The Adventist Church in South America has a membership of about 2.7 million.1 Brazil has become the country with the largest number of Seventh-day Adventists in the world, with almost 1.4 million members.2 There are other populous areas within South America that have experienced tremendous growth; such as Peru, with 525,000 members; Bolivia, with 190,000 members; Chile, with 125,000 members; Argentina, with 115,000 members; and Ecuador, with 75,000 members.3 Between 1996 and 2005, church membership in South America increased 180 percent—a very good rate when contrasted with the growth rate of the Adventist Church around the world, which in that same period grew 54 percent.
Though many factors are involved in this growth, we consider the use of small groups as one of the most effective. In the Adventist Church in South America (SAD), approximately 65,000 small groups exist, and great effort has been made so that small groups become the basis of the church’s missionary outreach.4 Small groups have proven to be an effective instrument in God’s hands to bring us more growth—spiritual growth, growth in relationships, growth in preparing disciples, and growth in planting new churches.
We all dream of a church consisting of mature members who have a firm spiritual experience and whose character reflects the image of God. This spiritual maturity results from the daily activity of the Holy Spirit and happens through communion with God, through the study of His Word, and through prayer and witnessing.5 The small group encompasses an environment that facilitates these practices.
Walter and Viviana Lehoux told of their experience in ministerial leadership in the city of Libertador, San Martín, Argentina. A small group was started with seven young people and three adults. They had a strong prayer agenda, they emphasized Bible study, and they adopted the theme: “We all belong to the family of God.” In nine months, the number of participants rose from 10 to 50. As a result of this experience, five people were baptized, four former church members returned to the church, and many of the church’s young people were greatly blessed spiritually.6
Throughout these years of experience with small groups, we have learned that traditional methods of doctrinal Bible studies and preparation for baptism did not bring the desired effect. Many church members, who had already been instructed in doctrine, considered these studies a simple repetition of what they already knew. Therefore, it was understood that the studies presented in small groups, including doctrinal studies, should have a greater Christ-centered and relational emphasis, more directly related to spiritual, social, and emotional needs.
So, in contrast with the more cognitive Bible studies presented by missionary partners and in Bible classes, the small groups began to emphasize the application of these topics to their lives. For example, while the conventional study attempts to prove the validity of the Sabbath, the small groups underscore how to make Sabbath observance relevant to daily life.
Church members are encouraged to bring non-baptized friends and family members to the small group. These individuals, besides attending the small group meetings, also receive a series of doctrinal Bible studies presented by “missionary partners,” or in a Bible class. This combination of applied relational studies in small groups with the cognitive doctrinal studies in preparation for baptism has had positive results.
Without the informality that the small group environment offers, it becomes very difficult to get the church to experience the relational aspects of what it means to be part of a Christian community. Small groups have helped change that dynamic.
Pastor Silvano Barbosa leads a pastoral district in the city of Pirituba, São Paulo, Brazil.This district is witnessing the power of small groups. Barbosa states that one of the main reasons why he uses the small group structure is to model Christ’s method, as described by Ellen White.7 Jesus related to people, He attended to their necessities, He won their trust, and then He invited them to follow Him.
Using Christ’s method in the small group means practicing mutual love and fraternal care as described by Paul in the expression, “bearing with one another” (NKJV), a concept that Bible authors mentioned 75 times.8
Commenting on the so-called social meetings of primitive Adventism, similar to the current small groups, Ellen White states, “What is the object of assembling together? Is it to inform God, to instruct Him by telling Him all we know in prayer? We meet together to edify one another by an interchange of thoughts and feelings, to gather strength, and light, and courage by becoming acquainted with one another’s hopes and aspirations; and by our earnest, heartfelt prayers, offered up in faith, we receive refreshment and vigor from the Source of our strength. These meetings should be most precious seasons and should be made interesting to all who have any relish for religious things.”9
Pastor Barbosa speaks with enthusiasm of the results: strong unity among members and greater member involvement in evangelism. In one year, he baptized 109 people. Backsliding, he adds, is practically nonexistent.10
The main objective of a small group is to make disciples,11 facilitated by an informal environment leading to more participation. Those in the general church environment, who previously didn’t get involved because of the lack of opportunities or because of shyness, will, in a small group, become involved in ministry, putting their gifts to work. In the SAD, we are starting a project for making disciples, with small groups as a basic component of our outreach.
