Marketing Gimmick or Means of Grace?

Within broad Evangelicalism today, words like community and small group are fired around with unprecedented frequency. For instance, Rick Warren and company are now following up their “40 Days of Purpose” program with “40 Days of Community.” On the website introducing the program, groups1.gifWarren says, “You cannot be what God made you to be, you cannot do what God created you to do … without other people… . We were made for each other, God made us for a family. Small groups provide such a family” (link here). In response to this statement, churches have often taken one of two approaches. The first is to embrace all things small groups carte blanche. They see concept of community as the deliverer of the church, the key to giving the church the impact in the world God intended it to have. Unfortunately, in many of these scenarios, community is not defined theologically; therefore, soon the small group degenerates into nothing more than a pop-psychology session. Far too often, in this type of environment, the use of Scripture is replaced with statements prefaced with “Oprah said …” or “I read in People magazine …” Sadly, this brand of counsel does little to biblically solve the problems of the sobbing couple sitting on the love seat.

The second typical reaction to these “Christian buzzwords” (and probably much more common to those among this website’s readership) is to heartily reject the notion of small groups altogether. In an attempt to decry anything remotely tainted with the smell of the church growth pundits (often a noble pursuit, in my opinion), some have sought to make small groups another victim to be notched on their spiritual gun. But should this be the case? Is this taking guilt by association a bit too far? Or is this method, not the particular application of it, something those in the seeker-sensitive camp have gotten right?

How should Christians, particularly those serving in leadership positions, think about small groups? Are they just a passing fad that should be avoided? Or are they a helpful methodology based on Scriptural principles?

These were questions I wrestled with about two and a half years ago shortly into my pastorate of Calvary Baptist Church (Joliet, IL). When I accepted the call to Calvary, I knew my role would be to seek to right a ship that had recently gone through some fairly treacherous waters. The pastor who preceded me had fallen into serious sin and had been rightfully dismissed from the ministry. This sin was of such a severe nature that the pastor was incarcerated, and the church was exposed to news coverage by major media outlets in the area. And in case you were wondering, they were not putting a positive spin on the story. However, in all this the Lord was gracious in allowing the men serving on the church board at that time to handle the situation admirably. They labored long hours together praying, planning, and sorting through mountains of paperwork. I am honored to now serve as these men’s pastor, and I am eternally grateful to the Lord for their work of love during this time.

As I began to get to know the church body at Calvary, one area I saw we needed to grow in was unity. It wasn’t that there was any open conflict in the church; in fact, the situation was just the opposite. The cordiality of the people toward one another was palpable. The harmony that existed in the church, however, was not necessarily based on shared doctrinal convictions or on the common pursuit of godly living but rather on mutual hobbies and on just knowing each other for a long time. The congregation had suffered under a lack of instruction for at least three years. This was how long the pastor had been living in sin during which time he had fed the flock only with Internet sermon downloads. As a result, the body was spiritually starving and somewhat confused.

The first and crucial method employed to deepen the unity of the church was simply to begin to consistently teach the Bible. In our morning services, I started working through books expositionally; thus far, we’ve covered Philippians, a series on the life of Abraham from Genesis, a series on the church at Antioch in Acts, 1 John, and Haggai (just in case you were curious). In the evenings, I’ve been teaching a systematic theology from day one. Within a period of months, the Spirit’s work in the life of our congregation was evident. People were sticking around after services, and they were chatting about—would you believe it?—doctrine. Not only that but requests for additional reading material were regularly coming across my desk. God was faithful, and the church as a whole was certainly growing in their depth of knowledge.

It was at this point that my questions about small groups came to the forefront. The church certainly was starting to show signs of health, but when I talked to people individually, I found that there was a general lack of personal pursuit of God. Corporate worship was thriving but individual devotion seemed stinted. Yes, people were discussing inspiration and the sovereignty of God with much more clarity, but they were simultaneously struggling to read their Bibles, to memorize Scripture, and to spend time in prayer on a regular basis.

In order to address these issues and thereby deepen the unity in practical Christianity at our church, I proposed a small group ministry that would take place during our midweek service. Two primary considerations led me to the conclusion that small groups may be the pony to ride.

First, the body of Christ has an extremely significant role in the pursuit of personal sanctification.

