Small groups provide an ideal setting for believers to live in Christian community and reach out to others.

By Larry Kreider

It was the early 1980s, and my friend, Ibrahim Omondi, from Nairobi, Kenya knew his people were not living up to their full potential. Having a keen interest in the small group-based church concept, he sought for a working model before returning to Africa and asked to “tag along” as I served as a pastor in our small group. Our church had been birthed several years earlier in Pennsylvania and was in the process of growing from one small group to 2,300 believers meeting in small groups during its first few years.

Ibrahim watched and listened. He observed how everyone had the opportunity to experience and demonstrate Christianity built on relationships in the small groups rather than large meetings. He saw how our evangelism-focused groups reproduced themselves while reaching out in their communities.

One day, my African brother opened his heart. Weeping, he unburdened, “Western evangelists come to my nation and hold massive crusades. The TV cameras are rolling. When the evangelist asks people to raise their hands to receive Christ, many respond. The next week, another evangelist comes to town, and many of my same people come to the crusade and raise their hands again. My people need a sense of dignity, where every individual believer understands he or she is important to God and to His purposes. We need a new model of church life.”

Growing Throughout Africa

Ibrahim returned to Kenya, led several neighbors to Christ and started a small group in his home. Fellowships were soon birthed throughout Nairobi, and a new church was born. Before long, small groups were started in neighboring areas of the city, multiplying into dozens of groups throughout Kenya and into Uganda. Today, Ibrahim has a vision to train leaders among the 200+ DOVE churches throughout East Africa. Ibrahim’s people have received a new sense of dignity!

When I shared the vision of New Testament small group ministry in Auckland, New Zealand, I met Robert. He listened intently as I spoke about Jesus spending most of His time with the twelve disciples—His small group. I discussed God’s call on every saint to be a minister as stated in Ephesians 4:11-12. I also looked at Acts 2 reflecting the New Testament model church meeting and spoke a vision for effective small group-based ministry in today’s church. After thirty minutes, Robert spoke, filled with emotion. “When I was thirteen years old, the Lord called me to be a minister. For more than twenty years, I tried to find doors that would open for me to fulfill this call. As I understood it, the only way to be a minister was to be ordained after years of theological training. Sometime back, I led a man to the Lord, discipled him and watched him grow. It was so fulfilling. I realize tonight, I am a minister!”

A heavy load dropped off Robert’s back. Robert realized he could fulfill the Lord’s call to minister by discipling new believers in a small group. He did not need a title or a degree to be a minister. He was one!

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, believed one out of every five persons was a potential leader. Through his exhortation, the Wesleyan movement spread throughout the nations. God’s people worked out their calling as ministers and opened their homes for class meetings, similar to cells. Each person had a sense of fulfillment and dignity.

This is a universal problem! Christians are not living up to their potential as ministers and becoming spiritually rusted and paralyzed because they do not strive to fulfill their calling. Ministry confined to a few in a church building leaves limited opportunity for true ministry. That’s why small group ministry is exploding throughout the world today. Healthy small group ministry makes room for every person to complete the mission of our Lord Jesus.

Scriptural Values

After two decades of being involved in small group ministry, I am convinced that small groups provide an ideal setting for believers to live in basic Christian community and reach out to others. However, incorporating a small group program is no guarantee that a church will be healthy and growing. Small group ministry must be based on relationships and biblical values.

The small group is intended to be a place where a spiritual family is grown—where spiritual fathers and mothers train and release their spiritual children to start their own families (I John 2:12-14). Otherwise, it becomes a fad or the latest church program. In order to reach the world, we must focus more on scriptural values than methods. Since core values in our lives determine what we really believe, they will direct our actions and attitudes. Unless these values are based in the scriptures, we find ourselves just trying another good idea.

At the start of our fledgling small group-based church twenty years ago, we often picked up methods from others without understanding the values behind the methods. This always caused a problem. If we understand the values being taught, the methods will follow.

I believe the following scriptural values will help to give us a foundation for a healthy relationship-centered small group-based church. A thriving small group ministry is simply a “wineskin” for these scriptural values to be encouraged and experienced.

