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(we'll keep this short & sweet)
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The cozy living room was filled with the sound of cheerful conversation as people began to congregate in the quaint home. I found a seat near the piano and observed the eclectic mix of believers who had come together for this weekly time of worship, Scripture reading, fellowship, and prayer. Missionaries on furlough, families with young children, working professionals, teens and young adults, and foreign exchange students were among those present. We all had different ages, lifestyles, and backgrounds, but we all had one thing in common – a desire to make Jesus Christ the center of our lives.
I was in my late teens and had recently given my life to Christ in a serious way. This weekly gathering that my family and I attended – a home fellowship group made up of people from our local church body – had become one of the highlights of my spiritual walk. Each week, I came away uplifted, edified, and challenged. I had been part of other Bible study groups where Christians sat around the living room and politely shared academic-style observations from whatever book we happened to be going through. This group was different. Each person seemed to possess a contagious spiritual fire. They were passionate about knowing Christ and making Him known.
When they worshiped (with simple, well-known hymns and choruses on the piano or guitar) they really worshiped – some raising their hands, some kneeling, some simply closing their eyes and sincerely offering praise to their King. When the leader spoke on revival, they responded by having a two-hour time of prayer, confession, and repentance. When people read from the Bible or shared something that God was doing in their lives, they did not use a detached, dry approach. They were enthusiastic about the things of God and reverent toward His Word. Missionaries spoke about miracles that God had done for them on the mission field. Families shared about God’s faithfulness in their homes. Others talked about souls that had been won for Christ throughout the week as they’d shared their faith. The entire group diligently wrestled in prayer for each other’s needs and encouraged those who were struggling.
Of course this group of believers was not perfect. Each of us was a work in process; still learning and maturing in our walk with Christ. But despite the imperfections and challenges, there was a unified desire among all of us – more and more of Jesus Christ.
As a young Christian, being part of this group made a life-changing impact upon my walk with Christ. Though it has now been well over two decades, I can still vividly recall those powerful times of worship, the passionate prayers offered by fellow saints, the faith-filled testimonies, and the convicting yet encouraging words of truth that were spoken during those weekly meetings.
Over the past twenty-five years since my involvement in that home fellowship group, I’ve come to recognize how rare that kind of gathering has become in our modern Christian world. Small groups – whether they be youth groups, women’s groups, Bible study groups, or many other variations – are plentiful. But faith-filled, Christ-centered, spiritually passionate gatherings that change lives the way that home group changed mine are not easy to find.
Whenever I’m asked for advice on how to lead an effective small group or Bible study, I always think back to those unforgettable fellowship times in that cozy living room all those years ago. I’ve asked myself what caused that particular group to thrive with such a passionate spiritual fire, while so many other Christian small groups I’ve encountered through the years have seemed mediocre, dry, or shallow.
As I’ve pondered this question, I’ve landed on a specific set of biblical principles that I believe must be present in order for any kind of Christian gathering – from women’s Bible studies to church youth groups – to truly remain Christ-centered and spiritually ignited.
Whether you are leading a small group currently, are seeking to start a small group ministry, or are involved as a participant in a small group or Bible study, I pray that these principles will encourage you and give you a clear vision for what is possible when “two or three believers are gathered together in His name.” (See Matthew 18:20.)
At first glance this may seem like an obvious one, but I’ve been saddened and surprised at how often I’ve observed small groups or Bible studies that don’t truly reverence the Truth. Having been involved closely with the Christian publishing industry over the past twenty years, I have come to realize many modern books and studies are based in trendy pop-culture ideas and human thoughts rather the unchanging Word of God. If the teaching or study in a small group is built upon anything less than the solid rock of Truth, it will become, at best, nothing more than a spiritualized social gathering or, at worst, a breeding ground for deception and compromise.
