All small groups in the local church are, or could be, places of faith formation and disciple making. By offering a more intimate setting, small groups of every kind are uniquely able to welcome and nurture people in the church and in the faith. This Guideline is designed to help implement and guide the work of the ministry area.
This is one of the twenty-six Guidelines for Leading Your Congregation 2017-2020 that cover church leadership areas including Church Council and Small Membership Church; the administrative areas of Finance and Trustees; and ministry areas focused on nurture, outreach, and witness including Worship, Evangelism, Stewardship, Christian Education, age-level ministries, Communications, and more.
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Guidelines for Leading Your Congregation 2017-2020 Small Group Ministries
Christian Formation through Mutual Accountability
By Steven W. Manskar
CokesburyCopyright © 2016 Cokesbury
All rights reserved.
Ministry and Small Groups
Why are small groups important? Why did John Wesley place so much confidence in them as a dependable means of grace for developing faith and holiness? Wesley's pastoral experience told him that when Christians meet in small groups for prayer, study, fellowship, and service, they form relationships of love and trust. Christ is encountered in the relationships that small groups make possible (see Matthew 18:20). Certainly, Sunday morning worship and general congregational activities play an essential role in Christian formation; but on their own, they are not adequate substitutes for the relationships formed in small groups. This is why an integrated network of small groups is essential to the church's mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
A small group is three to fifteen people who meet regularly (weekly, biweekly, or monthly) to help one another grow in holiness of heart and life and equip the congregation to participate in God's mission in the world. Group members attend to the ways that God is at work in their lives and do all in their power to help one another grow in faith, hope, and love.
Holiness is the way of life described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) and summarized in Matthew 22:37-40. John Wesley described holiness as "universal love filling the heart, and governing the life" ("Advice to the People Called Methodists").
Holiness of heart is the inward loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind through practicing the works of piety (the public worship of God, the ministry of the word, the Lord's Supper, personal and family prayer, searching the Scriptures, and fasting or abstinence) (see "The Nature, Design, and General Rules of Our United Societies," ¶104, the Discipline). Holiness of life is the outward love of your neighbor as yourself. We practice holiness of life by doing no harm, by avoiding evil and by doing good, to all, to their bodies and souls. Jesus describes holiness of life in Matthew 25:35-40. If you say you love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, then Jesus tells us you must love whom God loves, as God loves them. Wesley believed holiness is the means to the goal of "having the mind which was in Christ, and walking as he walked" (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, §15; also see Philippians 2:5; 1 John 2:6).
Growth in holiness requires a community organized to help its members keep the promises made in the Baptismal Covenant (see The United Methodist Hymnal, page 35). In the Commendation and Welcome, the congregation promises to "Do all in your power to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love." This means congregations must order their lives in ways that cooperate with the dynamic of grace that makes holiness of heart and life possible.
Historically, the Methodist small-group system was pastoral and contextual. It emerged from the pastoral commitment of the Methodist society to do all in its power to increase faith, confirm hope in Christ, and perfect one another in love. Wesley did not find the system in a book or a program. It emerged from his study of Scripture, the way of salvation, and his knowledge of human nature. The groups described in this Guideline are the result of ideas that worked. Other attempts at groups that didn't contribute to the Methodist mission were discontinued.
The system that will work best for your congregation will not come from a "one-size-fits-all" program. It will emerge from the pastoral needs of the congregation. The questions to ask as you evaluate are:
How does this system/group help this congregation cooperate with the Holy Spirit and the way of salvation?
How does the system/group help people grow in holiness of heart and life?
How does the system/group equip the people to participate in Christ's mission in the world?
The Wesleyan tradition teaches us that several types of groups are essential. We need groups that initiate seekers into the Christian life. Other groups promote continuing growth in faith, hope, and love through developing deeper intimacy and trust with one another and with Christ. Finally, people who provide leadership at all levels need a group for continuing accountability and support for growth in holiness of heart and life.CHAPTER 2
A Biblical/Theological Foundation
The baptismal covenant tells us that salvation and our place in the church are gifts from God. They are freely given because God made us. There is nothing you or I could ever do or say to earn or deserve these gifts. God gives them because "God is love" (see 1 John 4:7-21). The word that best describes God's love is grace.
Grace is the presence and power of God working in the world. It is unlimited and free. Jesus Christ is grace embodied in human flesh and blood. His life, death, and resurrection reveal the nature and power of grace as God's love active in, with, and for the world. Through him, God enters human life and history, saying: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30 NRSV).
