Marketing Gimmick or Means of Grace? Part 2

More on the Blessings of Small Groups

In my last article, I sought to address some of the reasons that led us to begin a small-group ministry at our church. In this offering, my initial plan was to attempt to explain what a typical midweek service (Wednesday evenings for us) looks like at Calvary. However, the plans of men are plans at best. So as I considered ordus small groupus (not real Latin), I unity1.jpgrealized that there were a few logistical questions that probably needed to be dealt with before I explain what we do in our services. To be sure, we certainly still have much to learn about in this area; however, after being involved in this ministry for a couple of years, we have by God’s grace managed to work out a few of the kinks. It is my hope that this discussion will be a help to those interested in fostering a greater sense of community in their church body through the use of small groups. Lord willing, those reading will both glean from our successes and learn from our failures (which have been many). As you read, bear in mind that this is by no means a theological treatise but simply an attempt to address some of the practical issues that may arise with those involved in a small-group ministry.

When Do You Meet?

For those of you already “waist deep” in a small-group ministry, you have probably experienced what I began to observe; namely, this type of ministry takes a good deal of time. This is particularly true when you are getting started, for those leading the groups are just beginning to hone their skills in discipleship and biblical counseling. When I started at Calvary, our Wednesday evening service began at 6:30 p.m. and ended between 7:30 and 7:45 p.m. However, after the first few weeks of meeting on this schedule, our small groups leaders were nearly unanimously saying, “Pastor, we just don’t have enough time!” (Some said this with the exclamation point; others without.) These comments made me realize that if these groups were going to fly, we needed to extend our service times. In our situation, we found that we needed, at the very least, a full hour and a half to accomplish our desired goals. As a result, we now meet from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. There is no question that we could easily and profitably fill more time, but in order to be sensitive to parents of small children, to those working in our children’s ministries, and to those who work early in the morning, we seek earnestly to be done before the clock strikes 8.

Where Do You Meet?

This is another important question in relationship to small groups. Basically, when this question is asked, two answers are put forward: in homes or at the church. Both of these suggestions have their merits and their difficulties. Certainly, meeting in homes brings with it a dynamic that is difficult to replicate on a church facility. There is something disarming about talking across a coffee table, particularly when cookies are involved. However, for our purposes, we thought it best for the groups to meet in our church building. We made this decision based on two primary factors: ease of childcare and fellowship of the whole church.

Having all our groups meet at a central location alleviates the need for our church members to organize care for the children from week to week. I have heard a number of stories where child-care plans went awry and made the group ministry as a whole a veritable nightmare. One group host from another ministry related to me that her daughter used to ask if she could hide a couple of her favorite toys on the nights when the groups came over. It seems that a number of her play things often fell prey to other youngsters who were less careful than she. Meeting at the church alleviates individual families from concerns such as this. We have a nursery every Wednesday night as well as a program for grade-school children—a program headed up by our associate pastor and his wife. They, along with the teens and a couple of other adults, staff this ministry, which frees the parents to be involved in the groups. In a church such as ours with a number of small children, child care was a major consideration when determining where to meet.

Another advantage of meeting in a central location is interaction that occurs between the different groups. At Calvary, our whole evening is not devoted exclusively to communication within the groups; there are also times when the entire church body discusses material. (I will say more about this in future articles.) Along with this, we feel that the times before and after the services are also critical for community building. It is quite common for a number of people to stick around after church and talk, primarily about spiritual matters, although there may be an occasional reference to our beloved Cubs and Bears. (Oh, the pain. The wound is still fresh.) In fact, it is not unusual for my wife and me to be at the church chatting with people until after 10 p.m. It does make for a late night, but this is certainly an aspect of the ministry we enjoy and also, I think, an indication of church health.

Who Meets in the Groups?

Since we began this ministry, our groups have been gender specific; that is, men meet with men, and women meet with women. This arrangement has proven to be a tremendous help for spiritual growth. We have found that a woman is much more likely to be open and transparent in a group when her husband is not present. For us, separating the men and women has allowed us to have a practical way to follow the instructions laid out in Titus 2 and 2 Timothy 2.

Though this arrangement has remained consistent since the inception of the groups at our church, we have made a significant change in the groups since we started the ministry. When we started, the groups were age-graded. This meant that those involved would meet with others around their age and stage of life. Unquestionably, this situation had some benefits, for it is true that a 27-year-old with a newborn does not quickly identify with a senior saint struggling to properly respond to the daily pain of arthritis. However, in spite of the obvious advantages of age-specific groups, we also felt that there would be an even more significant benefit in making the groups mixed in age.

When we proposed that the groups get “mixed up,” we did run into a few bumps in the road, for at that point we had already been meeting with age-specific groups for nearly two years. A few of the older members said things such as, “I’m not sure I can share my spiritual struggles with people as young as my children in the room,” and some of the younger ones said, “I don’t know if I have that much in common with someone twice my age.”

