The need for effective small group ministry is implied in the new testament. If the
local church is to truly develop the spiritual gifts of its members, and mobilize the
terrific power of the Holy Spirit to work through a trained and experienced laity, if it
is to facilitate true relationship-based community, it will need to organize smaller
groups where these can be fostered.
Xenos Fellowship, an independent church in Columbus Ohio, has centered it's ministry in
lay-led, small home group ministry since it's beginning in 1970. Using this focus, Xenos
has grown from a handful in 1970 to well over 3000 today. Their small group ministry has
also resulted in good morale on the part of the 400 lay home fellowship leaders, all
graduates of the 2 year graded training course for leaders.
Because of this success, other pastors often call on the Xenos staff to consult
regarding how to establish and/or manage small group lay ministry in their own churches.
Through these consultations, we have discovered that small group ministries are not a
novel idea at all. In fact, most evangelical churches seem to have tried to establish a
network of small groups at one time or another. At the same time, most of these efforts
are disappointing to some degree-- Leaders often ask us, "What have we been doing
The problems encountered when trying to establish a home group ministry sometimes
include a lack of participation and interest on the part of the members of the church.
Sometimes a small minority of the church struggles along, unwilling to admit failure in
the program, and developing a "faithful remnant" theology which justifies, on
theological grounds, the lack of growth and lack of participation by the other members.
Church division is also a possibility, although we have not seen very many cases where
We think these frequent failures are not the result of divine opposition to the idea of
small groups, or the fact that, "our kind of people aren't right for this sort of
thing." Instead, we think there are a number of good theological and practical
reasons why these groups usually fail.
1. They are often not based on New Testament theory
Both New Testament example and principle argue for small home-sized groups as a key
feature of the local church. In the area of biblical example, Acts 2:46 states that the
Jerusalem church met "in the temple" and "from house to house . . ."
Concerning the meetings in the Temple, we know that Solomon's portico was probably quite
large, and could have accommodated even the several thousands that were a part of the
Jerusalem church. Thus, in Jerusalem, they held both large and small group meetings.
Clearly, they did not feel the large meetings were enough by themselves. It should be
obvious that an impersonal atmosphere will result if we only hold only very large
meetings. The local church should encourage a network of close relationships in its
congregation because real community must be based on close relationships. Smaller group
meeting formats such as those described in this passage would be ideal for fostering such
In another case, Paul reminded the Ephesian elders that he had exhorted
them both "publicly and from house to house." (Acts
20:20) In this passage, "publicly" probably refers to
the school room of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9). But Paul did not limit
his speaking ministry to the large meeting place, even though
one was available. He also worked from house to house.
Paul apparently refers to several home churches in the city of
Rome (Romans 16: 4, 10, 11, 14, 15,). In I Cor. 14:35 he mentions
churches in the plural, after having already referred
to the church of God which is at Corinth, (I Corinthians
1:2) in the singular.
It seems clear from these and other references that operating
a cluster of home churches in each city was common practice. These
home groups continued to work together under the same elders.
It is probably significant that no church buildings have been
found from the earliest period of the church (33150 AD.),
and even those from the second century were homes with a large
room built in. Every church with a building faces the challenge
of resisting people's tendency to view the building as the church.
At Xenos, we have refused to build or to expand our building until
we see a high degree of involvement in home groups. Otherwise,
by expanding the building we would only worsen the problem of
superficial involvement in the local church. Currently, the elders
at Xenos set a goal of 80% involvement in home groups, and so
far, God has allowed us to maintain that rate of incorporation.
New Testament principles surrounding the issues of body life, spiritual gifts, and the
fact that real spiritual ministry is the business of every member in the local church can
not be effectively brought into practice in a large group setting. (see Rom. 12; I Cor.
12,14; Eph. 4:11-16; Col. 2:19) The church must provide smaller group settings where
relationships can grow between members so they will be able to discover each other's
needs. Only then will they be able to meet those needs on an individual level.
Unfortunately, when churches attempt to initiate a small group ministry,
they sometimes fail to teach and persuate their people that the
purpose of the meeting is to practice these biblical principles.
The result is sometimes a wrong impression on the part of most
participants. Members often feel that the meeting is primarily
intended as a social gathering, a support group, or a place where
my needs can be met, rather than a place where
I can develop a ministry.
The first order of business in beginning this kind of ministry is to launch a teaching
offensive in the church. The goal would be to establish an understanding and a vision of
the New Testament model and the spiritual goals associated with lay mobilization in the
minds of the participants.
