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Feb 1, 2018

Small Groups: An Ancient Idea for a Digital Age

Jeff Cavins

Jesus came to earth to establish his kingdom and manifest his kingdom in his works, but that work was not finished when he died and rose from the dead. It was to be continued by his followers—by his disciples. Significantly, the Bible states that they were not expected to carry out this work unilaterally but rather as community and family—in fellowship with one another—supporting, encouraging, and correcting one another.

And so we see from the very beginning—with the disciples continuing Christ’s mission—a connection between that mission and his followers’ relationships with each other. Small gatherings of Christians were very important for the development of the early Church. In Acts 2:41-42, St. Luke writes, “So those who received his word were baptized…. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Implicit in this statement is the critically important idea of the small group setting of the early Church that deserves our attention. It wasn’t just at the temple or a meeting hall where teaching took place. It was small groups getting together in house churches. There they would receive the apostles’ teaching and fellowship with one another. With that powerful bond of fellowship they encouraged one another in the midst of the journey of faith, and exchanged ideas and insights. This is the source from which authentic communities develop.

In my work with The Great Adventure and Ascension for almost three decades, I have witnessed hundreds of parishes transform and become vibrant in large part by simply following the small group model of the early Church. Reclaiming this model may be the single most important thing we can do to strengthen the Church today.

Here are seven good reasons to make small group experiences the center of your faith formation efforts:

1. Affirmation as a Member of the Body of Christ

You’re not alone. You have a common experience with other people. That’s a very important dynamic when you’re trying to live counter to the culture. When there are others trying to do that and you meet with them and learn, pray, fellowship, and even share a meal with one another, that’s affirming. The small group gives a place to ask questions, see other people in their journey, and the successes they’ve enjoyed, or the struggles they’ve encountered.

2. Healing and Support

If you find yourself in a struggle, you have a group of people whom you’re closer to, and with whom you might be able to share. This is especially true for men’s and women’s small groups, because it offers the opportunity to share with other men and women, and ask for advice as you might do from your brother or sister.

Also, when there’s somebody in the group that’s hurt, or when there’s trauma in someone’s life, the people in the group surround them and are able to bring healing, hope, and support to the one that is hurting.

3. A Witness for Children

Often small groups will meet with their children. When children see their parents praying and in fellowship with other adults discussing the Faith, this has a lasting influence on the children’s longevity in their church community. This witness has a profound impact on their own attachment to their church.

4. Building Community

Within a parish setting, when there are small self-organizing groups studying the Bible and the Faith together, it becomes an ideal way to bring new people and entire families into the parish. In this way, people will begin to see their church as not just a building where we go for the sacraments, but a genuine meeting place for Christian communities.

Also, small groups provide a built-in web of relationships within a parish. When a pastor utilizes small groups he has created a network in which people can immediately find care. It’s almost like little emergency rooms around a parish. The pastor can send quick word to the small groups to pray for a particular issue, or to steer their attention to something that’s timely or really important. There’s an automatic web of communication that arises in a parish through small groups.

5. Fostering Leadership

If we’re all called to be disciples, it also means we’re called to be leaders. A leader has the courage and conviction to say “follow me.” What better way to foster leadership than through small groups where people learn to lead by example? Small groups allow a pastor to interface with a certain number of potential leaders and help form and encourage them so they can serve in the parish.

6. It’s a Good Reason to Get Together with Friends

We live in a society where people have never been more connected thanks to social media. But by people’s own admission, we are lonelier than we’ve ever been, we feel more separate than we’ve ever felt before, and we’re not created to live that way. We are created to be social beings. We’re created for relationship. “We’re radically relational,” as Catholic evangelist and speaker Kelly Wahlquist puts it. We desire to be with other people, to receive the comfort and encouragement of other people.

One of the reasons people won’t go to a church study is because it’s impersonal. They don’t know a lot of the people there. But a small group allows you to get together with people you may know, with whom you may have something in common. Then you can begin to study the Faith from that place of fellowship.

7. Small Groups Mean More Groups

If a parish announces that there will be a study on Mary in Room 102 on Tuesday night at seven, the church is asking many people experiencing different things in their life, at different times, at different levels, to all be available at one time in one place for one topic. The odds that everybody who needs that study will be able to meet at seven are slim. You’re asking a very busy, diverse group of people to fit into one time slot. This is one of the reasons many people don’t attend. Their schedule doesn’t allow it.

With small groups and Ascension’s video streaming options, a parish can hold multiple studies in the parish at multiple levels, times, and places, and on multiple topics. We make it easy to start a group and share an amazing experience with others. Meet at your parish. Your home. At school. At a bar, a library, or a prison cell. With friends, co-workers … however, wherever, and with whomever you want. Through our study management tools and video streaming, you can make connections with others anywhere.

The opportunities this helps create for people to encounter Christ in study and formation are almost endless. It’s just dependent upon the organization, the leadership training, and the level of commitment. The beautiful thing about Ascension’s study streaming option is that you basically have gone from one restricted time, space, and topic, and you have multiplied the opportunities in so many ways. We’re seeing parishes that used to have one study twice a year—one in the spring and one in the fall—now having ten in the spring, four in the summer, thirteen in the fall, but they’re smaller groups each accommodating different times and locations.

In terms of running small group studies, video streaming offers churches more powerful and flexible options than ever before. While parishes and groups used to be limited by a finite number of DVD sets they were able to purchase, now the possibilities are virtually unlimited.

Definitely Worth the Effort

All of these reasons, at their heart, are about evangelization. Small groups are the ideal setting to encounter Christ, and it has been this way since the dawn of Christianity. The first Christians knew the value of relationship, not just with Christ but also with one another. It’s easy to forget the power of genuine fellowship in our fast-paced, media-saturated culture, but those who take the time to come together and help form one another in the Faith do more for themselves and their community than they can ever know.

This article was first published in Ascension’s 2017 Faith Formation Catalog.

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