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The importance of small groups

If the depths of relationships and our commitment to one another are so important to God, then small groups must also be important as it is only in small groups that close relationships can develop. During the first two centuries of the Christian era church buildings did not exist, so it was necessary that people met in their homes. It is significant that the earliest church building discovered by archeologists is one recently discovered in the ancient Roman port of Aila, now within the modern city of Aqaba. It’s proposed dating is around AD 300, built during a period of relative toleration before the Great Persecution of 303-311. Eusebius, the “Father of Church History” (c. 260-340) tells us that many large churches were built in his day, but none have yet been discovered and it would only have been likely during the last half of the third century.

In the early “house churches”, pictured vividly by Paul in Romans 16, fellowship would, no doubt, often be over a meal. There are few things more effective for building fellowship than sharing meals. It is no doubt partly due to this natural creating of close relationships that the early church grew so fast, even in times of persecution. We are seeing this today in the success of the focuses on the building of relationships in small groups, in homes and over meals, as a means of sharing the gospel. It is also apparent in the remarkable success of the “Group of Twelve” approach in Colombia which has grown from 600 cell groups to something like 50,000 in four years. In Cuba, where new church construction is still forbidden, the Assemblies of God has grown from 9,000 to over 100,000 in ten years and has more than 2,000 house churches. The Hosanna World Outreach Centre in Taita has been identified as the fastest growing church in New Zealand. It has grown from scratch to 500 members in five years. Their pastor, Joshua Avia says, “We are a cell church where everybody does everything.” They work on a cell principle of twelve members.

At the Berlin congress of Evangelism, Robert Raines called the small group approach “the strategy for our time”.

Small groups, where all the members participate as directly as possible, are more effective for changing attitudes and behaviour than is the lecture method. This has been shown by “a whole series of studies”, according to Paul Hore in the Handbook of Small Group Studies. One lady told how she took her granddaughter to church for the first time. As they knelt in the tall-sided pew, the little girl whispered, “Who are we hiding from?” It is harder to hide from ourselves or from one another in the smaller group, than in the crowd. John Stott wrote in One People: Clergy and Laity in God’s Church:

I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that small groups, Christian family or fellowship groups, are indispensable for our growth into spiritual maturity.
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His Magazine, November 1968, reported an in-depth study done by Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship staff in North America on the rate of growth of their various University groups compared to the size of their gatherings. They described the problems found by any group as it grows and how the growth rate invariably slows as size increases. Problems included a drop in personalness, sense of mission and evangelistic work achieved, and an immense rise in demands on leaders. From this they devised an effective strategy which included the following: “The big meeting should serve the small group rather than vica versa.” I wonder if this is what Jesus had in mind when he declared, “Whenever two or three of you come together in my name, I am there with you” (Matthew 18:20). I used to think he meant, “Even if only a few of you gather I am still there.” I now tend to think he meant, “When just two or three gather in my name, I am there in a special kind of way.” In other words, the basic building block of the church is the small group in which the members are committed to one another as to Christ. We tend to think of the small group as only being a part of the church. The New Testament does not make this distinction. It is the church.

It is no surprise that the largest church in the world, Dr. Yonggi Cho’s church in Seoul, Korea, with several hundred thousand members, is built on the house and cell group principle. According to those who study church growth, research has shown that seven smaller groups for every hundred people attending Sunday worship, is the minimum required for growth. There is a vast amount of literature and aids on small group organisation and leadership training that has been written over the past few decades, so none need feel without resources for facing this challenge. The same could be said of literature for helping people discover and use their gifts.

John A. T. Robinson, in On Being the Church in the World, wrote:

I believe that the theological recovery of this idea of ‘the church of the house’ is one of the most important tasks of our generation. Whereas the organisation is an optional extra…the cellular structure of the church will be rediscovered as a necessity of its life…”

Be in prayer as we begin this journey together.