Small groups in churches go by a range of different names, such as home groups, cell groups, community groups, connect groups, Bible study groups, fellowship groups, gospel groups… even growth groups. What is the purpose of a growth group? And is it distinct from any of the other groups?
The first thing to say is that something’s name doesn’t always correspond to its purpose. I’ve belonged to study groups that have had lots of fun drinking coffee and playing pool but have had very little to do with study! You can join a fellowship group for the purpose of fellowship and then discover that everyone in the group has a different understanding of fellowship. Are gospel groups just for people looking into the gospel? Are Bible study groups purely about Bible study? What about prayer? And discussion? And food?!
It seems that our task is to work out what purpose we want groups to have and then shape them around this purpose. Our church has gone with the name ‘growth groups’ for a couple of reasons. The first is that we see our small group ministry fitting into a pathway of church involvement. It goes like this:
Connect —> Grow —> Serve
Our desire is to see people connected to God through the good news of Jesus Christ. We’re also keen for people to build real connections with each other centred on fellowship with God. This starts as people come along to church and get involved in one of our weekly congregations. But it doesn’t stop here. Real connections are developed as people engage with each other in meaningful relationships. People grow as they learn from God’s word and apply it in their lives. Growth groups provide an important context for people to grow together in living out the implications of the gospel. As people grasp the gospel more and more, so they will be moved to serve God and others with the gifts God has given them. At the risk of oversimplifying something that is not simple, our pathway corresponds to these three areas of involvement:
Church —> Growth Group —> Ministry Team
The second reason we’ve opted for the name ‘growth groups’ is that it highlights the purpose of transformation and changed lives in our groups. We don’t want ‘inertia’ groups, ‘atrophy’ groups, or ‘static’ groups! Our goal is for people to grow together as they share in God’s word. Growth focuses on outcomes, not simply inputs. A Bible study group can be committed to inwardly digesting the Scriptures, but give no evidence of any fruit of change in people’s lives. The purpose of our groups is to produce change in people and change in our church as we grow together in the likeness of Christ.
What I’ve stated indicates that the purpose of our growth groups is in step with the purpose of our church. They run in parallel. So why add growth groups within the church? The answers are mainly pragmatic. Growth groups have certain advantages.
Learning from the Bible
In a growth group, learning from the Bible is a relational experience. We explore together, discuss together, question one another, disagree from time to time, help each other, learn together, and push each other to apply what we’ve learned. It’s a very different dynamic from either personal Bible reading or listening to a sermon. More time can be given to the ‘how did you come up with that idea’ question. Our methods of reading, interpretation, and application are on view. We can help hone each others’ abilities in handling the Bible well. Application can become more focused, specific and targeted. We can help one another follow up on our commitments to change. And we can pray specifically that we will be transformed by what we learn.
People learn in a variety of ways and a growth group is better equipped to accommodate these differences than a sermon. A key factor of groups is that people get to talk – to verbalise their ideas – and this helps them to distil what they’re learning. Getting ideas out in the open allows the opportunity for the group to be involved in fine tuning, correcting, or even total changing a person’s mind. Whereas a sermon should (hopefully) remain on topic, groups can agree to follow helpful and fruitful tangents.
We’re keen for our growth groups to be places of prayer. Not cursory ‘opening and closing’ prayers, but the group coming together before God our Father, bringing their requests to him. Such prayers can be shaped by the Bible passages we’ve been studying. They can openly reflect what’s going on in people’s live. They can focus on supporting particular people and ministries (such as a missionary linked to the group). Growth groups are a good opportunity to model prayer and encourage prayerfulness among the members. And it’s very encouraging to follow up on answers to prayer.
Improving your serve
A large church can be overwhelming at times. Maybe it seems like everything is under control and your contribution isn’t needed. The reality is usually the exact opposite, but it’s not always easy to see where to start. Growth groups are a good place to begin because the needs are more apparent and you don’t need to ask too many questions to work out how to respond. You could lead a study, organise a meals roster, offer hospitality to others, visit a sick member, offer to read the Bible or pray with someone, arrange a social outing and more. These groups are are a good way to get practice in different ministry areas and you can make it purposeful by asking your leader for support, advice and feedback.
Promoting the gospel
Our desire is for people to hear the great news about Jesus and respond by trusting him with their lives. God uses us to share the message and to live it out. We’re keen for every member of the church to be engaged in promoting the gospel as they have opportunity. Growth groups can support this happening in a number of ways. The most obvious is that we can be praying regularly for people. We can keep asking God to save our family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, and others. We can also encourage one another to make the most of the opportunities that come our way. The group could consider organising an event to share the good news of Jesus. In some cases, we might even have the opportunity to welcome enquirers into our groups so that can learn and observe what it means to be Christian.
A growing pastoral network
Many churches view their pastor as the ‘hired gun’. It’s his job to run the church, teach the Bible, reach the lost, nurture the new believer, be the caretaker, visit the sick, resolve conflicts, and… pretty much do anything else that needs doing! Who’d sign up? This is a very unbiblical picture of church and it’s a guaranteed recipe for burning out pastors and stopping church growth. By contrast the New testament envisages the church as a body where each part works together for the sake of the whole.
15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Growth groups provide smaller relational environments that enable more personal interaction between people. We get to discover what’s going on in each other’s lives. We listen and talk and share ideas and thoughts and questions. We can ask each other for help. We can offer encouragement. We can carry each other’s burdens. This is more than a microcosm of social welfare. It’s the opportunity to put God’s word into practice in our lives with each other.
Little church – big church
The bottom line is our growth groups are church. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. (Matthew 18:20) People are gathered together with God and each other, centred on the Bible, responding in prayer, encouraging and spurring one another on to good works. Whatever guidance the Scriptures give us on church, we’d do well to apply to growth groups. Spiritually speaking growth groups are church.
However, it would be a mistake to see growth groups as independent churches. They are dependent and interdependent on other relationships. These groups are a subset of a bigger church. They share relationship with other groups that are also subsets of the church. The church has a vision for ministry that is supported and activated by the growth groups. They need each other. The church leadership should be committed to strengthening and encouraging growth groups to fulfil their purpose. Growth groups should be committed to contributing to the whole church fulfilling its purpose. Little church and big church – working together for God’s glory.
Colin Marshall, Growth Groups
Andy Stanley & Bill Willits, Creating Community