Marketing Gimmick or Means of Grace? Part 3

Read Part 1 and Part 2

More on the Blessings of Small Groups

Welcome once again to the continuing saga of small-group ministry at Calvary Baptist Church (Joliet, IL). In my previous offerings on this topic, I addressed the motivating factors that led us to begin this type of ministry as well as some of the small_groups.jpglogistical issues that running this type of program brings about.

The general consensus of the feedback that I received from both articles boiled down to essentially one question—“What does it look like?” Certainly, I do not claim to be an expert on all things small groups; however, the Lord has used this ministry in our local assembly, and if our experience can in any way serve other members of the body of Christ, then I will gladly relate what we have learned. So without any further ado, let me explain what you would see on a typical Wednesday evening at Calvary. (Isn’t this exciting? All two of you who are reading this post can stop holding your breath now)

Before I get into specifics, however, let me lay out a couple of foundational principles that I try to consistently emphasize to those in our church who participate in small groups.

Small Groups Must Be Biblically Driven

This sounds very simple, but it is a critical truth. If this type of ministry is to aid the body of Christ, it must be committed to the application of biblical truth. A small-group ministry will be quite detrimental to a church if it is not governed by good theology. The reason that this warning must be sounded is that there is a tendency for this genre of program to degenerate into “Christian psychologizing.” C.J. Mahaney has well noted this trend:

It is no exaggeration to say that most popular books and guides dealing with the topic of small groups are shockingly deficient in sound doctrine. I don’t say this lightly. I have reviewed them for years and have found a greater emphasis on modern psychology and sociology then on thorough, biblical theology (Why Small Groups, Gaithersburg, MD: Sovereign Grace Ministries, 1996. p. 2).

Later, when speaking about these resources, Mahaney further laments:

Undoubtedly the publishers want to help Christians grow. But without solid biblical content, these materials can actually hinder God’s intentions for us as individual and groups (Mahaney, p. 2).

In our small groups, we do not simply want to vent our frustrations or learn the latest and greatest technique that behaviorism has to offer. We want to be confronted by and instructed from the inerrant, inspired Word of God. For this reason, we need to be regularly reminded that the Scriptures are sufficient and authoritative.

Sanctification Is a Group Effort

The second foundational tenet of small-group ministry that needs to be frequently emphasized is that sanctification is not meant to be pursued alone. In our very independent Western society, this idea cuts across the grain a bit. Because our culture rewards rugged individualism and views the asking for help as a sign of weakness, I believe that the Christian church needs to be vigilant in teaching that believers need one another. Consider the following passages:

See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness (Heb. 3:12-13, NIV).

Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:1-2).

Both of these passages emphasize that as a Christian, I should be concerned about my brother’s sanctification and that as a Christian I should welcome the correction of my brothers. In essence, one of the means that God has given us for transformation is the insight of other Christians. Let’s face it; we all have blind spots in our Christians lives, and we would do well to enlist the help of other believers who may see those areas in our lives more clearly. I confess that there have been times in my life when I have entertained thought processes and attitudes that were glaringly sinful to every other Christian within the greater Joliet area (that may be an exaggeration) but to which I was painfully oblivious. Small-group ministry in our church has given us an excellent context for dealing with such issues. I am very thankful for the men in my group who have kindly pointed out my sin and helped me to become more like the Savior. Paul Tripp rightly comments:

Personal insight is the product of community. I need you in order to really see and know myself. Otherwise, I will listen to my own arguments, believe my own lies, and buy into my own delusions. My self-perception is as accurate as a carnival mirror. If I am going to see myself clearly I need you to hold the mirror of God’s Word in front of me (Instruments in the Redeemers Hand, Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Press, 2002, p. 54).

We do not practice small groups because they are popular. We practice them because we believe they are a valid application of biblical principles that are critical to the spiritual vitality of the local church.

Having briefly laid the theological foundation for small groups, we can now get to the nuts and bolts.

Inductive Bible Study

At 6:30 p.m., when everybody arrives (actually more like 6:35—we are Baptists after all), we all gather in the sanctuary for a short time of inductive Bible study. During this portion of the service, we take about 15 minutes to briefly examine a few verses of Scripture. The text that we consider is a passage that was alluded to in the preceding Sunday’s sermon; it is not the primary text but rather a related passage that was quoted to support one of the major themes brought out in the sermon. I pass out a handout with the Bible study passage on it a week in advance so people can be prepared for our limited discussion time.

Each week, we walk (it’s more like a jog) through the following questions:

Observation—What Does It Say?

Who wrote it? Whom is he writing to? What is the situation? Where does this occur in the context of the book? What do the words mean?

Interpretation—What Does It Mean?

Is there a command to obey? Is there an example to follow? Is there a warning? Is there a basic doctrinal truth to embrace? Is there a promise to believe?

Application—What Should I Do?

What does the Lord want me to do or to stop doing? How do I do it?

