Okay I know that the last “article”/post/lesson (what do I even call these things!) was pretty long…. I’m sorry, but I had to set down the groundwork before we could start building upon it. Anyway today’s article is going to be a lot shorter, I promise!
So last time we took a look at Bill Search’s three patterns for small groups, however we didn’t rely too much on the Bible (that’s a bad thing). So today we will take a look at the classic small group verse/story from Acts 2. If you have ever been in a Lifegroup or have led one then you know what this is all about, but its super important so lets take a look at that, then lets go ahead and take a look at how God has used small group gatherings throughout the history of the church to advance his kingdom.
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts,praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (ESV)
So here is the context: Peter has just preached a killer message on the gospel. And this isn’t just a 4-spiritual laws sermon or a version of the Romans Road. No this is the gospel as rooted in the story of Israel. Peter says that what Jesus did on the cross is the climax of all that Israel had been waiting for, all the promises that God made to them all their hopes and dreams are finally fulfilled in Jesus. And now because God has exalted Jesus through the resurrection God’s promised Holy Spirit is poured out on his people. All we have to do is repent, be baptized and confess Jesus as Lord and all of our sins will be forgiven and we will receive the Spirit of God. Now I don’t think that this was the only thing that Peter said, I can’t imagine him giving a 30 second speech and 3000 people get saved, surely there is more but this is the stuff that Luke decided to include when writing Acts. This story is so cool and gets me pumped for preaching the gospel but preaching the gospel creates a problem: what do you do with these new believers? What did Peter do with these 3000 new believers? That’s like a church the size of Rocky Peak springing up in 5 minutes, how do you handle that? Do you create some sort of program to handle these people? Maybe; but I think the early church was smarter than that. They allowed these believers to develop organic communities based around the life, teaching, and presence of Jesus. These organic communities are what we today would call Life Groups.
Breaking Down Acts 2:42-47
Looking at this passage we see these new believers drawn into a community. This new community was a family with new traditions, new patterns, and a new way of looking at the world. This new community of faith displayed three patterns (which we have already talked about):
1-A relational pattern: they gathered in homes and shared meals.
2-A growth pattern: they talked about and lived out the teachings of Jesus
3-A missional pattern: they increased
Lets take a quick look at each one of these patterns.
The Relational Pattern
Luke uses the word “fellowship.” This isn’t just friendship and this isn’t just a potluck. This is real life commitment to one another. Fellowship was often used to describe the kind of committed care that takes place in marriage. This was family. As a family they did certain things, just like any other family would; they had their own little quirks/traditions/values. These families gathered and broke bread. No they didn’t just sit around and ate bread, they likely had dinner together and at some point within this meal they had communion. They sat and remembered what Jesus had done for them. They would likely tell stories about Jesus, the same stories we get in the Gospels. So basically they were doing life together, they were pursuing Jesus together. On a side note, we need to remember that these fellowship meals weren’t exactly like the kind of meals we have for our Lifegroup socials. The majority of Christians were poor, really poor. So for many these meals were the only meal they would get. They were the place in which the larger community cared for them and met their physical needs (Acts 6). Thus the fellowship is more than just spiritual or physical, its holistic.
The Growth Pattern
Look at the passage again. This group of believers was not only committed to community, they were also committed to growing in Christ. Remember they didn’t have the New Testament as we have it so they relied upon the Apostle’s teaching to learn about Jesus. So they were devoted to Jesus’ words as delivered by the Apostles. But this devotion to Jesus was more than just learning for the sake of learning. They learned to live out the truth of Jesus’ work and words. As a community they gave to the poor. You can tell that this community took Jesus’ words seriously because Jesus is constantly teaching about loving others and caring for the poor. They put Jesus words into action. Thus we see that God really was changing their heart and making them more like Jesus.
The Missional Pattern
As a result of their devotion to Christ and to one another God increased their numbers. The changed lives and the deep community became attractive to those outside of this faith community. God used this community to draw people back to himself. This community was not turned inward they had an outward gaze. As they cultivated their own relationship with Jesus they were propelled outward towards the lost. This community began to reach out to their friends, families, and neighbors to tell them about what Jesus had done. They were missional.
A Very Brief History of Small Groups
I’m not sure if anyone has ever written a book on the history of small groups, but I’m sure they could because the Church has always thrived in small group settings. Looking back to the medieval church we come to realize that monastery’s were basically small groups. They were small groups of men who devoted their entire lives to pursuing Jesus. Although we might think of monasteries as inwardly focused homes of self-righteous monks the reality is that these monks don’t really get credit for how much they cared about their surrounding communities. It is well attested that these monasteries were actually centers of mission and culture for their surrounding communities.
Passing through the middle ages we see an upsurge in small group gatherings. In the 1700’s John Wesley developed a small group structure. Wesley realized that a weekly sermon was not enough to disciple believers so he began to use classes and groups to help people connect and grow. These groups required high levels of commitment and accountability, but they paid off and the Methodist church movement was born. The Methodist church was vital to the growth of Christianity in America. If it weren’t for the Methodist’s commitment to preaching the gospel in the frontiers of America, who knows where America would be at today.
The use of small groups is not limited to the western Church. The church in Africa, Asia, and Latin America very closely resembles the church of the first few centuries. In the global south (the third world) churches often refer to these groups as “cell-groups.” In Latin America, Catholics call them “base ecclesial communities.” These BEC’s were known for taking care of poor communities around them. Whatever you want to call them God uses these small groups help believers mature in him, and draw the lost back to himself.
Wrapping Things Up
So we have taken a look at a Biblical model for small groups and we have seen that the Church has always had small gatherings revolving around these three patterns. Small groups work. They are effective. The church has been doing them for thousands of years. Lives change. Missionary movements are birthed. So the question is, “are we living out these patterns in our own Lifegroups?” Do we have a growth pattern? A relational pattern? A missional pattern?
This is my heart I want to see churches and Soma do Lifegroups well. Why? Because God uses communities like these to expand his kingdom. The strongest communities throughout history did not merely have an inward focus they also had an outward focus. As they looked away from themselves a funny thing happened, they ended up growing more than if they had focused on growth. This is an axiomatic truth that holds true for individuals and communities: God uses mission to grown individuals and communities. As individuals and communities focus on God’s mission he grows them so that they might be effective in bringing him glory. So lets focus on proclaiming Jesus inside and outside of our Lifegroups and the rest will follow.