2. The wrong criteria are sometimes followed for the selection of leaders
The Bible teaches that spiritual criteria must be used to select
leaders. The qualifications
of a deacon (I Tim. 3:8-13) would serve well for the initial
selection of leaders of home fellowship groups. Too often, however,
the church will designate men and women for leadership on the
basis of secular abilities, job status, levels of financial giving,
or seniority in the church. The result is usually a meeting that
is not very spiritually edifying or appealing.
After leaders have been selected on the basis of character and knowledge,
they should also be evaluated on the basis of actual function,
or role. When Jesus says my sheep hear my voice, he
is giving us a basic way to recognize a good shepherd. A Christian's
leadership cannot be authenticated until someone is willing to
In many of our churches, it may be very difficult to determine who our
authentic leaders are. This is because they have not had ample
opportunity to try their hand at leadership. In these cases, we
will have to pick leaders on the basis of the best criteria possible.
Later, when lay-led groups are in place, it should be possible
to evaluate the effectiveness of the work done by the more committed
members of the group. Other things being equal, the more effective
workers should be the first to be moved forward.
3. Frequently, insufficient authority is given to the leaders
If the home fellowship is to be fashioned after the Biblical
examples of house churches, then the leaders of the groups should
be allowed to run their groups the way the leaders of the New
Testament house churches ran theirs. Since the New Testament instructs
readers to respect their leaders and to follow their lead in the
running of the home church, we can assume those leaders had many
decisions delegated to them. (I Corinthians 16:16; Hebrews 13:17;
I Thessalonians 5:14)
Sometimes, churches impose a structure upon the small group that is too restrictive.
This structure may include a pre-planned curriculum for study, and a long list of policy
restrictions. The effect is usually to stifle initiative and sap motivation. The leaders
realize very quickly that they are functioning as agents for the existing leadership of
the church, but that they themselves are leaders in name only. When the church requires
the home group leaders to check in on virtually all decisions, it clearly suggests that
they are incompetent to make their own decisions. Sometimes they are incompetent, but the
church must see the challenge in this, rather than accepting the status quo.
Similarlly, pre-planned curriculum often actually scripts the meeting and requires
little creativity or expertise on the part of group leaders. Indeed, the main reason for
scripting the meeting is usually the feeling that group leaders have no expertise of their
own. Such lack of expertise points in turn to a weak equipping ministry in the church.
Failure to train leaders to a sophisticated level results in leaders who must be led by
the hand at all times. When this happens, leaders (often highly competent and
educated at their secular jobs) realize that anyone could follow the simple script, and
consequently, they are not challenged. They lose interest in leading, and begin to call on
the leadership to be passed around the group. They fail to take possession of the role of
home group leader as a worth while life goal. We believe churches are often too impatient
when trying to move from a program-based model to a home group model of church life, and
therefore they grossly underestimate the level of training and equipping needed to develop
effective leaders. Impatience may also signal lack of commitment, because in-depth
equipping is expensive in both dollars and man hours for the church's leaders. See #7
We don't believe the central leadership of the church should forsake all control over
the actions of home fellowship leaders, because lay leaders are usually not as well
trained as seminary graduates, or as experienced as the church's top leadership.
Therefore, it is necessary to carefully weigh which areas are left to the discretion of
the home leaders, and which areas need to be cleared with the higher authority of the
church. The point in making this decision is to arrive at a balance that will prevent
serious errors from occurring (even though we never have a guarantee that all problems can
be prevented), while delegating real decision-making authority to the home fellowship
4. The groups may have an unhealthy inward-focus
Small groups are often set up with the ultimate goal of fellowship or personal support
rather than evangelism or mission. While quality fellowship and
support is one of the rewards of small group ministry, it is an inadequate basis. If we
have only fellowship as our goal, the group is corporately self-centered, or self-focused.
Thus, it's no surprise that such groups are prone to division and discontent. This is
because outreach and mission are the natural context within which fellowship should occur.
When a group of people occupy themselves with each other to the exclusion of the
outside world, discontent is sure to follow. We should be unwilling to consider the option
of handling outreach at the large meeting and limiting small groups to a fellowship role.
The group may not engage in outreach at its weekly meeting, but they have to work together
and pray together on some shared mission.
Acts 2:46 says that the Jerusalem church was "breaking bread
from house to house" but does not mention evangelism. However,
this is a moot point, since the passage does not mention where
evangelism did occur. On the other hand, in I Corinthians 14:24,
Paul clearly contemplates "unbelievers" entering a meeting
which is an interactive meeting-- apparently a home church (see
5. There is often no provision for church discipline within the small group
In cases where home fellowships are set up with no provision for church discipline, a
very distressing and familiar pattern emerges. Some people are attracted to small groups
for the wrong reasons. There are those who come to exploit others, or simply to use the
group to become the center of attention.
