This article, written by John Wimber, explores the value we place on small groups in the Vineyard and the reasons why.
A young Vineyard pastor recently asked me, “Do you value small groups?” My immediate response was to laugh. When I realized he was serious, I almost cried. What a surprise that someone in the Vineyard—especially a leader—thought I did not value small groups. I think it might help to clarify my personal history and views on this vital subject.
Converted In A Small Group
My wife and I were converted in a small group that was started for the express purpose of evangelizing us. There were only seven in the group and it went for several months. As we interacted over the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit was drawing us to Jesus. Furthermore, the same man who led me to Christ equipped me in the basic ministry of evangelism through small groups.
So, as a new convert, I began continually sharing my faith with people in Orange County, California. From watching my mentor, Gunner Payne, skillfully answer questions from Scripture, I soon could give all the answers Gunner gave (and tell all the stories he told). I simply mimicked his behaviour and attitude.
Gunner also discipled me in church life. He was not only active throughout the week in winning people to Christ—sometimes as many as seven nights a week—but he was active in the church. Gunner’s example taught me a great deal concerning love for the church. So, from the outset of my Christian walk I made three commitments: first, to Christ; second, to his church; and third, to his cause—the reconciliation of men and women to himself. And through Gunner’s modelling and mentoring from a wealth of experience, I learned the value of small groups. Small groups can help deepen a threefold commitment to Christ, his cause, and his church.
During the 1970s, small groups were a vital part of my life and ministry. I started hundreds of groups myself, and many reproduced. As a consultant, I helped hundreds of churches begin small group ministries. I also helped plant churches from “the bottom up” by beginning with small group infrastructures. My own church was planted this way, and today we have over two hundred small groups of various kinds.
Small groups can play many roles, and there are several categories of small groups. Generally, most small groups have at least one of these four functions: evangelism, integration, discipling, and maturing.
First, small groups provide one of the best places for evangelism. A congenial atmosphere of friendly dialogue over the person and work of Christ can produce high dividends in winning people.
Small groups have 1 of 4 functions: evangelism, integration, discipling, and maturing. – John Wimber
In our evangelical sub-culture, we place a high value on the individual’s personal relationship with Christ. Consequently, we often forget the importance of our corporate relationship with the body of Christ. But Christianity isn’t a solo flight. Healthy small groups offset the bias toward individualism that runs so deep in our culture. Small groups can help people learn to love one another in a way that exemplifies a New Testament lifestyle (cf. John 13:34,35; Rom. 13:8; I Pet. 1:22; I John 3:11; I John 3:23; I John 4:7,11,12; 2 John 5 ). A loving community is a powerful tool and witness to the world. From the Book of Acts, we get a glimpse of the effectiveness of this corporate witness (Acts 2:44; Acts 4:32). The messianic community of the King broke into first-century life and was a foretaste of the banquet table to come. Surely the lavish love for one another expressed by the early church was a sign and a wonder to unbelievers that was as powerful as the healing of crooked legs!
Second, small groups integrate people into the Christian community of the group itself and the larger community of the local church. Small groups that do not act as a bridge to bring people into the church often will turn inward, spoil, and become a problem in the church.
Third, small groups are one of the most powerful discipling mechanisms in the church. People are discipled in groups primarily through modelling. The way disciples live, (along with their motivation and attitude) becomes the norm for the new convert or new member of the group. Newcomers soon adopt the behaviour, lifestyle, and patterns—good and bad—of the rest of the group.
Another form of small group discipling is informal teaching. Informal teaching uses real-life situations to train group members. A financial crisis of one member becomes an opportunity to mature the whole group in biblical values of giving and stewardship. A couple with children in adolescent rebellion can be encouraged by other members who have been down that road before.
Many small groups do formal teaching (curricula abound). The level of intimacy within the group influences how members learn, what applications they make, and their attitude toward the teacher and his or her message.
The fourth function of small groups is the maturing dynamic so encouraged in the New Testament. Small groups help to repair and prepare people for works of service (see Eph. 4:11-13).
Are there different kinds of small groups? Yes. In our church we have several subcategories of groups I think every church ought to consider.
