11 Jul Does A Small Group Meet A New Testament Need?
Published July 12, 2022
By Tripp Goodwin, M.Div.
The New Testament requires certain dispositions and behaviors of the church. A significant number of these dispositions and behaviors have to do with how the body of Christ relates to one another and lives with one another in community. For example, the New Testament, on more than one occasion, calls the church to love one another.1 Many of these dispositions and behaviors, such as the one to love, cannot get fleshed out in or during a corporate worship service in any real or tangible way. A local church may hear a sermon on loving one another in the corporate gathering, and they may even have a disposition of love towards one another, but a tangible act of love is difficult to bring about in that sort of environment.2 In light of this dynamic, local church leadership must find ways of facilitating and fostering these dispositions and behaviors for those under their care. One such way is the small group.3
This article will examine three New Testament practices and will show how a small group might be the best context for these practices to be fleshed out. The three practices will be as follows: 1) praying with and for one another, 2) watching over one another, and 3) serving one another. Effort will be made to unpack how a small group meeting, rather than a larger, impersonal setting, might best facilitate growth among the church in regards to the three practices.
PRAYING WITH AND FOR ONE ANOTHER
The New Testament both models and commands praying with and for one another. In the book of Acts, Christians are found praying together for boldness after some of their leaders are chastised by the local religious authorities.4 In another place, a small gathering of Christians are praying for one of their own’s release from prison.5 Regularly throughout Paul’s epistles, local churches are exhorted to pray for one another6 and even for those working to advance the gospel.7 In one of the general epistles, the elders of a local church are exhorted to pray for the sick and at the very same time members of that same fellowship are commanded to pray for one another.8 The expectation of the New Testament is that Christians, in their local settings, will be praying with and for one another.
In light of this expectation regarding prayer, church leaders must think through how best to facilitate and foster the practice of prayer for those they are leading. The corporate gathering is certainly a place for public prayers to be offered, and to a certain degree, these prayers might even be for individual people or specific needs. But is the corporate gathering the only place, or even the best place, for the church to pray with and for one another? A better option might be to encourage prayer in the context of a small gathering of people.
A small group is a good and ripe context for Christians to join together in prayer for any number of reasons. It allows those coming together to physically be in the presence of those with whom and for whom they are praying. It creates space for individuals to share specific concerns, troubles, and trials that they normally wouldn’t share on a Sunday morning in a room full of people.9 It naturally fosters follow up on individual burdens or requests. It also encourages a regular pattern of prayer especially if the group is meeting weekly.10 Praying with and for one another requires a context marked by closeness, trust, and acceptance. A small group setting is an ideal context for this New Testament expectation.
This is not to suggest that praying with and for one another in a small group is without its difficulties. Some individuals may be slow or hesitant to open up due to past trauma. Because of the group’s small size, the prayers offered may become very self-focused. Icenogle suggests that prayer might actually be one of the hardest practices for Western Christians to engage in: “Prayer is an intimate experience. Small groups do not come by the freedom to pray naturally or easily.”11 Due to this potential difficulty, he suggests that a leader have to teach or help a group to pray as they should.12 This challenge, which is a very real one in a culture touched by COVID-19, is not insurmountable.13 The task of teaching and modeling prayer for a small group might even lead to deeper level of trust and intimacy among the group.
A corporate gathering, or even a smaller meeting such as a Sunday school class or Bible study, is not able to create a context in which Christians can minister to one another through prayer. Certainly, instruction has its place in the life of the local church, and a corporate gathering is probably the best place for that teaching to take place.14 In order, though, for a local church to faithfully follow the pattern of the early church and the commands found in the epistles, a small group setting needs to be in place for a group to pray with and for one another.
WATCHING OVER ONE ANOTHER
The New Testament both models and commands watching over one another. This idea of watching includes exhortation, encouragement, and rebuke. In the book of Acts, the idea of watching is embedded in the daily routine of the church in Jerusalem.15 One also sees it in play as Peter rebukes Ananias and Sapphira for their deceit. While Peter’s rebuke of this couple ends with their death, it also serves as a reminder to the church to not follow in their footsteps.16 In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he exhorts the church to do the work of the ministry by speaking truth to one another in love.17 In another of his epistles, Paul charges those who are spiritual in the church to restore the brother who has fallen into sin and rebellion.18 In the book of Hebrews, the author encourages his audience to exhort one another due to the presence of sin and also to stir up one another to love and good deeds.19
In light of the example of the early church and the exhortations found throughout the New Testament, local church leaders must find a way to foster this ministry of watching in their immediate contexts. It is true that one individual, who might have a relationship with another person in their fellowship, can carry out this ministry. It is also true that the one publicly preaching on the Lord’s Day does this work in a general kind of way. But the vision the New Testament casts is of an entire church taking on this call to speak truth in love.20 The ideal environment to encourage this sort of ministry is in the small group meeting.
A small group is an ideal place for this sort of ministry to take place.21 For Christians to watch over one another they must first know one another. The Lord’s Day gathering is a difficult place to really get to know someone. A small group, that meets weekly or bi-weekly, is a much better place for relationships to flourish. Not only must people know one another, but walls must also come down for watching to take place. Trust must be built and that takes time. One Christian must know that another Christian truly cares about them. Watching also takes place in a context where accountability is welcomed and received.