Using the opening time of our midweek service for Bible study has been extremely helpful for a number of reasons; here I will mention only two of the most significant impacts. First, it has given me an opportunity to model for our people how to study the Bible. With a dry-erase marker in hand, I have been able to lead our church through a number of significant passages that I would not have otherwise had the forum to discuss. Having now done this for quite some time, our congregation at large is getting quite adept at asking the right questions of the text. The second reason that this has been so beneficial is that it has given occasion for large-group discussion of a particular theme from that week’s sermon. This has done a world of good to assist in the long-term application of truths gleaned from messages.

Accountability Groups

We finish the first portion of our service at 6:45 p.m., and then we break up into our groups which meet in various parts of the building. The following is the basic agenda for this segment of the service. To kick it off, the leader of the group opens in prayer. In this prayer, I encourage our leaders to express dependence on the Lord and to specifically ask for the Spirit’s help. No real and lasting change happens apart from the power of the Holy Spirit. We feel it is important to begin with prayer because we want to confess at the outset of these groups that we are in need of God’s transforming grace. Pragmatically, beginning with prayer is a good idea because it prevents the opening chit-chat from lingering too long.

After prayer, we move into our accountability questions. I would consider this to be the major emphasis of our small-group ministry. During this time, we ask each other a number of questions that relate to the practice of the spiritual disciplines and other matters of personal holiness. The questions are as follows:

For All

Have you had a daily time of systematic Bible reading?

Have you memorized your Scripture passage?

Have you set aside a daily time for prayer?

Have you prayed consistently for at least one unsaved person?

Have you prayed consistently for the members of your group?

Has your use of money honored the Lord?

Have you been involved in Great Commission living?

For Men

Have you listened to or viewed material containing inappropriate or immoral content?

Have you had a serving and considerate attitude toward those closest to you?

For Women

Have you kept your thoughts in submission to the Lord’s will (and to your husband)?

Have you allowed thoughts of worry or fear to linger in you mind?

These questions have really been a great assistance to us. For starters, they have caused us to keep some of the more neglected spiritual disciplines in the forefront of our minds. For instance, we all know that we should be memorizing Scripture, but how many of us are actively involved in a Scripture-memory program? Our church has experienced significant growth in this area because frankly you know Wednesday is coming, and you are going to be asked if you worked on your Scripture-memory passage. These questions have also been great spiritual conversation starters. It is not uncommon for a discussion to begin about Bible reading but quickly morph into a gentle confrontation of bitterness in the life of one of the group members. Accountability is an excellent springboard into dealing with heart issues.

Though the benefits of accountability groups are tremendous, there is one danger about which I would like to quickly comment. When utilizing questions like these, it is important to consistently emphasize that these lists do not serve as law. Yes, we absolutely should read our Bibles; and yes, we should certainly pray, but these activities must be viewed as means of grace, not as meritorious acts. The temptation is to say, “I deserve God’s favor” when we do well on questions and to say, “God cannot love me” when we do poorly. In reality, we never deserve God’s favor no matter how we answer the questions, but at the same time we must realize that God gives His grace to those who do not deserve it. Keeping this truth in perspective protects us from self-righteousness in “good” weeks and discouragement in the “bad” ones.

We always try to conclude our small-group session with a time of intercession for one another. Inevitably a number of significant spiritual needs come to the foreground through the accountability questions, so we encourage our groups to spend some time praying specifically for those needs as they conclude. The Lord has been very kind to us in allowing an atmosphere of mutual love and concern to develop within our groups. I have frequently been encouraged to hear the brothers praying earnestly for the deep needs of their fellow group members.

Book Discussion

After nearly an hour in our break-out groups, everyone returns to the auditorium. During this phase of the meeting, I lead a large group discussion on a book that we have been reading as a church family. Once again, we utilize a worksheet that I pass out a week in advance covering a chapter of material in our selected resource. Here are some of the books we have read through this ministry: Winning the Inner War by Erwin Lutzer, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Don Whitney, The Enemy Within by Kris Lungaard, The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges, God is the Gospel and Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper, Praying Backwards by Bryan Chappell, and Humility by C.J. Mahaney.

The benefits of this portion of our meeting cannot be overstated. First, the discussion time is almost always quite encouraging. God has used this segment to help us to be more careful thinkers and more rigorous appliers of the Word. Second, a good portion of our church body is consistently reading good Christian books. I have had several people say things to me like, “I said I would never read a book after college, but I really enjoy reading these books.” Not only is my teaching ministry often reinforced by these books, but it is also enhanced and expanded. Third, it has helped to create a culture of learning in our church. When new people become a part of our fellowship, they immediately see that we take learning and spiritual growth very seriously. It has been such a blessing to be able to immediately put a good resource in a new believer’s hand and to watch him jump right in and grow with the rest of the congregation. This ministry has helped to make reading and study a normal part of the Christian life at Calvary.

I praise the Lord for what He has done in our church through the small-group ministry, and I look forward to His continued working through this ministry in our church body. We have not attempted to reinvent the wheel in this program but rather sought to design a ministry based on biblical principles that we feel are central to church life. What we do at Calvary certainly will not be a fit for every church (it may not be a fit for any other church); however, it is my hope that our experience at Calvary will, in a small way, provoke local churches to be more careful and systematic in their application of the Word.

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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