By Dr. Roger Barrier, Crosswalk.com
Our current crises are leading churches to develop all sorts of new technology to evangelize as well as minister to their own congregations. Streaming, zooming, drive-in church, online preaching and teaching, online church and self-taught Bible studies will most likely outlast the current epidemic. In other words, the church will have a different look in days to come. From your perspective, what is the most important lesson for us to learn from all the shuffling through crises?
The greatest lesson I see is that we don’t lose the importance and significance of small groups.
The stay-at-home church has several advantages, especially during times of pandemic. But on the other hand, it has a serious problem with developing face-to-face relationships which are essential for spiritual growth and personal ministry. What do you think?
Here are eight things to consider as we look to Jesus for inspiration on how to do small groups well:
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1. Even Jesus Needed a Small Group
The Bible says it’s not good to be alone. However, many have been taught (or model for us) that if we’re really mature, we don’t need any friends. Only the weak need somebody. That’s not true. Jesus had Twelve (well, eleven anyway) – and three of these were intimate friends.
Before Jesus goes to Jerusalem, knowing he was about to be crucified, he goes to see his good friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.
Jesus shared one of the greatest moments of his life with Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration. He wanted his best friends to be there.
Jesus was struggling in the garden the night before the crucifixion. He pleaded with his disciples to watch and pray for him. When he returned an hour later, they were all asleep: “Can you not pray with me one hour?”
Then, it happened a second time. He needed comfort, but again they slept. “I wanted to watch and pray; get up. The betrayer is here.
Do you feel the loneliness in these words?
He couldn’t even carry his cross alone!
Don’t you like to know that people are praying for you and standing with you in your crisis? So does Jesus.
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2. Jesus Selected Twelve and Divided Them into Three Small Groups
The same four disciples appear in the same group in each passage. The first name in each of the three groups is always the same (as if they were the leader of the group). All the names of the disciples in each group are arranged randomly. Peter is always first and Judas is always last.
Simon Peter: the rock
Andrew: Peter’s brother
James and John: Sons of thunder
Philip: the Earnest Inquirer
Bartholomew or Nathaniel: the guileless Israelite
Thomas: the doubter
Matthew: the tax collector
James the son of Alphaeus: or James the less (Mark 15:40)
Lebbaeus or Thaddaeus or Judas of James (The three named disciple)
Simon the Zealot
Judas the traitor
I have always admired how the Southern Baptist denomination develops their small groups. First, people are invited to the large group called the worship service. Second, people are welcomed into midsized groups of 40 to 100. Finally, small groups develop out of the midsized groups.
Sometimes it may be easier for people to go from a larger worship service, then into a midsized group than to go from a larger worship service straight to a small group.
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3. Jesus Used Small Groups As His Model for Ministry
Jesus could have chosen any number of methods for his ministry.
He could have transferred his ministry to one person that he had trained quite well.
He could have refused all personal relationships and concentrated on mass teaching only the Twelve.
He could have chosen a different Twelve every year and multiplied his ministry by 36 rather than 12.
He could have held classes for any wanting to attend.
But the fact is that Jesus chose the long-term, closed, small group as His primary strategy for personal community and ministry.
I feel certain that the Christian church will come up with all sorts of structures and forms to continue positive ministry during times of pandemic. I doubt that COVID-19 will be the last of its kind!
For example, 10 or so families may gather together intentionally as a small-group church which relates back to a larger church for strength, support and resources.
Another option is to consider how many should be in a normal- to small-sized group? My opinion: At least four, maybe 12, but no more. The group needs to be large enough for ministry, but small enough so that everyone can take part.
4. Jesus Placed Highest Priority on His Small Group
Jesus, who had the whole world to save, made the Twelve His priority.
The disciples came to him and asked, ‘Why do you speak at the people in parables?’ He replied, ‘the knowledge of the secret of the kingdom of heaven have been given to you but not to them’ (Matthew 13:10-11)
“I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you and me. Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world” (John 17:6-26).
