The word used for church in the New Testament is the Greek word ‘ekklesia’ which means gathering, or meeting. In the first century the church gathered as house churches meeting in believers’ homes (see for example, Lydia’s House in Acts 16:40; an upper room in Acts 20:8; Priscilla and Aquila’s house in Romans 16:3-5; Nympha’s house in Laodicea in Colossians 4:15; and Archippa’s house in Philemon 2). Following his conversion to Christianity in 313AD the Emperor Constantine recognized Christianity as a legal religion and for the first time corporate ownership of property by the church became legally possible. From this point on, Christians across the Roman Empire in ‘Christendom’ began meeting in public church buildings for formal worship within Dioceses and this is our pattern of church meetings today. Most Bible teaching churches, however, recognize the central importance not only of the Sunday gatherings, but in addition, the importance of meeting within small groups for fellowship and Bible study. But what are the marks of a healthy small group? And how would we measure their success? Luke’s description of the early Church in Acts 2:42-47 is the first description of a church meeting in the New Testament. The picture is thrilling and in many ways provides the template for the model group: And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings, and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
A number of key features emerge from this description and as we place this in the context of the wider New Testament there are at least eleven key marks of a healthy small group.
Key Mark 1: Bible Study
The word devoted in v42 is the Greek word proskarterreo meaning to fully adhere to, to spend much time on and to be wholeheartedly engaged in. The picture is, therefore, of a community fully committed to the apostles teaching. They are not nominal but love the Word of God, and have a deep hunger to study Scripture continually. This is the consistent New Testament picture of the healthy church. In Acts 17:11 the Bereans are more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily. Similarly in Colossians 3.6 Paul urges: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another and in 1 Peter 2:2 we are urged like newborn infants to long for the pure spiritual milk of God’s word. In Ephesians 4:15 believers are to speak the truth in love (literally to ‘truth
in love’) because as we apply God’s word to one another we will grow in Christian maturity. Healthy small groups will provide not only the opportunity for the Bible to be taught but for the group to wrestle together with the meaning of the text, as questions are asked and applications to life made. The small group setting is therefore ideal for growing disciples. It is within small groups that younger Christians will learn from older Christians about how to read the Bible, how to pray, and how to apply the Bible to life with the encouragement to live it. Small groups are not therefore primarily counseling groups but they are not just study groups either. Rather, they are to cultivate spiritual fellowship together, a fellowship informed by Scripture and pursued through prayer, study, and interpersonal reflection. Within healthy groups there will be in depth applications as well as a sense of accountability. As the group participates in the discussion together, they are engaged and enthused to study the Bible more for themselves.
Key Mark 2: Authentic Community
The second area of wholehearted commitment for the believers in Acts 2 is the ‘fellowship.’ The Greek word for fellowship here is Koinonia, a word which more accurately translates ‘partnership’ implying a sharing in common, or communion. This is evidenced in v44 as Luke notes all who believed were together and had all things in common. Large Bible teaching churches sometimes run the risk of being eclectic preaching centers into which the congregation commutes from the suburbs making authentic community difficult. This is why small groups are vital allowing for deep relationships to form as we function as a genuine family of believers. Healthy small groups will be marked by committed group members who see themselves as joint partners together with fellow Christians in the gospel, in prayer, in mission, in giving, in serving and in suffering. This partnership will be lived out meaningfully within fellowship groups as we share our lives together. Healthy groups will provide the freedom for members to be real and honest about their struggles and genuine support will be offered, spiritually and practically (1 John 3:17). In a post-Christian context our culture will be marked by increasing brokenness and our groups need to be safe havens for broken people and struggling Christians. Authentic community will be expressed in a variety of ways, including the breaking of bread as we share our lives and open our homes, as we eat together, an expression intimate fellowship as brothers and sisters together.
Key Mark 3: Consistent Prayer
The third mark of a healthy small group will be faithful prayer; they devoted themselves to…the prayers. Prayer is central to Christian life and growth since calling on God our Father is the means by which our Christian lives are not only initiated but sustained. John Calvin comments that prayer is the ‘chief exercise of faith’ and as His children we are completely dependent on God our Father for everything. Healthy churches will create multiple opportunities for prayer ministries whether within the Sunday service, through the important work of after church prayer ministry, in prayer meetings as well as within small groups. Prayer in our groups must
not be a ‘bolt-on’ but the very heart beat of the meeting because the whole purpose of gathering is to trust Christ and through his grace to know God more deeply as our Father. Healthy groups will be saturated by prayer for group members in the meeting and throughout the week and because we are gospel centered our prayers will be shaped by our passion for world mission. Where groups can link meaningfully to an individual mission partner from overseas not only is the missionary prayed for and supported in a focused way, but the groups horizon is widened and they have the opportunity to partner with a gospel worker in a different context in a meaningful way which is spiritually healthy.