The way of salvation is grace working through faith to form us into the people God created us to be and equipping us to join Christ and his mission in the world. Prevenient grace prepares us to receive God's acceptance and love. Justifying (or convincing) grace restores our relationship with God and those whom God loves by giving us the gifts of repentance and faith (outward, relational change). Sanctifying grace gives new birth and sustains us in the new life of holiness with Jesus in the world (inward, real change). God supplies the grace we need to accept the gift of his love and then to live as a channel of that love in the world. When we live the way of Jesus, we become fully the people God created us to be, in the image of Christ.
The Means of Grace
As we consider the "why" and "how" of small-group ministry, we begin with Jesus' promise: "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I'm there with them" (Matthew 18:20). It's because of Jesus' promise that John Wesley believed small groups to be a "means of grace" he called Christian conference.
When two or more Christians regularly meet in Jesus' name to pray, sing, serve, and watch over one another in love, grace opens their hearts to God and to the world God loves. Small groups are where people receive the support and accountability they need to follow Jesus in the world. Through relationships of love and trust, people learn the spiritual disciplines (acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion) that Wesley called the means of grace. They form new habits and attitudes that reflect the character of Christ. Those are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23 NRSV. To learn more, read Wesley's Sermon 43: "The Scripture Way of Salvation.")
The relationships of mutual support and accountability experienced in small groups are how the church keeps the promises it makes in the baptismal covenant.
Behaving, Belonging, Believing
Wesley understood that disciple making requires intention and discipline. Discipline, for Wesley, is simply a habitual practice of the means of grace shaped by a rule of life (the General Rules; see the Discipline, ¶104) and supported by weekly accountability with fellow Christians in a small group. Christian discipline is summarized by three words: behaving, belonging, and believing.
Behaving and belonging shape belief. John Wesley understood that people are much more likely to behave their way into believing than they are to believe their way into behaving as Christians. That is why he created a rule of life known as the General Rules and required all Methodists to participate in the weekly small groups known as Class Meetings. "A rule of life is a pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness. ... It fosters gifts of the Spirit in personal life and human community, helping to form us into the people God intends us to be" (Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995], 138; italics added).
The General Rules shape the Christian life for Methodists.
Learning and practicing the means of grace in their class meetings is how most Methodists received the gift of faith. They behaved their way into believing within the love and acceptance (belonging) of their small group.
Behave, believe, and belong are all entry points into the way of Jesus. They are interrelated parts of the process of disciple formation that build upon the relational nature of human beings. "You become what you love." If the goal of Christian formation is for people to become more and more like Christ, then we need to know him as a living Savior.CHAPTER 3
A Historical Foundation
In the Wesleyan tradition, disciple making happens in an integrated network of small groups, shaped by a rule of life that enables people to receive and participate in the grace that formed them as disciples of Jesus Christ.
A Wesleyan Model
A good example of a system of small groups designed to cooperate with the Holy Spirit and the dynamic of grace is found in the early Methodist societies. John Wesley developed a system of groups, each with a different theological/pastoral emphasis. The system met people where they were and helped them to grow in holiness of heart and life. The Wesleyan system was composed of three distinctive types of groups:
1. The Class Meeting (for everyone)
2. The Band (for the deeply committed disciples)
3. The Select Society (for the leaders)
All the groups were guided by the General Rules:
First: Do no harm by avoiding evil of every kind; especially that which is most generally practiced.
Second: Do good as often as you can to all people.
Third: Attend upon all the ordinances of God, such are:
the public worship of God
the ministry of the Word, whether read or expounded
the Lord's Supper
private and family prayer
searching the Scriptures
fasting or abstinence
The Class Meeting
When a person joined a Methodist society, he or she was assigned to a "class," a small group of 12 to 15 women and men. Participation in a class was compulsory for all Methodists. Class leaders were laypeople who demonstrated Christian maturity and pastoral sense.
Classes met weekly, either in the leader's home or in the local Methodist meeting house. Meetings were typically an hour and consisted of prayer, hymn singing, and accountability for discipleship guided by the General Rules. The class meeting initiated Methodists into the life of discipleship. The theological emphases were prevenient and convincing grace; that is, recognizing that God invites and leads us to receive his acceptance in Jesus Christ and adoption as beloved children in God's household.
The "band" was for Methodists who faithfully attended their class meeting and were ready to go deeper in holiness. Membership was limited to no more than eight men or women. Bands were organized according to gender and marital status: single men together, single women in a different band, and so on.