  1. Understand that you are preparing for the harvest. The Lord promises to pour out His Spirit in the last days. A harvest is coming when the Lord will draw multitudes into His kingdom. He is calling the church to prepare new wineskins (new small groups) to contain the new wine of His harvest (Matthew 9:37; Matthew 9:17; John 4:35).
  2. Know your purpose is to reach the lost (evangelism). Genuine fellowship occurs when we focus on reaching the lost together as a group. Groups that focus only inward become stagnant. Focusing outward brings life (Mark 1:17; II Timothy 4:5).
  3. Practice the Great Commission (discipleship). The mandate from our Master is to make disciples, not just converts. Small groups provide the opportunity for every believer to be actively involved in making disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). Built-in leadership training occurs in small groups. As assistant leaders are trained, their spiritual gifts are developed, and they start to train others.
  4. Raise up spiritual parents. There are thousands of teachers today, but few spiritual fathers and mothers to nurture young Christians. Small groups are hot beds for spiritual families to grow in. With a spiritual father or mother by their side, a spiritual son or daughter will grow spiritually strong and learn quickly and naturally by example. Just like natural families, healthy spiritual families expect their children to eventually become parents themselves, then be released to start their own small groups and churches (I Corinthians 4:15-17; I John 2:12-14).
  5. We must see the church as people, not a building. I call this resisting the “holy building myth.” The church is people (called out ones). Every person is important and chosen by the Lord. Jesus tells us He will build His church. He was not talking about a physical building but a company of people. The New Testament church met both from house to house and publicly (Matthew 16:18; Acts 20:20).
  6. The saints are called to do the work of ministry. We must also resist the “holy man myth.” Thinking that the “holy man” (pastor) should do all the work of ministry is a myth. God has given each of His children gifts, talents and ministries to be used to build His church. Many of these gifts and ministries can only be effectively nurtured in a small group setting. In this way, believers are released to train others. When all members are functioning properly in their gifts and ministries, the church will grow and prosper. The pastors and elders will not have to do all of the ministry, but instead, be released to train each believer to be a minister (Ephesians 4:11-12).
  7. Build trust and relationships. The New Testament church is built on trust and relationships, not on meetings and programs. First and foremost, we need to trust in God. Then we need to trust others with whom we serve. When relationships are strong “underground” in small groups, relationships will be strong in the entire church. God builds living stones together through the mortar of healthy relationships (I Peter 2:5; Ephesians 4:16).
  8. Expect spiritual multiplication. We are commanded to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth. Everything with life will multiply. Believers who lead others to Christ multiply. Small groups multiply. Churches multiply. A key to experiencing spiritual multiplication is to expect it to happen (Genesis 1:28; Acts 6:1,7; 9:31). Small group ministry should train as many assistant leaders as possible to prepare for future small group multiplication.
  9. Be flexible and creative. God values flexibility and creativity, and we need to do the same. No two snowflakes are alike, and no two cells are the same. We all use the same biblical principles, but the way they work out varies from culture to culture, church to church, and small group to small group. Expect the Lord to give wisdom to stay creative. Beware of having a “cookie cutter” mentality. Sameness produces boredom. Creativity releases life! (II Corinthians 3:17-18). For a season at our church, we had only family small group, with no homogeneous groups. This was a mistake. Today we have youth groups, businessmen’s groups, family groups, singles groups—whatever wineskin is needed for the new wine to give freedom for growth and maturity.
  10. Empower God’s people. Jesus promised His disciples they would do greater works than He did, and we are included in that promise. He has empowered us to do the works of God in our generation. Wise church leaders empower small group leaders as ministers of our Lord Jesus Christ, and wise small group leaders empower small group members (John 14:12; II Timothy 2:2). A small group leader will work him or herself out of a job. As a leader, do only the things that noone else can do. Allow others to serve. Enjoy seeing the Lord using others to minister by His Spirit as you coach and mentor them.

Snapshots of Healthy Small Group Ministries of All Sizes

Most would agree that today’s church must get ready for the great harvest of souls to come into God’s kingdom in the last days. At the heart of small group ministry is the goal of mobilizing and empowering God’s people (individuals, families, cells and congregations), at the grass roots level, to reach the lost and make disciples.

One DOVE partner church in south-central Pennsylvania is an example of a smaller church that has learned the importance of being flexible in small group ministry. After a few years , they realized that the delicate balance between maintaining the intimacy of the small groups while attempting to evangelize had broken down. Their groups lacked life and were not multiplying.

Rather than continue with sickly small groups, they decided to disband the groups completely. They went back to “square one” and decided to rebuild. They have now started over with two new small groups led by the two church leaders, and plan to multiply into four groups. Valuing relationships is a priority as members spend informal time with each other and invite new people to join them. Sometimes the old must die to make room for the new to come.

I believe these churches and many other small group-based churches across the world will agree that there is no magic formula for healthy small group ministry. It requires coming face to face with people’s problems and pain, not being afraid of change, and learning to be flexible in the process.

It works because people in authentic relationships with each other with a goal to reach their world for Jesus are a powerful combination.

Don’t Make These Mistakes!

Learning to train, empower and release people through small group ministry is a challenge. During the past two decades of small group-based ministry, we have made many mistakes and have often had to stop and make course corrections. Although not a comprehensive list, by far, we want to share some of the major blunders we made in hopes that you will learn from them.

Lack of clear training for small group leaders and assistant leaders

A healthy small group ministry needs:

  • to have a training track for new leaders;
  • to have church leaders meet with small group leaders monthly for training, and
  • to have on-the-job-training as small group leaders mentor assistant leaders for future leadership.

Whenever we became lax in training, we paid the price.

