Interview: The Transition from Traditional Church to Small Groups

A small group.
A small group.
By Zoe Zhang May 17th, 2022

After graduating from a seminary in Taiwan, Brother L returned to Baiyuwan Church, a rural church in his hometown in the Zhejiang Province, to serve in January 2021. In the previous interview, he shared about the ministry he carried out in the rural church and how he viewed the aging of the rural church. 

At present, Brother L is the only full-time pastor at Baiyuwan Church. He does not only have to pastor and visit members but also has to train the group leaders. His life is busy but fulfilling.

In this article, he recalled how he led the rural church into a group pastoral church for a year with the Gospel Times, an online Chinese Christian newspaper.

Gospel Times: When did your church get started with pastoral care in small groups?

Brother L: When I just came back from Taiwan, we couldn’t meet in the church because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I thought, am I going to pastor like a streamer, or am I going to pastor in some other way? Online gatherings are okay, but the fear of God is missing, because some people listen while lying in bed, some tune in while washing clothes, and some have ears on the live-streaming service when chopping and cooking vegetables. From the point of view of pandemic prevention, we Christians should do our part, but we can’t please God if we don’t meet, because He tells us not to stop meeting. In this context, I want to start pastoral care in small groups.

I have seen that Taiwanese churches have carried out pastoral care in small groups for decades, but it is difficult for our traditional churches to hold group meetings. It is a matter of habit. So how should we start? In the beginning, I was not in a hurry to start the groups. I held vision talks on Sunday and then shared the plan of pastoral care in small groups at the meeting with the administrative board. I started with these two steps.

Firstly, I made the vision of pastoral care in small groups visible to more people, which is a bit like the process of loosening the soil. Then I spent half a year training team leaders twice a week. The lecturer was me alone, and the participants included church volunteers, committee members, and believers who wanted to help. In September 2021, the group leaders who have been trained officially began to lead the groups.

Gospel Times: So how many churches have this small group training?

Brother L: It is conducted in two churches. One church has a congregation of 300-500 people, which is the church I grew up in. The other church has a membership of around 150. It is the Baiyuwan church that I’m managing now.

Gospel Times: How did it go?

Brother L: As I’m in a rural church, when we started, many elders in the church thought, “Oh, this is not for us.” “Urban churches can do it, but our rural churches can’t.” I was a little frustrated at first. I wanted to be in a church with many  young people, but I was already in a rural church. So I prayed to God for this.

Three months after the group training, the elders of the church gradually changed. At first, they said that pastoral care in small groups was not suitable for our church. Then, they said that the small group was good. After that, they started to say that our church should also have small groups. At the end of the day, an old man said, “I’m 80 years old. Can I be a team leader?” I saw an elder with swollen feet, but he still participated in the group training. I was very moved.

Gospel Times: They initially felt that the small group was not suitable for rural churches. What were their considerations?

Brother L: Firstly, they thought that they are busy with farm work and cannot spare time to study and lead a group. Secondly, there are not many people in the church who have attended schools, so they cannot learn or lead a group.

Gospel Times: How were those two issues resolved later?

Brother L: I taught them step by step and shared with them word by word, as long as they had the burden to carry on and are literate. For example, I may use four classes in my church to teach what I can teach in one class when I teach in an urban church. It is not how much I speak, but how much these brothers and sisters can understand. If they don’t understand, I’ll stop and practice my patience.

Let me tell you an interesting story. On a Sunday, I went to a church to preach and share my vision. The church stopped meeting since the outbreak of the pandemic, and after listening to my vision, we had a meeting at noon and directly decided the division of the groups. That afternoon, the elders of the church asked me to talk for an hour and a half about how to do pastoral care in small groups.

Therefore, you can’t arbitrarily say that some thing cannot be developed or used in the rural areas. As a pastor, you must be willing to pass on visions and patiently share them with the elders. There’s the influence of the Holy Spirit, but people also have to pay a price with their effort.

Gospel Times: How did it go after that?

Brother L: When the pandemic broke out in Ningbo, the local requirement was that there should be less than 10 people at each meeting. So we went from a group meeting to a family meeting, which was a step further. Then the reserve group leaders stepped up as team leaders.

The work of the reserve group leaders was even better than original group leaders because they had spent a lot of time in training. Some people were busy preparing lessons and even had no time for eating.

I’m really grateful for their work. I remember last Christmas, every brother and sister in the group came to worship. I thought to myself, “Wow, there are so many benefits about the pastoral care in small groups.” The performance of a band formed by an old man and a child touched all the people. The old man played the huqin, a spike fiddle popularly used in Chinese music, and a young child, about four or five, sang the song God Loves Everyone.

Gospel Times: Are there any issues that need to be addressed now?

Brother L: The current problem is that the pastoral team is not formed. That means the church doesn’t have full-time pastors. They are all volunteers. However, the voluntary work is also heavy, and there is work to be done at their homes, so the church can not start many things at once.

Gospel Times: How is the pastoral care in small groups in the church with 300 to 500 people going?

Brother L: That church has a group leader, but there is no parish leader. Many of the group leaders are very stressed.

They don’t have a day to pass on the vision. They just say they must do pastoral care in small groups but they don’t know how to do it. Some adopt the mode of fellowship, while some gather in small groups. But on the whole, the delivery of the vision is not successful.

Since that church is my mother church, the brothers and sisters there have been so kind to help me, I really want to help it. Their church council and full-time pastors are also supportive of my pastoral care campaign in small groups.

The prototype of our church small group is already in place, so I will spend some time helping this church.

- Translated by Nicolas Cao

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