Throughout the New Testament, followers of Christ were gathering together for corporate worship, as well as in smaller groups. At Providence, we believe in the importance of spending regular time together as a corporate body, as well as in small groups. Our groups exist for the purpose of helping people grow in their relationship with God and other believers, as well as encouraging members to make God known in the lives of unbelievers around them. This can only happen if groups have an Inward, Outward, and Upward focus.
In one of the most prominent passages of Scripture regarding the early church members, Acts 2:42-47 provides a clear understanding of how these priorities play out in the lives of every believer. After the Apostle Peter shared the Gospel with those around him at Pentecost, and they were all baptized, Luke wrote:
42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
From this passage, we can glean three main priorities within small groups. First, the believers were together in fellowship, eating meals and providing for one another’s needs. This strong inward focus on one another strengthened existing relationships and embodied what true biblical community is supposed to look like.
Second, these people devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles, as well as praying for one another. Together, they were committed both hearing from God through the Scriptures and the teachings of Christ’s most intimate followers, as well as praying directly to God on a regular basis. As followers of Christ, we are called to have a strong upward focus of spending time with God, where we hear from Him through His written Word, and communicate to Him through our prayers.
Third, they were also focused on the people who were not part of their community. In v. 46-47, it states that they attended the temple complex daily and interacted with other Jews, and the Lord added to their community daily people who were being saved. These two verses speak to an intentional outward focus on sharing the good news of Christ to those around them, through both evangelism and discipleship.
Three Priorities in the Group setting
Every relationship consists of three main parts: Your part, their part, and God’s part. At Providence, when believers gather together in small groups on a regular basis, their time should consist of emphasizing the following relationships:
Inward: While biblical community includes getting together with other believers, it is more than just hanging out with friends. There are several key components that foster community among believers and it is important to consider each one.
- Spend time together regularly: It is hard to say that you know people unless you spend time with them. Whether it is hanging out at one’s house, taking the kids to a park, watching a game on TV, or maybe going on a weekend vacation together, it is important that people feel comfortable being around one another on a frequent basis. This can be weekly or bi-weekly, but there should be regular time spent with others. However, it is not just about spending time together. Both quantity and quality should be stressed in the group gatherings.
- Eat a meal together: Let’s face it, people need to eat. It’s a necessity, something we all do every day (unless we are fasting!). So, why not plan a meal together? Quality discussions and conversations usually happen over a meal, and this is a great chance to multitask, both physically and spiritually! Moreover, as can be seen in the above passage, believers were providing for one another’s needs, something that people in close relationships are willing to do with one another.
- Shine the Light: 1 John 1:7 says, “But if we walk in the light, as he is the in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” Walking in the light means sharing about the sins in your life with others. Because we live in a very individualistic society, it is easy to hide your failures and shortcomings from others. However, if we believe that God is all-knowing and all-present, then He sees everything, whether others do or not. Moreover, we must remember that God is the ultimate judge, not others. Keeping sin a secret does nothing to remedy the problem. When light shines on the dark places of our lives, God will not only forgive us for those mistakes, but we also create opportunities for others to help us overcome our sinful nature. Plus, we now have other individuals who will pray for, and encourage us in times of need.
Outward: At the core of the Christian faith is the command to multiply. We reproduce when we are focused on other people’s needs instead of our own. For many people in the church, they desire to develop relationships with other believers, and small groups are a great way to begin this process. Moreover, when people are focused on helping others get connected, a natural byproduct is the need to multiply groups. So, think of reproducing as helping others get into discipling relationships with other believers. Groups should take time throughout the year to consider the following:
- Find other people in the church that need a group: Every person has the desire to be known by others, especially those who are new to the church. Instead of seeing Sunday morning worship services, or monthly ministry events like MANday Night, Engage, or Primetime as just social gatherings, seek out people who are not in a group and invite them to yours, or help them get connected with another group if yours is full. Doing so shows people that you care about them and desire to know more about them. Taking the initiative is a great way to help make sure we are mimicking the early church because “all who believed were together.”
