November 2020, St John the Baptist Church
During lockdown, our experience of Sunday in-person gathered church has been either non-existent or limited. We have become dispersed. Being dispersed, has caused us to wonder how we stay connected and keep encouraging and supporting one another in our faith? Asking this question in these circumstances has helped reminds us there is much more to growing as a disciple of Jesus than coming to church on a Sunday. When we come to church, we tend to be relatively passive, receiving what is presented from the front; arguably, that is not the most effective route to growth. Fostering a culture of discipleship always has been a core value for us. Perhaps there is an opportunity at this time to place our energy into learning a different approach to discipleship that can help us in the long-term.
Historically, when the church has been unable to gather due to outside pressure or persecution, it has continued through smaller groupings. Operating in this way has often and perhaps surprisingly contributed to church growth. There are some startling examples: the rapidly growing church in China has existed mainly as a ‘cell church’, the Methodist revival in the 18th Centruary was built using a system of small groups, and today it is thought the fastest growing church in the world is in Iran where people meet only in groups of 2-3 for fear of persecution. Of course, for Jesus, spending time with his closest companions, Peter, James, and John was an essential aspect of his relationship connection and channel for discipleship.
In St John’s right now we have several small groups of 8-10 people. Some people, however, find engaging with small-groups challenging. Maybe this is because some groups have not run during lockdown, they find online groups tricky, or they are too busy. There is another approach which helps us overcome some of these challenges: meeting in very small groups of 2-4 as ‘micro-church’ or ‘tiny-church’. Here are some stories from people who have been part of such groups.
‘…the smaller context of [meeting as a three]…has helped…[us] feel known by one another, which in a season characterised by isolation and loneliness, has been particularly powerful…these guys have been an answer to prayer for me.’
‘it’s been…helpful as a place to be real with each other and…with God…It’s been good to meet in person when we’re allowed (sometimes around a fire-pit) but also online…its been good for a much needed laugh…’
‘It’s been about accountability – we can share our struggles in a confidential environment…’
There are several practical and spiritual advantages to a grouping of this size, especially at this time in these circumstances:
They are lightweight, flexible, informal, organic and easy to organise – it’s much easier to work around our complicated lives and find a time when everyone can meet if its just 2-4 people
The flexibility means they can work for everyone at whatever your life-stage: parent with small children, wife of a non-Christian husband, young adult, teenager, working person, retired person, etc.
They get around the restrictions of lockdown – it’s possible to meet outside for a walk as a pair or when the rule of six returns as a group of 2-4 or they can easily meet virtually
They overcome the challenges Zoom meetings – in a smaller group its easier for each person to have a chance to speak and be listened to
They can operate without a clear leader, and there is no need for formal training
UP – encouragement and mutual accountability can be much clearer and more focused in a micro-group. This fosters transformation and growth. Small groups can help one another hear God’s voice.
IN – it’s possible to go deeper more quickly; support, care and vulnerability are easier to achieve in a smaller group.
OUT – learning to love and follow Jesus naturally leads to loving and serving in our community and a desire to share the Good News of Jesus with others. The desire for intimacy, authenticity and spiritual growth is not limited to Christians. These groups can be attractive, accessible and powerful ways of introducing people to Jesus for those who are not yet Christians.
Greg Ogden writes,
The church urgently needs to recapture its original mission of making disciples of Jesus by creating intimate, relational environments of multiplication and transformation.
That is what these groups are about.
So if these groups are such a good idea, how might you go about forming a group like this and what would you do when you meet? It’s possible to overcomplicate this: a straightforward answer is to simply find 1-3 other people with whom you are already friends and meet regularly to share and pray.
So if you want to go off and do that that without reading the rest, please do!
However, groups become more effective in helping one another grow as disciples if built on fundamental principles and if they follow simple guidelines. There are five essential principles at the foundation of healthy groups:
Reading the Bible together for transformation, not information
Honest, truthful relationships
Mutual support and accountability
Incorporating spiritual habits into daily lives
Multiplication inviting others in, growing and dividing
There some guidelines to help get started and develop our approach – what follows are guidelines, not rules, so read, digest and adopt what will work for you.
How can I start a group?
Often groups like these form most effectively along natural, organic relational lines. So ask yourself, who are you already close to, who do you naturally talk openly with? When you have one or more people in mind, simply invite them if they would like to form a group like this. Sometimes we can experience a barrier at this point. We become self-conscious imagining that other people won’t want to meet, are too busy, or are well supported already. But so often people are pleased and touched to be asked and usually very open to this idea. Remember, the worst they can say is ‘no’!
It’s not always the case that groups like this are formed from people who know each other well already. It’s possible to start a group with one or more people you don’t know very well. This can be a great way to get to know people, and sometimes if trust develops, people who don’t know you well can speak into your life with a fresh or different perspective.
It’s also possible and sometimes very powerful to form these groups with people who are not yet Christians or who are on a journey. Evangelism has been described as the process of discipling those who are not yet Christians. Think about who you could invite. This works especially well if you form the group with one other Christian friend with 1-2 non-Christians who are already in mutual relationship with you.
It can feel less of a commitment or a ‘big thing’ if you propose meeting up for a time-limited period. This could be a month, for as long as lockdown lasts, or a fixed number of times, or whatever. Then, suggest you review at that point to decide whether to continue. This gives everyone a get-out clause without embarrassment if for whatever reason it’s not working.
Once you have asked people to join a group, give them a copy of this guide. This can help anyone unsure about forming a group and means you are all approaching the group from the same starting point.
