18:26). Elders ought to encourage younger men to be group leaders and not seek to be leaders themselves. One of the goals is to lighten the workload of elders, not increase it. One very important part of the small group ministry is the monthly leader meeting. This is a time when the elders and leaders can meet, pray and plan together. They should discuss problems and opportunities, and coordinate the effort with the life and needs of the church.
Third, because the basic goal of the groups is to promote fellowship, flexibility in all meetings is a must. Plans must be adjusted to meet the needs of people. A simple format or pattern for meetings must be agreed upon and followed. I recommend the L,L,D,D format: love, learn, decide and do. This encourages the growth of the whole person, heart, mind, will, and body; not just the intellect. A typical meeting might begin with questions and interaction about how the members of the group are doing. Openness will require time to develop. If there are no unusual needs or problems, a planned lesson or study can be started. If cares or questions surface during the opening time (or during the study), the planned material should yield to discussion and prayer centered around a search for Bible passages that instruct and encourage with regard to the need at hand. Time will prove that when the Bible is seen to be a truly living and completely relevant book by young believers, interest in worship and doctrine on Sunday morning will increase dramatically.
At some point, discussion should shift to decisions about how to serve those in need followed by a time of prayer and then simple refreshments with informal fellowship. Subsequent meetings should include some accountability to be sure things agreed to, were in fact carried out. Don’t neglect the “decide” and “do” parts. Options for content are limitless but all should be done to edify the believers (I Cor. 14:26)
Here are four key ingredients for a successful start drawn from years of experience with small groups:
1. Insist on good leadership. Elders must be unanimous about this effort or don’t start! Group leaders must have a solid working relationship with the elders as well as a love for the Lord, the assembly, and the people.
2. Refer to the groups by names other than “Bible studies.” Choose names that emphasize the goal of fellowship such as home, care, shepherd, or fellowship groups. Remember that most Christians are educated far beyond their obedience. The need is for equipping and growing; for bearing burdens and reaching lost people.
3. Don’t think of small groups as another “program”. Many believers are already over committed to assembly programs and cannot bear one more—even a good one. Better to view small groups as an essential part of the life of the church. In our assembly, one who is “in fellowship” will attend breaking of bread and teaching on Sunday, and then fellowship and prayer during the week. Programs, by contrast are optional and added to the schedule over and above these. It is exciting to see over 80% of the assembly in regular attendance at midweek meetings even after years.
4. Be flexible in planning and brief in meeting activities. If some are struggling with the idea of meeting in homes, meet once or twice a month in the traditional manner and during the other weeks meet in the small groups. Keep meetings moving along; don’t get bogged down. Be sure to start and end on time.
Finally; it’s helpful to remember that the groups are little lights shining in neighborhoods where there may not be any assembly. Never let the intimacy of fellowship become so important that a visiting friend or neighbor feels unwelcome. It’s fine to carry on the functions of the assembly family, but this can be done in such a way that a visitor comes to exclaim “surely God is among you….” (I Cor. 14:25). More than one new assembly has been started in this manner.