Bands met weekly for one hour with shared leadership. The weekly agenda included prayer and confession of sins to one another (see James 5:16). The theological emphasis of the band meeting was justification and justifying grace; that is, making a decision, with God's help, toward repentance and a changed life in faith.
The Select Society
Leaders were the disciples who made disciples and who led the Methodist society in its service with Christ in the world. In early Methodism, members of the Select Society served in some leadership role in the society and also in their parish church.
The theological emphasis of the Select Society was sanctification; that is, with God's help, devoting themselves to loving God with all their heart, soul, and mind. They loved their neighbors as themselves, and they loved one another as Christ loved them. They knew that the world would know they were disciples of Jesus Christ by the way they loved one another (see John 13:34-35).CHAPTER 4
A Contemporary Model
We recognize that Methodist societies were not congregations. They were religious communities of clear expectations, loving discipline, and a mission to "reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread Scriptural holiness over the land" (John Wesley in "The Large Minutes"). That is why participation in a small group was required of all Methodists.
Obviously, 18th-century Methodist societies were very different from today's congregations, so we should not try to replicate that system. Nevertheless, Wesley's theological and practical understanding of disciple making is both valid and timeless:
Making disciples requires a community that cooperates with the Holy Spirit and the way of salvation.
Making disciples requires the relationships formed in small groups.
Disciple-making congregations develop an integrated network of small groups that meet people where they are and help them grow in holiness of heart and life.
This Guideline is not a one-size-fits-all program. You will find here a guide for developing a small-group network that fits your local context. We know from the Wesleyan tradition that developing and sustaining small-group ministry is a process of trial and error. When an idea falls flat, learn from it and try again. Eventually, you will find the system that works best in your context. This, of course, assumes the work is guided by the Holy Spirit through prayer and openness to grace.
Rule of Life
In her book, Soul Feast, Marjorie Thompson writes, "A rule of life is a pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness. ... It fosters gifts of the Spirit in personal life and human community, helping to form us into the persons God intends us to be" (Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995], 138). Congregations striving to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world will adopt a congregational rule of life.
The General Rules found in ¶104 of The Book of Discipline constitute the historic Methodist rule of life. A contemporary alternative, derived from the General Rules, is the General Rule of Discipleship: "To witness to Jesus Christ in the world, and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit" (the Discipline, ¶1117.2a).
A congregation's rule of life gives shape to and informs the disciple-making process. It also provides a guide for small-group accountability.
Every congregation has small groups. They are more commonly known as the church council, the pastor/staff-parish relations committee, the trustees, the finance committee, the choir, Sunday school classes, fellowship or affinity groups, United Methodist Women, United Methodist Men, mission/service groups, and so on. All can be places of faith formation and discipleship. Disciple-making congregations develop a network of interrelated groups designed to cooperate with the way of salvation (see John Wesley's Sermon 43: "The Scripture Way of Salvation"). Such a network is how the congregation keeps its promise to do all in its power to increase faith, confirm hope, and perfect one another in love (see The United Methodist Hymnal, "Baptismal Covenant I, page 38). We describe the network of small groups as Grace Groups.
Examine the existing groups in your congregation and determine where they fit in a system of "grace groups," described more fully in the sample below. Though these are presented in a linear structure, they are not so tidy, and they overlap. The goal is to organize the groups to help the congregation cooperate with the way of salvation, remembering that different activities and experiences may fit in more than one place. Within this system, lives are transformed as people grow in love of God, neighbors, and one another. This chart is suggestive, and you will want to order it in a way that makes sense in your context. (See the "Resources" section for more information about these types of groups.)
Grace Groups I
Grace Groups are needed for new Christians or people seeking to become Christians. These people may be new to the church, new to United Methodism, and/or new to Christianity. These groups are led by mature disciples. Their mission is to initiate members into the Christian life. These entry-level groups emphasize Christian formation shaped by the congregation's rule of life.
Excerpted from Guidelines for Leading Your Congregation 2017-2020 Small Group Ministries by Steven W. Manskar. Copyright © 2016 Cokesbury. Excerpted by permission of Cokesbury.
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Table of Contents
ContentsBlessed to Be a Blessing,
Ministry and Small Groups,
A Biblical/Theological Foundation,
A Historical Foundation,
A Wesleyan Model,
A Contemporary Model,
Rule of Life,
Understand Your Role,
The Small-Group Ministries Council,
Center the Small-Group Ministry,
Take an Inventory of Existing Small Groups,
Forming and Organizing Small Groups,
Becoming a Group,
Establish a Healthy Group Culture,
Biblical and Theological Foundations,
UMC Agencies & Helpful Links,