There are as many philosophies about small group Bible studies as there are churches. Churches adapt their small groups with different goals and make-ups depending on the people, the needs, the church, and the local area. Big idea programs come through every few years, promising to be the ultimate in small group organization. But organization isn't purpose; sometimes big ideas can take away from what small groups should be all about.
Why are small group ministries important in the church?
A church may choose to have a small group ministry to reinforce the culture of the church. The cell group model provides the most oversight. The small group minister oversees several mentors, who oversee different small group leaders. All of the members of the church are encouraged to attend a cell group where they can have community and study, but also where they are under an organized system of authority for the purpose of church participation, discipleship, and, if necessary, discipline—much like the structure Jethro suggested to Moses in Exodus 18. The sermon-based small group ministry reinforces the church culture through the curriculum the small groups study. Every small group is expected to go over the week's sermon and dig deeper into study and application. The missional small group model promotes a culture of missions and service. The groups are often much larger—as many as fifty in a group—that organically divide into smaller teams for mutual encouragement but meet en masse for missions events. Each missional team typically focuses on one area, like reaching single moms or ministering to people in a geographical area.
Many churches orient their small groups to reach and care for a specific demographic. Young parents, seniors, and singles can all benefit from meeting together with others who understand their particular challenges. Neighborhood-based small groups allow for the opportunity to "live life together"—to be a constant source of encouragement instead of meeting only once a week. Recovery studies join together those dealing with grief, addiction, or other specific challenges.
Two of the most common reasons churches develop small group ministries are growth and leadership development. Members are expected to invite others to their group. As the newcomers become comfortable, they join the church. The small group leaders choose an apprentice to teach. Once training is finished, the new leaders will either take half of the group or go out and recruit his members for a new group. In this way, members are responsible for adding to the church's ranks with newcomers who are already plugged in; the Sunday service is not considered the primary draw.
There is nothing wrong with using a small group ministry as an administrative tool, or a recovery group, or even an incubator for new leaders and teachers. But those are programs, not purposes. The purpose should be to make and develop disciples of Jesus. A small group should be a place where people can learn how to love God with passion and faith—with their lives—and love others (Luke 10:27). The format and structure don't ultimately matter as long as people are growing spiritually, receiving support, and reaching out to others.
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