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Small groups key to spiritual growth

RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–Genuine personal transformation best takes place in a small-group setting. People rarely change in large groups because large groups don’t offer opportunities for intimate relationships with others.

That was the message of the inaugural 4G conference sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center July 23-26.

The conference focused on four groups in the local church — Sunday School groups, small groups, discipleship groups and missional groups — and how each of them offers something different to its members. One person might belong to any or all of these groups at any given time.

LifeWay Christian Resources categorizes the various types of groups:

— Sunday School is the church’s Bible-teaching ministry and offers a balance between foundational discipleship and evangelism. These are open groups, meaning anyone is welcome at any time.

— Small groups excel at creating community and relationships. Small groups are usually closed groups where a few people (generally 12 or fewer) develop close, meaningful relationships.

— Discipleship groups traditionally study a Bible-based curriculum that leads members to a deeper understanding of a spiritual concept and transformation into Christ-likeness. These groups can be open or closed.

— Missional groups are generally formed around specific tasks that take members outside the church walls to impact others. Examples include a mission team on a specific mission trip or a ministry such as English as a Second Language classes. These groups can be open or closed, short-term or ongoing. (For extended definitions, visit http://www.lifeway.com/article/170406.)

Conference attendees had the opportunity to learn from various experts specializing in each of the group types.


Claude King, a LifeWay discipleship specialist, co-author of “Experiencing God” and author of “The Call to Follow Christ Series,” led a series on discipleship ministry.

“In the Great Commission, Christ told us that He had the authority and He was giving us a command,” King said. “He didn’t say to go make decisions. He said to go make disciples. He told us to go teach people to do all that He had commanded. That is a big order.”

He offered examples of what he considers excellent discipleship resources, including “Experiencing God,” “MasterLife” and “The Mind of Christ.”

“But if people don’t want to be a disciple,” King cautioned, “we can’t force it. We can’t make it happen. Only God can turn hearts back to Him.”


Jim Putman, senior pastor of Real Life Ministries in Post Falls, Idaho, served as both a conference leader and a keynote speaker. The church he pastors was planted in 1998 by four families and has grown to an average attendance of more than 8,000.

Putman said the church’s vision statement — “Reaching the world for Jesus one person at a time” — explains how the church has grown.

“Our goal is to create biblical disciples in relational environments,” he said. “I believe we have moved past the post-Christian culture and have moved into a pre-Christian culture. People in my area have moved so far away from the Bible and Christianity that they don’t even have a context for sin. They don’t even know they are sinners. They just figure they’re as good as anyone else.”

Real Life’s credibility, he said, comes from working together in the Christian life.

“Two are better than one,” Putnam said. “When you’re alone, it’s easier to justify your sin. There is no one else to hold you accountable.”

The church offers hundreds of classes in small-group settings. Rather than grouping by affinity, the groups tend to be geographical. “It just seems to make a lot of sense to us to have people involved in a group near where they live.”

Talking about what it takes to make a mature disciple, Putman said, “He knows the Word. No doubt. Of course he does. But more than that, the Word has transformed his heart. He loves and loves well. When you see his heart, you see Jesus.”


LifeWay’s David Francis and Dennis Pethers, founder of Viz-A-Viz Ministries, teamed up to talk about how to incorporate evangelism into the normal stream of life.

Dennis, from Essex in the United Kingdom, said he didn’t even know about church, God or the Bible until he was a young adult.

“I wasn’t against God or the church,” said Pethers, author of “More to Life.” “I just didn’t know anything about them. They just didn’t matter to me at all.”

He came to Christ after reading “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. Pethers said he was amazed that Christians weren’t talking about their faith more. “Here was all this good news and no one was talking about it.”

He said that in early 1900, 94 percent of people in England attended church on a regular basis. Just 100 years later, it’s a mere 4 percent, he said.

“What happened was people stopped sending their children to Sunday School,” he said, explaining that in the U.K., Sunday School is just for children. “As a result, it took only four generations until children had no one in their lives or families that had ever attended church. They ceased to have anyone in their sphere of influence who went to church or knew anything about it.”

That’s why personal one-on-one evangelism is the most effective means of sharing the Gospel, Pethers said. He defines evangelism as “leaving the person I met with a better understanding of God than they would have had if they’d never met me.”

People, he said, are meeting all over England in coffeehouses to talk about the Bible and to share their experiences with Christ with other people. Pethers said that personal relationships give people the right to share Christ. He talked about one of his relationships.

“I have this one friend, a rough talking, football-loving, big, tough, pub-going guy,” he said. “We met in the gym when I offered to spot him while he was lifting weights.”

As their relationship has continued, Pethers said, the friend has become more comfortable when Pethers talks about spiritual things.

“He hasn’t learned to love Jesus yet, but on a scale of minus-10 (being no interest whatsoever) to plus-10 (being totally sold out to Jesus), he’s come from a minus-10 to a minus-seven. That’s progress, don’t you think?”

Also speaking was Lyman Coleman, from Wilmore, Ky., who is considered by some to be the father of small groups as they are known today. For 50 years his philosophy of small groups has been that they should be places of safety and healing, as well as intimacy and relationships.

Throughout the event, Coleman led attendees in exercises designed to demonstrate in a few hours — rather than a few weeks or months — the path for leading people into community and deep relationship with a small group of people. Developing these intimate human relationships, Coleman stressed, will lead individual small-group members into deeper relationships with Christ.

Other sessions included ministry to women, ministry to children, leading change and Sunday School groups.
The 2011 4G event will be held July 25-27 at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center. Visit LifeWay.com/4G for updated information.

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  • Polly House