As many years as “small groups” has been a buzz-phrase and been emphasized in countless books, seminars, conferences, etc., (perhaps even over-emphasized) I can’t help but be astonished when I learn of a church that doesn’t have any small groups or Bible studies up and running.
I know the Bible doesn’t say, “Go into all the world and create small groups,” and yet small groups are a powerful and effective way to help make disciples who will last for the long haul. Certainly John Wesley, in my own tradition, believed and practiced that. (Two great resources to check out on Wesley’s view of discipleship are Steve Manskar’s Accountable Discipleship and Kevin Watson’s Blueprint for Discipleship.)
Because my ministry-focus as Minister of Discipleship is… well… “discipleship,” I’ve been asked many times how to start a small group ministry, men’s ministry, or a Bible study, etc. There are many helpful suggestions that could be given (and, as I’ve mentioned, Manskar and Watson discuss many). However, my initial default answer to those questions is to always share what I think is most important: Stick to Scripture.
Groups that focus on fellowship and accountability absolutely have their place. There’s no such thing as Lone Ranger Christianity. We were created for community and we grow in community. Emphasizing prayer is, of course, vital. However, if we’re going to make disciples by teaching folks to obey everything Christ has commanded, then it is essential to teach who this “Commander” is, what he commanded, and how to carry out his commands.
An occasional topical study is fine, provided that Scripture is the primary source. (In my men’s ministry, for example, we have studied prayer, integrity, temptation, etc.) There are many useful topical Bible study-guides out there to be sure (I’ve used many). And yet, I have personally seen the most spiritual growth in those who are in the studies where we simply plow through
a particular book of the Bible – chapter by chapter, verse by verse. Nothing fancy. Nothing novel.
The Bible is, as the saying goes, timely and timeless. It already is more relevant than this morning’s news, so we don’t have to “make it relevant.” To be sure, we need to help folks see the truth and relevance of it, as well as how it applies to their lives. This takes faithful shepherding and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
God’s Word is the only thing God has said will accomplish what he has intended. It alone is God-breathed and useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking and training God’s people in righteousness so
they will be equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). About God’s Word, the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes,
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 12:4)
Jesus chastises the religious leaders of his day by telling them that, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” (Matthew 22:29)
We could add to this list many other texts in both the Old and New Testaments. The point is that God’s Word must be our primary tool in making disciples (of course, always in complete reliance upon God’s Spirit working in and through such efforts).
Paraphrasing Jesus, C.S. Lewis said that if you pursue the world first and God second, you end up getting neither. But if you pursue God first, you not only get God, but God also meets our earthly needs as well. To apply that to small groups, I believe it’s important to pursue God and our relationship with him through the study of his Word with others. And when we do, I believe God meets our real needs, our felt needs, and many other things besides. But we have to trust him enough to pursue him in and through his Word.
Grace and Truth,