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THE BASICS OF GROUP LIFE 

 

 When Fred was advised by his doctor that surgery was urgently required, he immediately shared that news with the Small Group that he had been part of for some 6 or 7 months. The response of the group was amazing in Fred’s eyes – much more than he might have reasonably hoped. Prayer and encouragement were mixed with transport and meals for Fred & his family.The small group leader had a very effective pastoral care role (as did one or two others in the group) over the weeks while Fred was in hospital and later during the convalescence period.  

 

That story (and countless variations of it) could be repeated many times over as local Churches have become serious about “every member ministry” – the fact that we are all involved in contributing to the health of the body.   Small Groups or Home Groups are, to my mind, the primary structure in a local Church for the facilitating of quality fellowship, personal support, authentic friendship, informed prayer, ministry discovery, relational evangelism, effective discipling, loving nurture and pastoral care. It is in the context of a Small Group that an individual can consistently & deliberately work out the implications of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  

 

What follows is an attempt to outline a rationale for giving high priority to the centrality of small groups in the life of our Church. I believe that what follows is biblically sound and practically functional. I invite you to read on and consider the implications of such a commitment for you.  

 

THE NEED FOR A SMALL GROUP NETWORK

 

  The New Testament is filled with calls for us to share our lives together. For example, we are called upon to bear one another's burdens (Galatians 6/2); to love one another as Christ loved us (John 13/34,35); to have and express the same care for each other (1 Cor.12/24,25); to pray for one another and to confess our faults to one another (James 5/16).The number of times the phrase "one another" occurs makes it impossible to escape the overwhelming evidence that our Master intends us to live in "koinonia" (fellowship) with each other. New Testament Christianity is primarily relational in its nature and expression.  

 

However, we live in a world where independence is highly valued. Sadly, such thinking has become well entrenched in the Church. It is yet another way in which we have been "conformed to this world" (Romans 12/2). Yet the Bible teaches us to be interdependent. But how do we work that out in practical terms? The New Testament knows nothing of a Christian life lived in isolation. We are all gifted variously and we all share the same life.

 

It is vital that we develop those frameworks that allow for the flow of life and gifts between believers. Equally, those structures & mindsets that resist, hinder and prevent the flow of life and mutual ministry ought to be dismantled as soon as possible. For many people, the “sense of belonging” diminishes proportionally the larger the Church becomes. Unless people are willing and able to relate to others in the context of a smaller network, there is an increased likelihood of them feeling “lost” and overlooked.  

 

While we recognise that there will always be a percentage of people who will choose to be relatively anonymous and desire to stay “unconnected”, the person who wants and needs the supportive friendship and help of other Christians will need to be part of an active small group.  

 

We ought to encourage everyone in our Church Family to gather frequently in two complementary contexts:  

a. The large gathering for corporate worship, teaching and inspiration

b. The small group for fellowship, discipleship, support, accountability and encouragement.  

 

Without question, there is a place for combined gatherings where the whole Body meets for celebration, worship, instruction and edification.Such occasions remind us that we are part of the larger family. Those times of celebration will provide us with much that is valuable and that can be gained no other way. Yet those larger gatherings cannot provide ALL that we need in the way of fellowship, quality sharing and in-depth ministry - both for ourselves and for others in need. It is sadly possible for people to attend a service of worship & celebration on a Sunday morning or evening and go away untouched and unchanged because there was little or no opportunity for them to interact with another person or persons. I believe there are many lonely people in our churches who worship within a sense of isolation.  

 

Of course, it has to be acknowledged that there are those in our Church for whom the idea of sharing their lives at any level with another person is enormously threatening.Such people will only attend the larger gathering because they can remain relatively "anonymous" in that setting.  

 

Now, let me quickly acknowledge that there are more than a few examples to be found where sharing one’s life has been abused to the great pain of those who have trusted themselves to others.In light of such examples, it is not hard to understand the reluctance of some people to ever again open themselves to another human being.   Likewise, there are also many instances where the "home group" has degenerated into nothing more than a "gossip group" and, instead of contributing to the life of the Church in a positive way, it has been a seedbed of dissension.  

