Pastor Rick shared these practical reasons during his weekly webcast for pastors involved in 40 Days in the Word. You can hear the whole message at http://40daysintheword.com/webcast/.
Here are seven marks of a healthy small group, based on Acts 2:42-47 (NIV):
1. Healthy small groups study the Bible. Small groups in the New Testament studied the Bible together. Acts 2:42 says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching …” Of course, we know the teaching of the apostles is what we call the New Testament today. They lived in an oral culture, but they were still studying lessons from the apostles.
One thing you can do is have your small groups study what you taught the congregation on Sunday. At Saddleback, we have a group of volunteers who create “Talk It Over” guides that we put online Sunday night. These can be printed out and used by small groups during the week. They include questions related to the Scriptures we studied in the weekend services, plus additional verses to consider.
The benefit of this is that it helps people focus on one Bible truth. Too often we teach too much. When I was growing up, I could go to church throughout the week and end up with as many as 13 different Bible studies. I started thinking, “My life can’t change that much.” Sometimes I think we teach too much, so something like the “Talk It Over” guide will allow your congregation to focus on one biblical truth a week.
2. Healthy small groups share life together. The Book of Acts says the early believers were devoted to fellowship (Acts 2:42). This means they were serious about their friendships. Notice the Bible says they were devoted to the fellowship, not just to fellowship. In other words, fellowship is not just something the church does; we are the fellowship.
Jesus calls us to be committed to one another, and it is through small groups that we learn the skills of relationship. Small groups are laboratories of love, where we learn to obey the command of Jesus to love your neighbor as you love yourself.
3. Healthy small groups remember Jesus together. The Bible says the early believers devoted themselves “to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). The “breaking of bread” in this passage specifically refers to Communion (or the Lord’s Supper). In the early Church, they did not take Communion in a large worship setting. They served it in small groups.
You will, of course, want to work within the tradition of your church, but at Saddleback we allow small groups to serve Communion. For one thing, Communion is only for believers, so a small group setting ensures only believers will take part.
4. Healthy small groups pray together. The Bible says the early believers devoted themselves to prayer (Acts 2:42). Jesus taught that there is a power to prayers spoken aloud for each other, and he made an incredible promise about small groups of believers: “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18:20 NASB). In the intimacy and confidentiality of small groups, we can pray for each other as we share our hurts, reveal our feelings, confess our failures, disclose our doubts, admit our fears, acknowledge our weaknesses, and ask for help.
5. Healthy small groups are generous. The Bible says these small groups gave “to anyone who had need” (Acts 2:45 NIV). Small groups allow us to help each other with practical needs. Can I loan you a car? Can I provide you with some meals when you are sick?
We tend to centralize ministries, creating a food pantry or a counseling center. But this wasn’t the New Testament model. The early Church had decentralized ministries, so that’s what we try to do at Saddleback. Let me give you an example. A few years ago, one of our members met someone who had been in a bad situation and ended up homeless. She bought the homeless person a meal and then provided him with a bus ticket to where a sister lived.
The next day, the Saddleback member told me about it and said, “There are lots of homeless people. The Church should do something about it.” I said, “The Church just did.” The next Sunday, I got up and told the congregation, “I release you to assist the poor and feed the hungry and help the homeless.” There are small groups at Saddleback doing all kinds of ministry that I know nothing about. We’ve decentralized by giving them permission to engage in ministry as a small group.
6. Healthy small groups worship together. The Bible says the New Testament small groups worshiped together, “praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:47). We need to worship God more than once a week, and small groups offer an opportunity to worship together.
7. Healthy small groups witness together. As these small groups met together, “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). They were inviting others to join them. One of the proofs of a healthy small group is that it reproduces, so a small group may add members, but a small group may also help start another small group.
Small groups can be creative in outreach. For instance, one small group at Saddleback pooled their money and bought season tickets for the San Diego Chargers for everyone in the group, but they also bought some extra tickets. They go together to each game, but they also use the extra tickets to invite others to come with the group. They don’t start a Bible study at the game; they just have fun. But that allows them to say, “This same group meets on Tuesday nights for Bible study. Would you like to join us?”