A call to watch over one another is certainly going to pose challenges to the small group. Anytime sin is confessed, there is the opportunity for hurt feelings or misunderstanding to arise. When sin is confronted, there is always the possibility that the one being confronted might reject the given counsel or even that the one confronting takes pride in his or her actions.22 There is also the possibility that this idea of watching might be interpreted as “simply pointing out the bad things” in a person’s life without any kind of positive reinforcement. While the New Testament does call the body of Christ to confront sin in its midst, it equally calls them to stir up one another to love and good deeds. There will certainly be challenges like these, but they are ones that can be addressed with godly and wise counsel.
A small group setting is the most ideal place for the ministry of mutual watching to take place. A Bible study, even if it small, or a corporate gathering, cannot plumb the depth of these calls to speak, rebuke, and stir up. A small group context creates the kind of space for this ministry to take place almost naturally.23
SERVING ONE ANOTHER
The New Testament both models and commands serving one another. The foremost example of service is Jesus Christ. John highlights the servant-mindedness of Jesus in his gospel. On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus takes a servant’s towel and washes the disciples’ feet. He meets a physical need in a physical way to make a profound spiritual point.24 Jesus also couches his mission in terms of service as well.25 A servant’s mindset and behavior pervades the rest of the New Testament. The church in Acts is seen serving and caring for one another’s physical needs.26 Paul, on more than one occasion, exhorts the church to serve one another.27 John, in his first epistle, tells his audience that unless they tangibly express care to one another, their claim to love one another, is empty and void of meaning.28
In light of the overwhelming evidence that the local church should be marked by care and concern, what is the best way for church leaders to foster and encourage active service among the body? They could let the needs play out on their own, but that approach would probably miss and overlook many needs that might arise. A small group is the most ideal and strategic way to encourage the body of Christ to care for one another. It is difficult to foster care in a top-down model. If a local church relies on the leadership to notify them when there is a need, a lot will get lost because the leadership is not able to know everything that might go on. Care and need-meeting are best handled at the ground level and in a smaller setting.
A small group is an ideal context for the body of Christ to serve one another. It is much easier and much more efficient for a group of 6-12 people to care for the new mom who might need physical help, for the family who is struggling to buy groceries because one or both of the spouses are out of work, and for the one who is walking through some sort of crisis such as physical suffering or the loss of a family member.29 In most situations, a small group is able to care better than a larger group might, both in terms of relationship and logistical dynamics.
As with the ministries of prayer and watching, the call to care is not without its potential difficulties and challenges. There is the temptation to become so inwardly focused that one’s group might ignore other needs that arise in the church. One could easily begin to think that because a need is outside their group, they don’t have to engage with it. Another challenge might be to keep a group’s physical and spiritual out of balance. Ultimately, any small gathering should be focused on growth in godliness, of which one’s physical wellbeing is a part. But if a group’s emphasis were to become solely on the physical side of things, the focus of the group would become lopsided.
A small group setting is ideal for seeing many of the needs that might arise in the body met in tangible ways. A corporate service is not geared to meet needs, and something like a Bible study or Sunday school class, is not the most ideal vehicle for need-meeting. A small group creates an ideal environment for Christians to care for one another.30
The New Testament demands certain dispositions and behaviors of those who make up the body of Christ. These behaviors often are described as the “one anothers.” While every Christian is responsible for maintaining these dispositions and obeying these commands, those in church leadership also need to give serious consideration to how the local church they lead is structured.
Some might be led to believe that any kind of small gathering is a sufficient context for practicing such things as praying with and for one another, watching over one another, and serving one another. Yet, time and experience say otherwise. A typical Sunday school class is one way of gathering a small group of people, but it most often is focused on imparting some body of information. A Bible study is, like a Sunday school class, a good thing in that its aim is to impart very important information.31 Instead of a class or study, though, a small group of people who meet together for mutual care, edification, and prayer is an ideal context for fulfilling the call the New Testament lays upon the shoulders of every Christian.
It is vitally necessary that church leaders give serious thought to how they are structuring their church’s ministry program. It is not helpful to continue to do things a certain way if that way is not meeting New Testament needs. For example, simply because a church’s small group ministry has been centered around a traditional Sunday school model does not mean that model should not be tweaked or even discarded if it is not being effective. Churches are suffering and missing out on ministry opportunities simply because they are unwilling to change.32 The kind of small group described in this article might be new to some churches. It might feel too intimate for some people. It might even be thought “worldly” by others. Church leaders need to be willing to move their churches into places where ministry can flourish, not where it has to be pulled out of people or handled only by those paid by the church.
1 See John 13:34-35, Romans 13:8, and 2 Thessalonians 4:9. All other Scripture references will be taken from the ESV unless otherwise noted.
2 The subject matter taken up in this article is one that the church needs to return to in a world touched by COVID-19. People, even Christians, have generally moved away from interacting with others like they did before the present-day pandemic. It is not an understatement to say that the church needs to return to the “one anothers” else her future will be marked by isolation and therefore sin. See Hebrews 10:24-26.
