John Wesley knew that small groups were an effective means of grace. He stumbled on it by accident. First, he learned the value of a religious society in the Holy Club at Oxford where he, his brother Charles, and other students gathered regularly to study and grow in their faith.
Later, he encountered the Moravians, who taught him basic principles of spiritual accountability in the Fetter Lane Society. Then, in 1740, the class meeting was developed. It originally was a way of raising money to pay for The New Room, the Methodist preaching house in Bristol.
However, Wesley quickly realized that this small gathering could be an opportunity to help people grow in their discipleship. So for over 100 years, being “a Methodist” meant that one belonged to a small group where conversation about spiritual growth was a normal part of one’s life.
We need to reclaim this part of our Wesleyan heritage. I have been teaching for many years that every Christian should worship God weekly in the gathered community and should participate in a small groups. Such small groups should have five purposes: prayer, study, fellowship, mutual accountability and service. Thus, a Sunday-school class or a men’s or women’s group should regularly do all of those things.
However, what if the congregation itself is small enough that it functions as a small group? What if this congregation has fewer than 50 worshippers each week? Can it be that incubator for disciples?
Their vitality is an expression of the power of the Holy Spirit in their midst as God’s grace is shaping the members’ lives.
Some vital congregations are small-membership churches. Their vitality is an expression of the power of the Holy Spirit in their midst as God’s grace is shaping the members’ lives. At these churches, worship is dynamic, and the power of prayer is felt. Worshippers eat together and support each other in difficult times. They hold each other accountable for practicing the faith. They find ways to serve the poor and needy in their communities and around the world. They study the Bible together. People who come to these churches experience the presence of Christ.
Too often, we draw attention to our largest churches because of their prominence and the wide impact they have. I am grateful for larger churches that touch many lives. Yet, I have learned that the best large churches are actively changing lives by organizing many small groups. Small-membership churches often are located in small communities. God loves the whole world, and the people who live in small towns need the grace of God that only the church can provide. Thus, a church in a town of 500 that has an average attendance of 50 can be considered as vital as an urban church that has 500 worshippers. Vitality is determined by the lives that are being changed by God’s grace.
At the same time, vitality involves the congregation’s willingness to engage in spiritual conversations with non-believers and to help them become Christ’s fully committed disciples.
Too often, churches of all sizes become clubs focused on member benefits rather than mission stations that Christ can use to reach people who do not yet practice the Christian faith. A small group or a smallmembership church should figure out how to invite and welcome unchurched people into their midst.
SCOTT JONES was Professor of Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology, where he directed the Center for the Advanced Study and Practice of Evangelism. He is currently Bishop of the Kansas Area of the United Methodist Church. His publications include The Evangelistic Love of God and Neighbor: A Theology of Witness and Discipleship (Abingdon Press, 2003). This article is reprinted from The Connection newsletter (July 1911).