The Pioneers of the Small-Group Movement

The Pioneers of the Small-Group Movement

Learning from the past as we head into the future
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Both of these men are still driven today to see the small-group movement return to its original outward orientation—its missional priority. When either talks about what some churches are doing in this direction, he moves to the edge of his chair and talks with passion. While their physical voices may be starting to weaken, their voice in the small-group movement is strong and clear.

Their concern about small groups and the small-group movement turning inward rather than remaining missional in nature has been a real concern for more than 50 years. In 1967, Donald James, director of the Pittsburg Experiment after the retirement of founder Sam Shoemaker, said, "The biggest danger of the small-group movement is that as individual members begin to get 'changed,' they sometimes tend to form pious cliques that meet only to mirror their own goodness, and under the guise of study withdraw from the world rather than seek to be used by God to become his lights in the darkened situations of our communities."

Church of the Saviour experienced a similar pattern as far back as 1958. They found that, over time, in their initial fellowship groups something happened that was "like the going out of a light." Many people were experiencing a new awakening to Christ, O'Connor says, "but although we maintained strong programs of study and prayer, no group did anything significant in the way of service." O'Connor confesses, "We had ceased to be the Christian Church when we were no longer seeking to give our lives away." So over a period of six weeks, the church transitioned to mission groups. These groups had three functions: to nurture its own members, to serve, and to evangelize. O'Connor clarifies that the structure—whatever it was at the time—was irrelevant. The values and goals of the group were much more important than the structure.

The concerns of those early pioneers started to eventuate in the 1980s and 1990s. Coleman says the church-growth movement at that time hijacked the small-group movement. Thus, small groups took on a new purpose: to close the back door. The idea of small groups being merely an assimilation strategy for the church aggravates Coleman. Neighbour shares the feeling, writing: "If small groups become just another church-growth program that fails to help people experience the presence and power of Christ, they will not effectively train followers of Jesus to become disciples that can make disciples."

Some are beginning to question whether the resources provided to make leading groups easier has made them less effective in their true purposes. Brad Himes, who oversees small groups at Broadway Christian Church in Mattoon, Illinois, says, "It seems that at some point in the late 90s things changed. The VHS/DVD curriculum became popular and small groups began looking like a cookie-cutter ministry where most churches adopted it because that was what other churches had been doing." Himes's church decided to go back to the roots of the small-group movement:

We have been blessed at our church with a husband and wife who were trained by Richard Peace from Serendipity back in the 80s. We have incorporated a modified Serendipity study method for our groups where the leaders are trained to prepare and write the curriculum for each week. We no longer rely on DVD curriculum in these new groups; instead the leaders go through an extensive training program and the groups open up the Bible each week, read God's Word, and the leader facilitates discussion through the passage.

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