We’re not a church with small groups. We’re a church of small groups. Our church started in my living room with seven people. So, we’ve considered small groups to be one of the keys to fulfilling our calling to make disciples from day one.
As our church has grown in attendance, we have continually launched more small groups, or “community groups,” as we call them. Over 75% of our weekend services attenders are involved in one of our community groups. We recognize the importance of growing big and small at the same time, so as our weekend attendance grows, we launch more groups. And we strive to keep our church calendar uncluttered to make it easier for members to follow the the weekly rhythm of meeting together in the “temple courts and from house to house” (Acts 2:46, 5:42).
But the real secret to our life-changing small groups are the four devotions of the first century church found in Acts 2:42. The Scripture says that they were devoted to 1) the apostle’s teaching, 2) the fellowship, 3) the breaking of bread and 4) the prayers. So, we decided to base our community group ministry on these same four commitments.
1. A Shared Faith (“The apostle’s teaching”). All of our groups study the sermon from that previous weekend. We plan our sermons a year in advance to make sure that we offer a balanced diet of expositional studies through books of the Bible, topical sermon series that address current needs, such as biblical parenting, marriage, and financial stewardship, and other sermon series that our teaching team prayerfully prepares to meet the unique needs or our flock. Our desire is that the community groups would help move the weekly sermon from head to heart, as members discuss and apply the Scripture to their lives. Our teaching team writes weekly community group discussion guides to help facilitate the shepherding of these groups. Having the whole church essentially studying the same Scripture every week is also a powerful unifier, which leads to the second commitment…
2. A Shared Family (“the fellowship”). The commitment to meet together weekly in one another’s homes creates a more family-like environment. The shared hospitality of sitting knee to knee with a beverage and Bible in hand makes for a more relational experience. The Greek word for fellowship is koinonia. This word could also be translated communion or participation. And that’s the key to this second commitment, we want people to actively participate in discussion and application of the Word of God to their lives. We’ve learned that people are better discipled in circles, than in rows. These groups help facilitate life on life discipleship.
3. A Shared Food (“the breaking of bread”). Sharing a meal together and regularly remembering the Lord’s Supper together is the third commitment. We train our community group shepherds to plan a weekly meeting that lasts around two hours. The first hour is to be devoted to fellowship and food, and the second hour to Bible study and prayer. There’s just something about eating together that breaks down barriers and enhances the sense of family.
4. A Shared Focus (“the prayers”). Praying together is the fourth commitment. We encourage our groups to keep this in balance with the other three commitments. We want our groups praying real and transparent prayers together. This takes time and trust. We’ve found that breaking up into men’s and women’s groups for prayer time often enhances the trust factor. Men and women are different. And they often have different prayer and communication habits. The key here is to be creative. Sometimes they might pray all together, sometimes in pairs or triplets, and sometimes according to gender.
When we first launch a new community group, we have them study Acts 2:42 together for the first four weeks before joining the rest of the church in studying the sermon. We’ve written a new group launch guide for this. We also encourage the group to appoint champions for each of the four commitments during the launch. The group shepherd will champion the apostle’s teaching, but will also name an apprentice. Then, they are to ask for volunteers to champion the other three commitments. So, each group has a fellowship champion, who keeps members informed of meeting times/places, birthdays and anniversaries; a food champion, who organizes the weekly meals; and a prayer champion, who records the prayer requests and keeps the group informed concerning the group’s prayer list.
By basing our small group ministry on the four commitments of the first century church, we have seen wonderful and miraculous life change in the members of our church. It is not always easy to stay committed to these four devotions. There is always a temptation to add or subtract or to emphasize one over the other. Sometimes it is like herding cats trying to convince people of the efficacy of this approach. But it has been our experience that when we steadfastly commit ourselves to these four devotions and keep them in balance, life change happens!
This is an edited version of my article from August 25, 2016.