I can personally testify to God's leading in two churches that learned to use small groups in their evangelistic outreach. In the 40-year-old Van Nuys Spanish church in southern California we saw 350 new members baptized in just two years of small group ministry. At the end of 1984 the Norwalk Spanish church had 70 adult members. In 1985 those members saw 71 added to their membership through small group ministry. I, as their pastor, prepared only one of those candidates for baptism; the rest were prepared by lay people. In 1986 the same church had 140 baptisms as a result of their small group ministry.
Why have we seen such success in these two churches? I believe it is because we have learned to work according to the scientific principles of soul winning. "God does not generally work miracles to advance His truth," Ellen White tells us. "He works according to great principles made known to us, and it is our part to mature wise plans, and set in operation the means whereby God shall bring about certain results."1
This statement surprised me when I first read it. But as I thought about it I came to realize that God does everything according to laws and principles. This is true in nature, and it is true in soul winning.
When we abide by biblical principles in soul winning "God shall bring about certain results."2 One important principle of soul winning is that "whatever may be the preaching talent, if the laboring part is neglected, if the people are not taught how to work, how to conduct meetings, how to act their part in missionary labor, how to reach people successfully, the work will be nearly a failure. "3 Add to this thought the following: "The formation of small companies as a basis of Christian effort has been presented to me by One who cannot err,"4 and the importance of forming small groups becomes paramount for any church wanting to put forth a meaningful effort toward soul winning.
The most effective way to teach people how to reach people is through small group ministry in individual homes.
The Old Testament case for use of small groups is clearly made in Exodus 18, where Moses was instructed to divide the Israelites into groups of tens, fifties, and thousands.
Jesus often spoke to groups meeting in a home (see Matt. 13:36-52; 17:25-27; Mark 9:33-50; 10:10-12; Luke 7:36-50). It was to the homes that Jesus sent the twelve (Matt. 10:11-13) and the seventy (Luke 10:1, 5-7). The book of Acts contains nine references to Christians worshiping in homes. The church at Jerusalem combined worship at the Temple with worship in homes (Acts 2:46). Among the notable New Testament individuals who had a church in their home were Lydia (Acts 16:40), Priscilla and Aquila (Rom. 16:3-5), Nymphas (Col. 4:15), and Philemon (Philemon 1, 2).
When Jesus fed the 5,000, He first divided them into groups. I wonder, did He use groups in order to be sure that no one would be left without food?
Are the members of our church well fed? Those who leave our ranks seem to leave weak. Is it possible that these people become lost in the crowd and that we don't even realize that they are not being nourished? If they were part of a small group, we would know their needs, and they would find help.
Our best example in this matter, as with everything else, is Jesus. He knew how to organize for evangelism. He came to this world for one reason: to save souls. But His plan for reaching the whole world did not include a hectic round-the-world personal appearance tour. No, Jesus concentrated His efforts on a small group, exposing the model of His life before the members to make of them something more than members--namely disciples.
Jesus did not baptize multitudes. But He so trained and equipped His disciples that on the day of Pentecost their preaching led to the conversion of more than 3,000. Jesus worked with that small group of disciples, preparing them to receive the Holy Spirit. And when they were ready, the Spirit empowered them in a way never before seen on earth.
The disciples' readiness was the natural consequence of having lived with Jesus in a small group setting for three and a half years.
The apostle Paul was also an effective discipler. He manifested this in his work with Timothy. He took Timothy with him, taught him, and nourished him, until he had enough confidence in Timothy to send him to the troublesome Corinthian church to remind the members of what Paul had taught them (1 Cor. 4:17). Paul taught Timothy, who then taught others, who then could teach others. This principle of careful discipling is God's method for multiplying the church.
How is it possible to turn the homes of your members into churches where the members can be trained as disciples? First of all, the church must know that its pas tor is a disciple. I invested more than 1,000 hours in study and prayer before initiating the small group program at Van Nuys. One thing I learned from church growth experts is that a pastor cannot delegate responsibility for the small group ministry in his church. If an associate or a lay leader is given the job of promoting small groups, this ministry will not reach its full potential and will most probably fizzle and fail. I believe that even district pastors must find a way by which their churches come to know that their pastor is the key individual in the plan and that the leaders of the small groups are all working under the counsel and direction of the pastor. My people see me as a specialist to whom they can come day or night to receive training, equipping, and inspiration to become great leaders to carry on the church's work of soul winning and discipling.