He died for all, but He lived for a few!
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5. There Are at Least 11 Great Reasons for Small Groups
1. Community: There is no form of the Christian life except the one lived in community. You cannot make a case for the Christian life lived privately and alone with occasional or even regular forays into crowds of people listening to sermons.
2. Fellowship: We enjoy the fullness of the New Testament concept of fellowship as described in Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching into the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
3. Friendships: There is no better way to develop long-lasting friendships than to get with a few others week after week.
4. Comfort and Help: Those who know best how to comfort and help us in our pains are those with whom we are most intimate.
5. Overcoming: How else do we learn to accept a few others except by getting close enough to see one another’s faults—and help to overcome them?
6. Encouragement: What better place is there to receive encouragement in the development of our own gifts and ministry than with those who know us best and are committed to our growth in the Lord?
7. Christian living: Could there be a better place to live the Christian life than with a small group that meets regularly to share, pray, and encourage one another in Christ?
8. One another: There are 50 “one anothers” in the New Testament. For example, these instruct us to love one another, pray for one another, accept one another, bear one another’s burdens, and so on. Over time, those in small groups begin to experience all of the “one another’s.”
9. Openness: One of the best joys of being in a small group is vulnerable and open friendship with each other.
10. Love: is best expressed among those who participate in small groups.
11. Meeting with Jesus: Small groups are some of the best places to meet with Jesus. Small groups were never conceived of as an institution; but rather exclusively as a fellowship of persons, as the common life based on fellowship with Jesus Christ, as a fellowship of the Spirit, and a fellowship of Christ. To be in Christ through faith and to be in fellowship are one and the same thing.
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6. Most Small Groups Mature Over Time
Friends come in four classifications—not one.
1. Acquaintances: That’s what most of us are in church. Acquaintances are those with whom we have spasmodic contact and superficial interaction, and we don’t ask hard questions: “How are you doing?” “I’m really not doing very well, but I can’t tell you.”
2. Casual friends: This is the next level. More contact. Common interests. We are free to ask more specific questions. We may even ask an opinion of a casual friend.
We are a little closer but we still keep a distance.
3. Close friends: Similar life goals. Free to ask hard questions. These are people with whom we may go on a vacation.
4. Intimate friends: Regular contact, deep commitment in mutual character development. Not only very open but anxiously awaiting their counsel and reproof. We are free to criticize, correct, embrace, and encourage them because there is a built-in mutual understanding.
We may have only one, two, or three intimate friends with whom we can absolutely unveil the truth of our lives.
We are fortunate if we have two or three intimate friends during our lifetime. Most people never have even one.
That’s why life is so tough.
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7. A Small Group Is a Sheltering Tree
Samuel Coleridge was a British essayist and poet of great magnitude. Best remembered for The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, a becalmed ship filled with dead men.
He lived a tough life, victimized by rheumatism. To deal with the pain he became addicted to opium before he was 30. He endured a lonely, miserable marriage. His wife died young of cancer. He had one close friend named William Wordsworth. If you love poetry that name should ring a bell. He died in his 60s under a doctor’s care—still addicted, miserable, unable to settle the voices which were raging inside.
One of his best works is one which has never been published. The best line is: “Friendship is a sheltering tree.”
Think of friends like great trees, leafy limbs that come around us and spread themselves over us and bring shade from the sun, the blast of adversity, winter’s wind of loneliness—a great sheltering tree. That is a friend.
Friends are like sheltering trees.
How were they to love each other among the Twelve? It was to be as Jesus modeled for them which was with a quality of time and energy that was both self-revealing and self-giving.
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8. 4 Ways to Get Into a Small Group
1. Start with people you already know and begin talking to them about meeting as a small group.
2. Accept the invitation by someone or some church to join their small group ministry.
3. Ask if you can be in somebody’s already existing group.
4. Look for people of common interest and see if they’re interested in starting a group.
Well, Andy, I hope this helps and I pray that you are in a small group which is healthy and doing well.
Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at [email protected].
Dr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.