- Develop a plan for reproducing your group: In the above passage, believers were providing for one another, as any had need. As God was adding to their number daily, new needs arose. Moreover, with the increase in numbers, there was a need to accommodate the influx of new believers gathering together. In our context, if groups are actively inviting people to their group, and those people are investing in the community, there will inevitably be a need to birth a new group. New groups require new leaders and new places to meet, so it is imperative that groups take time to consider who should take on these responsibilities. Being proactive instead of reactive ensures that a smooth transition will take place and everyone will benefit from the growth and multiplication.
- What are ways you can learn to share the Gospel with others? Knowing the Gospel and the different ways to communicate it to others is a great way to spend your time together as a group. There are a myriad of different passages of Scripture that articulate the essence of the Gospel, as well as a multitude of methods for helping communicate the good news of Christ to others. Whether the four spiritual laws, the Romans Road, or just a personal testimony, these different methods can all plant and water seeds of the Gospel that God can make grow in the lives of others. According to 1 Peter 3:15, we are to be prepared to give a defense to anyone who asks about the hope we have in Christ. However, it is important that we learn some practical ways to do so. Whether it is sharing your personal testimony (how you came to faith in Christ) or explaining why you believe the Bible is true, we must all be ready to share our faith with others.
- Who are people in your life that do not know Christ? Every person, if they take the time to think intently, knows someone that is not a believer. We do not have to go to the ends of the earth to find people who have never heard the Gospel because many of them live next door to us, or work in the office next to ours, or maybe their kids are in the same class as ours. However, when we do not take time to reflect on people we regularly encounter, it is easy to overlook them, or dismiss their salvation altogether. In some cases, there might be people who think they are Christians, but nothing in their life points to Christ as their savior. As a result, group members must regularly be challenged on people in their natural rhythms of life that God has put there for a purpose. When we take time to consider that God has put us in other people’s lives for the expressed purpose of sharing the Gospel, our life begins to have more meaning.
Upward: In today’s culture, it is very easy for people to create a false perception of who they really are. Especially in the church, where everyone thinks they need to be perfect, believers are prone to hide their struggles from others. Although we are flawed and imperfect, being a Christian means we are committed to being conformed into the image of Christ through submitting to the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. As a result, we must seek to live according to Scripture. The best way to begin living like Christ is to learn everything you can about God through the Bible. These spiritual disciplines are essential the life of every believer, so it is imperative to do the following:
- Study the Bible and pray, individually and as a group: As can be seen in the above passage, these people were growing spiritually because they spent time together learning about God and praying to Him on each other’s behalf. Remember, anyone can hang out together, but biblical community happens when people get together for the purpose of helping one another know more about God. When believers study God’s Word together, they also learn about how it applies to each other’s lives in different, yet important ways. Although every passage can have only one meaning, that meaning can impact our lives in different ways. For some it can be encouraging, while for others it can be convicting. When in community with others, we can see the different ways God is teaching us more about Him and how to live a faithful life. What is more, believers can learn about each other’s lives and how to pray for and encourage them in their relationship with God and others.
Just as a shepherd cares for his flock, Small Group leaders must ensure that their groups are providing biblical community in the group setting. While this does not mean the leader does everything, he or she should seek to provide an example for the members of the group to follow. Some of these responsibilities include:
- Inward: Leaders must oversee the process of gathering group members together on a regular basis. These individuals can either do the communicating and coordinating, or they can delegate some of those responsibilities to other group members. We encourage groups to meet in homes, as this enables members to feel more comfortable and “at home” with their peers, and it takes the burden off the church building since there is not enough room for all groups to meet. Leaders can either meet in their own homes, or they can allow other members to host the gathering regularly, or just occasionally. It is also advantageous to meet in public settings, like parks, restaurants, cafes, etc., depending on the time of year availability of space. Leaders should also keep record of who is attending, so as to ensure that people in the group are participating in the group on a regular basis. If and when people are repeatedly absent, leaders need to engage members or delegate other individuals to reach out to them.
Leaders also need to ensure that the group’s time together is productive. So, finding the right material to study is important. This does not mean that the group should focus exclusively on bible study; rather, the leader needs to make sure there is a healthy balance between social and spiritual discussion. The Small Groups ministry can provide several options for study, but the main focus should be the book list provided below.