Due to the level of intimacy and vulnerability inherent in these groups, keep them single-sex. Two married couples could form a group. If so, make sure you meet only as couples or in pairs of husbands together and wives together and not in any other combination.
Sometimes it takes the willingness to take a risk and ask someone if you are feeling self-conscious or don’t feel like you know them very well. Also, we in church-leadership can help by performing a kind of spiritual match-making service! If you want to be in a group like this but can’t find anyone, let us know.
How often should we meet?
This is entirely up to you! its something to work out with the others in the group. Groups can meet as little as once per month or as often as twice per week. The discipline of a regular pattern of meeting, however frequent, really helps make sure the meeting happens and doesn’t remain simply a good intention. Generally, it’s better and more effective to meet for a shorter time more often, so an hour once per week is better than two hours twice per week. The more frequently you meet, the quicker intimacy and depth of relationship can develop. Generally, most groups work best by meeting weekly or fortnightly.
It’s helpful if one person takes responsibility for arranging meeting times and zoom contact details, etc.
When and where should we meet?
This is entirely up to you; some groups meet in the early morning before work, during the day, evening and others at weekends. Do whatever works for you. During lockdown, meeting online may be all that’s possible. Platforms such as Zoom, Skype, FaceTime and Microsoft teams can all work. With just two in the group, it’s possible to walk together during lockdown. When the rule of six returns, it will be possible to meet in gardens or parks as a group of 2-4. As lockdown lifts further, meeting in a café, pub, home or workplace can all work well.
Generally speaking, these groups work best if either coffee, wine or beer is involved somewhere along the way!
What should we do when we meet?
A great way to start is to simply take it in turns for each person to share and then to spend time praying for one another. Some groups continue to do this over an extended period. However, having a little structure in mind makes the group more focused. The more intentional these groups are, the more effective they will be in helping one another grow. Here are some guidelines. The essential goal of an intentional discipleship group is to answer these two questions for each person:
What is God speaking to you right now?
What are you going to do about it?
To best achieve this, roughly divide your time together into three thirds and aim for the following in each third…
Here, give each person chance to express something of their present reality: what is true for them right now good and bad, and might they see/sense God at work in or through their experience.
This part works best if you pick up where you left off last time. The goal is to end each meet up with each person identifying something they are going to do differently as a consequence of their time together. If that happened then start by asking one another how you have got on with that thing.
Then, asking additional questions is a great way to go deeper, for example:
How have you seen/sensed/felt God at work in your life this week?
Where have you experienced breakthrough, battle, frustration or failure this week?
How have things been at home and with family?
How have things been at work?
How have things been at church?
Its important that these groups are a safe place that will foster vulnerability. So refrain from expressing judgement or evaluation. We are all learners together, failure and struggle are common to all. We must not expect perfection of ourselves or of others.
As vulnerability and trust grow, so will the depth and focus of the conversation. Here are some tips on having a great conversation:
Keep in mind the overall goal: to help each other hear God and work out what to do about it
Asking great questions is better than giving advice; limit your advice, instead, try to help other people hear God for themselves by considering helpful questions
As trust grows, don’t be afraid to bring challenge
Be open about your own struggles, victories, learning and growth as a disciple of Jesus. Sharing our lives in this way is a real gift to one another and is one of the most powerful ways of helping one another grow.
Maybe you can think of other tips.
In this part of the conversation, the goal is to help each person connect with God and gain a sense of what he might be saying. It’s sometimes enough to simply have a conversation with one another about what has been raised in the first section. If this is the case, then often part one above will flow seamlessly into part 2.
It can be helpful to use some outside material here to feed into the conversation, principally the Bible. Here are some ways you can do this:
· Agree that you will look at a Bible passage together each time – perhaps work your way through a Gospel. You don’t need to spend long each time, maybe 20 mins – simply read the passage and then consider together three questions:
What does this passage say about God?
What does it say about people?
Where is there a command to obey, an example to follow or a promise to trust?
· Agree that in between each meet up you are all going to read a section of scripture, say a few chapters or even a whole book. Then spend time when you meet discussing insights in response to the three questions above.
· Agree you will read a spiritual book together, reading a chapter each time and discussing insights you gain.
End this time by summarising what it is that God is saying to each other. It’s at this point that pausing to pray is an excellent idea. Pray specifically for each person in turn, pray in a way that arises directly out of how you sense God speaking to you.
Having identified what you think God is saying to one another, this is the time to consider what you are going to do about it. This is the most frequently overlooked step. If we are to be intentional about our growth, identifying what we are going to do about what God is saying is essential. Doing this together enables us to both encourage and hold one another accountable to our commitment. Ask one another to state what they are going to do differently as a result of your time together and agree to report back next time. If it doesn’t feel too heavy, write these things down as reminders. Here are some examples of what each person might commit to doing:
I am going to pray for my friend every day
I am going to invite my friend to Alpha
I am going to phone my mum and say sorry
I am going to buy a gift for my homegroup leader to say thank you
Next time I am asked to do something I am going to pray before saying ‘yes.’
When I next see my friend I am going to tell him/her about how I met Jesus
And so on, it could be one of any number of things.
You may have read to this point and have all kinds of questions, you may even be sceptical. The best way of answering these questions and of finding out whether this works or not is to give it a go. Why not; what have you got to lose? Remember that you will not become experts at groups like these all at once; we learn step by step. So take the first step, think about who to meet with, ask them and fix a date! And then tell us you are doing so and let us know how you are getting on.