I once had the experience of ministering to a couple. The husband had a serious illness. The wife asked me not to share the information with the church family. Reluctantly, I agreed to tell our people they would be back in church soon, but they were taking a little break. The couple attended fairly frequently, but they never came to Sunday School. Several months later, the husband died. Because the couple was not plugged into a small group in our church, I was the only one to visit in the hospital and only a handful of church members came to the funeral. The lady was hurt that the church had not taken more interest in her plight and she quickly became an inactive Christian. It was sad.
Over my years in ministry I have learned what research clarifies. When a person attends worship services only, it is easy for them to get lost in the crowd and miss out on the important ministry of a small group. They easily feel disconnected and soon fade away from the church.
Small group ministry is clearly a biblical ministry concept. We see in Acts that the small groups of the New Testament church were held in houses before the church had the benefit of the nice buildings we enjoy today. In the Bible, small groups were important in meeting the practical needs of the congregation. Jethro helped Moses see value in breaking up his ministry into small groups. Nehemiah understood that the construction of the protective wall around Jerusalem needed to be organized into small groups. When Jesus feed the 5,000, he broke the people up into smaller groups to expedite the ministry (Luke 9). When a church organizes itself in small groups, like Sunday School classes, it is following a biblical pattern of ministry.
As a church grows larger, it must also grow smaller. LifeWay’s recent research showed that four out of five new members will be inactive in five years if they do not join a small group. People make friends, or they “make tracks!” The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association says that generally, new converts who do not make seven to twelve new friends in the church within six months of their conversion, will not continue to attend. It is difficult to make that many new friends in the worship service, alone.
Small Group/Sunday School ministry is designed to meet the practical needs of the people. The “one another’s” (see John 13:34, Rom. 15:4, 1 Cor. 12:25, Eph. 4:32, etc.) of the New Testament are best carried out in the context of small groups. In Acts 12, Peter miraculously escaped from prison. When he was freed, he went to John Mark’s home to find that a small group was praying for his release. That’s what small groups do! Ephesians 4:11-12 remind us that pastors equip the church members, so we all can do the ministry together. Small groups organize the church to carry out that biblical plan of ministry.
Small groups help protect us from backsliding (Jer. 3:14). In the book, Transformational Small Groups by Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger, they site research from nearly 3,000 Christians that show that people in Sunday School or small groups are significantly more likely to read their Bibles, pray for others, attend worship, tithe their income and minister to other people. Christians involved in small groups are more apt to demonstrate those actions of a true disciple of Jesus. Friends, I have seen too many families endure much heartache from alcoholism, drug overdose and divorce. I realize that going to Sunday School does not guarantee that these things will never strike a Christian’s home, but it certainly does give them a better shot at being successful.
Dave Frasure is CABA's Disciple-making Catalyst and pastors FBC So. Lebanon, Oh.