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

Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part article. In Part 1, the author explored examples of small-group life found in the pages of Scripture. Below she examines the presence of transformational community throughout the history of the Church.

The Protestant Reformation

Through the passing of time, we see strong examples of small-group renewal. Consider the Reformation of the 16th century, for example. Spearheaded in Germany by Martin Luther (1483-1546) and supported by many others, the reformers sought renewal and change within the church.

Through a revitalization of God's Word, the reformers confronted the existing church and its strong focus on papal and sacramental authority and human tradition. The thought of "Scripture Alone" for justification was a severe contradiction to the existing church and its teaching. Luther's vision was to bring the truth of Scripture to the common person. Grace was God's gift to those who placed their faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ; no strings attached. Rather than seeing reformation within the church, Luther was excommunicated.

Here began the powerful Protestant movement. Philip Schaff, the famous church historian, states that the Reformation "marked the gradual transition from the Middle Ages to modern times, from the universal acceptance of the papal theocracy in Western Europe to the assertion of national independence, from the supreme authority of the priesthood to the intellectual and spiritual freedom of the individual."

One of the central goals of the Reformation was to bring the Scriptures to the common person, the "priesthood of believers." First and foremost were small groups of lay people who met for prayer and the study of Scripture. The Bible was read with a new sense of anticipation regarding what might be possible as a consequence of acting in faith. For Luther, faith was to be nourished and strengthened through reflection and meditation on God's Word. Consequently, small groups were formed to help people integrate their belief and behavior, their faith and their work.

John Calvin (1509-1564), the French Reformer who ultimately spent most of his preaching, teaching, and writing years in Switzerland, attempted to evangelize his native France through the venue of small groups. These were strategic small groups of laity who met regularly for prayer and the study of Scripture. Although considered a bit more radical, Calvin supported the Reformed focus of "Scripture Alone" for justification. His contribution Institutes of the Christian Religion was one of the most important writings of the 16th century. Calvin claimed his reason for writing this work was to allow his readers to have easy access to the Word of God and to progress in it without stumbling.

John Wesley (1703-1791) was the most famous leader and creator of the Evangelical movement in England. John and his brother Charles formed a small group to aid one another in their studies, to read helpful books, and to participate in frequent communion. This was known as the Holy Club. And because of its disciplined ways, it was given the name Methodist. When the members of this group experienced significant life-change, the small-group format eventually became the strategic plan for spiritual growth within the Wesleyan movement.

At the heart of John Wesley's discipleship and renewal system were "class meetings." These meetings proved to be an excellent environment for life transformation, and they became a pivotal element of the Methodist movement, blending belief and behavior for the integrity of their faith. The class meeting challenged the small group with the key principles of New Testament Christianity: personal growth, accountability, and spiritual stewardship, doing so by "bearing one another's burdens" and "speaking the truth in love." Wesley made sure every believer was engaged in a small group, and through this powerful movement, the English society was largely transformed. So long as it prospered, the class meeting was the institution that did the most to guarantee that church membership was not merely a nominal affiliation.

The Puritans

Puritanism was a movement among an increasingly literate people, and an essential complement to its expansion was the publishing of popular versions of the Bible. The earliest of these was the Geneva Version of 1560, with its highly provocative yet immensely instructive marginal notes.

Important to the theological education and the commitment to spiritual growth, the Puritans (both English and American) called their small groups "private meetings." They were most effective for developing an individual's spirituality. Meeting at least weekly, there were several reasons for these gatherings:

  1. In such a small group, Christians could more easily express "love for one another"
  2. As a community of prayer, the group could exercise "earnest prayer for the Church," of which it was a part
  3. By "timely exhortation" members could apply the Gospel to others in a direct way
  4. The groups gave members the opportunity to engage in "instructing and teaching one another; as occasion serves"
  5. They could be a means of God's grace "in comforting those that be sad" or in mourning
  6. They were a forum in which members, even those "fallen with a spirit of meekness," could learn to express their faith and the gifts of the Spirit more boldly.

These were the churches' goals in promoting private meetings among their membership throughout the century.

Puritanism became one of the most vital elements in the foundations of American thought and culture. Throughout the years, small groups have been powerfully used by God to lay the foundation for spiritual growth, renewal, and great awakenings.

God intended us to be in relationship with him and with others. There is a large, unfilled hole in our soul when that is neglected or prevented. Being in relationship with God and his creation is the heartbeat of the Christian life and it is the means for allowing the Holy Spirit to change us into his image. Authentic Christian community is the relational environment for this life-change, and what better model could we design than a small group of people devoted to growing spiritually and seeking the will of God!

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 1)

A Brief History of Small Groups (part 1)

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.