Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.Margaret Mead1
Let’s be honest here. We all know there is a gap between who we are today and who we want to be. Maybe you want to develop a new skill, improve a relationship, or get in shape. But we all want to grow into that better version of ourselves.
Christians aren’t immune from this desire. In fact, the entire Jesus movement has focused on learning and growing.2 One of the primary places where growth occurs is within small groups, where learners gather together to learn about and practice the teachings of Jesus.
The first Christian small group was made up of Jesus and the twelve men he invited to follow him. Many of the first churches included small groups of disciples that met in each other’s homes; in the second and third century, many devout Christians even moved to the desert to explore new versions of Christian community in small groups.3 During the Middle Ages, small bands of Celtic missionaries would travel through the cities of Europe, stopping just long enough to start a new church.4
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, churches began to organize small groups specifically to help Christians grow. Phillip Jacob Spener, a Lutheran pastor, organized small groups in which Christians discussed the practical implications of their faith.5 When the Methodist Church began, it was made up of small groups that came together to share stories of how God had been at work in their lives.6 These models provide the inspiration for the small groups that help Christians grow today.
In sum, Christians have been using small groups for almost two thousand years. What exactly is it about small groups that helps Christians grow?
1. Jesus’ Way of Life Cannot Be Learned Alone.
Jesus’ teachings fall into two categories: how to develop yourself spiritually, and how to treat other people. Neither of these can be learned alone. They require practice partners who can provide insight, advice, and encouragement. Small groups are tried-and-true places to find such support.
2. Support Encourages Change.
We each have hurtful, immature, and even dangerous behaviors that we need to change. Change comes as we practice the teachings of Jesus. But it’s hard work, and it is nearly impossible if we’re trying to do it alone.
James, one of the first church leaders, addressed this issue by encouraging those who were learning the way of Jesus to “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”7 Confession is the act of articulating what is wrong. A small group is a safe place to confess and receive encouragement. We come to know the hopes and dreams and struggles of the other group members. With their support, we can grow into healthier behaviors that are more in line with the teachings of Jesus.
3. Relationships Lead to Sharing.
One of the biggest barriers to growth is “stuff.” Much of modern-day culture seems obsessed with accumulating new things. For many, there is no greater fear than losing all of their possessions. A tangible sign of growth is when a Jesus-follower learns to trust God more than they trust stuff.
When we share, we are trusting that God will continue to provide for us. When we receive what others have shared with us, we recognize that we have been given an unearned gift from God. Slowly but surely, sharing helps us to move beyond our self-focused obsession with stuff. Small groups provide a place to make meaningful relationships where such sharing can take place.
4. Mission Happens in Small Groups.
What if Frodo had gone to Mordor without the Fellowship? Or Luke had tried to rescue Leia without Obi-Wan, Han, and Chewbacca? Or Bill had attempted to go on an excellent adventure without Ted? These stories are great because they demonstrate the relationships that develop when groups go on mission together.
One powerful way that Christians grow from small groups is by working toward shared goals and common causes. A group might work together to provide housing for a homeless person or meals for a new parent. They might band together to serve a fellow group member with a serious health issue. Or they may bond over pursuing similar goals, like developing a spiritual discipline.
When small groups unite to accomplish a meaningful mission, growth is the unavoidable result.
5. Small Groups Take Church Beyond Sunday.
Imagine you went to the gym for one hour a week. While it’s better than nothing, you’d probably just end up sore, tired, and sweaty without enjoying many long-term effects. Losing weight and gaining muscle require a good diet and regular exercise.
If a person’s spirituality is limited to one hour a week, it will be difficult for them to grow. A small group leads to growth by creating more opportunities to come to know God, to practice the teachings of Jesus, and to grow spiritually.
How to Join a Small Group
Perhaps you want to grow as a person and are intrigued by the idea of sharing or confessing. Are you hungry for the deep relationships that grow out of a shared mission?
Join a small group. You could find one by visiting a local church or talking to friends who are involved in Christian communities. You could even start your own by using the materials found on this website. All it takes is a few friends who want to grow.
- Attributed to Mead by Frank Sommers in Curing Nuclear Madness (London: Methuen, 1984), 158.
- The original name for Jesus’ followers was “disciples,” which could also be translated “learners.”
- James Goehring, Ascetics, Society and the Desert (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 1999).
- Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1995).
- Ernst Stoeffler, “Pietism,” in Encyclopedia of Religion 2nd ed. vol. 10 (New York: MacMillan Reference USA, 2005), 7141–7144.
- Frank Baker, “Methodist Churches,” in Encyclopedia of Religion 2nd ed. vol. 9 (New York: MacMillan Reference USA, 2005), 5996–5998.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, James 5:16.
- Photo Credit: Urs Siedentop / Stocksy.com.