If you are leading a small group, be diligently watchful over any outside material that you choose to use. Just because a book or study is popular in the Christian world does not mean that it is Christ-centered or Truth-based. Whenever you are considering presenting others’ material to your group, learn to weigh the messages against the Word of God. Before you nod along with other Christians’ ideas, stop and ask yourself some key questions. Does this message agree with the truth of Scripture, not just on some points, but in its entirety? Do these thoughts and ideas align with God’s nature and character? If you are unsure, take time to seek answers in God’s Word before you promote it within your group. Remember, He has promised that those who seek His wisdom diligently will find it! (See James 1:5.) And when in doubt, simply focusing on Scripture as well as classic, historical Christian books is always a safe road to choose
If you are participating in a small group, be sure that you are cultivating a personal reverence for (and study of) God’s Word, so that you will be able to quickly discern when something erroneous is being taught or promoted. For example, early in my Christian walk, I heard a lot of right-sounding messages about the importance of building up my own self-esteem. Youth leaders and well-meaning Christians told me that if I wanted to be free from insecurity, I should focus on my own inner beauty and goodness and protect my “sense of self” at all costs. These ideas sounded so healthy and wise that I didn’t even question them.
It wasn’t until a few years later when I began truly digging into the Word of God and immersing myself in the Scriptures that I realized that the popular notion of self-esteem was in direct conflict with Christ’s clear message of self-denial. (See Matthew 16:24 and Luke 9:23.) If you are ignorant of God’s Word, you will be much more prone to being deceived by the “trickery of men” (Eph. 4:14 NASB). But when God’s Word is your lamp and your light, you will be much quicker to recognize and renounce ideas that do not align with His pattern.
When I look back to the fellowship group that impacted my life all those years ago, I am struck by the strong emphasis there was on Truth. Everyone there esteemed the Word of God. The leader of the group focused most of the teaching segments around rich portions of Scripture and excerpts from the Christian classics. There was a built-in protection against error creeping in, because the Bible was cherished and respected far above cultural trends or human wisdom.
For a Christian group of any kind to thrive, we cannot treat the Bible as moldable to human opinions and ideas. We must find out what God says, and then build our lives (and our group) upon that unshakable foundation.
Leonard Ravenhill used to say that he didn’t really know a man until he had prayed with him. Likewise, there is nothing that will cultivate a spiritual likemindedness among a group of Christians like praying together.
Prayer accomplishes things that human words never will. Prayer softens hearts and prepares souls for Truth. Prayer replaces misunderstanding and discord with brotherly love and unity. True prayer brings spiritual fire to a group of believers who might otherwise remain passive. So don’t just talk about praying – really pray together with your brothers and sisters in Christ!
Whether you are a mom leading a Bible study for pre-teen girls or a leader over a group of seasoned Christians, be sure to facilitate corporate prayer every single time you gather. Not only that, but lay a foundation ahead of time by praying diligently during the week for every person that you’ll be ministering to in your small group gathering.
And if you are a participant in a small group, don’t forget to spend time personally praying for the others in your group and especially your group leader(s). It’s important to note that those who step out in any kind of ministry – especially teaching and discipling – often face spiritual attack and battles with discouragement. Even if you are not the one leading the small group, your prayers can make a direct impact upon those who are leading, helping strengthen them spiritually for the important work that God has called them to do.
I believe that one of the key reasons that my past fellowship group was so effective and life-giving was because we spent so much time praying for each other – both corporately and individually.
As Corrie ten Boom once said, “Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?” The answer to that question can determine success or failure for both your personal life and your small group.
When Amy Carmichael first began her ministry to needy factory girls in Ireland, some wealthy, fashionable Christians in the community heard about the work she was doing and wanted to be involved. But she sensed that many of them wanted to be involved for the wrong reasons. She turned away those who simply wanted to impress others with their good deeds or gain an ego boost by devoting some time or money to a worthy cause. Amy only wanted to partner with believers who cared far more about the glory of Jesus Christ than their own personal benefit.
This principle is crucial for any truly Christ-centered ministry – small group or otherwise. Our involvement, whether leader or participant, must be for the glory of our King and not for our own personal benefit.
It’s all too easy to come into a small group meeting or Bible study asking the question, “What am I going to get out of this?” when we should be asking, “What is God going to get out of this?” Our primary purpose for gathering together with other believers should be to lift high the name of our King. In Christian meetings, we so often believe it is our right to be entertained, catered to, or applauded. And pretty soon it becomes about us, rather than all about Him.