Key Mark 4: Sacrificial Generosity
The fellowship described in Acts 2 is not superficial but meaningful and radical since in v45 they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. This is not an early version of Marxism because the Bible encourages private ownership of property by individuals. Nevertheless, the call on those whom God has blessed materially is to be abundantly generous with our brothers and sisters in need. The example of the early church is immensely attractive and our groups are to be places where we engage in a discipleship together that helps one another practically. We are all to be God’s chief means of grace to one another and meaningful fellowship will involve sacrificial generosity patterned after the example of Christ at the cross (see 1 John 3:16-17). This sacrificial generosity will be seen in a multiplicity of ways as we invest time in those in our group, help to carry burdens, teach one other, pray for one another, and seek to encourage and edify one another, and where necessary offer practical support which will sometimes include financial help, as we share material resources.
Key Mark 5: Mission Mindedness
The early church was outward focused and energetically engaged in mission. They spoke the gospel boldly and prayed for gospel advance and in v47 and the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. A healthy small group will therefore, refuse to be content with a narrow parochial horizon but will be passionately committed to a radically inclusive gospel reaching the whole world. Each group in its own way will prioritize evangelism and long to engage in an urgent proclamation of the gospel in seeking to preach the gospel both locally and far afield on the world mission field. Healthy groups will seek to strategize on how to reach the lost and if they are located in a particular neighborhood or amongst group members within the same profession will pray and work towards inviting outsiders in. There are many missional advantages in establishing small groups for particular areas of ministry such as retirees’ groups, women’s Bible studies, college student and post-grad student studies, disabled ministries, and small groups for professionals seeking to think theologically and strategize effectively for outreach in their work contexts (e.g. medical Bible studies, or groups for lawyers, bankers and teachers, as well as small groups for international students (if at all possible in their own language, preferred venue and format to facilitate the invitation of unbelievers).
Key Mark 6: Pastoral Care
God pastors his people by His Spirit through His word but pastoral care from the pulpit is not easy as the preacher cannot know every member of the congregation. Small groups, however, provide an opportunity for us to get to know one another well, and in the discussions to answer questions and hear different perspectives, thoughts and problems. Personal relationships are developed and a climate of openness and care is fostered. Groups are an ideal forum for those who are struggling to find pastoral help. The Bible teaches the priesthood of all believers. Every Christian is in ministry and there are 59 “one another” statements in the New Testament, all of which describe how we should care for one another. We are, for example, to: love one another (John 15:17); Be devoted to one another in brotherly love (Romans 12:10); Honor one another above yourselves (Romans 12:10); Live in harmony with one another (Romans 12:16); Love one another (Romans 13:8); Accept one another (Romans 15:7); instruct one another (Romans 15:14); Greet one another with a holy kiss (Romans 16:16); Serve one another in love (Galatians 5:13); Carry each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2); Be patient, bearing with one another in love (Ephesians 4:2); Be kind and compassionate to one another (Ephesians 4:32); Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19); Teach…[one another] (Colossians 3:16); Admonish one another (Colossians 3:16); Encourage one another daily (Hebrews 3:13); Spur one another on toward love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24); Live in harmony with one another (I Peter 3:8); Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling (I Peter 4:9); Healthy small group will, therefore, engage in intentional ‘one-anothering!’
Key Mark 7: Transformational Training
The goal of ministry is not just to make disciples but to make ‘disciple-making disciples’ and small groups provide an excellent opportunity for this training. As the Word of God is taught the New Testament pictures two kinds of growth: There will be Christian growth as believers are changed into increasing Christ-likeness of character, and gospel growth as we are trained, equipped and encouraged for the spread of the gospel. Since these are the two key Biblical concerns they must be the two central metrics by which a small group must be evaluated. Are Christians in the group growing in their knowledge of God and becoming more like Christ? And are we being equipped for mission so that the gospel advancing from the group? In a small group context the opportunities for serving are multiplied as group members take responsibility for example, in hosting, in bringing dinner, in contacting an absent member, by leading in prayer, in leading in discussion or organizing a social event. As we meet in homes the truth of the gospel will be seen in action in the hospitality and family life of the home and group members will see the gospel in action. As relationships form there will be considerable opportunities for one to one Bible reading or prayer triplets to form. In this context members can pray and spur one another on as prayer needs are shared. Good training in groups will be theological and will lead to the formation of the Christian mind and to a transformation of the whole of life. Healthy small groups are therefore central to the core mission of the ministry which is to glorify God as we: (i) grow the congregation (ii) to train leaders (iii) multiply ministries and, (iv) plant new congregations for gospel advance.
