Marketing Gimmick or Means of Grace? Part 4

More on the Blessings of Small Groups

Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

by Ryan McCammack

Previously in my articles on this topic, I have talked about the why and the how of small groups at Calvary Baptist Church in Joliet, Illinois. In this article, I will seek to address what has happened at our church as a result of this ministry. As a springboard into this topic, let’s briefly look at a passage of Scripture:

paper_chain.jpgSee 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. 3:12-1, NIV).

This passage teaches us, among other things, that we are prone to unbelief and rebellion against God because of the deceitfulness of our own sinful hearts. If you have been a believer for any length of time, you have no doubt seen this principle in action. Sin is consistently and actively waging its campaign of deceit in your own life.

Personally, on more occasions than I care to admit I have been able to justify blatantly sinful actions and attitude in my own mind by a series of cleverly crafted excuses. For instance, when I get frustrated with my children or discouraged by a church member’s attitude somehow, I can point my finger at others while being completely blind to my own sinful responses to the circumstances at hand. Frankly, I don’t need a lot of help to be deceived, for I am more than willing to deceive myself. We must ever bear in mind that sin is utterly deceitful and shockingly blinding. John Owen rightly commented:

Many men live in the dark to themselves all their days; whatever else they know, they know not themselves. They know their outward estates, how rich they are, and the condition of their bodies as to health and sickness they are careful to examine; but as to their inward man, and their principles as to God and eternity, they know little or nothing of themselves. Indeed, few … are acquainted with the evil of their own hearts as they ought; on which yet the whole course of their obedience, and consequently of their eternal condition, doth depend (Indwelling Sin in The Works of John Owen, vol. 6, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967, p. 162).

Fortunately, along with pointing out our problem, this passage also kindly directs us to a remedy for our self-deceptive tendency, namely the regular encouragement and correction of other believers. In essence, this verse tells me that I need the caring eyes of other believers peering into my life and telling me what they see, particularly when the picture is not so pretty. If I am to avoid self-deception and the hardening of my heart, I must recognize that I need help. You and I are dependent creatures. We are dependent not only on God but also on other believers. We require the observations and counsel of others if we are to see ourselves as we truly are.

The harsh reality is that left to our own perception we are quite prone to miss glaring problems in our lives. The following story from a message C.J. Mahaney preached illustrates this principle clearly.

As I sat with my family at a local breakfast establishment, I noticed a finely dressed man at an adjacent table: His Armani suit and stiffly pressed shirt coordinated perfectly with a power tie. His wing-tip shoes sparkled from a recent shine, every hair was in place, including his perfectly groomed moustache. The man sat alone eating a bagel as he prepared for a meeting. As he reviewed the papers before him, he appeared nervous, glancing frequently at his Rolex watch. It was obvious he had an important meeting ahead. The man stood up and I watched as he straightened his tie and prepared to leave. Immediately I noticed a blob of cream cheese attached to his finely groomed moustache. He was about to go into the world, dressed in his finest, with cream cheese on his face. I thought of the business meeting he was about to attend. Who would tell him? Should I? What if no one did? (attributed to Pastor James R. Needham in a 2004 illustration from www.preachingtoday.com).

In reality, all of us have blobs of cream cheese on our faces of which we are utterly unaware. That disposition toward your boss that you think is completely normal is clearly insubordinate to your fellow believers. The comments you routinely direct toward your spouse—which you say are “all in good fun”—smack of bitterness to others in your church. And the drive to succeed at work that you believe to be one of your strong suits looks more like an idol to your pastoral staff. Indeed, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). This natural bend toward self-deception is significantly weakened when we recognize that others can see things in our lives that we do not clearly perceive. If we humbly acknowledge this truth, then we take a major step toward further growth in godliness.

I mention this scriptural principle because I believe it is closely linked to the apparent fruitfulness of the small-group ministry at our church. I thank the Lord that the people whom I am privileged to serve at Calvary have humbly accepted and have actually come to cherish the fact that they need each other. The benefits we have enjoyed at our church, I believe, flow largely out of God’s grace to us in allowing us to respond rightly in this matter.

What we have seen is that once a believer is convinced of the real potential for self-deception that exists in his own heart as well as the role God has given to other believers as a means to counteract this internal enemy, he usually flourishes in small-group ministry. However, if an individual assumes that he can discern his own heart, he will typically be very resistant to involvement in small groups and therefore fail to derive much benefit from them at all. (Just as an aside. If you desire to start a ministry like this but do not believe others in your church are sufficiently prepared, I would recommend walking through the first few chapters of Jim Berg’s book Changed into His Image. He does an excellent job of painting man in the proper light. Also Humility by C.J. Mahaney is exceptionally helpful in this area.)

