By Marina Rojas
For most people who attend a large church, small groups are a way of life. For smaller church congregations, the words “small group” may be completely non-existent from the church vocabulary since the whole concept of ‘small’ is obvious by the mere number of church attendees.
But running a church in America today means calculated decisions made by church leaders to include or exclude the small group concept into the church growth ideology. For those attending and actively involved in a small group, there is sometimes little awareness of the dynamics that move the group forward to successful goals in the area of church development.
For many churches in the Inland Empire, small groups serve as conduits for God’s power to be reflected in the interwoven relationships formed by those believers gathered together in His name. While a myriad of reasoning exists for the desired proliferation of small groups, it can all be best summed up in Scripture.
From early times when Jethro advised Moses in Exodus 18:20 to “Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave,” the concept of small groups was born. It would be too much, reasoned Jethro, for Moses to try and do everything himself, so he suggested breaking all the work into smaller groups of leaders to handle the workload more efficiently.
In Acts 2, the descriptions of the early church, and essentially the modern-day small group are spelled out. The characteristics of these groups have common themes, such as teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, prayer, a common belief, and sincere hearts.
Titus 2:1-15 spells out what should be taught to each person who strives to know God better. Many local churches have taken the setting of these Scriptures very seriously, striving to ensure each person desiring to head a small group met guidelines for teaching the truth and facilitating growth in others.
Some classes are specifically designed to help believers identify truth from falsehood. At Calvary Chapel The Brook in Grand Terrace, with a weekly attendance of about 300, Associate Pastor Pat Bower talks about an Apologetics small group called Deep Waters that meets to discuss topics that help people defend the Christian faith based on Biblical truths.
“Not only does this small group dig into the truths of the Bible,” said Bower, “but it allows people to minister to others, and be ministered to. We know that according to scripture, each and every person has a gift. In this particular small group, everyone learns they have a gift, which is sometimes similar to others.”
Bishop Candace Shields of Twice Called Christian Center in San Bernardino, who ministers to about 40 members per week, says that teaching is a number one priority, and each church attendee is encouraged to go to school in some capacity. “There are no ‘pew potatoes’ in our church,” said Shields. “We make sure our congregation is active in learning, whether it is in a community college or Bible college.” Recently having taught a series about other religions, Shields uses a lot of textbooks from Bible college courses she personally has taken or taught.
Centerpoint Church in Colton was founded in 1887, and currently holds an attendance of about 1600 people per week. The church manages anywhere from 30 to 40 small groups. “People who are in small groups are twice blessed,” said Dane Aaker, Senior Pastor at Centerpoint, “they get the overall experience of the large church setting and then get intimate care and love from the members of their small groups. The key to a small group is that you have to be in a group that’s praying for you, that’s super important, and a group that keeps you accountable”
Bishop Shields says that for her congregation, “We are so small that our small groups are very intimate and everyone’s personality can come out. Everyone gets a chance to shine. We gear our groups to very special needs and separate the adults by sex and age. We feel that gives everyone more freedom to talk, to speak up in asking their questions and form a special bond in the groups.”
Pastor Bower adds, “Our small group attendees learn to be able to give and receive through their own life experiences. Sometimes having someone sharing a unique experience can help minister encouragement and life into others going through similar things. We learn to comfort one another with the same comfort we’ve received in our time of trouble”
BREAKING OF BREAD
Food and drink are two of life’s greatest pleasures, and always seem so much better when enjoyed with the company of friends and family. Many small groups enjoy treats at the beginning or end of their meetings or sometimes sit down to share dinner before taking up the biblical discussion at hand.
At Sandals Church which reaches weekly attendance of 5-6000 between their two Riverside campuses, Woodcrest Campus and Small Groups Leader Andrew Boganwright says, “We encourage our small groups to break communion bread together. We love the communion table being served within the concept of the family cluster, helping us remember Him in our most personal moments together. Breaking bread and partaking of wine in small groups gives the whole communion experience a different feel, a different expression for what it is meant to be.”
“We live in a broken world and far too many people have walked through life in fractured relationships,” says Pastor Aaker. “No one should do life alone, everyone needs other Christians praying for them, supporting them and encouraging them every day. A small group allows people to form intimate bonds that help each other stay committed to Christ, and when discouragement comes, they each have someone who will make sure they don’t walk away.”
Bishop Shields adds, “In our small groups, we are able to get right up and pray for an individual and their needs.”Associate Pastor Pat Bowen shares that small groups are a true “body ministry” where loving one another, praying for one another and carrying each other’s burdens are important. “Small groups allow people to love and to pray for others often throughout their times of need. That’s when you see those ‘one anothers’ happening, and you know you have God moving through your small group activities.”
EVERYTHING IN COMMON
Bishop Shields makes sure people understand that everybody has a lot in common by gearing small group discussions to very special needs.“We feel that gives everyone a closer relationship, to look around and see people a lot like themselves. It certainly allows more freedom to talk openly and honestly, and we have found that people speak up in asking their questions in groups that have more in common with each other.”
Pastor Andrew Boganwright agrees, “A large church needs to facilitate a spiritual community of small groups that can speak to individual needs. The people in those small groups are those who will know you the best and love you. They are the ones who can best minister to you. It’s all about living life together, being with those people most knowledgeable of when your children graduate, when you have a baby, and when you have a tragedy in your life. Those people who are connected by small groups can quickly fill needs and minster immediately to the members of that group. Church today should be a community of grace, and not just in concept. Small groups help meet that.”
GIVE TO THOSE IN NEED
We are told by Jesus in Matthew 25:35-40 that helping others or giving to others in need is just like doing the same for Jesus, and the small groups can sometimes bring forth those actions in someone’s life.
Pastor Aaker shared a story of a small group at Centerpoint that had a young man who had committed a crime before coming to church, but who had started attending church and had joined a small group while going through his legal processes. Eventually, that young man was sentenced to several years in prison. The small group that he attended signed up and visited him regularly on visiting days throughout all of those years, and the day he was released from prison, each group member was there to greet him. The group had found him a job and someone even donated a car to him. “They demonstrated exactly what scripture tells us about helping and supporting one another,” says Aaker.
“Each church hopes every member serves in some way. In a small group, someone who is not connected in service can see examples from those in the group who are serving others in some capacity. Sometimes seeing the influence of others shows how their services can provide a context for God’s design and then impels some to get more deeply involved with service. The small groups can care for one another when a tragedy strikes and the small group leaders can make sure they take care of that person and their family and speak to individual needs,” says Pastor Andrew Boganwright.
CONTINUED TO MEET TOGETHER
In Hebrews 10:25 we were told not to “give up meeting together” and to encouraging one another. In doing so, we help others to grow in God’s Word and find encouragement for ourselves.
“We had a member who told his small group that he would get lazy about coming to church, and that he wanted to be held accountable for his attendance,” says Pastor Pat Bower. “So the people in his small group would take notice when he wasn’t there and would call him and ask what was up? He realized he had not melted into a big group of people, and that no one was pressuring him about coming back. But the members of his small group were showing they cared about him because he was really missed. There are times we check on people just to make sure they’re alright, and that is the kind of thing that can be missed in the larger groups”
We really want our small groups to break into even smaller groups and meet face to face,” says Aaker, “a small group needs to step up to the plate and initiate contact for true relationships. We like to call our small groups ‘Velcro’ because they keep people attached to each other, and ultimately attached to coming to church and growing in God’s will for their life” says Pastor Pat Bower.