Why Small Groups?

Three reasons to incorporate these schools of discipleship

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Father Michael WhiteIn our new book, “Rebuilt Faith” (Ave Maria Press, $18.95), my co-author, Tom Corcoran, and I, in part, explore the purpose and value of small faith-sharing groups in the life of the parish and the experience of participating parishioners. Our group program, here in our parish, has become an integral part of our discipleship efforts.

The program is fairly simple. Adults meet in groups based on affinity, location or preferred day and time. Each group, meeting in members’ homes, has a leader who receives some basic leadership training from us. We also provide discussion questions based on the Sunday Lectionary and my weekend homily, the idea being that group members continue the conversation, go deeper into Scripture and apply it to their lived experience. Most groups meet for no more than 60 to 90 minutes and everyone understands the basic ground rules of the program, like honoring confidentiality.

Why small groups? Here at Church of the Nativity, we are committed to them for three basic reasons.

1. Small groups are our delivery system for member care. Groups are the place where our great big Church gets small, up close and personal. There is simply no way we have, or ever will have, a staff that could provide one-on-one support for our large congregation. And I don’t want my staff to even try, anyway. Staff shouldn’t be struggling to care for the members, they should be equipping the members to care for one another. Most people I know in our parish are happy to help others when they can, but they have no plan in place or system to do it, so they can’t. They need a system. Small groups are the system where our parishioners can support one another and find support.

2. Small groups are about life changes. The basic exercise we’re involved in at Nativity is not about comfortably staying where we’re at and presenting ourselves as fully formed Christians who have it all together. It is about life changes, things like overcoming bad habits and growing in goodness and character. Our formation as individuals and as Christians is far from complete. Small groups promote life changes at a fundamental level that rarely happens in the weekend congregation and probably will not happen elsewhere. The power of the group comes from friendships that form solid relationships in which conversations lead to conversion. God made us to learn and grow together in groups.

3. Small groups are about discipleship. Small groups are about life changes, but the biggest change we’re looking for, the central change we’re aiming at, and the only reason our parish is even here, is to grow as disciples, students of Jesus Christ. Small groups are our schools for discipleship. It is not Bible study or adult education, it is not talk therapy or prayer groups (all worthy projects in their own way, just not what we’re talking about). In our parish’s small groups, members take the Word of God, which we reflect on together in the weekend homily, talk about it with their peers, apply it to their lives as Christ followers, and stand accountable before other members for that application.

Why small groups? The Christian faith is meant to be held in a personal way, but not a private one. Without Christ-centered friendships, our walk of faith will most certainly be a slower, less steady one, at best. When we have friendships in which Christ is central, we connect with him in a way we will not be able to on our own.

Again, why small groups? Perhaps no other initiative, program or project has had a greater impact on our parish and parishioners. For us, small groups have been a game changer in terms of the health and growth of the parish. 

FATHER MICHAEL WHITE is pastor of Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, and co-author of “Rebuilt Faith” (Ave Maria, $18.95).

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