Transforming Congregations by Igniting the Spiritual Lives, Gifts
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The following copyrighted excerpts are taken from the first, 2-hour session in the leader's manual of the SMALL GROUP PROGRAM. They may NOT be photocopied or used without the author's permission.


WHY YOUR CHURCH NEEDS SMALL GROUPS

by Ron Farr
Laity Empowerment Project
Telephone (315) 583-5821
E-mail:
ron@laityempowerment.com

1. PEOPLE NEED A SMALL GROUP ENVIRONMENT TO GROW

Jesus founded a community of disciples which we now call the church. Why? So that people's lives would be touched, healed, and transformed by the power and grace of God; so that people would be set free to be the hands and heart of Christ, finding their own ways to usher in God's kingdom or minister to the broken people of our world. Churches are supposed to be places of renewal, spiritual nourishment, mutual support, personal growth, inspiration, and mobilization of ministries in Christ's name.

Sadly, many churches are a far cry from this heartbeat of spiritual vitality. Many people in our churches are spiritually starving, lethargic, or just plain unconscious. Clergy, activated laity, and church leaders are perpetually struggling to address this. The leaders themselves are often spiritually malnourished! What CAN we do about this? How CAN our churches become spiritually dynamic places where people's lives, laity and clergy, are genuinely changed and nourished, where people fall in love with God and become on fire with Christ, where people become mature, deeply committed disciples eager to serve their God?

Of course, there is no simple answer. However, many critical building blocks for such spiritual vitality come together in one powerful strategy: SMALL, LAY-LED, FAITH-CENTERED GROUPS. It is interesting to consider that the early Christian church for 300 years had no large buildings or congregations, but rather experienced phenomenal growth through small, home-based groups!

Sunday Morning Worship is Not Enough: Sunday morning worship plays an important role in establishing the spiritual center of most congregations. Worship, when spirit-led, can be life-changing and deeply nourishing. However, there are inherent problems with the way worship has been traditionally framed. Take the building for starters. Most sanctuaries are large, sometimes cavernous, structures with fixed pews lined up so that you are looking into the backs of the heads of the people in front of you. You cannot see most of the people sitting in your pew unless you somehow make an effort to "look around" the persons sitting on your immediate left or right. The worship leaders, up on an elevated platform, are usually far removed from the congregation, and are sometimes hard to hear if the P.A. system is inadequate.

Communication is mostly one way - the preacher to the people. The people are largely passive. They just sit there and listen. They usually have no real opportunity to ask questions or dialogue with each other or the speaker, nor would that feel appropriate in such a large group setting. People, barring the most extravertive, generally do not feel comfortable praying out loud or for each other because the group is "too big" to share such personal things.

Clearly, many spiritual needs ARE being met in large-group worship. We sing, praise God, feel God's majesty, pray or hear prayers, listen to music, and hear scripture and the pastor's thoughtful reflection on it. This is all good. And clearly, there are different kinds of worship formats, some of which tend to be more interactive or expressive. Still, important spiritual needs simply CANNOT be met through this approach to spiritual nourishment and expression, regardless of how well it is conducted. It was never meant too!

Large group worship does NOT address our needs to explore scripture more openly and interactively with companions, build spiritual friendships, care and pray for each other, talk about how our faith connects to our daily life and work, or do mission together with others who share similar ministry passions. This, however, DOES happen in small faith-centered groups.

Small Groups Address a Wide Range of Needs: Obviously, something different is going to be drawn out of us when we settle into a cozy living room in a intimate circle of 5-10 people as compared to being in a sprawling room filled with an large audience lined up in rows! Small groups, when led well, become hands-on "laboratories" for the Christian life. Small groups can take many different forms depending on what the group leaders and participants feel inspired to do: Bible study groups, support groups, recovery groups, prayer groups, task groups, workplace ministry groups, or mission groups. Small groups can be short-term or long-term, meet weekly or twice-monthly, be high-demand or easy going.

In small groups people open up to each other. They begin to talk and attempt to put into their own words the meaning and inspiration of their faith. They learn who they are and who God intended them to be. They learn to ask their questions and hear others struggle with the same questions. They learn to listen to each other. They discover that they are not alone and are not that different from everyone else in the church. They discover who their fellow church members are beneath superficial Sunday morning impressions. Their lives deeply connect with others in Christ.

Small groups provide a "safe" and intimate environment where people can take the chance of praying out loud to God or praying for their companions. As they discuss scripture and try to make connections with the challenges they face in their daily life and work, they become more Biblically literate and formed in the faith. This is especially important for unchurched people or for people who've been active in churches that have had weak programming concerning adult faith formation and Bible study.

Small groups are also where people can explore in depth their God-given gifts and discern how God is calling them to use their gifts in some ministry that is personally compelling. In ministry support groups Christians help each other determine their next steps in their individual ministries in their daily life or work. In mission groups they work together on a common mission task.

Christ calls us not only to use our gifts in ministry collectively and individually, but to build a special caring community among the members which reflects God's reign, love and grace. Jesus calls us to build a community with each other which is unlike anything we have experienced in the world, a community in which we love each other as he loved us, forgive each other as God forgives us, pray for each other as Christ prays for us, resist putting each other on different steps of a hierarchy by calling some "Rabbi," and minister to each other with a humble and tender "footwashing" spirit.

