Assimilation Through Small Groups
Gary McIntosh and Glen Martin
The early church often met from house to house. What better way could there have been to cultivate the gladness and singleness of heart, the praising of God, and the favor of all the people that saw the Lord adding to the church daily those who should be saved (Acts 2:46-47)? Obviously, there were no modern Sunday Schools, no men’s ministries or missionary societies, no boys’ or girls’ clubs, and no schedule of regular services as we know them today. There were no church buildings. In fact, the church at Jerusalem could not even meet in one home. Whose living room would have held more than five thousand people? Large gatherings of believers were reserved for the streets and the temple.
But the church of the first century is gone! I know you hate to hear that, but it’s true; it cannot be revived. However, there are some distinctions of the early church which God intends for today’s church. Small groups can add four key essential ingredients to the assimilation mix.
A good character is the best tombstone. Those who loved you, and were helped by you, will remember you when forget-me-nots are withered. Carve your name on hearts, and not on marble.’Charles H. Spurgeon1
Have you ever sat in a group setting and discussed only the superficial issues of life? “How was your day?” “Fine, and yours?” “Oh,’ fine.” That kind of strangling chitchat doesn’t stimulate a desire to return to that setting again. We are relational beings. We were created in God’s image with a yearning to commune with God, and with other relational beings. We long to know and to be known on levels transcending the superficial plane. A small group must provide more for a person than eight to twelve people sitting around eating cookies and drinking red punch.
Karen and Gary were a young couple in search of a place to share. Their lives had been riddled with confusion, pain, and desperation. Now they were searching for a place that they could not only learn but be accepted.
Gary had been overseas in the military and now was stationed in the States. Through many transfers, Karen had reached a point where she was afraid to have intimate friends. They came to my church, like many couples, making a plea to be known and accepted. When they completed the membership class, they were immediately plugged into a small group of couples their age.
After three to six months, they began to open up. Karen’s fear of rejection was eliminated by the group’s acceptance of her as she shared the disappointments of their continually shifting life-style. Karen and Gary soon learned that sharing is the heartbeat of a group. It helps people become vulnerable to one another and begins a process of “bearing one another’s burdens.”
To read the Bible is to take a trip to a fair land where the spirit is strengthened and faith renewed.’Dwight D. Eisenhower2
Isn’t that the truth! It is when the Bible becomes alive to a person that transformation can take place.
To study biblically is to renew your mind. “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). The body of believers is the vehicle through which this new life is expressed. We do not cultivate the body like the ancient Greeks who worshiped its beauty and strength. We do not crucify the body like the early ascetics who considered it evil and starved or mutilated it. We simply consecrate the body by “renewing [our] mind” to the illumination provided by the Holy Spirit. When this study occurs, what happens?
First, the student is changed morally. “And do not be conformed to this world.” Every day there is pressure on all of us, not only in such relatively minor matters as dress and diet, but in such far more serious areas of life as morals, ethical standards, and religious beliefs. Small groups are a place where we can hear the Word of Christ (Rom. 10:17). They are a place where we can be molded from within rather than from without. There the believer has the inward power to overcome the pressures of the world.
Second, the student is changed mentally. “But be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” This is a call for a transfigured life. The Greek word translated “transformed” in this passage occurs in only three other places in the New Testament. It is used to describe the transfiguration of the Lord Jesus (Matt. 17:2; Mark 9:2), and it is used to describe the glorious change wrought in believers when they steadfastly contemplate the Lord Jesus (2 Cor. 3:18). The Greek word is metamorphosis from which our word metamorphosis is derived. The dictionary defines metamorphosis as “a transformation, as by supernatural means; a marked alteration in appearance, condition, character, or function.” The caterpillar, which undergoes metamorphosis, emerges as a glorious butterfly. The same creature which enters a filmy tomb eventually emerges, but the change is so remarkable that it cannot be recognized as the same. It is the kind of change that the Holy Spirit wishes to work in the life of the believer.
Last, the student is changed motivationally. “That you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” Only through study can we see God’s direction for our lives and become motivated to walk in the steps that He has laid before us. Each person in a small group learns to study with anticipation, so that in the group there will be participation and outside the group there will be application.
Nothing happens to you that hasn’t happened to someone else.’William Feather3
We have implied throughout these opening chapters that real religion is always triangular’it cannot forget three centers of gravity’God, ourselves, and other people. Support is living in touch with people and closing the triangle.
The people who have the greatest impact upon others always seem to have two initial characteristics. First, they consistently portray an immense joy in living. That will always draw others who want to be around people who are happy to be alive. Enthusiasm is contagious. Second, they drop anything to help another person. Their bags lie unpacked, letters lie unanswered, the house is not cleaned, for as long a time as other people need. They are individual-conscious, not thing-conscious.
