Cultivating relationships through small groups

It’s OK to be apprehensive about them; it’s not OK to avoid them. Take home this seven-point strategy to successfully reach out to “pre-Adventists.” It’s easy. It’s effective. It’s even exciting.

Mark A. Finley, DDiv, serves as an assistant to the president, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Our editorial team wishes to express appreciation to all the divisions of our world field for giving us access to their best small group resources. These are presented for your enrichment in “Practical Pointers” that follows this article.

The figures are staggering, mind boggling, almost overwhelming. Millions in the Western world are on sensory overload. They are so bombarded with information that it becomes difficult to concentrate on interpersonal relationships. In depth, close, personal relationships can easily be sacrificed on the altar of technology.

The Yankovich Research firm recently reported that the average person is exposed to 3,000 to 20,000 messages every day. We probably absorb only 200 to 300 of those messages. The average 13- to 17-year-old sends 3,339 texts per month or more than 100 texts per day. Whether we are aware of it or not, our brains are registering 40 million bits of sensory information per second.1

Eating at a restaurant one day, my wife and I noticed the couple across from us totally immersed in texting on their cell phones. On another occasion, I noticed a group of teenagers in a shopping mall texting, rather than talking. I was amazed to discover that they were texting each other.

In 2014, 561 billion texts were sent worldwide. The average American spends 9.5 hours before some kind of screen each day: computer screen, TV screen, tablet, or cell phone screen.

Driving me to the airport one day, a young pastor told me how he used social media including Facebook, text messages, and tweets to stay in touch with his friends. I reflected on how Jesus, the divine Son of God, entered the arena of human affairs to touch His friends with His grace and transform us by His love. After affirming the young pastor’s desire to touch the lives of others, and after confirming the significance of social media, I simply said, “There is one thing to remember. God didn’t send a tweet. He sent His Son.”

Small groups give Christianity a face

We live in an age of depersonalization. The individual has largely gotten lost in the tangled web of technology. There is something to be said about a warm embrace, a gentle smile, a listening ear, and a compassionate heart—that’s what small groups offer. Small groups personalize Christianity in a world of depersonalization. They provide an environment for people to share their joys and sorrows, their heartaches and happiness, their struggles and their triumphs. They give Christianity a face.

One of the great values of small group ministry we should consider is that it provides an opportunity for us to listen sensitively to one another’s heart- felt needs, pray together, sing together, and study the Word together. Someone has well said, “You cannot love me if you do not know me.” Small groups provide a warm, personal environment for us to get deeply acquainted with unbelievers. They provide a culture to grow Christ-centered relationships. In the context of small home groups, deep, lasting relationships are formed, and Christ incarnate speaks to human hearts.

Small groups—the basis of New Testament witness

Small groups functioned in the New Testament church in a variety of ways. The second chapter of the book of Acts records the baptism of 3,000 new believers. Acts 2:42 describes the disciples’ strategy to nurture these new converts. “And they continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and prayers.” Notice this significant comment in verse 46: “So continuing with one accord in the temple and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and singleness of heart.”

There are two fascinating expressions in these passages. First, “they continued in the apostle’s doctrine and fellowship.” And second, “they broke bread from house to house.” Both of these expressions indicate that these new believers met in small house groups as bases for their newly discovered faith in Christ. Evidently, they fellowshiped together, prayed together, studied the Word together, and shared a common meal together. These small groups nurtured the new converts and solidified their faith. Becky Scoggins maintains that “new Christians who participate in small groups are more likely to remain church members.”2

Small groups are one of the most effective ways to nurture new converts after a major evangelistic series. They also formed the basis of a vibrant church planting movement in the New Testament. In Acts 10 the apostle Peter held a mini evangelistic campaign in the home of Cornelius. The Holy Spirit worked mightily, and a new body of believers was established. In Acts 16:13–15, the apostle Paul nurtured new converts in Lydia’s house. Even while he was under house arrest in Rome, the apostle Paul established a small group ministry in his own home (Acts 28:28–31).

Small groups are the basis of nurturing new converts, strengthening church members, planting churches, teaching the Word, and evangelizing new converts. They also provide an excellent means of preparing for evangelistic meetings. In major cities throughout the world, we have organized small groups studying the book of Daniel before our evangelistic meetings. Participants in the groups have then been invited to our evangelistic series and have responded in outstanding numbers.

The essentials in small group ministry

The small-group experience is a Bible study class but much more. In each small-group meeting we have the chance to connect with each other on a deeper level. Our small-group meetings provide the opportunity for developing lasting friendships and enduring relationships. Following are seven ways for a small group leader to make the most of your small group experience:

1. Prayerfully consider who you would like to invite to join you in your small group. We suggest groups with a small group team of about four to six church members and the remainder of the group “spiritual seekers.” Encourage each of your small group team members to invite two spiritual seekers who are not church members to the small group. Before launching your group, it is best to spend time meeting with this small group leadership team and discussing the four “basics” of small groups: fellowship, sharing, prayer, and Bible study. Meeting with your leadership team, determine how often your group will meet (weekly, biweekly, or monthly). Determine how long you desire to meet—will you meet for three months, six months, a year? We recommend meeting weekly or at least biweekly for a minimum of six months. This provides enough time to establish meaningful relationships.