 

Having acknowledged that reality, it has to be insisted that such abuse does not invalidate the positive benefits that have emerged from home group ministry.  

 

THE PURPOSE OF SMALL GROUPS

 

Small Groups can come into being for a whole range of purposes and they can be short-term or long-term in nature.   Sometimes a group of people can agree to meet together for a specific, short-term purpose.  For example, they may meet to explore some particular social issue that is impacting their community and to agree upon some form of decisive action. Another group may form around the need to explore the matter of baptism and church membership.There is neither the intention or the need to continue after that time.   Still another group may develop around a common area of ministry. For example, the youth leaders in a local Church may find it very advisable and helpful to become a home group so that they can get to know each other, pray for each other, support each other and, as an added bonus, to plan and pray for the young people with whom they work.  

 

However, for the purposes of this article, when I talk of small groups I am mostly referring to those groups that form on a more long-term basis for such purposes as fellowship, prayer, the study and application of God's Word, being mutually supportive of each other and to find ways of developing ministry and witness. The agreed purpose for which these groups come into being is for the mutual ministry that each has to the other. The group finds its purpose being realised as the members share their lives, pray for each other, discover and apply the truths of God's Word and worship together.Then, at times other than the scheduled meeting, the members stay in touch with each other so that there is a network of loving support right through the week.  

 

The observant reader will have noticed that I have avoided the term, "Bible Study Group". I do so because that description immediately sets a limited agenda in the minds of many. It is possible for such a “Bible study group” to meet, read and discuss a passage of the Bible and then go their respective ways without having related that passage to themselves and to each other in a way that is life-giving and edifying. Of course, Bible study ought to be a significant component when the small group meets together, but there ought to be more to the group than some kind of 'mind exercise' that has the potential to leave the deeper life of each member untouched.

 

We now address the questions, "What does a group do when it meets? How does it express its life and purpose?"  

 

THE COMPONENTS AND FORMAT OF THE SMALL GROUP

 

  As we develop and mature group life within our local Church, there are a number of components or dimensions that, ideally, we should seek to incorporate into the life of any long-term small group. These are not listed in any order of priority. Nor do they represent an attempt to “clone” all the groups. But each has value and should find some regular expression in the life of the group.  

 

[1] WORSHIP.   Worship is our highest calling as Christians. Whenever we gather as a group, I believe it is of great importance and significance that we focus our hearts on our God and express our worship to Him. This can be done in a prayer time that is given over solely to focussing upon God and celebrating His worth.  

 

Then again, worship can be expressed in song & praise, depending on the availability of music and musicians. Does the home where the meeting is held have a piano? Does someone play the guitar? Can anyone use the stereo unit?!! There are many tapes available that can be used for such a ministry to the Lord. Praise worship will have to be introduced sensitively because many of us are self-conscious when it comes to singing – especially in a small group!   However, as the group develops a greater trust level, this self-consciousness often gives way to a God-consciousness that liberates us into worship. Love and sensitivity are the keys to this aspect. Let's make worship - whatever form it may take - an indispensable part of our time together as a home group.  

 

[2]  SHARING AND PRAYING.   A high level of trust and love is required before most people will begin to open their lives in the presence of others. For most of us, such sharing involves a keen sense of vulnerability. "Will these people think I am strange?...weird?...perverse?...or what?" Sharing at any level ought always to happen because of the freedom to do so, not because of any pressure being applied. The level of sharing is also determined by the person sharing at that point in time.   How can we bear each others burdens if they remain unknown to the other members of the group? Obviously, it takes time to build a relational climate in which people feel sufficiently "safe" to begin to open their lives to another. Praying as a group for those immediate needs is an important part of group life. So is praying for the life and ministry of the wider Church and the needs of the community in which we live. It would be great if every group had a prayer 'convenor' who would encourage prayer ministry within the group.          