This was a conviction that was steadily deepening in my heart. As I read the Scriptures and came across passages like, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24, NIV), the idea that “You are not made to live alone. You are not made to live alone” kept beating in my head with the regularity of a drum (a non-syncopated beat, of course). This notion starkly cuts across the individualistic air we breathe, which perhaps is why it stood out so glaringly to me as I saw it in the Bible.

I thought about Paul’s imagery of the body in 1 Corinthians 12:17-18, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” At least part of what Paul is communicating here is that the members of the body are dependent upon each another. The foot needs the eye, and the eye needs the brain, and the brain needs the heart, and so on. The body not only needs each part to be individually healthy, but each part must also contribute to the health of the other parts.

Then came the kicker. I did a brief study on the “one another” language in the New Testament. This led me to passages that said things like “instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14, NIV), “submit to one another” (Eph. 5:21), “bear with each other and forgive … one another” (Col. 3:12), “admonish one another” (Col. 3:16), “encourage one another” (1 Thess. 5:11), “spur one another on” (Heb. 10:24), and—the piece de resistance—“confess your sins to each other and pray for each other” (James 5:16). And, as you know, there are many more.

It became increasingly apparent to me that one of the tools God uses to make us more like His Son is other believers, and the Scriptural emphasis indicates that this is a well-worn one at that.

We grow in holiness by taking God’s Word and applying it to our lives. Clearly, any time a believer experiences a sanctified growth spurt, it is because the Holy Spirit is active within his heart. However, God often uses human agency to bring about this growth. It may be in the form of a brother teaching us the meaning of a passage that we stumbled over for years, or it may be through a fellow believer confronting us about a sin in our lives, to which we were blind. Whatever the case, undeniably other Christians have a significant role in helping us become more like the Savior.

Experientially, we know this fact to be the case. All of us could list many fellow believers who have had a profound impact on our lives and contributed to our personal sanctification. In fact, as I look at some of the names involved with this website, I can say that I have benefited from your teaching, encouragement, or admonition.

The point is that the Bible teaches we are not made to live alone. In my setting, I realized that if Calvary was to be healthy, then there needed to be a unity based on this biblical version of “one-anotherness” (I’m confident this isn’t a word, so don’t bother to spell check it, but you may want to try to say it five times fast). This fact led me to my second conclusion.

Second, churches are often ill-equipped programmatically to allow the body to function in the way God intended it.

This fact certainly described the boat we were in. It seemed the church body was beginning to enjoy expositional preaching and actually to anticipate doctrinal studies, but this dynamic of being involved in one another’s sanctification seemed largely lacking. Our services all basically entailed that I stood and taught for the lion’s share of the session. I began to realize that we had not intentionally built any time into the church schedule that would be conducive to this mutual instruction and encouragement of which I had become scripturally convinced. Sure, there was natural confrontation and encouragement taking place in the hallways and in homes—which is terrific—but I felt that if our church were to develop a thick biblical unity, we needed to systematically give the members of the body time to talk to one another about spiritual matters.

Once I was convinced that small groups were not just a marketing gimmick designed by the church-growth gurus but rather a sound application of a noteworthy biblical principle, I had no trouble embracing the idea. At this point, I started to design in earnest what has become the mainstay of our midweek service, and the results have been tremendous.

God has used this weekly time of accountability, prayer, and encouragement significantly in the life of our church. In some ways, I think we are realizing what it means to be a body. The unity that now exists at Calvary is of a different quality than it was before. Believers are increasingly united in their common pursuit of Christ; they are war buddies, who day after day are learning to fight their flesh and follow their commander TOGETHER! It really is a glorious thing to watch. One of our small-group leaders recently said to me, “I’ve known some of these same ladies for twenty years, but I’ve grown closer to them in six months as a result of our accountability groups.”

Small groups are by no means a wonder cure for disunity and cannot be divorced from biblical preaching or sound theology. However, because this method can be a valid application of a biblical principle, it has the potential to bear fruit, and in our setting it certainly has. God has ordained that believers impact the growth of other believers. I believe the church should try to create an atmosphere in which this biblical “one-anotherness” (there’s that word again) can readily occur.
ryan_portrait.jpgIn future offerings, I will continue this semi-biographical sketch and address specifically what we do in our small groups.

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Ryan McCammack graduated from Northland Baptist Bible College (Dunbar, WI) with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He is senior pastor at Calvary Baptist Church (Joliet, IL). He is pursuing the M.Div. degree from Baptist Bible College (Clarks Summit, PA). God has blessed him and his wife, Tricia, with two sons: Ian and Calvin.

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