2. Invite participants to make a commitment to attend each small-group meeting. If people attend only occasionally, they will not only miss the blessing themselves but will fail to bond with the group and tend either to not be engaged in the discussions or dominate the discussions.

3. Encourage attendees to freely participate in the discussions. They may share their own experience with Jesus. As they share the challenges and joys they face in their spiritual journey, they will be spiritually enriched and will bless others.

4. Assign the group a specific small-group Bible study topic. Encourage group members to share how the Holy Spirit has impressed them with the topic during the week. Without a specific direction, your small group may easily degenerate into discussions without substance and will be difficult to sustain.

5. Invite each member of the group to bring specific prayer requests. Share them with the group. In one of our small groups, an elderly woman who appeared to have a very well-ordered and structured life opened her heart during the prayer request time and shared some major challenges she was having with her son. This provided the entire group the opportunity to rally around her and lift her up in prayer. In our last small group meeting, one of the couples was leaving on a trip to Europe for about two weeks. At the end of the meeting, our entire group gathered around this couple and earnestly prayed for God’s protection in their lives. It was a special time and a bonding experience.

6. Instruct your group to respect others’ opinions and listen sensitively as others share. One of the things that kills small group discussions is if one person dominates the discussions or thinks they have the answers to every question any group member raises. Small groups are an opportunity to grow to together. They are designed to strengthen us on our spiritual journey through life. Dominant, dogmatic, inflexible people can easily destroy the spirit of warm fellowship in a small group.

7. As the group grows to a maximum of 12–15 regular attendees, consider dividing it. It may be difficult for the group to divide, especially when a group bonds and develops deep, meaningful relationships. However, we find it necessary to keep the group focused on its main purpose, that of reaching lost people for Jesus and multiplying your influence so that more and more people can become disciples of Christ.

It’s your turn now

I have a prominent business friend who has a small group in his home on Thursday nights. As far as possible, he schedules his business trips around his small group meetings. He commented that at first he was hesitant to invite people to his home, but his small group has become so spiritually enriching to him that it has now become a vitally important part of his life.

The purpose of all small groups is both to nurture believers and to reach unbelievers. In a postmodern, secular society there are many people who will not attend public evangelistic meetings but will join a small group if they are invited by a friend. Ellen White makes this remarkable statement: “The formation of small companies (groups) as a basis of Christian effort has been presented to me by One who cannot err.”3 My wife, Teenie, and I cherish the opportunities we have to meet with our small group.

Launched this past year, on most Monday evenings we have an average of 18-25 people who meet to fellowship, sing, pray, study God’s Word, and share their lives together. Our group is extremely varied, with ages ranging from 8-78. We have young adults and retirees, white collar professionals and small business owners, computer engineers and tradesmen, and caregivers and homemakers.

About half of our group comprise guests who originally came to our health or biblical seminars. They are developing a deeper understanding of God’s Word as we study the book of Revelation chapter by chapter. We are planning a major evangelistic series in Northern Virginia in the spring, and in preparation for that series we will begin at least an additional four more small groups.

I believe that the evangelistic potential of small groups is enormous. Small groups provide a non-threatening environment in the context of meaningful relationships to share the truths of God’s Word leading to decisions for Christ and His church. It has been such a refreshing spiritual experience for us. You will be richly rewarded as you set aside one night a week, or every two weeks, to participate in your small group. Let me assure you, you are poised on the verge of some of the most spiritually rewarding experiences of your life.

Small groups are a divinely appointed plan to enable church members to grow in Christ and invite their friends to study God’s Word, fellowship, ask questions, and share their lives in a safe, nonthreatening environment. If you have not experienced the spiritual joy of participating in a small group, why not ask God to help you start a small group in your own home? Ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in select- ing a few of your friends to join you in this adventure for Christ. Begin praying about who the Spirit wants you to invite to your small group. The Spirit will bring people into your life and impress you to invite them to join your group.

You will find yourself scheduling most of your other activities around your small group time because it will become a spiritual anchor for your soul. I am confident that the Holy Spirit will refresh your soul and revitalize your experience with Jesus as you launch a small group ministry.

1 “How the Brain Avoids Sensory Overload,” Presentations With Results (blog), accessed November 13, 2017, /how-the-brain-avoids-sensory-overload/.

2 Adventist News Network/Moscow Bureau, “ANN Feature, 300 Churches Project in Euro-Asia Gains Momentum,” Adventist News Network, January 6, 2003, /go/2003-01-06/ann-feature-300-churches-project -in-euro-asia-gains-momentum/.

3 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 7 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1902), 21, 22

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Mark A. Finley, DDiv, serves as an assistant to the president, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

December 2017

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