Small Groups: It's All About God

By Steve Manskar

This is the first of three sessions I presented to the South Georgia Annual Conference session on June 7, 8, & 9. I was invited by Bishop James King to serve as Bible study leader for 2011 session. He gave me the freedom to “share whatever God placed upon my heart” but also asked that I speak about the importance of small groups in the process of disciple formation.

I chose three passages from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The choice to focus on Ephesians came when I heard Alan Hirsch say that it is the “constitutional document of the church.” He says this because Ephesians is the only letter of Paul’s that does not address local issues. Rather, it is believed to be a circular letter that was sent to several churches. It was meant to be read aloud in church meetings. The purpose of the letter is to help Christians understand who and whose they are and how they are to order their life together as a means to participate in Christ’s mission in the world. It made sense to me, therefore, to focus my three Bible study sessions in Ephesians. It also helped to know that John Wesley frequently preached on passages in Ephesians. In fact, two of his most important sermons, ”Salvation by Faith” and “The Scripture Way of Salvation” is based upon Ephesians 2:8.

I begin with a definition and comments about why small groups are essential for disciple-making.

Here is John Wesley’s description of the small groups of early Methodism:

"… a company of [persons] having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation."

Here is my contemporary definition:

A small group is 3 to 15 people who meet regularly (weekly, bi-weekly or monthly) to help one another grow in holiness of heart and life and to help the congregation participate in God’s mission in the world. Group members attend to the ways that God is at work in their lives and do all in their power to cooperate with God’s grace. The group meets to watch over one another in love. They mutually support and encourage one another in the practice of missional discipleship.

This definition reflects the Wesleyan tradition of disciple-making and mission. It is important, at the outset, to acknowledge that the primary purpose of small groups is to help the congregation live out its mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Small groups are historically the most powerful and effective context and method of Christian formation available to the church.

This definition restores balance to the way small groups are generally practiced in the church today. In most congregations small groups focus on fellowship and study. These are good and important and need to be attended to. However, they are not sufficient to the rigorous work of disciple-making. Fellowship and study must be balanced with accountability and support for daily practice of discipleship.

This is to say that discipleship involves both the head and the heart. Being a disciple is much more than admiring Jesus and his teaching. A disciple of Jesus Christ follows him and conforms his or her way of life to the way of Jesus. Disciples obey Jesus’ teachings, summarized by him in Matthew 22:36-40. Disciples deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23) in their daily lives in the world. Self-denial and living a cross-shaped life are described by Jesus in Luke 10:25-37. The cross of discipleship is obedience to his commands to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love those whom God loves, as God loves them.

The goal of discipleship is holiness of heart and life, which is loving God with all that we have and are and loving those whom God loves, as God loves them. While this is deeply personal, it is not, and cannot be, private. Holiness of heart and life is possible within “a community of love and forgiveness” (see Baptismal Covenant I, §8) that faithfully does all in its power to increase faith, confirm hope, and perfect one another in love (see Baptismal Covenant I, §16).

When congregations embrace and practice small groups that help members to grow in holiness of heart and life they will make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. When congregations focus all their resources, time and energy on this mission, they equip and send disciples to participate in God’s mission in the world. This is what we mean by “missional discipleship.”

Missional is a term that describes God and the Church. It is derived from the Latin, missio, which means “to send.” We see in Scripture that God is missional: God the Father sent the Son into the world. The Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit who, in turn, sent the Church. The Church receives, equips, forms, and sends disciples of Jesus Christ into the world to be servants with Christ in his work of preparing this world for the coming reign of God on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).

Small groups are the proven and effective way the church forms disciples who make disciples. In small groups Christians learn how to love one another as Christ loves (John 13:34-35). They learn the essentials of Christian faith and receive the support and accountability needed to practice their faith where they live and work. Small groups that include fellowship, study, and accountability and support for basic Christian practices (also known as the means of grace) are how congregations make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

It’s All About God

Let’s look at Ephesians 1:3-14. What does this passage tell us about God?

First, God is triune. This means that God is essentially relational. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; three unique persons united as one by love. The Father is Father by virtue of his relationship with the Son. The Son is Son by virtue of his relationship with the Father. The three are united by love in the unity of the Holy Spirit which emerges from the Father and Son together. Therefore, God is a community of divine love. It can be said that God is a small group.

The triune relational nature of God leads the writer of 1 John to assert that “God is love” (1 John 4:16b). Because God is love we know that God is good and God creates the world and human beings good for good. Out of God’s goodness he “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to his good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:5-6). Out of God’s goodness we are given a home in God’s household. We are no longer homeless, which leads to certain death. God’s goodness gives us the shelter and protection of his home which is life in abundance (John 10:10b).

God is missional. Paul tells us that God is actively involved in creation and in the life of the church. God, through the grace of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, is working toward the redemption of the world. He is working to “gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). By grace, he equips the church to participate in this mission for the redemption of the world, when God brings heaven to earth and the reign of God is complete.

What does this passage tell us about human beings?

Humans are created good (Ephesians 1:4). Humans are destined by God to be holy, as God is holy. However, Paul understands very well that sin is a very real problem and that humans are sinful creatures who need forgiveness and grace (Ephesians 1:7-8). Because of God’s goodness and mercy humans are created for life in God’s household and to be witnesses to God’s glory (Ephesians 1:5, 11-14).

Because humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) we are necessarily relational beings. God has “hardwired” us to be social creatures who need, crave, and become fully human through relationships with others and with God. This is why small groups are not just a good idea or program for the church. It is why small groups are essential for forming Christians into disciples of Jesus Christ who become fully the persons God created them to be.
We become fully human, in the image of Christ, through the relationships formed in small groups. We learn how to love, forgive, and serve when we open ourselves to others in the context of a small group that centers us in the life and mission of Jesus Christ.

What does this passage tell us about the relationship between God and humans?

  1. God loves the world and desires that all claim their inheritance as children in God’s household.
  2. As children and heirs of God, we are responsible for obeying the household rules, incarnate in Jesus Christ and summarized by him in Matthew 22:34-40 and John 13:34-35.
  3. We are created, redeemed, and equipped by the Holy Spirit to be imitators of God who is love.