Small groups in evangelism

Small group ministries along with evangelism can create more lasting results and more mature disciples

John W. Fowler, Ph.D., is the executive secretary of the Kentucky-Tennessee Conference in Goodlettsville, Tennessee.

For the first time I have found real meaning and purpose in life. I now have a new life. I've discovered something more. A group of people who genuinely care about me. From the acceptance and support I experienced, I have learned what it means to be loved and valued as a person. I know God has led me to the Adventist Church."

That was the testimony of Brian Effington. Brian was one of the 60 baptized at the end of a 1993 evangelistic series. The meetings were coordinated by Frank Cordona, a chaplain at Tennessee Christian Medical Center in Nashville. But Frank had a different burden, a new strategy. The meetings began as usual. But on the second night, Frank's strategy came into play. For some time I had felt the need of small-group ministry in public evangelism, and that was Frank's strategy too. To those at tending, we offered the opportunity of studying in small groups.

One hundred fifty indicated in writing their need and desire to participate in the small-group program. We asked them to join in one of six need-oriented groups: depression, addiction, family differences, youth conflicts, health problems, and spiritual needs. The response was poor. After a "camp council" we concluded that fear was the reason. Consequently, we decided to have general group ministries without labels. That worked!

The groups met each evening at 7:15 in the dressing rooms of the building in which the meetings were being conducted. Thirty minutes were allocated for the groups each night. While the small groups endeavored to meet the requested needs of the participants, our strategy was to make the groups an integral part of the evangelistic meeting proper. At 7:50 the small groups moved from the dressing rooms to the main auditorium for the musical pro gram and the presentation of the evening message. Of the total baptisms we had at the end of the crusade, 80 percent had attended the small-group ministries. Brian Effington was one of those.

Small groups: John Wesley's success

Small group ministry is not new. It has been part of the church from the beginning. In relatively recent history John Wesley used the small-group approach successfully in his evangelistic work. After Wesley preached and an interest was awakened, he placed the respondents in small groups where lay pastors could deal with the individual questions and problems of those attending.

Wesley's small-group meeting or "class meeting" is "the keystone of the entire Methodist edifice." 1

For Wesley, these small groups became the place where an individual could find the key ingredients to a successful Christian life. Wesley trained each group as a means of ministering to the individual members of that group. The groups formed the center for devotional life, Bible study, and prayer. They were also the basis of pastoral care. The group members shared with each other their bereavement and grief; failure and success; sickness and health; problems of sex, marriage, and parenting; the agony of poverty and economic injustice, and even in some places, political oppression. Encouragement and help was given as needed. Wesley's groups even helped members find jobs. Thus the groups became the centers of Bible study, prayer, Christian service, moral and social reform.2

The class meetings formed the corner stone of Methodist discipline a prime secret of the success of the Methodist revival movement. The classes normally met once every week for an hour or so. Each person reported on their spiritual experience and any particular needs or problems they had. Help was given as needed, with prayers for all. Wesley writes that "advice or reproof was given as need required, quarrels were made up, misunderstandings removed; and after an hour or two spent in this labor of love, they concluded with prayer and thanksgiving." 3

Small groups: areas of ministry

Learning from Wesley, we seek to make our evangelistic series a genuine ministry to the attendees and their special needs. Small-group ministries is an important means of accomplishing that goal. How many areas of ministry can small groups address during a public evangelistic crusade? The answer depends on the available talents in the church or churches associated with the evangelistic meeting and the needs of the people. But there are some key needs that can be met in small groups, such as the following.

Spiritual problems. We believe that most problems have a spiritual source. Hence the best remedy is the teaching and application of the principles of the Bible. Bringing people into a relationship with Jesus and other Christians is our goal. We work to help people claim Christ's victory, Christ's wisdom, Christ's peace and Christ's joy as their own. This is the best help the small groups can provide.

Fellowship. Small-group discussions may also address a wide variety of problems found among those who attend the evangelistic meetings. The problems may vary: addiction, discouragement, family stresses, anxiety, and loneliness. However, the over riding purpose of a small group should be to provide fellowship, encouragement, and support for the individuals. A genuine friendship and fellowship can be a source of strength to group members.

Depression. Depression is a major problem in today's society. In the United States at least 25 percent or more of the population suffer from some form of depression. Also, many are dependent on some form of chemical to cope with their circumstances. Usually however, a better treatment for depression is cognitive therapy, since most depression is caused by negative habits of thought. Research shows that the cognitive approach that seeks to heal by building positive thought patterns in the mind is helpful in dealing with depression.4 Small-group support systems can be a potent agency in developing such positive thoughts as courage, faith, hope, and joy.

If problems are too serious to be dealt with in the small group, referrals to professionals will be needed. However, these individuals can still continue to be part of the evangelistic small groups.

Illness. An area that needs special attention is physical illness. Where it is possible, we should run a medical health-screening program in conjunction with an evangelistic meeting. Literature and programs in simple health remedies and sickness prevention should be provided.

Ministry to the poor. Christ constantly focused on ministry to the poor. "Our Lord Jesus Christ came to this world as the unwearied servant of man's necessity." 5 And so should we. Many churches have community service organizations that can provide help during the meetings.

When small groups get involved in such relationship-building ministries, evangelism becomes attractive to those who attend. Meaningful friendships are established, practical help is received, and the people develop a sense of belonging and loyalty to the group and ultimately to the church. Both the preaching and the small-group ministries work together to lead the respondents to a full surrender of their lives to Christ, to a meaningful and purposeful life, and ultimately to baptism and union with the church.

Small groups: a continuing ministry

Small groups formed during an evangelistic campaign do not end with the campaign. They continue after the meetings. They become an integral part of the ongoing life of the church. They continue to provide support for those who are baptized and for those not quite ready to be baptized. Following this plan will result in greater numbers being baptized, more converts remaining in the church, and more involvement of the members in the church's ministry.

1. Howard A. Snyder, The Radical Wesley (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 1980), 38.

2. Blaine Taylor, John Wesley: A Blueprint for Church Renewal (Champaign, 111.: Steven E. Clapp Pub., Grouse Printing, 1984), 24, 25.

3. Wesley's Works, Vol. VIII, 253, 254.

4. See David B. Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy (New York: Wm. Murrill Co., Inc., 1980); Aaron Beck, Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders (New York: International University Press, Inc., 1976), 123; Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1942).

5. Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948), 41.

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John W. Fowler, Ph.D., is the executive secretary of the Kentucky-Tennessee Conference in Goodlettsville, Tennessee.

April 1998

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