As effective as a wide variety of church programs may be in providing fellowship and ministry opportunities to members and casual seekers, small groups seem to corner the market on successful intentionality in true disciple-making. There is evidence to support that when it comes to small group ministries, churches that prioritize holistic small groups or home groups are verifiably more healthy than churches that do not prioritize holistic small groups [see Natural Church Development, Christian Schwarz]. Healthy churches have very definite ideas about why they do what they do and what they are trying to communicate and accomplish. Their small groups are not accidental or occasional. The leaders of such churches do not see holistic groups as just another option. They recognize that these groups create and sustain dynamic Christian community—which is essential to a healthy, biblical ministry. It is what Jesus sought to establish. Both the church leaders and the small group leaders must carry this vision and knowledge, which are essential to the success and health of the ministry.
In many churches, the small group coach, who oversees several groups or a system of groups, is the linchpin in the small group ministry. Unless the pastor also serves as the coach (as in a smaller church), the small group coach is the "network server" or the point person between the pastoral staff and the group leaders. As such, the small group overseer must see the vision clearly. Sometimes the Coach must remind the support system, above and below, of the holistic goals that keep the ministry focused and effective. The purpose of this article is to equip the small group coach to better understand, hence to easily communicate, the distinctives of holistic small groups versus traditional or generic small groups.
To begin, let us agree upon two definitions as I will be using them. The first is the term 'healthy:'
This implies full vitality, freedom from disease, a soundness of behavior and balance. Used as in a healthy church, ministry, or group, I speak of a vitality, freedom, wholeness and biblical soundness that bespeak a vital connection of the body to the Head, Christ. Healthy churches breath an atmosphere of grace as opposed to legalism or law.
Unfortunately, many churches are unhealthy. Paul warned Christians about the possibility of disconnecting from the Head (Gal. 5:1, 4; Col. 2:18-19) which leads to spiritually diseased churches (groups). We have all been in churches where men or women have usurped and replaced Christ's headship over the church with their own controlling or dysfunctional headship.
The second term foundational to this article is the word 'holistic:'
By holistic, we simply mean organic (living) wholes, which are more than the sum of their various parts, working together to produce something complete. The whole local church is made up of various ministries and groups of influence. Their healthy relationships in Christ are what bind the group together into a holistic whole, which serves as a vehicle for significant ministry. Scripture brings this into sharp focus:
Ephesians 4:15-16 (NLT)
15 Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. 16 He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.
In these two verses, especially in verse 16, the Holy Spirit, through Paul, gives us two biblical distinctives of holistic small group ministry—Focus and Format. Focus is about the what and why. Format is the how.
First, Paul reveals the desired end. He says that Christ makes the "whole body" fit together perfectly. The Focus is to bring the believers into relationship with Jesus and with one another so that the whole body is "healthy, growing, and full of love." This is what Jesus prayed for in his prayer in John 17. He desired that we would be made one in love in order that the world would come to know us as His disciples. He desired us to so care about and help one another sacrificially that we would create a hunger in others for the same lifestyle. What small group coach would not want to see this kind of body-life at work in the groups for which he or she is responsible?
Focus is easy to lose. We can easily forget what we are about in the day-to-day living with one another. Coaches who clearly see the focus, the vision, of what Christ is doing in our midst need to remind those who serve in this significant ministry of the what and why of holistic small group ministry.
Second, what holistic groups do stems from the practical application of the scriptures that we are examining. We find in the Ephesians passage the Format for holistic small groups, the how, "As each part does its own special work."
The passage reveals several examples of holistic practice:
Holistic small groups share ministry with all the gifts. Unlike a Bible study group, where usually only one gift is functioning—the gift of teaching—holistic groups involve each person contributing the gift that the Holy Spirit chooses to distribute among them. Dr. Ralph Neighbour, a cell church pioneer, remarked on several occasions that in order to properly understand 1 Cor. 14, specifically verse 26, familiarity with the form of the early church is essential. The NIV translation gives us a good sense of the form:
1 Corinthians 14:26 (NIV)
26 What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.
If this verse were speaking to the entire public church meeting, how would it be possible for everyone to share a piece of the worship or celebration of Christ? The Jerusalem church had at least 3,000 in attendance. Where would be the priesthood of ALL the believers which holistic groups take so seriously? The above text most likely speaks to the smaller house group in which 10-15 or 20 or so people came together and each one took part, as Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 14 suggest. This understanding would be in keeping with Paul's account of how the churches met in Acts 20:20 and other places (Ac. 5:42; Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; 1 Tim. 5:13; Philem. 2) .
In holistic small groups, Christ is invited to be at the center of the meeting. The group expects the Holy Spirit to move in such a way that through speaking truthfully to one another, ministry happens. People are changed, healed, challenged, encouraged, and comforted. This seems to be the format that produced an early church that spread throughout the known world.
The most effective holistic groups eschew a meeting mentality. They prefer, instead, to think in terms of lifestyle. They live life together beyond the weekly meeting day. They help one another with moving or shopping or child care, sometimes gathering to accomplish some definite purpose for one of its members or families.
Small groups are effective and healthy when they are BOTH inward and outward by intention. They actively seek to lead others into Christian community through a relationship with Christ their Savior. Each person reaches out to his or her field of influence—those individuals or families, either at work, school, or in the neighborhood—to which Christ has assigned him or her.
"speaking the truth"
in genuine love for one another—v. 15-16.
The Spirit is saying through Paul, "be real". Be transparent. Speak the truth. Do it because of and in a way that demonstrates your love for one another. Show the world that you care about each other. Confess your faults one to another in order that you may be healed (Jam. 5). That is God's people living God's will and God's word together, practically. Paul goes on, in verses Ephesians 5:17-6:9, to spell out the nuts and bolts of this truth-speaking and Christ-likeness that should characterize believers' relationships.
The local church grows in health and quantity when holistic small groups understand and live their biblical distinctives of Focus and Format. As a small group coach or overseer, God can and will use your understanding of these two holistic small group distinctives to encourage and promote the purposes of Christ for your local church and the community to which your groups reach out.