3 In this article a small group will be defined as a gathering of 6-12 people who meet together outside of the normally scheduled corporate meetings of a church. This group is meant to be a vehicle for living out New Testament dispositions and behaviors (the “one-anothers”). This kind of group is distinct from a Bible study and Sunday school class. The stress in a small group is on corporate formation and accountability and not necessarily on teaching.
4 Acts 4:23-31.
5 Acts 12:12-17.
6 Romans 12:12.
7 Colossians 4:2-4.
8 James 5:13-16.
9 “While these “one anothers” might be worked out in a variety of settings or situations an ideal format for their expression is the small group, as the small group context naturally stresses caring and interpersonal relationships. The level of Christian life depicted by the one another, reasons Howard Snyder, requires frequent intimate gathering. These passages seem to suggest, he advises, frequent gatherings for encouraging one another apart from the corporate worship celebration of the church.” Harley T. Atkinson, The Power of Small Groups in Christian Formation (Eugene, OR: Resource, 2018), 56.
10 The New Testament is insistent that Christians pray regularly and about everything. See Philippians 4:6.
11 Gareth Weldon Icenogle, Biblical Foundations for Small Group Ministry: An Integrational Approach (Downers Grove, Il: Intervarsity, 1994), 306.
12 Ibid, 306.
13 While not writing with the current COVID-19 culture in mind Robert Wuthnow’s words are timely: “Small groups provide a way of transcending our most self-centered interests, tempering our individualism and our culturally induced desire to be totally independent of one another. The attachments that develop among the members of a small group demonstrate clearly that we are not a society of rugged individualists who wish to go it entirely alone, but are a communal people.” Robert Wuthrow, “Small Groups Forge New Notions of Community and the Sacred,” ChrCent (1993): 1237.
14 “It may be helpful for a group to spend some time thinking about the differences between “formational” group experiences and “informational” group experiences. A formational experience is something that helps the group form behavioral or skill patterns which are modeled after Christ and the apostles.” Icenogle, 285. A Sunday morning service is the ideal place to teach on prayer. A small group gathering is the ideal place to put into practice what is learned on Sunday morning.
15 Acts 2:42-47.
16 Acts 5:1-11.
17 Ephesians 4:15.
18 Galatians 6:1-5.
19 Hebrews 3:12-14, 10:24-26.
20 T. Dale Johnson Jr, The Church as a Culture of Care (Greensboro, NC: New Growth, 2021), 139-140.
21 It is true that the ministry of watching is the responsibility of church leaders. See Hebrews 13:17. It is also true that a number of “one anothers” can be grouped together under this heading, and these, are most certainly the responsibly of the entire church.
22 Icenogle, Biblical Foundations for Small Group Ministry: An Integrational Approach, 286.
23 “Meeting regularly in small groups provides obvious advantages for fulfilling the scriptural charge to watch over one another. As we grow in our knowledge of one another, we also increase our ability to discern the signs that a sister or brother needs our encouragement to persevere in the direction of attaining all that God, in God’s grace, desires for her or him to attain.” David A. DeSilva, One Another: The New Testament Prescription for Transformation (Franklin, TN: Seedbed, 2021), 134.
24 John 13:1-11.
25 Mark 10:45.
26 Acts 4:32-37.
27 Romans 12:12.
28 1 John 3:11-16.
29 Hellerman suggests that there are two dynamics to every natural family unit that should bleed over into the local church: 1) sharing your stuff with other people and 2) sharing your heart with other people. Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2009), 145.
30 “It is easier to give one another this level of attentiveness in a smaller group than in a congregation of one hundred or more! This is perhaps one reason that small group ministries have proven so effective in revitalizing churches in the current scene. They allow a smaller circle of Christians to become sufficiently involved and aware of the goings-on in one another’s lives that they know when and in what ways assistance would be needed.” DeSilva, One Another: The New Testament Prescription for Transformation, 94.
31 A Bible study about prayer is a very different phenomena than a group of people gathering together to actually pray. While both are needed it is important for church leaders to recognize their differences when organizing their ministry.
32 In writing about the spiritual decline of American Methodism, Kevin Watson suggests that the loss of a dynamic small group experience is to blame: “From the 1770s to the 1850s, when small groups were central, American Methodism experienced phenomenal growth. One study shows that by the 1850s Methodists were more than one-third of religious adherents in the United States. As Methodism became the largest Protestant denomination in America, it shifted from transformational to informational small groups.” Kevin M. Watson and Scott T. Kisker, The Band Meeting: Rediscovering Relational Discipleship in Transformational Community (Nashville, TN: Seedbed, 2017), 98. This shift from transformational ministry to informational ministry, according to Watson, greatly weakened the Methodist movement. This shift should serve as warning sign for those leading churches in the 21st century.
Thomas “Tripp” Goodwin has served as Senior Pastor of Lincolnton Baptist Church in Lincolnton, GA since 2014. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Bible/Family & Church Education from Columbia International University, a Master of Divinity from Shepherds Theological Seminary, and is presently enrolled in the doctoral program at STS.