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Small groups can fulfill desire for ‘intimate group of believers’

GLORIETA, N.M. (BP)–Invest yourself in people, not programs, because programs will come to an end. But when you invest yourself in people, the results are eternal.

Rick Howerton, voicing the philosophy of Serendipity House small group studies, noted, “We’re talking about lives here.”

“People have an innate longing in their souls to be a part of an intimate group of Christian believers,” said Howerton, Serendipity House’s national training coordinator. “They may not be Christian -– they may not even be interested –- but God puts a need in us to have fellowship with Him and each other.”

Howerton led a series of workshops on small group ministry during Sunday School Week at LifeWay Glorieta Conference Center near Santa Fe, N.M.

Small groups, he said, involve people who are unwilling to settle for anything less than redemptive community.

The Serendipity line of small group studies, now distributed by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, offers a host of possibilities for churches that want to use small groups to lead people to a greater intimacy with Christ and with each other.

The small group is a biblical concept, Howerton noted. “Jesus didn’t have a program. He just took 12 people and poured His life into them for three years. They lived their lives together, learning from Him. Then He sent them off to do the same. It must have worked. We’re here.”

Small groups don’t replace Sunday School in a local church, Howerton said, but function in tandem.

“Like Sunday School, small groups are open groups, always welcoming new people to come in [at] any time,” he said. “Small groups, though, can function in the context of a free market system. They can be formed around common interests such as missions, fishing, Bible study or dog training. They can also be based on gender, age, multi-generations or geography. While a small group needs to be open to new people, of course, there needs to be some commonality with its members.

“I have seen a couple begin a small group with people on their cul-de-sac, including their unchurched and unsaved neighbors. They have had amazing results,” Howerton said.

As groups meet and people become more comfortable with each other, a progressive disclosure begins. Trusting becomes easier; sharing deep needs and emotions becomes natural, Howerton said.

Regardless of the shared interest of the group, he said a successful small group will revolve around the functions of the church: evangelism, discipleship, fellowship, missions and worship.

Serendipity resources have simple-to-follow plans for helping small group leaders become “the shepherds of their groups,” Howerton said. “The leader becomes responsible for the spiritual nurture and care of this small group of people.”

The beauty of a small group ministry, he continued, is in the closeness of relationships. “If you erase the past 1,900 years, you will find churches that met in homes and people who lived their lives together,” he said. “Evangelism and discipleship were natural outgrowths for a group of people who loved Jesus. Our churches today can do the same thing.”

Crucial to a small group’s success is its incorporation of the members into each others’ lives, Howerton said. “When you go out to dinner, for example, call some of your other group members and ask them to go with you,” he said. “Take a group of guys from your small group fishing on a Saturday. You can use this time to invest your life into these other people and lead them to a closer intimacy with Jesus.”

Successful small groups, Howerton said, establish ground rules through a group covenant that includes such factors as:

Priority: While you are in the group, you give the group meeting priority.

Participation: Everyone participates and no one dominates.

Respect: Everyone is given the right to his own opinion and all questions are encouraged and respected.

Confidentiality: Anything that is said in the meeting is never repeated outside the meeting.

Empty chair: The group stays open to new people at every meeting.

Support: Permission is given to call upon each other in time of need -– even in the middle of the night.

Advice giving: Unsolicited advice is not allowed.

Mission: The group agrees that doing everything in their power to start a new group is their mission.
Sunday School Week, sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention was held June 27-July 1 at LifeWay Glorieta Conference Center.

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  • Polly House