In the small group I attended those years ago, there was a unified focus on Jesus Christ. He was the reason we were gathering, and He was always given first place. No one tried to take center stage or impress others with their cleverness or spiritual depth. Jesus was the Guest of Honor, and we sought to glorify Him with our worship, prayers, and conversation. Even the songs we chose for worship were purposeful. They were not “me, me, me” lyrics, but those that kept our thoughts and gaze on His worthiness, His holiness, and His goodness. Back then, I took it for granted thinking that this was the norm for most Christian gatherings. But now I realize what a gift it was to find a group of believers who made Jesus Christ their true North Star.
If you are the leader of a small group, ask God to continually purify your motives for leading. Are you doing this for recognition and applause? Do you want to draw attention to your own wit or abilities? Or is your primary aim to point eyes to Jesus Christ and get out of the way so that He might be clearly seen? John the Baptist set a beautiful example in this area when he spoke about his role in ministry: “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:29-30). In addition, look for ways you can cultivate a focus on Christ during the gatherings (i.e. Christ-focused worship, Christ-focused conversation, and Christ-focused prayer). There is no such thing as a Christian meeting that is too focused on Jesus Christ!
If you are a participant in a small group, one of the best ways you can help keep the focus on Christ is by approaching gatherings with an unselfish attitude. Instead of asking, “What can I get?” try asking, “What can I give?” When you are continually looking for ways to point others’ eyes to Him and not to yourself, you honor your King and keep Him in His rightful position as the Guest of Honor.
“If I be lifted up,” Jesus said, “I will draw all men to Me” (Jn. 12:32 paraphrase). And both Colossians 1:18 and 1 Corinthians 10:31 remind us that we are to give Him first place in everything. No matter what practical issue your small group might be studying together (i.e. marriage, purity, parenting, money-management, etc.) the ultimate purpose should always be for the glory of Jesus Christ.
Because without Him, we can do nothing. (See John 15:5.)
I have been at countless Christian gatherings that focus only on our issues, our struggles, and our needs. And while God certainly does care about providing answers to our issues and struggles and needs, He doesn’t want to stop there. In fact, He desires to make us strong in Him, so that we can give that strength to others. “Freely you have received,” Jesus says, “freely give” (Matt. 10:8 emphasis added). We are the Body of Christ – meaning that we are His hands and feet upon this earth. If we are not doing the work of building His Kingdom – selflessly serving, witnessing, and rescuing souls, then who is?
One of the things that I appreciated about my former small group was the outward focus that was cultivated among us. Our leaders organized opportunities for us to serve at homeless shelters, provide meals for refugees, visit local prisons and hospitals, and go on short-term mission trips and evangelism outreaches. Some of the families became involved in caring for foster children or adoption and others in the group diligently supported them with prayer and practical help.
These experiences helped remind us that the purpose of our gatherings wasn’t to simply enjoy the Good News for ourselves – but to share it with others in need.
Even if your small group isn’t able to go on mission trips or volunteer at homeless shelters, you can still cultivate an outward-focused attitude among those who attend. I’ve known youth groups who collectively sponsor children through Compassion International. Other groups have chosen a persecuted country to pray for. Still others have adopted an overseas orphanage and sent needed supplies. Ask God for the specific ways in which you as a group are meant to become Christ’s hands and feet to this lost and dying world.
If you are a group leader, you can also cultivate an attitude of outward living in your exhortations and conversations. Encourage the members of your group to look for ways they can begin to serve those they encounter on a daily basis – whether it be a neighbor, co-worker, or family member. Encourage them to share their faith with non-believers. Allow them to share what they are learning about living an outward-focused life.
Turning outward is a wonderful way to cultivate unity and purpose within any group of believers. An outward-focused group is typically a happy and thriving group, because there is great joy in knowing that we are functioning as Christ intended His Body to function!
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For many of us, attending Christian gatherings or Bible studies has become a dutiful obligation rather than a joyful privilege. And yet there is something so powerful about the gathering together of believers when we are gathered for the glory of God. I often think about the Christians overseas who literally risk their lives in order to meet together with other believers. This reality should help remind us that it is truly a precious gift to gather together in His name and to “exhort one another” (Heb. 3:13) in our common faith. May we never take it for granted.
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