A Brief History of Small Groups (part 1)

A Brief History of Small Groups (part 1)

Exploring the development of small groups in the Bible and the history of the Church

Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part article. In Part 2, the author will examine examples of transformational community throughout the history of the Church.

When I first committed my time to learning all I could about the small-group process and its implications for not only the individual, but the church as a whole, the comment I often heard was: "Oh, this is a passing fad. It's the buzz word for the moment, but soon it will all pass."

But with a bit of reflection on the Scriptures, church history, and most certainly the dynamic model Jesus gives us, we soon realize that the small group has been the basis for changing lives for centuries and is here to stay. It is the small-group community where healthy relationships grow, where life stories are shared, and where spiritual growth influences the journey through future life experiences.

Indeed, small-group community is the heart and core for becoming the people of God.

Biblical Snapshots of Small-Group Community

Observing the biblical examples of life together in small groups paints a picture of God's character and existence. Let's consider a few situations where it is clear that God has ordained a small group of his people to gather for his perfect purpose.

The Trinity

From the very beginning of creation, God has existed in triune community. Although the Trinity is not explicitly stated in the Bible, it is implied throughout all Scripture (Genesis 1:1-2, 26; Luke 1:35-37; John 14:16-26; John 17; and Revelation 1:4-6, for example). We vividly observe the action between the three persons of God: God the Father, the One who sustains and from whom we derive our purpose; God the Son, the One and Only Redeemer of mankind; and God the Holy Spirit, the One who enlightens, comforts, and sanctifies.

The three persons of one Holy God are entwined throughout creation and the fall, and are at the very heart of the plan of redemption through Jesus' victory over death. A triune God, the oneness of Deity and the plurality of Persons, interdependent relationships, offers the hope we have today.

God's Word is a timeless truth. As we come together in our small groups, we should strive to know the love of God the Father, the heartbeat of Jesus, God in the flesh, and the power of God's enabling Spirit. We should yearn to be imitators of God, longing for life-transformation through spiritual renewal.


Think about Noah and his group of seven. The Lord grieved over the wickedness on the earth and his heart was filled with pain (Genesis 6:5-6). But Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time and he walked with God. Noah and his three sons found favor with the Lord, and our mighty, loving God chose these men and their wives to renew his creation. They existed in cramped quarters with numerous animals, bridging their unique characteristics and environments, and waited for the moment God would release them from the high waters to the drying soil. (I would imagine there was cause for serious conflict-management skills).

Popular songs and verses most often paint the picture of 40 agonizing rainy days within the confines of this dwelling, with a few carefully selected animals two by two. Upon careful study, one realizes that in fact it was about a year and four months, and many more animals than the examples of wooden ark masterpieces would suggest. Nevertheless, this was a chosen community—a small group strategically placed on the earth for God's perfect purposes; a community that would lead to the rise of God's people.


God uses community to speak for him as agents of wisdom. Upon observing Moses' leadership demands, Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, advised Moses that he was not indispensable and could not continue with the responsibilities he had undertaken alone or he would be of no help to anyone (Exodus 18:21-26). As a result of Jethro's concern and on his wise advice, Moses selected and trained God-fearing, capable leaders. He appointed them over groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens.

The "Jethro Principle" has been effectively passed down over generations for delegating responsibilities. Community was formed and honored.


In 605 B.C. the young teenager Daniel, along with several other young Jewish men, were victims of the first exile. Transported to a pagan Babylon, Daniel and his three friends—Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (later named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego)—appear to have become what we would consider a small group for mutual encouragement and accountability (Daniel 1:17, 2:17-18). In time, all held prominent positions within the Babylonian government.

As we study their lives in the Book of Daniel, we can surmise that these bonded friends stayed close together, helping one another through difficult life experiences. They experienced a trusted, Spirit-enabled community of four that honored God for more than 70 years. It is evident that God honored their witness and faithfulness throughout the years. This healthy small group of friends, obviously committed to one another, never wavered from their belief and behavior in the profound truth that God is sovereign. As a result, they were significantly blessed. How difficult, if not impossible, it would have been to survive alone.


The example we see modeled by Jesus in the New Testament has become the inspiration for small-group ministry throughout history. Jesus selected this diverse small group of 12 men whom he trained to one day take over his ministry and begin to spread Christianity throughout the world (Mark 3:13-19). Their basic training was built around an accountability group where they learned by watching Jesus as an example. They shared in leadership responsibilities with on-the-job training and were evaluated through reporting back in debriefing opportunities (Mark 6:7, , 30).

At times the disciples appeared to be slow learners. Isn't it easy to read about their lack of understanding, their doubts, their "we don't get it responses" and wonder why it was so hard for Jesus to get through to them. But I question whether we would have behaved any differently. God uses the interactions with Jesus and his disciples as a model from which leaders gain powerful insight in forming authentic Christian community.

Fear and doubt entered the lives of Jesus' disciples during his trial, death, and resurrection. Times got tough and they scattered. Sending the message of denial and failure to the crowds, they misunderstood his kingdom and doubted his resurrected appearance. But Jesus, with his eternal love, gathered his "walking wounded" in an upper room and helped them to come to grips with their responses. They learned to trust, forgive, encourage, and support one another as Jesus ministered to them and the Holy Spirit sustained them over the next 50 days. He encouraged them with the promise of his comfort and power in the coming Spirit (John 20:21, 30). Their faith, hope, and trust were renewed.

Talk about renewal! After the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the motley small group was transformed. As the gospel was proclaimed, Scripture states that 3,000 experienced life-transformation as they committed to the Christian faith. Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37 are most descriptive of the confident believers as they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, the breaking of bread, prayer, and the sharing of necessary goods for those in need as they met in the temple courts and in homes.

This article has been excerpted with permission from Renewing Your Church Through Healthy Small Groups , by Diana C. Bennett.

—Diana Bennett is the Director of Small Group Ministries at Christ Chapel on Cape Cod. She also serves as the Consultant for Small Group Development and Training at www.LeadershipTransformations.org.

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A Brief History of Small Groups (part 2)

A Brief History of Small Groups (part 2)

Exploring the development of small groups in the Bible and the history of the Church


The real-life story of the monk who sparked the Reformation and changed western civilization.