Saturday, 17 November 2012

growing big by becoming small (pt. 2)

Building on my previous blog piece, I decided to re-read Philip Spener’s book that outlines his vision for the church of his day. What greatly impresses me is the way he writes with clarity and directness around the crucial question of how we make and mature disciples of Jesus.

His central conviction is that God’s Word will enkindle faith and provide guidance regarding the life of discipleship. However, he argues that preaching is only part of the answer in achieving that end. It can only take Christians so far in their devotion to God.

I believe this is because the focus of the New Testament is centred on the community of faith, the church. It follows that if this is where Scripture places its emphasis, then preaching that is true to God’s Word will follow its lead, and aim for corporate encouragement, unity, maturity and growth. The main purpose of a sermon is to build up the body of Christ. We struggle to grasp this today because of our focus on the individual. Spener understood it entirely.

He proposes that 3 further dimensions are required. Firstly, he encourages diligent reading of the Bible in private. Secondly, he suggests that it is read systematically during congregational meetings. Thirdly, he appeals for a return to “the ancient and apostolic kind of church meetings.” That is, the formation of small groups of Christians meeting in a given locality.

Spener envisages these small groups functioning with the following values

Wise leadership at the helm
He believed that godly leadership was vital in order to maintain the spiritual health of each group and give it proper direction.
A concern for God’s honour
The primary motive in the establishment of these small groups was a desire to bring further glory to God.
A commitment to practicality
The aim of studying Scripture was to discover its simple meaning in order that faith could be enriched as a result.
A culture of honesty
Group members were encouraged to be open about the questions and doubts they had concerning the faith.
The need to create an atmosphere of grace
Selfish interest was to left at the door; the needs of others had to take priority.

What Spener set out 400 years ago remains a compelling vision for the church today as it seeks to disciple people in the twenty first century.


  1. Iam beginning to feel as though a modern reformation may be coming.

  2. I have been thinking about this blog all week and have some basic thoughts ....
    1. The younger generation are not educated in the same way as previous generations i.e. sit up straight and listen to the teacher up front. Get on with work and do not interact with anyone. I wonder if the modern generation of Christians will respond/learn better to Christian teaching in smaller more interactive groups as this is generally the way they learn in school. Could it be that listening to a monolouge of 30 minutes + whilst sitting still with no interaction or opportunity to respond/question and then go home isn't quite hitting the mark. I know that the older generations are comfortable with this method of teaching and find the smaller interactive methods a struggle. How does the modern church get the balance right?

    2. Are current church leaders a bit nervous of small group ministries because they are not in full control of what is said and done and they are not able to monitor all the going ons with each group?

  3. 3. Are the right people leading the groups. Church leaders are often in charge of a group but to be honest those who are leaders of a church don't always have the gift of leading a small group or even have the time or conviction to lead. Being an Elder/Pastor/Minster within in a local church requires different gifts and skills to lead a small group. I would tend to say the small groups don't need to be "lead" but rather left on their own to nuture and mature and grow into their own dynamic. They do require a measure of steering and organisation from the main church leadership but not domination in regard to what the format of each group meeting should be.

    4. Why is it that small groups tend to meet on the same day as congregational services i.e "this sunday evening is small group evening"? There are another 6 evenings in the week. Congregational services are still integral to church life for people to join together for worship, teaching and prayer. I know that not everyone can make every service and it will be the same with small groups so why not have weekly small groups on a night that suits those of the group. I cannot make the monthly mid week small group meeting so I am instantly excluded from this small group and have no way of joining in...why? Is it due to decades of regimental leadership that must conform to a set schedule that cannot be changed unless it is brought to a consultation to the church before a small group can meet on a tuesday rather than a wednesday.

    5. Group members. I've always been told what group I am in, why? Why not have different flavours of groups that people can choose to join or even groups that meet on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday for example. If someone can't make a Monday for work reasons then they can join the Thursday group??? I know that setting up age range groups or groups based on interests, race or backgrounds is not a good idea as this doesn't build true interaction and understanding of the body of the church, but to be told that you are in Group A and you meet once a month on a Thursday and a Sunday. If you want to move groups then this always causes a bit of an upset as people wonder why you want to move group. These hurdles should never be put in place in the first place.

    6. The groups that I have always been in have been very formal with set Bible Study notes and not much interaction except a very brief request for prayer. Bible study is important but not for every group meeting. People want to talk, encourage each other, listen to each other, build each other up or just listen to other's story of the week. This doesn't happen via formal Bible study. Small group ministry is not meant for Bible study. If a church wants to set up Bible study groups then set up Bible study groups don't mask it as a Small Group ministry and do formal Bible study in format that hasn't changed for 100 years. Sorry for being negative about this but my experiance of formal Bible study either means 1 individual mainly teaches from a passage and everyone listens or a couple of people dominate the conversations. The aim of the evening is to complete all the pre-set questions. This is not Small Group ministry.

    That about sums up my thoughts. Sorry if they seem negative but this has been my experiance of formal small group ministries over the years. The positive small groups that I have been part have have always been groups that naturally evolve and take shape and have very little formal structure or planning in what is studied or discussed.

    Comments please


  4. Grateful for your thoughts. I strongly believe that today's church is in a period of tranitions and that we are experiencing a significant shift in culture.
    I still believe that preaching has a crucial place in the life of a congregation but recognise what you say about its limitations. We need to explore more thoroughly how people learn and develop those who can facilate that learning.
    I hope to explore the central place of small groups early in the new year and would hope to explore on this blog some of your concerns.