The Lord has graciously used small groups as a means of substantial growth in godliness in the lives of the members of our church. I do not say this to boast about our congregation, for I happily recognize that the good fruit we see in our church comes from the power of the Spirit. However, I do want to share some of what God has done in order to encourage those in positions of influence to consider implementing some type of small-group ministry in your local setting. Your ministry certainly does not need to look just like ours, but church leadership should be striving to help believers to interact in spiritually intimate ways.

I could share many stories about how small groups have specifically impacted our church, but the clearest way to illustrate the change is to hear it from a few who have been involved in this ministry at Calvary. The following “uncoached” testimonies demonstrate how God has used small groups as a means of grace in the lives of these individuals as well as in our local assembly as a whole.

The small group I am involved in has been an instrument of spiritual growth in my life personally as well as in the other members of my group. Our small group ministry has been an atmosphere that has allowed us to confess sin, help one another to apply Scripture, and hold one another accountable for our sinful thoughts and actions. We have seen real transformation as a group. In fact, one sister who has never done devotions now earnestly desires to do them. Also as an older woman, I have the opportunity to share biblical wisdom in regards to child-rearing and time management when the younger ladies in the group have asked me. Our group also has great unity, even though it is made up of newly saved women and women who have been Christians for years. It is a wonderful blessing to open up about sin in my life that I had never discussed before and then to know that I would be held accountable by these other women. The study for each week’s lesson, the prayer in our group, and the fellowship around God’s word have all been such a blessing and a means for us all to become more Christ-centered. —Randi Mitchell

While becoming increasingly aware of the wickedness of one’s heart is not a pleasurable experience, it is necessary in our pursuit of becoming more like our Savior, Jesus Christ. My small group has been the #1 tool in aiding my progressive sanctification. Having the guys in my group peel back my outer layers of pride to reveal what’s truly on the inside (which is almost always a heart of none other than pride) has given me a better perspective of myself and an even better perspective of the God we serve.

Praise God for giving us each other so that we “may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24b). I know myself, and I know that I can’t do it alone. The great thing is that I don’t have to be a maverick. If I relied on myself to rid my life of sin, my sanctification probably would not have a progressively upward direction to it. I am thankful for the fellow “iron sharpeners” in my group who help shape me to be more like Christ. Roger Merritt

The benefits of involvement in a small group extend beyond the personal level. In the short time our church has taken advantage of this ministry, we have become a more unified body. Small groups afford us an opportunity to read Christian literature collectively, a means by which we can sharpen our spiritual disciplines, recognize our own wickedness, and enforce the necessity of our dependence on God. Prior to small groups, there were people I had gone to church with for 10 years with whom I had exchanged no more than a cordial “hello.” Now, after walls of pride have been lowered and a level of comfort achieved, we confront each other in love on issues of sin and encourage one another for the same purpose—sanctification, which has been furthered by cross-generational groups. Immature believers are exposed to the wisdom gained, either through biblical study or experience, of a mature Christian. This is obviously beneficial to the novel convert, but also helpful for the mature Christian, as he/she may have an opportunity to guide, rebuke, and/or encourage a brother or sister, necessitating a strong biblical foundation. All of these elements combine to make a more theologically strong, compassionate bride of Christ. —Michelle Erickson

There are several things about Calvary’s groups that make them quite beneficial to my spiritual growth. First of all, it’s great to be in a mixed group (guys and girls) for study and topic discussion (which we do at the beginning and the end of the evening). Those are appropriate venues for a mixed group. However, in our accountability portion, we meet gender specifically. I think this is also appropriate. It’s difficult to get a biblical level of accountability in a mixed group. I may not be comfortable confessing some struggles I’m having with my family in front of other women. I see all three parts as essential to a healthy small group setting: bible study, accountability, and topical/real world discussion.

Another real benefit of this ministry at Calvary is the diverse ages represented in the groups. I can learn a lot from my peers but sometimes even more from my elders. Elders need an opportunity to impart wisdom on younger generations. To me this was a welcomed change and has strengthened our groups.

In our groups, the accountability portion has been one of the most effective parts for me personally. The questions, while not rules, help frame what my walk should be like since I claim Christ as my Savior. The mere fact that each of us answers these every week as a matter of discipline has helped me very much. Recently, the tie-ins from Sunday morning are really helpful as well. It’s easy to leave on Sunday, meet up again during the midweek, and have forgotten all about what was preached on Sunday. I think the fact that we know we will be touching on something from Sunday even helps us listen better during the message. —Tom Murray

Again, my hope is that this article—and in particular these testimonies—will stir you to think about the vital role that the body of Christ has in the sanctification of other believers. May all of us strive to serve our brothers and sisters in this matter as we wait for our Savior’s return.

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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