Because small groups are places where people can relax, be down-to-earth, speak their mind, share their heart, and talk to each other face-to-face, they provide the most natural places for building relationships. In a nation where the close-knit neighborhood and extended family has been greatly diminished, where people are highly mobile and have trouble setting down roots, where marriages and families are failing at an alarming rate, we desperately need places where we can build healthy, authentic relationships with each other. We can share a pew with people in Sunday morning worship for years, and never really know them. However, in a small group that encourages the sharing of life-experiences and relating those experiences to the Christian journey, such relationships suddenly burst into life!

Some church leaders worry that an emphasis on small groups will encourage the destructive formation of clichés which, they fear, might split their congregation into hardened factions. Actually, quite the opposite occurs since all small groups, with the possible exception of some highly sensitive recovery groups (e.g. a group for sexual abuse survivors), are "open" groups seeking to invite new people into the small group each week. All the small group leaders meet with each other once a month for support/supervision meetings, and sometimes different small groups get together for dinner or for a small group celebration night. The net effect is a deeper sense of intimacy and friendship throughout the ENTIRE congregation! Strangers can feel the love in the congregation a mile away!

2. SMALL GROUPS ADDRESS FOUR AREAS OF CHURCH LIFE

Small faith-sharing groups effectively address four critical areas of Church life:

  • care of church members

  • adult faith formation

  • evangelism/church growth

  • mission.

Small group systems seem to be especially well-suited in addressing these four areas in a way that matches the priorities and needs of most churches and denominations.

Care of Church Members: Care of church members, usually described as "pastoral care," is often thought of as the pastor's domain (hence the name "pastoral"). Pastoral care traditionally includes such things as home and hospital visitation, caring for the elderly or shut-ins of the congregation, supporting church members passing through personal crises, and just generally keeping warmly in touch with the lives of the church members. Oftentimes deacons or specially named lay visitors help the pastor in this work.

Yet, how many people in need can a pastor or lay visitor effectively care for in any given week? It is highly unrealistic to think that a pastor of a congregation of 300 or 200, or even 100 can adequately tend to and care for all these church people as well as simultaneously carry out all the other tasks expected of him or her. A more realistic figure might be 10 to 12 people!

The lay-led small group provides much more comprehensive care than the pastor-centered model. First of all, lay leaders make it their business to be in touch with the needs of each participant of their group, and they need to care for only 5-10 people. If anyone in the group reveals a problem, the small group leader follows up with a phone call or note. If the problem is serious, the pastor is notified.

Secondly, ALL participants of a small group, whether they are a leader or not, are encouraged to CARE FOR EACH OTHER. So, whenever a member of the group shares a distress or struggle, the other members are expected to reach out to that person within the group session as well as outside of it. If anyone in the group becomes sick or hospitalized, he or she will get loving, supportive responses from his or her group leader as well as from several other group members. This is a powerful way to deliver human nurture to the church members!

Of course, many church members may not actively participate in a small group. Some churches invite everyone in the church to join a small group. If they choose not to participate, they are then asked if they would be willing at least to be "linked" to one. This means they do not have to participate actively, but if they were ever to go through a time of need or difficulty, the people of the small group to which they were linked would offer them love, prayer and support. No church will substantially grow in membership or be faithful to Jesus' command to "love one another as I have loved you" if it has not worked out an effective way to show caring to EVERYONE in the congregation. Small groups are a potent strategy achieving just that!

Adult Faith Formation: At the heart of our Christian faith is a dynamic love relationship with God through Jesus Christ. If Christian adults are not ever-deepening that relationship, praying, experiencing grace, being inwardly strengthened, exploring God's word, intentionally opening oneself to the way of Christ, discerning God's leadings in one's workplace and daily work, and carrying out focused ministries, in short forming one's faith, then the church loses its soul and its spiritual magnetism.

Adults must keep growing and maturing in the faith like well pruned branches on a vine. They need to keep exploring how to deepen their faith and live it out more fully. They need to reflect on their day and be spiritually nourished in the midst of the challenges they face. Generally this is hard for most people to accomplish on their own, but when they meet regularly to share their faith among Christian companions in small groups, it is quite attainable. Unchurched adults too need a place to learn the essentials of the faith and build relationships with other Christians more mature on the path. What better place for this to happen than in a supportive small group?

Mainline churches desperately need focused strategies aimed at nurturing the faith, spiritual life, and commitment of its members. In their desire to be inclusive, avoid dogmatism, and "give people space," liberal churches have often maintained a kind of "laissez-faire" approach to faith development. The strength of this approach is that it allows for freedom to explore, dialogue, question, argue, process one's thoughts, probe scripture, and prayerfully form authentic convictions. The down side of this approach is that people often slip into spiritual unconsciousness, Biblical illiteracy and lack of commitment when there is no accountability or no focused process of drawing people out.

Small faith-sharing groups (generated by the LEP Small Group Program) emphasize dialogue, listening skills, and mutual exploration. This provides the perfect environment for people of differing views to explore in a non-dogmatic manner all the sides of difficult theological, personal or social issues. Small groups, based on the principles of mutuality, are ideally suited for more liberal churches that are looking for ways to honor a diversity of theologies but at the same time spur everyone on to deeper spiritual commitment and growth.

Without an abundance of settings intentionally designed for the faith formation of adults, the mainline churches will be lost in spiritual mediocrity and continued decline. However, a church that succeeds in generating numerous small groups will discover delightful developments in the life of the congregation: a higher level of discussion at coffee hour since people are discussing what they shared in their last small group meeting, more spontaneous in-depth faith-sharing in all church classes and Bible studies because people are used to talking about their faith, and more spiritual focus and prayer in church committee meetings! Small group systems will undoubtedly have a huge impact on the reawakening and revival of established churches.

…….TO BE CONTINUED…….

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