The impact of such people is greater in a small group than it would be in a large
meeting. As a result, the whole character of the group can be altered to such an extent
that it becomes difficult to attract new people, or even to hold the interest and loyalty
of the productive members.
The New Testament provides a solution to this kind of situation.
Those members who are willing to damage others or themselves are
to be confronted in love about their attitude and/or actions (see
I Thessalonians 5:14; Matthew 18:15). If they are not responsive,
a legitimate amount of pressure can be appliedeven to the
point of removing them from the group.
According to the Bible, this kind of discipline in love should
be normative (I Corinthians 5). The application
of discipline should be gracious and suited to the needs of the
individual as well as the group. In order to prevent abuses or
legalism, the eldership should be consulted in cases where an
ultimatum may be issued.
Churches worry about angering people if they practice discipline. This concern is
legitimate. But while we will anger some by exercising discipline, we endanger all by
failing to exercise it. Worst of all, those being disciplined miss out on one of the
important provisions for growth in the New Testament.
Small group attendance is a privilege in the church. Participation should have
conditions attached, such as no anti-social or disruptive behavior. Otherwise, the small
groups become soft, unruly, and unappealing.
6. All groups may be the same, rather than diversified and matched to their members
For some reason, churches generally devise and execute a plan for small groups that
features only one kind of group. We did this too. But not any more! Now we see that family
aged people need a different type of group than students or singles, etc.
Why should a large church (or even a small one) have only one type of group?
Creativity on the part of leaders and planners could result in a number of models for meetings, featuring
different sizes, different formats, different purposes, and different
commitment levels. Every church should be different.
7. There may be no adequate equipping offered to would-be leaders
The Bible does not allow the local church the option of telling
its people to go away for their training. According to Ephesians
4:11,12, it is the responsibility of the leadership of the local
church to provide quality
training in Christian work ("the work of service")
to its own people. When the leadership of a church decides not
to have a small group ministry because its "laymen"
are too ignorant, this is not an excuse - it is an admission of
For many churches, the first step toward a successful home fellowship
ministry would be to establish a full year-long
course of in-depth theological and practical ministry training
for the proposed leadership group. We find that most churches
try to get by with a five or ten week training series which is
inadequate for sophisticated leadership responsibilities. People
will take longer training courses if they can break up the training
into modules, and if they view taking these classes as fun. This
is why we need to put our best communicators and leaders in as
teachers in this training.
If a church already has an adequate supply of leaders who have some biblical knowledge,
it would be preferable to hold this training while small groups are in progress, so they
can immediately use the knowledge they learn. This prevents the accumulation of "dead
knowledge" and also avoids creating the impression that Christian work is more
difficult than it really is.
At the same time, we should be clear that completing the training course will not
necessarily result in an assignment as a home group leader. That decision will have to
also depend on other considerations such as character development, and a record of
self-sacrificing service to others.
Finally, aside from classroom training, each home group should
develop it's own program of personal discipleship and ministry
training (Matthew 28:18-19, I Timothy 2:2). The classes should
be viewed as supplemental to the grass-roots discipleship practiced
at the home group level.
8. The church may set no multiplication goals, and may have no good plan for
multiplying home groups
In many cases, a home fellowship's existence is viewed as an end in itself. As
mentioned earlier, this lack of mission-mindedness has a negative effect on the group. In
order for groups to be spiritually healthy, they need a purpose greater than themselves.
On the other hand, good small groups tend not to stay small. Thus, when a house fills up
with people, much of the interactive character of the group is lost. In addition, outreach
tends to dwindle because there is no room for new people.
In cases like this, it is natural to divide the group in order to preserve the small
size of the group, while at the same time, reaching more people.
Unless the church propagates a vision and a plan for planting new groups which
encourages outreach, discipleship, and equipping, home fellowships tend to resist
multiplication. The status quo is always more comfortable than the change and risk that
come with growth.
We should establish ground rules that help to insure success for both newly planted
groups, with a minimum of disruption to the relationships that have been developed.
Otherwise, the system will tend to stifle initiative and punish success. In other words,
the view of the leaders might well be, "the faster our group grows, the sooner we get
to part ways with the close friends we have made so far."
Good planning should make it possible for close friends to stay together most of the
time, thus minimizing the disruption involved in planting new groups.
9. Small groups are sometimes viewed as peripheral rather than central to the life of
In some churches, the large worship meeting and/or teaching meetings are viewed as
essential, but the home group is considered an option--helpful to some, but not
necessarily normative for healthy involvement in the local church.
As pointed out earlier, this view ignores the Biblical point
of view that the local body depends on the individual function
of each and every member (Ephesians 4:15,16). We
need to resist the temptation to dilute this teaching (for instance,
teaching that giving money on Sunday, or serving as an usher could
fulfill the intent of this passage). If we allow this kind of
superficial understanding of church life predominate, there will
be no strong motivation to exercise real spiritual gifts, or to
make small group ministry succeed.