This discipleship cycle has the objective of finding the unconverted, leading the individual to become a member of the church, and then following the individual through a process of maturity until this new disciple becomes able to reproduce other disciples.12
The multiplication of disciples results, of course, in growth. From 1998 to 2000, Dionisio Guevara established between 70 and 150 small groups in his pastoral districts in Peru. With this work methodology, he multiplied disciples and churches; church attendance grew, and some 700 members were baptized each year. Tithe and offerings increased in the groups, and this brought a fourfold increase in resources. Several worship services were necessary in his churches to be able to accommodate so many members.13
Growth in new churches
Actually, “the most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven is planting new churches.”14 We need to have a strategy that leads us to advance in this direction with small groups as a valuable tool to reach this objective. I agree with the affirmation of Dr. Emílio Abdala that “every small group is a potential church.”15 In the SAD, in locations where small groups are more firmly established, this truth reflects the increased number of new congregations.
We can cite three experiences as examples. In the Northeast Brazil Union Mission (NeBUM), there are approximately 290,000 members and 13,000 small groups, equivalent to an average of 22 members per group. This union established the goal of planting one thousand congregations during one quinquennium. From 2004 to 2007, they established 800 new congregations; and small groups have contributed immensely to this work.16 Another union, the North Peru Union Mission (NPUM), with approximately 320,000 members, has 9,500 small groups, an average of 33 members per small group. Between 2007 and 2008, this union established 40 new congregations.17 A total of 72 new congregations were organized—an average of 24 per year—in the Santa Catarina Conference (SCC) in South Brazil between 2000 and 2002, when small groups became the center of activities.
Small groups have been a strong ally in the establishment of new congregations in the SAD territory, opening the way for the creation of new pastoral districts and, consequently, the creation of new conferences and missions.18
Because they work so well, the SAD will continue to take more steps toward the implementation of small groups. In the past two years, two documents have explained the central role of small groups in the region. The documents include a vision statement: “That small groups characterize the lifestyle of the church and function as the basis for the relational community, spiritual growth and integral fulfillment of the mission according to spiritual gifts.”19
On November 2–5, 2008, the first Small Group Forum will be held for SAD leaders, including SAD administrators, departmental directors, area administrators, local area presidents, and their personal ministries departmental directors.
Discipleship, member retention, and integral church growth still need much improvement in the SAD territory. However, given how well they are working in this part of the world, small groups should be a fundamental part of the process.
1 Data from the Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook 2008.
2 Alberto R. Timm, “Primórdios do adventismo no Brasil,” Revista Adventista (Brazil), Feb. 2005, 14.
3 Data from the Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook 2008.
4 See Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 7 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1948), 21, 22.
5 See Ephesians 4:11–16.
6 Walter Lehoux and Viviana Lehoux, Em las manos de uno que no falla (Buenos Aires: Asociación Casa Editora Sudamericana, 2007), 12.
7 Ellen G. White, Christian Service (Takoma Park, MD: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1947), 119.
8 See, for example, Colossians 3:12–16.
9 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 2 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1948), 578.
10 Information collected in personal interview at Brazil Adventist University—Engenheiro Coelho Campus on July 21, 2008.
11 David Cox, Pense em grande, pense em grupos pequenos (Almargem do Bispo, Portugal:
Publicadora Atlântico, 2000), 80.
12 The discipleship cycle was elaborated upon after several months of study with representatives from throughout the SAD and it was voted in the Plenary Executive Committee held May 12–15, 2008.
13 Isabel Rode and Daniel Rode, Crescimento—chaves para revolucionar sua igreja, 63.
14 C. Peter Wagner, Plantar igrejas para a grande colheita (São Paulo: Abrapress, 1993), 11.
15 Emílio Abdala, Guia de plantio de igreja (Guarulhos, SP: Parma, 2007), 90.
16 Information furnished through telephone conversation on July 23, 2008, with Evaron Donato, union personal ministries leader.
17 The NPUM began its activities in January 2005.
18 From 2007 to 2008, a total of 174 new pastors began their pastoral ministries in the SAD
churches, and in January 2009, five new fields will be beginning activities.
19 The first action was on November 9, 2005, and the
second in May 2007.