Their purpose for gathering is usually to perform a service. But there are by-products to working together. I use the word by-product not in a derogatory way but rather to point out the primary intent of the group is a task, not relationships. But people who work together bond together. Most people bond better if they share a common activity or goal. Groups that go out and minister to the poor or prisoners, groups organized for evangelism, groups who minister pastoral care to the sick, the aged, the widows or divorced, groups designed specifically for prayer and intercession—all these can both perform a task and potentially develop a high degree of love and acceptance for one another. These groups can be very satisfying for participants. Often unbelievers and nominal Christians (and highly energetic people) find a home in task-related groups where service is the goal.
These groups usually are short-term groups put together for training in specific ministry skills. A group working on leadership issues is a good example. Such a group might meet for two or three months to work on biblical teachings of character formation, spiritual development, and leadership gifts. Hopefully, the group will relate closely enough so social and emotional needs are met as well.
Short-term training groups for new converts can be fun, especially when the group culminates in a baptism celebration. The goal is to train members in basic Christian doctrine and to initiate and prepare them for deeper participation in church life. Other types of training groups include premarital, new parent, and marriage renewal or marriage communication groups.
We sometimes employ specialized training groups to prepare church planters. In this setting, an experienced church planter or supervising pastor shares wisdom and information, and involvement in ministry is evaluated. In this training group, relationship-building occurs as well. The supportive network that develops between prospective planters may be the most beneficial aspect of such a group. Long after the information rots away in a notebook, the relationships can be a vibrant resource.
These groups help people get into the life of the local church. Solid relationships are the key to assimilating newcomers into any church. Remember, people come to churches for many reasons, but usually stay because they’ve made a close friend or two in the church. Integration groups have several functions: evangelism, assimilation, and discipling. They primarily provide a bridge from the community into the church.
Small groups are essential to a healthy growing church. When I speak to young pastors who want to plant a church I encourage them to “build from the bottom up” and resist the pressure to go public before infrastructure is established.
For pastors leading churches without small group ministries, identifying leaders and releasing small groups is one of the most vital steps you can take. Yet this process holds dangers, so be aware of four things if this describes your situation.
First, depending on the nature and the activity of the group, you run the risk of violating some basic Vineyard values. For instance, if the small group model you employ excludes worship, fellowship or gifts ministry, that model—right from the start—will violate three essential values of the Vineyard. Whatever type of small group you start ought to be faithful to these values.
Second, some small group training models won’t fit certain kinds of churches and cultural situations. Though the program worked for the originator, it won’t always work—at least without modifications— for you. Many models have to be contextualized. For example, people working in a “blue collar” kind of setting may need more structure and definition in their groups than executives working in a “white collar” setting.
Third, some pastors assume every person who attends Sunday services—from the elderly to the teenagers—ought to participate in a small group. By everyone, they mean everyone. From my experience, however, this is naive. Young people tend to want a high quantity of relationships as well as a few quality ones. Therefore, they are amenable to being involved in small groups. But the older they get, they tend to want fewer relationships with higher quality. People older than 50 are less likely to involve themselves in small groups that are large and have turnover. It’s hard for them to undergo so much social change.
Of course, the exception is someone who’s been in a small group from the time he was young. My brother-in-law, Bob Fulton, was converted in a small group. He’s now in his fifties and has never been outside one. So small group life is church life for him.
The purpose of small groups is to make and nurture disciples. – John Wimber
Fourth, the launching of small groups as a program in a church ought to be done over time, giving people lots of room to opt in or out. To suddenly announce, “beginning next month, we’re going to divide everybody in the church into new groups,” can be hurtful and disruptive. I think it wise from a leadership standpoint to give at least a year to that process. Let people try some small groups with those that are the most responsive. Share some literature with leaders in the church so they can get acquainted.
Let them visit other churches that have small groups, and then let them get involved in designing their own small groups so they can do something that reflects their own values.
A Powerful Dynamic
In summary, the purpose of small groups is to make and nurture disciples who evidence a growing commitment to Christ, his cause, and his church. The training elements of modelling, and formal and informal teaching, produce a powerful dynamic for maturing believers.
At first, groups may be fairly homogenized and reflect the style of the founding pastor. As the church grows, other needs will surface and other leadership styles will emerge to meet those needs. In our church, we place groups in three broad categories: task, training, and integration.
Every Vineyard should have a vibrant small group life. It’s difficult to think of exceptions. I value them so much because the Lord has met me there so many times. If you are starting (or restarting) small group ministry in your church, I encourage you to listen to what the Holy Spirit wants to do in your context. I know he will bless you and your people on your journey together toward him.