Compromising the God-given vision

Galatians 1:10 tells us that if we are a slave to men (seeking to please men), we cannot be a servant of Christ. Beware of the migratory flock that migrates from church to church. These people will pressure you to return to old ways of doing things. It is easy to go back to a “meeting mentality.” Small group ministry takes a lot of hard work! Vision must be spoken and communicated publicly at least twenty times per year. Habakkuk 2:2 tells us to write the vision down.

Forgetting the purpose of the church is outreach

Allowing groups to lose vision for outreach and evangelism and only concentrating on their needs is a major mistake! The Dead Sea is stagnant because all the rivers run into it and none flow out. Ingrown toenails cause pain to the body because they focus inward. The church is not a hospital but an army. Armies have medical units for people to get healed, but they are then sent back out to battle. We are called to be fishers of men (Mark 1:17). In the book of Acts, each day those being saved were added to the church (Acts 2:47).

Unhealthy control

In the beginning of our church planting adventure, we told people to attend the small group closest to their house, mostly because it made practical sense. But we discovered that people often prefer to attend a group where they have relationships, and this will not always be the one in closest proximity to their house. The kingdom of God is not built by geography, but by relationship! Small groups must be built by relationship, as well.

We used to take the stance that even when people are uncomfortable with their small group, they should learn to work it out within the group rather than go to another small group. But this can create a lot of unnecessary problems. We learned that it is best to allow members to go to a small group where they feel called of the Lord to attend. People are like pieces to a puzzle. They need to find where they fit. Small group leaders, too, must have a sense of faith that the pieces of the puzzle fit. Whatever is not from faith is sin (Romans 14:23).

Lack of pastoral care and regular contact with small group leaders

Who pastors the small group leaders? Leaders cannot be taken for granted. They need regular encouragement and prayer support. They must be pastored. The relationship between pastors and/or elders and small group leadership is crucial. I Thessalonians 5:12 tells us to “recognize” (respect) those who labor among us and are over us in the Lord.

Too much emphasis on meeting and not enough emphasis on the relationships

In Acts 2:42-47, The New Testament church was filled with life and fellowship. The key is not so much what happens in small group meetings, but what happens after the meeting and during the week. Build relationships with people outside of the meetings. Leaders who say, “People don’t come to our meetings,” usually are not building relationships with the people outside the group meetings. Here are some quick ideas to develop relationships in a small group:

  • Keep the meetings short (between an hour and an hour and a half).
  • What happens after meetings is usually the most important. After the meeting, people often share intimately and pray for each other informally as they relate one-to-one.
  • Retreats are excellent times of building relationships in a casual atmosphere away from life’s distractions.
  • Members should visit each other and get into each other’s homes.
  • The small group meeting should not be a miniature Sunday morning meeting!
  • Spend time praying for the lost and reaching the unchurched together as a group.

Tips for Transitioning to or Starting Small Groups

For churches wishing to transition to cell groups, here are some valuable keys to open the doors to moving into healthy small group ministry.

Prayer is the master key, unlocking the rest. As a senior pastor, pray with your leadership until the scriptural values of small group ministry are settled in your heart and theirs. Otherwise, people will not have faith for the change. Everyone in leadership must make the paradigm shift or there will eventually be frustration. If the elders are not all in agreement regarding a transition, do not “go public” until they are. Otherwise you will open the door for the devil to cause a church split and division.

Lead the way and speak the vision over and over again. After you have made your decision to transition, refuse to look back! Most pastors who begin the process of transitioning to become a church with small group ministry are tempted to quit midway through the process. Trust the Lord for grace to complete that which He has started. Taking the key leaders to a conference or seminar on small group ministry can help others in leadership to “catch the vision.” Everyone must be in unity and willing to move ahead with the vision God has given.

Don’t move too fast. Allow the Holy Spirit the time He needs to change people’s values. Communicate where you are going and how you plan to get there. Do not abruptly stop all programs. (Some may be good!) Discontinue any programs that you can without causing the believers in the church to overly react. Move slowly and prayerfully.

Choose key people and start a prototype cell where they can experience the dynamics of small group ministry. Watch over the small group leaders as they grow spiritually and begin their own small groups.

Stay flexible and encourage many kinds of small groups. Provide whatever new wineskins are needed for everyone to “connect” to a small group of people. Have small groups for those who have common interests. If you are a small church, meet in a home rather than at the church building for your weeknight meeting. This meeting can become a small group that will multiply into two groups.

Be teachable and learn from others. No one has all the truth. You must find and apply what God wants you to do in your particular local area and listen closely to His voice.

After pastoring a small group-based church for fifteen years, the Lord led us to decentralize one church to become a family of eight churches in Pennsylvania in 1996. Today, small groups and churches are birthed and multiply, I have the privilege of serving with a team of leaders who train and oversee small group-based pastors and church planters in more than 1,000 small group-based churches throughout the world.

As I travel nearly every weekend training to the body of Christ, I am more convinced than ever that the harvest is upon us! Every saint must capture the revelation of the call to minister. Healthy small group ministry grows as believers serve one another and encourage each other toward maturity while they reach the world. Small group ministry sets the stage for each person to have a sense of fulfillment and dignity!