If the church fails to establish a vision in the minds of its members for full
involvement, the result will likely be a very poor level of participation in the home
fellowship program. Often, only those with little to do will spend the time it takes to
become meaningfully involved. To obtain the help of our most gifted members, we will need
to teach that involvement in home mission and fellowship is an exciting opportunity to
finally realize the full extent of normal Christian experience.
The leadership in the local church must cultivate a mentality, or consensus in the
church which places an appropriate emphasis on this kind of ministry. Such a consensus can
be created without resorting to legalism. The leadership must truly believe in the
concept themselves, and be willing to teach and practice it in their own lives.
10. They are sometimes viewed as a threat by the pastor(s) of the church.
Pastors might fear home groups for several reasons. False teaching is always a danger,
but this is why the Bible teaches the need for "overseers" or elders. The elders
should also train the "lay" work force so that they will be able to teach sound
doctrine. Pastors also worry that a small group network may not be effective, thus leading
to disappointment in the church. The record of home fellowships in recent years has been
mixed, and somewhat disappointing. But we can see from this list some reasons why.
Some leaders may prefer the control that they have when they are the only leaders in
the church. This feeling is understandable, especially when a pastor is already having
trouble controlling the situation in the church. However, we need to see at this point,
that a quality small group ministry would not increase the work load of the pastor in the
long run. The key to maintaining quality ministry even for a growing church, is to
delegate work to other members. Pastors who succeed in establishing a successful and vital
small group network do not see their own leadership eroded at all.
The man or woman of God must pass judgment on his/her own attitude, admitting that a
willingness to inhibit others' ministry for the sake of establishing his/her own is most
censurable. The fact that we may feel threatened in our position in the church is no
excuse! We have been placed where we are in order to facilitate others' ministry, not to
11. Home groups are often introduced in a programmatic, not a natural way.
One church after another has reported that they formed a plan, presented it to the
church, started a dozen home groups and got dismal results or even strong resistance from
the congregation. We suggest not approaching home groups this way, because it is
unnatural. Home groups should grow in an organic way, not be thrown into existence through
a massive program. Instead, the best way to introduce home groups in our opinion is:
- Identify a handful of people who understand and hunger for the vision of home-based
fellowship. This could take some time, as leaders may have to persuade some that this
approach is biblical and exciting.
- Once that group is identified, the leaders of the church should begin meeting with them
in the first home group. Usually, a single home group is preferable, as the future opinion
leaders in the church need to get on the same page about what a home group is and how it
works. Plead with the senior pastor to be a part of this group. Planning meetings
are not the answer here. Only meeting together and trying different formats and approaches
will lead to the consensus you need. Group members should be encouraged to share with
non-members their experiences and vision for these kind of groups. If the group is full
and others are unable to join, their frustration will actually serve as motivation later
when more groups are available. Calling on people to wait will not hurt the project,
especially if you make it clear that they are welcome and you are eager to work them in as
soon as possible. Keep a waiting list.
- During this first year, the leaders should devise and implement a series of courses for
future home group leaders. People waiting to joing a home group should be urged to take
advantage of the classes while they wait. If you have a lengthy waiting list, explain that
those who take classes will be the first to qualify for participation in home groups.
During this period, the church should come to realize that participation in home groups is
not a duty or an added burden, but a priveledge.
- When the first group is full and people are ready (this could take months or a year or
two) the group should divide and plant another group or groups. Then others can be again
invited to join.
- We believe the natural pattern for adding members to existing groups is personal
relationships, not geography. Churches that base home groups on geography usually find
that the groups lack cohesion because people don't know each other. Allow people to invite
their friends and relatives to their own group, regardless of where they live in the city.
- At first, the leadership may want to supervise additions to home groups. Later this will
be unnecessary. The point is to try to assure success by getting the best people into home
groups in a mix that promises success. Avoid filling groups with only hard cases.
- Using a system of collegiate review, allow and encourage groups to plant other groups
when they are ready. Group leaders should participate in some type of oversight system.
Avoid pressuring groups to move too fast, but also refuse to accept a mentality that says
"We're satisfied staying the way we are."
- Through multiplication of home groups you can see large numbers of groups formed within
a few years. The larger congregation will naturally want to participate in something they
hear others are enjoying. Have members of successful groups share their testimonies at
your worship service and elsewhere. Build excitement gradually for the home group project.
Give people a sense that they have arrived once they get to join a home group.
The lesson learned at Xenos during the past few years is that the New Testament model
is not only theologically preferrable- it is also capable of yielding New Testament
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