Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Ministry of Groups

By Steve Mills*

John and Sue Church enjoyed life with their two children, Matthew and Crystal. One evening John read an article in the local newspaper explaining the need for families to take in orphaned children. The Church family decided to invite two siblings, David and Sheila, to live with them.

The first few days together were enjoyable apart from minor tensions.

At the table one evening Matthew said, "It's neat having David live with us. It's great to have a brother."

Crystal added, "Sheila and I play dolls together, just like our next-door neighbors."

It wasn't long, however, before the Church family tired of David and Sheila. They were irresponsible and slow to catch on to the "Church way" of doing things. And they started coming home late from school. They dropped by the Barrs down the street, mixing with other children who came there every afternoon. Eventually they didn't come back to the Church house at all.

John didn't worry. He assumed someone else was taking care of the children. He reassured Matthew and Crystal, "If David and Sheila want to be part of our family, they know the way back."

One day Stan Gadded, David and Sheila's social worker, visited the family. He was shocked to learn that the Church family hadn't seen Sheila and David for 2 weeks and that they didn't really miss them. John told Stan a larger family was a hassle and that the new children weren't making the necessary adjustments.

Stan was incredulous. It hardly seemed possible they had so readily rejected David and Sheila. But the Church family insisted that David and Sheila had chosen to leave. They had not been rejected. The Church family decided to release Sheila and David. They told Stan they were content with their own family.

The Church story has many parallels to the way some churches treat newcomers. It should remind us that the church must take responsibility for accepting and integrating new people. The story also reminds us that the church is to be a loving, caring family where people can be nurtured and trained.

Throughout history developing disciples has been effectively done in groups. John Wesley developed small group communities called "societies" and "bands." New and mature believers were expected to participate. These groups met weekly and helped people to develop the spiritual disciplines of worship, prayer, confession of sin, Bible study, and accountability for Christian living.

Groups are the foundational component of all effective disciple-making churches. Regularly starting new groups and cultivating healthy group dynamics is essential to strong, effective churches. Using these groups to reach, assimilate, and develop people is fundamental to developing Christian community in the church. Let's look at some of the benefits of strengthening the groups in your church.

Groups reach new people.

Groups are an effective means of evangelism because they meet people's needs and deal with issues important to them. They connect people to Christ and His church. Some have discovered the effectiveness of Bible study groups that enroll non-Christian friends, relatives, and associates of class members. They've found that 2 out of 4 new enrollees are unsaved, and that 1 out of 4 new enrollees will accept Jesus Christ within 12 months. In the same period only 1 out of approximately 400 people who are not enrolled in a Bible study group will be saved.

Evangelism is most effective in a group context. It is 100 times more effective than trying to reach people through worship services, crusades, or outreach events alone.

Groups assimilate new people.

New people come to church to have their needs met, but they will only stay if they've developed meaningful relationships. Getting them involved in a group facilitates this process and helps them to grow.

New groups are more effective in assimilating new people than older groups. In Twelve Keys to an Effective Church: Strategic Planning for Mission Kennon L. Callahan writes, "New people in a church tend to search out new groups in which they can establish relationships of sharing and caring... It is easier for new people to establish deeply profound relationships with one another when the network of relationships is still comparatively new, flexible, and in process for development" (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983, pp. 36-37)

Every church believes that it's friendly, but many newcomers don't feel that friendliness. They may find the church initially friendly, but in surveys they say, "It is a friendly church, but the smile stopped at the door." I've been here a year, but I can't seem to get into their groups. I don't fit or belong." People who feel they "fit in" or "belong" to a small group remain in the church, but those who are not able to develop 6 to 7 meaningful friendships within 6 to 9 months usually leave.

Groups nurture and develop people.

Acceptance, caring, and learning occurs best in small groups. Research demonstrates that 1 out of 5 people led to Christ through personal soul winning were baptized. Only 1 out of 10 led to Christ through crusades and mass evangelism events were baptized. However, 9 out of 10 people saved in small groups and Sunday school classes were baptized.