- Upward: Group leaders need to be the first to lead in this area, as people will less likely to develop their relationship with God unless they are given an example to follow. It is essential for leaders to be honest, open, and genuine about their time with God. The problem with some groups today is that people do not open up about their lives and the group remains on a superficial level. The growth of the group is largely determined by everyone’s commitment to growing spiritually and becoming more like Christ. Building this culture in the group will take time, so patience is key; however, a guiding principle for leaders is to regularly check in with group members to see how they are doing in this area of their lives.
- Outward: If the leader does not take time to challenge the group to reproduce itself, the group will likely become too inward focused and exclusive. While it is healthy for groups to spend a period of time closed (as this enhances community and accountability), they should not stay that way indefinitely. Instead, the driving force behind reproducing is the accountability of each individual to be on mission for God. When people grow closer to God and love Him with all of their heart, soul, and strength, they develop a love for others. This newfound love should motivate them to consider ways to minister to people, both inside the group and church, as well as outside the body of Christ. Therefore, it is important for the leader to continually remind members of the needs of others outside the group and challenge them to submit to God’s leading towards others. Lastly, leaders should continually evaluate the leadership abilities of people in the group to determine other potential leaders and provide opportunities for them to lead in different ways. This can leading the bible study discussion, or picking a service opportunity for the group to do together. In every case, the leader should always be providing ways for others to take on leadership roles.
What is more, one of the hardest things for Christians to do is share their faith. Although it comes natural to some people, others are crippled with fear at just the thought of asking someone about their beliefs. Leaders do not force, but they influence others to step outside of their comfort zone in order to experience all that God has in store for them. What is more, as previously stated leaders must be willing to set an example for others to follow. This is not to say that every leader must be an expert evangelist, but they must be willing and prepared to share their faith, as well as share their successes and failures in trying to do so.
What to look for in a leader: As you begin developing a plan to create a group out of your existing one, it is essential that you identify and invest potential leaders. Ideally, you want to find people that are both willing and able; however, in some cases you might have people who are willing, but not necessarily able. Moreover, there will be in your group able to lead, but might not be willing. Remember, a good leader is one with a shepherd’s heart and truly desires to see people grow closer to Christ. When examining the people in your group, use the following acronym SHEPHERD to help guide you in the process of finding and developing new leaders. People that have the following characteristics are more likely to lead and reproduce healthy groups:
Spends time with God regularly
Enjoys being around different types of people
Participates in discussions
Has a servant’s heart
Examines his/her life in light of God’s word
Relates well to those who are hurting
Recommended Group Curriculums
In order to make sure that groups emphasize providing community and accountability, as well as promote reproducing and evangelism, there are several books and study plans to help ensure groups focus on these priorities. Below is a list of prominent books to help guide and direct groups in the process.
True Community by Jerry Bridges
When the Church was a Family by Joseph H. Hellerman
Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges
Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian life by Donald Whitney and J.I. Packer
The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman
Real Life Discipleship by Jim Putman and Bobby Harrington
Rediscovering Discipleship by Robby Gallaty
Sharing Jesus without Fear by Regi Campbell
Becoming a Contagious Christian by Bill Hybels and Mark Mittelberg
Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by J.I. Packer and Mark Dever
Based on the studies and the addition of new people, groups maintaining these priorities should spend no more than 2 years together, as this is roughly the amount of time it would take to go through all of aforementioned studies. In other words, when a group goes through all of these studies and has not either grown new people, or birthed a group, it is likely that the group will be unable to do so. However, if groups (especially leaders) are intent on taking what they are learning and applying it to their lives, they are more likely to invite people to their groups and create the new to birth new groups. It should also be noted that coaches will be meeting regularly with group leaders to evaluate their development in each of the four main areas and provide counsel and support for them as needed. Along with the primary overseer of the Small Groups ministry, these individuals will provide direction and influence to each small group in hopes of creating more opportunities for people in the church to get connected to a group.
 From time to time, groups may need to take a break from the intentional book studies, especially in the summer when group attendance can be difficult. So, sermon-based studies will be provided in order to facilitate group discussion, as well as help grow new group leaders. However, within these studies, there will be specific questions that relate to the I.O.U. principles.