Fellowship Is a Verb

By Steve Gladen

In early 2000, our leadership team began asking the question: What does a healthy follower of Christ look like? If we are to be successful in fulfilling Christ’s commission to make disciples, we need to define the term “disciple.” Through a series of meetings, we determined that a healthy follower of Christ is someone who is balancing the five biblical purposes in his or her life and heart.

 

A healthy follower of Christ is:

  • Surrendering his or her heart and life to Christ on an ongoing basis.
  • Experiencing fellowship with other Christians.
  • Growing in Christ through “being” and “action.”
  • Discovering and using his or her God-given gifts and abilities.
  • Reaching out and sharing the love of Christ with nonbelievers.

 

Unless you know what the target is, you cannot hit it. For us, the target became health through balance. As we begin to reflect Christ and become more like him, the focus of our lives will shift away from self-centeredness and toward serving him through every area of our life. That is health and balance.

So if we as a church were trying to produce healthy followers of Christ, our leadership team had to decide what the best tool or delivery system is to produce that desired result. Eventually we agreed that small groups are the best environment to produce health through balancing the biblical purposes in each person’s life.

Whenever you start a new approach to ministry, you usually get the question of “why?” Why should we do small groups? What makes small groups a good method for helping people develop these five things in their lives? Over the past 15 years, we have realized several things about small groups that makes them an effective strategy in growing people.

Small groups are biblical.

We see in the book of Acts that the early Church knew the value of small groups. We are told in Acts 5:42, “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah” (NIV). The early Church met together for a large group gathering in the temple courts because they knew the value of a corporate gathering of all the people. This is similar to what we do in churches today — we gather every weekend for large group worship as a whole church.

But the early Church did not just gather together as a large group; they also met together in their homes for small group fellowship. The early Church knew they needed to grow both bigger and smaller at the same time. They wanted to reach as many people as they could with the Good News, and they also wanted to care for the needs of the people in the church and help them grow in their relationship with God.

Small groups are convenient.

One of the struggles many churches have is how to get information out to their people in a way that they will hear it and be able to implement it into their lives. Weekend services help, but we know that people retain more when they get to interact with that information and ask questions. Since that is not a great option in a large church gathering, small groups become a convenient way to disseminate information in a way that is practical and has a better chance of being retained.

At Saddleback we found the power of using small group video curriculum to launch our small groups. The group host doesn’t have to be a teacher, and the information you are giving to your people is consistent because we know what is being taught on the video. Because the host doesn’t have to teach, they feel more capable of leading a small group and are more open to hosting the group in their homes.

Small groups are economical and unlimited in size.

The great part about groups is the fact that they are very affordable. Most churches run into space and budget problems. But everyone in your church has a facility called their home. When people open up their homes to host a small group, you don’t have to worry about building more facilities to reach your people. Not only that, but your small groups create the potential for unlimited growth as more and more of your people open up their homes for groups. This allows the church to continue to grow to the capacity of your attendees’ homes and provides a great way for your church to be out in the community instead of only seeing your church as a campus.

Small groups are unlimited in reach.

The beauty of small groups is their ability to happen anywhere and at any time. A person can host a group whenever their group wants to gather, which increases your ability to reach people. With small groups, people can meet in the morning, evening, or middle of the night. Not only do groups expand your reach in terms of time, they also expand your reach when it comes to how groups meet.

Small groups are not limited to meeting in people’s homes. Groups can choose to gather online using Skype or some other tool. They can meet in restaurants, subways, airplanes, or businesses. When and how a group meets is only limited by the creativity of your people and their desire to reach out to people they know.

Small groups provide accountability.

By myself, I can fool myself into thinking I am growing. But there is something that happens in my life when someone who knows and loves me takes the time to let me know about areas of my life in which I need to grow. When that happens, I am more likely to listen and make those changes, which in turn help me to grow as a follower of Christ.

Small groups provide a great space for true accountability to happen. When a member of a group is making a decision to do something that is wrong, they have to look each member of the group in the eye and explain why. That creates a natural accountability that can have a great effect on the growth of the people in that group.

Small groups provide a safe environment.

Most people do not open up and truly share what is going on in their lives in a large group environment. The beauty of a small group is that it creates an environment where people can try out their gifts and abilities in a safe place and discover where they might serve best. It also creates a safe place for people to share the struggles, successes, and dreams they might have in life and provides a built-in support system of people who will support, pray for, and be available to help on a moment’s notice.

Small groups provide focus.

If correctly directed, a small group is a collection of people working on some common goals — not just one person teaching while the others listen. The teaching method of listening and taking notes does a good job of helping people understand knowledge and learn new things; the downside is that people have a more difficult time applying that knowledge to their everyday lives. A small group provides a place where people can work together and talk about the things they are learning, which then helps them to grow.

Since our target is the five purposes of growth mentioned above, the more a group balances these five areas in the context of their group life, the more healthy and focused the group becomes. That health and focus then creates the right place for true growth to happen in the lives of each member of the group.

Our Plan

Our strategy for making healthy followers of Christ (disciples) is small groups. We have no other plan; we have no other delivery system. We believe this is the most effective way to make disciples and lead people to live healthy and balanced lives. We are not a church withsmall groups; we are a church of small groups (see figure below).

Church Of Groups

Our small group ministry is not just another program. It is an embedded and integrated piece of everything we do as a church. It is where care happens. It’s our delivery system for all spiritual formation. It is our method of balancing the biblical purposes and creating healthy lives.

Steve Gladen

Steve Gladen is Pastor of Small Groups at Saddleback Church, which sees over 30,000 people gathering weekly in 5,000 small groups. He's the founder of SmallGroups.net and travels widely to speak on the topic of small groups and healthy, biblical community. He is the author of several books including Small Groups With Purpose and Leading Small Groups With Purpose.