Pat and I were married just a few years before work moved us from Pennsylvania to Florida. Visiting a nearby church, we met Dave and Gloria who invited us to their home and introduced us to another young couple. As the holidays approached that year, Dave and Gloria invited us for Christmas dinner.
We were far from home, but people in that church were intentional about making connections. After Dave and Gloria connected us with others, someone invited us to join a newly formed small group. The group was to meet for eight weeks and go through material in a discipleship workbook. Pat and I had never been part of a group like this together, and so we jumped into our first small group experience.
We’ve learned a lot about small groups since those early years. Small groups do not replace corporate worship of the church, and the lessons learned in small groups do not substitute for the preaching of the gospel from the pulpit. But small groups perform a vital role in the church as they provide opportunities for members to connect, learn, grow, and minister side by side.
Jesus showed us a model of a healthy small group when he called, taught, and sent out his group of twelve. As we develop small groups of our own, here are five ways we can follow the example of Christ with his disciples.
1. Small groups are formed intentionally.
Christ offered a personal invitation to each of his disciples.
After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” (Luke 5:27)
As transplants in Florida, we didn’t seek out ways to get involved. We just showed up at church one Sunday, and Dave and Gloria made it their business to connect us with others. Without a personal invitation, we would have been slow to get involved. Their hospitality, especially at the holidays, taught us how to show hospitality ourselves.
2. Small groups break socio-economic boundaries.
Jesus gathered men from different backgrounds to form his small group of twelve. He regularly mixed with people that did not fit the profile of proper religious company.
And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:16)
People are naturally comfortable with those most like themselves. But Jesus broke social norms by bringing people together who otherwise would never rub shoulders.
Likewise, he gathers people in small groups today who otherwise might never meet — laborers, surgeons, teachers, and stay-at-home moms. We share our struggles and watch God work in our lives.
3. Small groups are opportunities to learn God’s Word.
Not only was Christ deliberate about inviting each member of his twelve to follow him, he was deliberate about teaching them, too. The disciples enjoyed fellowship and meals with Jesus, but one of the greatest benefits of being among the twelve was that they could learn God’s Word.
Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them. (Matthew 5:1-2)
That first small group gave us a taste of small group Bible study, and we’ve been hooked ever since. Others have discovered the benefits of small groups, particularly Bible study small groups. A Church Leaders article refers to a 2011 study in Sociology of Religion:
“Any type of small group will benefit a church, whether it’s a Sunday School, a service group, or a basketball league, because of the belonging and commitment they foster,” added Dougherty. “But small Bible study and prayer groups are better at promoting discipleship and spiritual growth.”
We hear Bible teaching on Sunday morning in church, and then we get to apply that teaching as we share what we see God doing in and around us.
4. Small groups provide a place of refreshment.
Jesus recognized the need for rest and refreshment away from the crowds, and he offered his small group a retreat:
The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. (Mark 6:30-31)
In the midst of our hurried lives, small groups offer us a place of refuge. We miss our time with our small group. We’re eager to get back together each week, and we hate when circumstances force us to cancel a meeting.
5. Small groups reach beyond their small groups.
Jesus brought his twelve together for a season, and then commissioned them to go out and carry on the work of ministry:
And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. (Mark 6:7)
Small groups are not just for the benefit of the members. They minister to others outside the small group. Our time together prepares us to reach beyond ourselves and join Christ in ministry. Sometimes this means that one small group must end so that others can begin. We feel nostalgic and wish to recapture the closeness we felt with our original group members, and yet we understand that the purpose of our small group was never just for us — it was to equip us to minister to others.
We left Florida years ago and have lost track of that first small group. Now that we are separated by many miles, years may pass before we get to see Dave and Gloria again. The lessons they taught us have made a lasting impact in our own small group ministries over the years. Pat and I have learned to be intentional about showing hospitality, starting small groups, teaching God’s Word, and being flexible enough to encourage members to move into new ministries when our time together draws to a close.
We still have much to learn, but for now, we hope to follow the example Christ left us as he led his small group of twelve.