In the era of the coronavirus epidemic, the vitality and growth of the church are worrying. On the public gathering level, the policies of "double suspension" which suspends the opening of religious sites and collective religious activities of registered churches, and of "church buildings meeting on off mode temporarily " have defined the real situation faced by the church today. But everything happens with God’s will. Under such circumstances, if pastors can restore pastoring through small groups and improve the insight into the healthy structure of the church, then the revival of small group ministries will surely ease the urgency of finding solutions to the difficult development of the church.
The history of "small groups"
"Small group ministry" is not a term that has been created in modern times. In the New Testament, Jesus was the pioneer that pastored through small groups. This means that small group pastoring has a history of thousands of years.
Historically, small groups as part of the church tradition disappeared due to the rise of the Catholic Pope in the Middle Ages when the more the Pope held his supreme power, the less church staff were willing to work together. Thus, the church was full of pains and struggles internally. If the Christian church today is to restore the influence and glory as the early church used to have, it must find the key to recovering small groups ministry.
A Christian leader, no matter how hard he offers himself, is bound to burn out if he just works hard for the Lord alone. The number "1" is always "1" no matter how many times it is multiplied. However, every time the exponent is increased by one for the number "2" in a multiplication, the power will increase one more time. Similarly, a church will grow exponentially as the number of co-workers increases. This is one of the characteristics of small group pastoring.
Regarding the origin of small groups ministry, L (pseudonym), a Christian scholar said: "According to the Bible, in the Old Testament, the earliest small group would be the family unit. God accomplished His will through families. For example, God showed the people of that generation what a righteous man was through Noah's family of eight members. He also made a covenant with His people through this family group. Later, when the Israelites left Egypt, God shaped Israel with a new form of small groups as the structure. There were groups of 10, 50, 100, and 1,000 people, so that everyone could get better care in their own group. In the New Testament, the twelve disciples led by Jesus formed the most typical group. For more than three years, they were inseparable every day, eating, drinking, living, and traveling together."
The early church grew rapidly and, as a result, small group meetings were quickly established. Because obviously large-scale gatherings alone couldn’t accommodate thousands of people at the same time. Therefore, a pattern in which large gatherings and small gatherings complement each other had been developed. They would meet together in the temple courts and break bread in small groups at home. They maintained unity in large gatherings and had a more intimate fellowship in small groups.
The current attitudes and thoughts of different Chinese pastors towards small groups
Although pastors of many churches often hear about the content of small groups ministry, and many pastors are doing it, they all have different perceptions and attitudes towards the practice and promotion of small groups ministry.
Some pastoral staff believe that it is not easy for the church to transform from large buildinggatherings to small group meetings which are often difficult to develop. Some pastors claim that they have been pastoring through small groups the whole time. However, usually after a year or two, many groups start to lose members, for which they have to merge several groups into one. Yet, the group growth still stagnates. Nevertheless, some pastors are doing the group ministry to such an extent that the number of believers has multiplied.
In the age of digital media, information is no longer diffused in a model that only the pastor knows first and then shares it with other believers, but is shared among the whole congregation at the same time. The days when the senior pastor was accounted for everything were gone. As pastors learn to run the church with a cohesive group structure, the need for small groups ministry will increase.
A pastor from Central South China points out that pastoring through small groups needs to adopt a two-track system, that is, the combination of group gatherings and discipleship. When a church can provide discipleship well enough, the small groups ministry can be done well accordingly. Small groupsis a platform to provide pastoral care to all believers, whilst discipleship is to precipitate growth of those who have the will to serve God, and finally make them the workers of the Lord. He believes that a church lacking discipleship has no quality. As to pastoral care, whether a church can achieve 1:1, that is, one pastoral worker attends one person in an individual way, is an important reference indicator for measuring the development of the church.
Meanwhile, he also mentions that when promoting small groups ministry, pastors should try not to arbitrarily change the teaching materials for group study, nor to pursue growing group members too fast, but rather do a good job in the top-level design of group ministry and the layered nurturing system. Pastors and group leaders need to be promoters and participants of group course practice. Pastors should provide opportunities for on-site teaching and for group leaders to support and help each other. More group leaders and believers can be encouraged to replicate this model later, so that success of the small groups ministry can be attainable.
In the meantime, a pastor in East China believes that the main responsibility of a pastor is to train all the group leaders of the church who are responsible for pastoring in Sunday services, while the pastor will tour all the groups. The significance of this practice is that the pastor dedicates three to five years to train the group leaders while the church keeps pastoring the believers, with the pastor supervising and consulting different groups at the same time. In this way, customized pastoral care can cope with future shocks and threats well.
It’s necessary that customized pastoral care also keeps focus on diversified needs. The church groups can be classified into senior group and youth group according to age, or praise and worship group and kitchen service group according to the types of ministries. The form of gatherings can also be of various types too, such as worship and praise meetings, prayer meetings, meet-and-greet meetings, dinner parties, outings, etc.
The importance of small groups in shaping healthy believers and healthy churches
The church needs to actively provide quality small group pastoring and discipleship, and actively build different group ministries in the meantime. In group pastoring, pastors will definitely spot out members who have become stronger in faith and have various gifts. Then, pastors can divide different group ministries again, e.g., prayer and healing group, teaching group, evangelism group, marriage counseling group, social welfare group, etc. In this way, the church can better serve the needs of different groups of people in this time.
Pastors must encourage group leaders to reach out to unbelievers in a variety of ways, and discuss strategies and methods for saving souls together during discipleship training. Therefore, small groups do not receive the love and comfort from the church unilaterally, but those enthusiastic group leaders can accept the challenge and lead one to two families to start a new group. If the groups can expand their focus from fellowship among the members to covering a burden to the lost souls, the church will be healthier and more flexible with more of such small groups.
The church should not lose its passion for saving souls, otherwise the unification of discipleship and small groups ministry will lose its original purpose. The pastors and group leaders should reach a consensus on the passion and consciousness of saving souls, and well lead the group members to establish compassion and burden for the unbelievers as well.
There is no perfect church, but there must be a will to build a church that is after God's heart. The truth is unchanged, but the pastoral methods can be constantly updated and changed through learning, so that in an era when people's attention is occupied by secular culture, church staff can win more souls for the Lord, and make the church become the hope of the world.
The Doctrine of Church of Love, written by Wu Zhengxian, published by Campus Bookstore / ISBN 978-986198530-5
Glorious Body of Christ (Simplified Chinese) written by R. B. Kuiper, published byRTF Publishing Co., Ltd./ISBN 9789579995108
- Translated by Shuya Wang