Key Mark 8: Strategic Communication
A network of small groups within a church provides a way of holding the whole congregation together in unity of purpose and vision. This is vital as churches grow if division is to be avoided. The small group leaders act as a conduit and can channel information in two directions. They can keep the small group up to speed with the vision, values and ministry goals of the wider church as the leadership communicates through the group leaders, and provide an opportunity to allow the group leaders to communicate to the leadership questions, concerns or observations they may have. In any church it is easy for group members to become disaffected and for groups to drift away and become disjointed from the whole so healthy groups will be those who are integrated into the vision of the wider congregation and its strategic aims and direction. The loyalty of the leaders of small groups to the wider congregation, its strategic aims, vision and the leaders of the church is critical to this.
Key Mark 9: Trained leaders
It’s often said that the most effective way for Satan in to introduce false teaching into a church is through the music sung or the small groups as they meet. There is much truth in this as music is very memorable and small groups are not always led by staff or elders. It is therefore critical that the leaders who are appointed are tried and tested in their doctrinal soundness and godliness of life. Central to the health of the small group will be the health of its leaders. We need, therefore, to appoint godly leaders who are godly, gospel centered and motivated by their love for God and his people. Peter urges in 1 Peter 5:2-3 that leaders should shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you]not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. It is often said that faith is “caught” more than taught, meaning that people learn more from godly role models than they do from theoretical teaching. It is, therefore, imperative that fellowship leaders inspire and encourage others in their faith and model compassion, humility, patience, grace, wisdom, sacrifice and self-control. It’s also vital that they are able to fully assent to the aims and vison of the church and are submissive to the church leadership. This is where both training and vision is vital. Small group leaders must be: exemplary Christians, in full agreement with the doctrinal basis of faith and aims and vision of the Church, be hospitable and love people, and be able to facilitate discipling relationships. In our small group training sessions we cover: how to lead an interactive Bible study, how to build community, how to facilitate discipling relationships, small group evangelism and mission, and how to develop new leaders. Healthy small groups require godly trained leaders able to (i) interpret, teach and apply the Bible well, (ii) lead a good Bible study, (iii) know how to lead discussion well (iv) lead a prayer time (v) engage in one-to-one ministry (vi) start a small group and (vii) troubleshoot when there are problems in the group.
Key Mark 10: Multiplying Disciples
Healthy small groups are catalysts for growth in the gospel . Good fellowship groups manage to strike the right balance in terms of size, and are ready to multiply when they start to become
too big. Research has also shown that twelve is the maximum size for effective discipleship groups so it is imperative that group leaders are equipped to groom the next generation of leaders from the outset. Since leadership is caught not taught much of this is done by watching the leader and a year is usually sufficient. Existing leaders hold the responsibility to prepare and plan for future growth in conversation with the staff overseeing them and this will involve: (i) starting to identify and mentor next generation leaders one year in advance; (ii) encouraging people to discover and utilize their spiritual gifts; (iii) praying for group members to grow into mature ministry (iv) training as ministry experience and feedback is given and crucially (v) establishing the DNA of multiplication with the entire group at least six months before putting it into action. All this means that groups must be willing to be changed from time to time as new people arrive and as established members leave to lead in new groups. This dynamic growth is critical if groups are to be protected from stagnation.
Key Mark 11: Sensitive Hospitality
Healthy groups will be sensitive to those within them. This will express itself in a whole range of ways for example, starting and ending on time, making sure that the venue is comfortable and warm, setting up the room so that there are no distractions (like the phone ringing or children crying). If there are, for example, internationals present we might need to obtain Bibles in their own languages. Each week there should be a short review of previous weeks for those who were not there, and the leader should seek to involve everyone in the interaction so as to stop a few monopolizing the responses. A good leader will ensure that not all the questions and responses come to him / her and he will not allow themselves to be seen as the group expert. If grace and trust governs the group members will not be afraid of giving a wrong answer. It’s vital in any church that people know how they integrate and join the small groups. In many churches this will happen after the membership interview with the membership committee or pastors. As groups get to know one another they can become tight knit and Church leaders must be alerted to this and resolve it either by mixing up groups after a certain period, so that no group becomes too settled, or by creating new groups and entry points for the newcomers.