The apostles and elders were problem solvers. Facing the needs of people or doctrinal error meant asking some tough questions and then working together before the Lord to find and apply good answers. Shepherding God’s flock today raises just as many questions. Good questions like: How can we promote quality fellowship in the assembly? How can we train future elders? How can we encourage younger men to consider pastoral ministry; not just teaching? How can we reach out to neighborhoods some distance from the assembly?
As always, there are no easy answers. But there are answers, and by spending time in the Word, prayer and fellowship together, God can direct the assembly in ways that are both Biblical and intensely practical. One idea that has helped some groups address these questions is to develop a small group ministry within the assembly. For those who may not be familiar with small groups, let’s take some time and consider the high points.
In this article we’ll give a brief description of what is involved along with some Biblical support for the underlying principle. In future articles, we’ll think about primary goals, suggestions on how to proceed, and finally a look at blessings and potential problems.
The idea of small or subgroups gathered for a special purpose is neither new nor uncommon. Elders meetings and Sunday school teachers meetings are examples. In essence, a small group ministry is just more of a good thing! A few people meeting informally as friends where all can participate provides a personal touch so essential for individual growth steps. The heart of John Wesley’s discipleship method in the 1700’s was to provide shepherding care for groups of 10 people.
But what do the Scriptures say? Early in the wilderness journey of Israel, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro observed the strain being placed upon Moses as he tried to bear the burdens of a multitude alone. He suggested delegating the work among rulers (or captains) of 1000’s, 100’s, 50’s and 10’s (Exodus 18). The idea was to involve others who could shepherd smaller groups of people. I realize that some good writers have been critical of Jethro’s advice [notably C. H. McIntosh in Notes on the Pentateuch]. But with due respect to their position, I believe it is better to look favorably on Jethro’s suggestion since he clearly stated “If thou shalt do this thing, and God command thee so…” (vs. 23 KJV). Reference to the enduring work of these positions throughout the OT, reinforce Jethro’s word that “thou shalt be able to endure, and all this people shall also go to their place in peace.”
The Lord Jesus certainly followed this plan. Early in His earthly ministry we read a sometimes overlooked but crucial statement in Luke 6:13 “And when it was day, he called unto him his disciples; and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles.” One need only read the gospel records to see that the Lord Jesus gave the largest and most concentrated part of His ministry to the 12. He had many followers but His main focus was with a small group. Before feeding 5000, the Lord gave instructions that the multitude be seated “by fifties in a company” (Luke 9:14). It is significant that even with an unlimited supply of bread, care was taken that no one be overlooked, not to mention the help this would be to those serving. Evidently, the Lord felt this could be done best in smaller groups. Is this a hint that may help in our “spiritual” feeding of the flock of God?
When the church began and thousands were being saved in Jerusalem, we are told that gatherings of believers took place in two spheres: “And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple and breaking bread from house to house….” (Acts 2:46; 5:42). Some have held that these references to homes were limited to single families. However, this is unlikely since it was not uncommon for extended families to live together in one house in the ancient near East. In any case, the point remains that spiritual functions were not confined to one central meeting place only.
Indeed, writing toward the close of his long and fruitful labors, Paul reminded the Ephesian elders “I….taught you publicly and from house to house……”(Acts 20:20). It is interesting to note that nearly 25 years following Pentecost, Paul continued the practice begun in the early days of ministering to people in both large and small groups; in both public and private settings. Getting into the homes of believers to instruct and encourage is vital to shepherding. Some functions of the church like the preaching of the Word work well in both large and small gatherings. But, as we shall see in future articles, there are other functions of fellowship that are much more effective in the intimate setting of a small number.