However, we pressed on, primarily because we were convinced of two key ideas: First, we desired that the scriptural dynamic of the older teaching the younger be taking place in our church. With our Sunday school classes already being split up by age, we did not want to create cliques and cut off our younger members from the wisdom of more mature believers who have walked with the Lord for a longer period of time.

The second reason for making this change was this: We desired that our church be a place where unity in Christ is not just talked about but lived. Speaking about the body of Christ, Paul wrote: “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11, NIV). What the apostle is arguing here is that the normal social barriers and classes that prevent close fellowship in secular society should not exist within the church. The idea is that all prejudices should be absent from the body of Christ; there should not be sinful tension between differing ages or genders within the church. In our small-group ministry, we really wanted to model this. In essence, we wanted the thought process of our group members to be, “In my stage of life, I have very little in common with Bill; however, I am thankful that he is in my group because we share a greater bond than any common hobby or life experience could ever bring. Bill is my brother in Christ.” There should be a unity among Christians that is far greater than any commonness that the world has to offer, and it was our desire that our midweek services be a practical way for the members of our church to demonstrate this.

One of the distinguishing marks of the Christian church is that its members are to have love for one another (John 13:35). As a pastor, I wanted this love to be evident in our church body, particularly among those who were not alike. It is exactly this type of love that makes the unity offered in Christ unique. After all, even unbelievers can demonstrate fondness for those who are just like them. Christian unity should be inexplicable apart from divine intervention. It was our hope that our small groups would be a way where this type of unity in diversity is modeled. We wanted those new to our church to say, “What is going on here? This is odd. It’s wonderful, but it is odd.” As Paul continued his admonition to the Colossians, he added these appropriate words: “And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col. 3:14). Since the divisions that were so prevalent in the world were erased by Christians’ common union with Christ, Paul encourages the Colossians to love in a dramatically countercultural way so the superior unity that is to be found in Jesus Christ is showcased.

As I now look back on the “great mix up,” I am thankful for the fruit the Lord has been causing to grow in our small group ministry. We are seeing a greater intergenerational unity in our church because strong spiritual bonds are being forged between the younger and the older through shared spiritual struggles. The culture of our church is also gradually transforming as more and more believers (particularly the more mature ones) are developing as loving and theologically accurate biblical counselors.

For instance, I can recall several occasions during small groups when one of our new believers has shared a difficulty he is experiencing in his life. Perhaps it’s neglecting Bible study or relating to his unsaved family or battling lust. What has been so encouraging to me is that without any cue, one or two or even three of the other men in the group will rally around this young Christian. They may pray for him. They may open the Word and share a verse, or they may offer him a practical suggestion from their own experience. Whatever the case, as a pastor, my heart leaps for joy because I believe this is the body functioning as God intended it (Rom. 12:3-8).

Who Leads the Groups?

In our setting, we have sought to choose spiritually sensitive individuals who appear to possess a robust understanding of sanctification and who evidence a good degree of spiritual fruit in their lives. When we first started out, I will admit that I was just figuring things out, and I, in a sense, “threw our leaders to the wolves.” I put them into the fray without having a clear picture of how things were going to work out. Thankfully, the Lord in His grace allowed us to muddle through in spite of our lack of clarity. Since that time, I have tried to remedy that situation by meeting on a monthly basis with the leaders and hearing reports, answering questions, and providing some training. The field of biblical counseling has been fertile ground in providing instructional material for the leaders. If you are interested in doing more work in this area, here are a few recommended resources:

Faith Baptist Counseling Ministries—This church has an extensive counseling ministry and offers a yearly training conference in biblical counseling.

Christian Counseling and Education Foundation—We have used both books and DVDs from this organization.

Peacemakers—This ministry focuses on reconciling and maintaining relationships using biblical principles.

As far as books, the following have been foundational:

  • Christian Living in the Home by Jay Adams
  • Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hand by Paul David Tripp
  • The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges
  • Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald Whitney
  • The Enemy Within by Kris Lundgaard
  • Winning the Inner War by Erwin Lutzer (Just a reminder, “This book will change your life”—for those of you who attended NBBC during the Herron era.).

These observations are merely that—observations. They are in no way intended to be dogma, but rather to serve those who may be seeking to think through issues related to small groups. I hope in some small way our process will help brothers and sister in Christ relate to one another more biblically and bring the Lord greater glory as we live out our lives together.

I am so thankful that the Lord has taught me through these groups that I do not need to be the one always offering the counsel, but I need to be striving “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:12). I am grateful to have any part in this process, and as I grow in leading and developing these ministries, I am becoming more and more convinced that followers of Christ are indeed “competent to instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14).

More to come… .

ryan_portrait.jpgRyan 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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