Developing a small group ministry
In our churches we have implemented the small group ministry by following the 11 steps described below.
1. Develop a nucleus of consecrated Christians who will become disciples of the pastor. The pastor should train and equip these members as though his very ministry depended on them. "It should not be the object of the laborer to present a large list of sermons he has preached, but what has he done in the work of saving souls, of training workers?"5
2. Organize small groups according to geographical areas. Groups should include 8 to 12 members, and should meet weekly for fellowship, Bible study, and missionary planning. See the accompanying box for more information about specific activities.
3. Assign each group member a responsibility. For example: director, assistant, secretary, treasurer, personal ministries director, telephone secretary, deacon, light bearer, Sabbath school representative, youth representative, etc.
4. Develop a job description for each member's responsibility. When we did this, our groups multiplied their effectiveness.
5. Assign elders as supervisors of a number of group leaders. Expect regular reports from the leaders and elders.
6. Develop groups of groups that form congregations that meet periodically.
7. Have each group establish a missionary territory to work weekly. The Van Nuys church was able to give almost 500 Bible studies a week by following this plan, and to baptize more people in one baptism than the church had ever won in any previous year.
8. Develop two strategies: one to win souls, the other to retain and nurture souls in the church. Our strategies have 15 points each. My goal is to see to it that my leaders become masters of these strategies.
9. Hold training seminars regularly to challenge and inspire leaders and elders.
10. Have each group hold its own evangelistic meetings each year. This is a yearly festival that cannot be missed. In Van Nuys one of our groups baptized 26 people after their meetings.
11. Suggest that each group member make a covenant in relation to his group. This will be more effective if you first preach a sermon on the meaning and importance of covenants.
We have found it important to avoid confusing these small groups with Sabbath school classes. The groups function independently of the Sabbath school class, and the Bible study subjects we cover in the groups almost always center on salvation and discipleship.
When we began our group ministry I didn't dream of the far-reaching effects it would have upon the church members and myself. The small group system impacts, activates, and brings revival to every member. I soon learned that every true leader only leads by serving and that every true servant serves by leading. This spirit shapes the growth of our groups and brings about multiplication. Just as the body develops through the division and multiplication of its cells, so the body of Christ grows and develops through division and multiplication of its cell groups.
The 10 largest churches in the world have grown to their present size through small groups. What a testimony for those of us who have known that "the presentation of Christ... in small gatherings in private houses is often more successful in winning souls to Jesus than are sermons delivered in ... churches.6
Recently I attended a seminar in Seoul, Korea, at the world's largest church. The church has 500,000 members, and 25,000 small groups. Pastor Paul Yonggi Cho describes it as "the largest church and yet at the same time, because of its small groups, the smallest one." While sitting in that immense sanctuary many thoughts ran through my mind. I thought that the largest church in the world preached to me a sermon reminding me that humans are deeply religious people, and as such will always respond to the beauty of the word of God regardless of who brings it to their door.
When I attended midweek service at Cho's church I had to admit with sadness that there were more people present in one of the prayer meetings than there are members in my entire conference at home. It is sad to me that those who do not have the great Seventh-day Adventist message are taking advantage of the established principles of evangelism to win multitudes, while we sit back and neglect to use the principles God has given us.
There is still time. God invites us to use the homes of our members to fish for men and women where they are.
"Let there be in every church well organized companies of workers to labor in the vicinity of that church... .Let this work be entered into without delay. . . . When such forces are set to work in all our churches there will be renovating, reforming, energizing power in the churches, because the members are doing the very work that God has given them to do.6
1 Ellen G. White, Christian Service (Washington,
D.C. Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1947), p.
228. (Italics supplied.)
3____,Testimonies for the Church (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol.
5, p. 256.
4 ____, Christian Service, p. 72.
5____, Medical Ministry, (Mountain View,
Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1932), p. 301.
6____, Gospel Workers (Washington, D. C.:
Review and Herald Pub. Assn. 1948), p. 193.
7____, "Missionary Work," Review and Herald,
Sept. 29, 1891.