 

[3]  BIBLE STUDY/APPLICATION.   Studying the Word of God is a high value for Christians. It should be highly valued in our small groups. But a small group is less than it should be if all that happens is Bible study that does nothing more than process data. Any encounter with God's Word that does not result in our lives being changed by the application of those truths is not worthy of our involvement.   God's Word is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that we may be equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3/16,17).Such benefits should be evident in our lives if we have truly encountered God in His Word.  

 

Personal growth is helped by a balance of teaching given by mature and gifted teachers (usually in the context of the larger congregational gatherings) and personal exploration & discovery (enhanced by small group interaction). Growth and stability come from intentionally engaging with God’s truth and making whatever changes are necessary in our lives to obey the principles and truth we encounter in God’s Word. Bible study in our small groups ought to be of this nature.  

 

As people share their lives and the Word of God begins to speak to those issues that are raised, the group finds the need emerging to follow through with how those truths are impacting the lives of the group members.This is where the dimension of accountability comes into focus. Please note: this mutual submission and accountability (Eph.5/21) is not something that others demand or impose on us. Rather it is us expressing the desire to be accountable to others as to how we obey what God is saying to us.  

 

[4]  PASTORAL CARE.   A healthy home group is the ideal vehicle for effective, quality pastoral care.This becomes even more significant the larger a church grows.Scripture tells us that "God has combined the members of the Body.....so that its parts should have equal concern for each other..." (1 Cor.12/24,25). Even if the Pastors in our Church could cover all the pastoral care needs, my question is, “Should they?”  To limit pastoral care to the Pastors is to marginalize and disadvantage the many people in the Church whom God has gifted with the ability to be carers – especially within the small group setting.  

 

A Pastor or Pastoral Team is not responsible to do all the pastoral care but they are responsibleto ensure that all the pastoral care is done.  It is wise pastoral leadership that works closely with the small group network and encourages & equips the leaders & members of those groups to accept responsibility for the pastoral care of their fellow members. The Church leadership can be available as resource people in those cases that require additional input.  

 

One pastor has noted that the demand for pastoral care in his church dropped dramatically among those who began to attendeffective home groups on a regular basis. So much was this the case that the same pastor often makes belonging to a home group a requirement to complement his pastoral counselling!!This is not to suggest that we should adopt this approach but it does indicate the value of the caring ministry of an effective home group.   When Spirit-enabled “one another” ministry begins to take hold in a small group, it usually produces a sense of joy and enthusiasm in being with the people who have now become trusted friends.  

 

[5]  A MINISTRY FOCUS.   Healthy Small Groups will look for ways to extend their life beyond their group to others. These others might include new attendees at the Church, the sick or elderly, families going through a season of grief, university and/or international students. Guided and energised by the Holy Spirit, such care can touch lives in a way that cannot be organised from the Church Office.  

 

When groups initially form, there is a focus on the “inward journey” - members are pre-occupied with getting to know each other and learning to relate and trust each other.  Patterns for group meetings and just who will participate fill up their field of vision. This is appropriate and normal. But to remain focused on this inward journey can lead to an unbalanced expression of group life. There is an “outward journey” to be discovered by a small group that will lead it into a fuller expression of following Christ. This is the journey of discovering spiritual gifts for ministry and helping one another grow confidently in the use of those gifts. This journey will most likely lead the group to have a “ministry focus” of some kind beyond itself – often through individual members.  

 

I encourage every group to have a serving interest and to be open to ways by which they can come alongside people with the love of Christ. People within the group may become “kingdom voices” in a range of community groups. This can become an exciting journey that takes the group beyond a comfortable “bless me” lifestyle!  