All of these methods have merit. It is evident, however, that when people accept Christ in the context of relationships, 90 percent will continue to develop as disciples and be baptized. This means that if people respond to the pastor's altar call but don't have existing relationships in a group or class, only 10 percent will continue to develop as disciples. On which means of evangelism does your church focus? Far too often we use the least effective means of reaching and discipling people.

Groups care for people.

The words that open the once popular sitcom Cheers reveal the hunger in the world for caring relationships:

"Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name...and they're always glad you came."

The Boston bar was a place where this socially diverse group of people found acceptance through relationships. Bruce Larson and Keith Miller talk about this kind of group dynamic..

"The neighborhood bar is possibly the best counterfeit there is to the fellowship Christ wants to give His Church. It's an imitation, dispensing liquor instead of grace, escape rather than reality, but it is a permissive, accepting, and inclusive fellowship. It is unshockable. It is democratic. You can tell people secrets, and they usually don't tell others or even want to. The bar flourishes not because most people are alcoholics, but because God has put into the human heart the desire to know and be known, to love and be loved" (The Edge of Adventure. Waco, Tex: Word, 1974, p. 156).

The church must provide the community and family that people are seeking. What about your class or group? Do people attend out of obligation or because they're developing meaningful relationships and growing?

Establishing ministry teams in a Sunday school class or a Bible study group is one way to identify and care for people's needs. A caring team, for example, would help class members to develop meaningful friendships with others, include newcomers into the class, and care for one another.

A sharing team would equip the class to evangelize unenrolled prospects. They would identify prospects, make contact with them, and seek to evangelize those who need fellowship with Christ and other believers.

A teaching team, usually lead by the teacher of the class, would meet the administrative needs of the class and provide opportunities for other members to gain experience teaching and leading a group.

Encourage everyone in the class to get involved. The goal is to involve them in ministry and train them to reach and develop people.

Groups teach.

A Christian's spiritual development is enhanced by being part of a healthy group that teaches biblical values, Christian disciplines, and the principles of love, acceptance, and forgiveness. Its teachings bring healing and hope to those involved. Characteristics of a healthy group include:

  • a close family atmosphere;
  • life application of biblical principles;
  • individual care;
  • opportunities to share testimonies;
  • instruction and edification;
  • unlimited opportunities for meaningful service;
  • relational evangelism;
  • intensive care and discipling of new converts;
  • spiritual growth;
  • leadership development.

New believers need intensive care and nurture. More mature believers need ongoing teaching, accountability, ministry, and fellowship. Groups should teach and reinforce seven basic disciplines of Christian living:

Word. The personal study of Scripture on a regular basis to hear God's voice and gain His perspective on life and ministry is essential. Believers gain additional insights through the teaching and preaching of the Word.

Prayer. Personal, intimate prayer with God on a regular basis is necessary so believers can respond and draw close to Him. Intercessory prayer for the needs of others and the church must also be learned.

Community. Believers must learn the value of commitment to others and establish the habit of regularly meeting with them. This is necessary for correction, edification, encouragement, worship, and guidance.

Obedience. Learning how to be obedient to God's Word and Spirit is important. Obedience leads to a life of holiness that pleases God.

Stewardship. Encourage members to regularly commit 10 percent of personal income to the ministry of God's people and cultivate a lifestyle of generosity.

Family. Believers must also spend regular times with their spouses and children, give attention to spiritual, emotional and physical matters, and attend to family finances and home maintenance.

Ministry. Praying for the lost, feeling concerned about them, and sharing your relationship to Christ with them is essential. Believers should share what they've learned about following Christ and be involved in ministries that develop and use your gifts.

Groups should teach and regularly reinforce these disciplines. Since a believer is an expression of his habits, the church must help believers know and practice right habits. The church is only as strong as the people it develops.

Transforming the church starts by taking advantage of its primary building block, the group. You transform the church the same way you build a house----one brick at a time. The house is only as strong as its bricks. The church is only as strong as the groups it develops.

As you reinforce healthy group dynamics, your people will rise to new levels of growth and commitment. Instead of being the John and Sue Church family, your church will be transformed into the living body of Christ where lives are changed and dreams are fulfilled.

Steve Mills
Executive Director of Church Ministries
Northwest District

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