Small groups work because they are rooted in relationships, not in organizational structures or edifices. Within the relationships people want and need, they find what they didn’t know they lacked: Jesus and the Church.
Jesus went among the people. He spoke with crowds, visited people in their homes, ate meals with sinners, and healed the sick. Much of his time must have been devoted to this apostolic work, but it still would’ve taken far less time than he spent on his inner circle: the disciples and apostles, those he called friends, who would carry on his mission and build the Church.
The disciples and Jesus labored together and rested together. When Jesus wanted time away from ministry, he spent it with the disciples. He modeled the spiritual life and active ministry day and night. He equipped this group who believed in him and followed him so they could continue his mission. He called an even smaller group for more intentional preparation: Peter, James, and John.
In all these relationships and communities, Jesus shared the Father’s love. Love kept the disciples with him when they had no place to lay their heads. Love sent them out to preach, heal, and cast out demons. After Pentecost, love took them to the ends of the earth.
Small groups create a place where someone who would never go to Church can encounter that love. At small groups, those young in faith see appealing role models, and want what these disciples have. Faithful Mass attenders experience life-giving, Christ-centered community. All learn a Christian vocabulary from the Scriptures to talk about Jesus and what they believe about him. Groups serve the Church and the world when they truly encounter Christ together.
It’s Not about Program Management
God didn’t take the Church from a small band of followers to the largest religion in the history of the world by means of organizational or management principles. He founded the Church on Jesus, a person. The divine man had relationships with people. Those people had relationships with other people: Paul and Timothy and Titus; John with Polycarp; Polycarp with Ignatius of Antioch. The chain of relationships and communities sprung from that initial group truly does reach to the end of the earth!
While every parish or campus ministry needs organizational structure, that structure won’t evangelize the people in the pews who haven’t fully appropriated the gospel. It can’t reach those in the surrounding community. Nor can it establish believers as disciples and equip them as workers able to serve the Church and the world. That takes a person.
Relationships are the key to opening the life of faith, and they are the only way to reach the lost. If a non-believer is invited to a small group by a stranger, expect a predictable negative response. When invited by someone they know and trust who loves his small group, God has the opportunity to touch that unbeliever’s heart.
Start with Parish or Campus Ministry, Move Outward
The first small groups at your ministry will mostly reach the people in your pews. Shepherded well, these groups will make more disciples. “The presence of a significant number of disciples changes everything”.1 Disciples made within relationships weave relational ministry into the complete fabric of your parish or campus ministry culture. They can reach people on your campus, in your neighborhoods, workplaces, and anywhere they go. Put your energy into making disciples, and fruit will be born. Praise our good God!