 

[6] GROWING TO DIVIDE.   One of the most difficult decisions that an effective group must face is the need to give up its life for the benefit of others. When a group reaches a particular size, it needs to prayerfully consider dividing to become two groups so that others can be experience the benefits of group life. That 'particular' size is different from group to group but is usually somewhere between 12 and 16. Should a group try to hold on to its life, it will lose it. In giving up its life, it will find it.

 

There is no hard and fast rule in this regard but there is a principle that, if we ignore it, will begin to negatively impact the group. I believe that every home group should commence on the understanding that, in due course, it will become two groups and so multiply the benefits to others. If it will "give up its life" in this way, it will be able to share many of the insights it has gained with new members. Such multiplication will contribute to the overall health of thewhole Body in ways that nothing else can do.  

 

The leadership that has emerged and been trained during the lifetime of the group will be released to function in the new group that emerges.Yet such division is difficult for those who have developed close and supportive friendships in the original group.There is a sense in which a group that divides for the benefit of the whole Body is like a seed that falls into the ground and dies. It comes alive again in the multiplication of life.  

 

THE LEADERSHIP FACTOR IN SMALL GROUPS

  A major factor in the ‘success’ or otherwise of a home group is, without doubt, the quality of leadership.  If a group accepts a leadership style that is of the poorer kind, that group will always struggle for what will almost certainly be its short life-time! Conversely, if the group receives quality, sensitive leadership, it is well on the way to being an effective group. Sometimes a group leader will be more of a co-ordinator or a facilitator than an up-front leader. i.e. they will lead from behind...but they will lead nonetheless. The style of leadership is secondary to the quality of leadership.  

 

[1] LEADERSHIP TRAINING.   Part of the responsibility of the equipping ministry of pastoral leadership is to ensure the training of leaders for the various ministry areas in the life of the local Church.This is certainly true when it comes to group leaders.   One Church of which I am aware will not allow groups to come into being unless there is a trained leader available. That leader is expected to have given one year to such training - one night per week for lectures and one for homework!! While that may be more than you can reasonably expect in your situation, it gives an indication as to how important one church considers the value of group life. The least that Pastors must do is to identify, recruit, train, deploy, monitor & nurture people as group leaders. This involves regular individual contact with leaders as well as training opportunities that better equip those leaders.  

 

[2] LEADERSHIP ACCOUNTABILITY.   Another area where groups often come to grief is Leadership accountability. There is a place for a group leader to be accountable to the Church leadership for the progress of the group. This is not to suggest some kind of authoritarian or dictatorial oversight; rather, it is an acknowledgment that we all need to be accountable for how we function in ministry...the Church leadership included!  

 

As the size of the church and available personnel allow, it is good to have a number of Group Co-ordinators or Mentors who monitor the progress of the various groups and seek to assist in those areas where difficulties may be encountered.This kind of investment in Group Life would go a long way to preventing some of the 'negatives' that can be encountered if groups are not well-formed and well run.  

 

[3] LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT.   The best kind of leadership is that which emerges from within the groups as members recognise and affirm leadership gifts of another member or members. The group would then encourage those so identified to give themselves to leadership training. It would be the responsibility of the Pastoral Team to "train, deploy, monitor and nurture" those whom God identified as having those gifts and graces consistent with leadership responsibilities.  

 

In other words, I believe in what some have called the “apprenticeship model”. That is, each group identifies a person or persons within the group who have the potential to be leaders or facilitators of future groups. These people then begin to take on areas of responsibility in the life of the present group so that, when the group divides to multiply, he or she can give leadership to either the new group or those who remain from the old group.  

 

CONCLUSION   I acknowledge that, in writing as I have done, I have set out an ideal. However, what you have just read is an attempt to express my heart on the critical centrality of effective Small Groups in the life of our Church. If you already belong to a Home Group, what can you be doing that will enrich its life? Have you encouraged your group leader/facilitator lately?   If you do not belong to a small group, my guess is that you are likely to be among those who feel like a small fish in a large pond. You probably do not have a sense of belonging or community here. I hope that what I have written helps you recognise the importance of making that kind of commitment.

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