Small groups can contribute to overcoming this preoccupation with things and create within us the desire to “build up one another.” First, we must face up to the fact that most other means of congregational support seldom experience success. Support is more than being a “good influence.” We have all heard Emerson’s remark that, “What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.” There is truth here. If what we are does not match what we say, it will be discounted. But to say that one Christian can be supportive to another merely by example is like saying that doctors can make people well by the evidence of their own health. It will not work. We have to learn the secret of health; we have to know the hindrances and the cure. So it is in support. People are drawn to the happy, useful life that is unselfish. Sin is audible, unbelief is vocal’they both advertise. Quiet influence will not win the world by support.
Support is also not intellectual. Great claims have been made for education by its sponsors, but we may as well face the fact that it does not make a person feel wanted. It doesn’t take long before the observant student of life sees that while education makes strides every day in the training of minds in special subjects, it betrays a noticeable lack of power to train people to live life. It is possible to teach and even learn support and not be supportive.
Second, we must identify the areas of support that every Christian deeply needs and make those available in the small group setting. One great area of support that must be provided in this group environment is accountability. People need constant help. They want suggestions about how to study the Bible, where and what to read in it, when to pray, and how to pray.
Another area of support vital to the spiritual trek is fellowship. We can never get away from realizing that the health of our relationship to God will be partly dependent upon our integration in a guided group. The group’s members live in close cooperation and fellowship with one another, sharing plans and needs, visions and sins, living in the light with one another. This is not a committee; it is not a party for mutual enjoyment. It is an opportunity to bounce off of other people the joys, pains, and discoveries that each one experiences.
Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can and as long as you can.’John Wesley4
The early church was filled with Christians who were instructed to contribute to the needs of the saints (Rom. 12:13) and show hospitality to strangers (Heb. 13:2). This early body of believers was practicing this life-style to such an extent that Luke was able to make this incredible observation: “For there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34).
Our churches are filled with overweight Christians. No, not in a physical sense, but in light of spiritual intake. They sit and feed on Sunday morning. They snack during the Sunday School buffet. They listen to tapes during the week, read books, meet with others midweek to enjoy another supper. The church is getting overweight in knowledge and failing to provide a vehicle through which we Christians can demonstrate our love by meeting the needs of others and “working out our salvation.” Small groups can provide a channel whereby members can embrace the philosophy of being on call to minister to one another. This small-group environment can and does create a resource bank of professional expertise, trade skills, and financial assistance.
So how is caring demonstrated in the small group? There are countless ways such as ministering to someone with material needs, or comforting someone who is facing the peril of some trial or agony, or even providing a place of counseling for those around us with spiritual problems. Expand your thinking! How about:
* Small-group members providing a new set of clothes for each child of a single parent.
* Small-group members doing the yard work monthly for a disabled person in the church.
* Small-group members taking on the responsibility to provide meals for families when one of their members is recovering from some debilitating disease or surgery.
* Small-group members making a car available for a missionary to use during furlough in the States.
* Small-group members taking on a special and necessary task at their church.
The list is endless and exciting, and you can be sure that the group will mature and bond in a way never experienced before when they get into the trenches together. These are ways of working out/off your spiritual intake and demonstrating the love of Jesus Christ in attractive ways to a burning-out society. We are called to be salt and light and to get outside of ourselves to make a difference.
Church growth studies have found that for a church to assimilate new people effectively it must have an average of seven small groups for every one hundred adult members. Take a few moments and list below all of the small groups available in your church.
To qualify as a small group a group must have the following three criteria.
1. It must be small’less than fifteen people.
2. It must meet on a regular basis’at least once per month.
3. It must create a sense of accountability’people will be missed if they are not there.
Transfer your list of small groups to figure 16 and identify the number of small groups still needed in your church.
Note below the church ministries which create, support, and train people in small groups. Then list what new ministries are needed.
Small Groups and a Can of Oil
A man was known to carry a little can of oil wherever he went. If he passed through a door that squeaked, he put a drop of oil on the hinges; if a gate was hard to open, he oiled the latch. He passed through life lubricating all the creaking places and making it a little more pleasant for those who followed after him.
Small groups are like that. They are settings for sharing, lubricating one another to be open and vulnerable. They are places of study where the squeaky hinges of discernment and understanding can run smoothly. They are places of support where we make sure each person carries an oil can and is looking for appropriate places to put a drop. Lastly, they are places to lubricate all the creaking places of our neighborhoods and relationships with the life-generating love of Jesus Christ.
The first-century church may be gone, but its principles are with us today.
And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46-47)
1 Charles Spurgeon, quoted in Sermons Illustrated (Minneapolis:
Jeff and Pam Carroll Publishers, 1989).
2 Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations (Rockville, Md.:
Assurance Publishers, 1979), 192.
4 Walter B. Knight, Knight’s Treasury of Illustrations (Grand
Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1963), 357.
The above article, ‘Assimilation Through Small Groups’ was written by Gary McIntosh and Glen Martin. The article was excerpted from chapter eight in their book, Finding Them, Keeping them.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, ‘Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.’