Models for Small Group Ministry: Grace Groups
By Scott Hughes
Christian formation is a process of growth and maturation. It is very similar to human development (see John 3:3; Romans 8:14-17; Galatians 4:1-7; Ephesians 4:14-16, 5:1-2; Philippians 2:5, 12-13, 3:12-16). We are born into the world as helpless infants. Through the care and nurture given by family and the community over time we grow, develop, and mature into adults who then give birth to children. Growth in Christian maturity happens when persons are helped to attend to all the teachings of Jesus, and not just those that suit their temperament. Christians need formational help to mature through loving God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love their neighbor as themselves.
Our Wesleyan tradition teaches us that several types of groups are essential for nurturing this process of growth and maturation; known in the Wesleyan tradition as “going onto perfection in love.” The goal being that the congregation becomes a Christ-centered sign community of the coming reign of God. In the process of discipleship, Christians along with their church community cooperate and participate fully in God’s work of salvation that heals and transforms their character to become more and more like Christ.
Small groups help the congregation attend to the command of Jesus to “love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). We live out this love when we help our brothers and sisters in Christ to become faithful, mature, dependable disciples of Jesus Christ who witness to him and follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
One way to image this integrated, interrelated system of small groups we could call “grace groups.” Though a variety of language could be used, this model uses grace groups because they help the congregation cooperate with the dynamic of grace at work in and for the world. Such a system acknowledges that Christian formation (disciple-making) does not happen by accident or osmosis. John Wesley understood this when he quoted wisdom from the early Church saying,
“The soul and the body make a [human being]; the spirit and discipline make a Christian” implying that none could be real Christians without the help of Christian discipline. But if this be so, is it any wonder that we find so few Christians, for where is Christian discipline! In what part of England (to go no farther) is Christian discipline added to Christian doctrine? Now whatever doctrine is preached where there is not discipline, it cannot have its full effect upon the hearers.[i]
Discipline, for Wesley, is simply habitual practice of the means of grace (or spiritual disciplines). He knew that Christians are formed by initiating persons into a new way of behavior shaped by the teachings of Jesus Christ contained in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:29-31; Luke 10:25-28). This Christian discipline can be summarized by three words: behaving, believing, and belonging.
This triangle is a way of visualizing the dynamic of grace. Behave, believe, and belong are all entry points into the way of Jesus. They are interrelated and interdependent pieces of the process of disciple formation.
Behave (obey), Belong (love), and Believe (believe) work together to initiate potential and new Christians into the way of Jesus. They help us to grow and mature in faith, hope, and love.
One of the mistakes the mainline Protestant tradition has made over the past two-hundred years is to believe that knowledge changes character. The church has worked on the assumption that talking, studying, and learning about discipleship will form people into faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. The reality is that we end up with good people who know a lot about discipleship but their lives have not been transformed.
Tom Albin, Dean of the Upper Room Chapel, teaches that Christian formation in the Wesleyan tradition is “The love of God in the heart; The life of God in the souls of ordinary people; The transformation that comes from the work of the Spirit in and through the body of Christ.” Behave. Belong. Believe.
This process is guided by the United Methodist rule of life, The General Rules: Do no harm; Do good; Keep God’s ordinances. As we participate in the practices of Christian discipleship together, we learn the vital doctrines and grow in faith, hope, and love. Along the way our lives are transformed as we become more and more the persons God created us to be. As we become the persons God created us to be, we become agents of transformation for the world.
Grace Groups I
The first groups that are needed are for the new Christians, or people seeking to become Christians. The emphasis of these groups is upon what John Wesley called “convincing grace” (also known as preventing or prevenient grace). Such groups are led by mature Christians. Their mission is to teach the basic practices of Christian life. In early Methodist societies these groups were known as the “class meeting.” Every new, and continuing, member of the society was placed in a class. In these small groups women and men learned how to pray and read the Bible under the leadership of their class leader. They learned how to live in the world as disciples of Jesus Christ by learning and doing the basic practices of discipleship: works of piety and works of mercy. The group’s were guided by a ‘rule of life:’
1. Do no harm, by avoiding evil; especially that which is generally practiced in the world…
2. Do good to all as often as you can wherever you can, to their bodies and to their souls …
3. Attend to practicing the means of grace: the public worship of God, personal and family prayer, the Lord’s Supper, reading, studying, and hearing the Scriptures, fasting or abstinence.[ii]
Grace groups I are where persons learn about what it means to be a Christian by learning and practicing the basics of discipleship with others under the leadership of a mature disciple of Jesus Christ. Their focus is catechesis, formal instruction, through and with the goal of “watching over one another in love.” Through intentional mutual accountability and support for learning and practicing Christian discipleship persons “learn Jesus.” Faith will come to them and, through the love and support of the group and the leader, they will grow into discipleship. These groups can vary in size, though smaller is usually better, and can range from formal instruction to more informal coaching types of relationships. It is helpful to start new groups frequently to allow new persons opportunity to join without having to connect with an established group.
Examples of Grace Group I type groups:
- Life Transformation Groups (LTGs)
- Sacrament study groups (By Water and The Spirit & This Holy Mystery)
- Bible study groups
- Alpha or Beginnings
- Companions in Christ groups
- Accountability groups
- Book study groups
- Administrative & Program committees
Grace Group II
As persons receive the gift of faith and begin to grow in grace through support and accountability for their discipleship, they will reach a point where they will need a group that will nurture their continued growth. In the early Methodist societies, these groups were known as Bands. The focus of these groups was experience and growth in justifying grace – attending to the relationship with Christ through confessing sins and receiving assurance of forgiveness. These were groups of between six and eight persons of the same gender and marital status. Leadership of the bands was shared among the group members. The weekly meetings were guided by a rule that helped members focus on and support one another in their experience of justification, i.e. living in such a way that keeps their lives aligned with the life of Christ. They prayed for each other, sang hymns and offered the love of Jesus to one another by helping one another repent of habitual sins.
Grace Groups II are focused on Christian formation. They should have no other agenda. Examples of such groups are:
- Life Transformation Groups
- Emmaus Reunion groups
- Covenant Discipleship groups
- Band meetings
- 12-step Recovery groups
Grace Group III
The goal of Christian life and discipleship is perfection in love, or entire sanctification. In other words, the goal is maturity in faith, hope, and love. The church is do all in its power to help Christians to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ …” If the church is to help Christians to grow up, it must raise up leaders in discipleship. These leaders need to be equipped, empowered, and supported in their ministry of helping others to grow in Christ. Grace Group III are intended for these leaders in discipleship. Their focus is upon “earnestly striving after perfection in love.” These groups are for those who have experienced justification by grace through faith and desire Christian maturity. The focus of these groups is the entire love of God and neighbor. These groups are necessarily small for confidentiality and trust. Most churches will usually have very few of these groups.
Examples of Grace III groups:
- Covenant Discipleship groups
- Emmaus Reunion groups
- Academy for Spiritual Formation
- Accountability groups
- Class Leader groups
[i] John Wesley, Sermon 122, “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity,” ¶ 7, in Sermons IV, ed. Albert C. Outler, vol. 4 of The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976-), 90.
[ii] “The Nature, Design, and General Rules of Our United Societies.” The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (The United Methodist Publishing House, Nashville) 2016, pp. 77-80
Scott Hughes is the Executive Director of Congregational Vitality & Intentional Discipleship, Elder in the North Georgia Conference, M.Div. Asbury Theological Seminary, D. Min. Southern Methodist University, co-host of the Small Groups in the Wesleyan Way podcast, creator of the Courageous Conversations project, and facilitator of the How to Start Small Groups teaching series.