W. Clarence Schilt, D. Min., is an associate professor of religion at Loma Linda University, in Loma Linda, California.

It was in small group settings that the early church flourished during its first two centuries, and the need for and effectiveness of these small gatherings continues today.

TO LEARN WHAT THE BIBLE HAS TO SAY ABOUT SMALL GROUPS, WE REALLY must explore what it says about the church. When we talk about building disciples through the means of small groups, we are talking about something very central to the mission of the church.

In speaking of small groups within the church, I am referring to gatherings in which people meet and form close relationships with one another, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, in order to minister to each other's needs, to the praise and glory of God. Because of this, we will also study what the Bible has to say about relationships.

THE PRESENCE OF GOD

God's Word is the source of all true theology. It is the beginning place for our knowledge of God and of His truth. And all truth is determined by God not by His created subjects.

The fact that God created us reminds us constantly of just whowe are. It protects us from the trap of playing God. Our challenge is to remember just who─and whose─we are. We cannot find identity in self. When we try to, we end up in the "far country" without resources or meaning. Like the prodigal son in Jesus' story, our identity is found and preserved in the mind and love of the Father.

Nowhere is this demonstrated more fully than in the incarnation of Jesus. The self-emptying attitude of Jesus (Phil. 2) is a model for us in seeking to know our own true identity. Jesus, as man, found His entire identity only through His relationship to His Father. Chapters 5 through 7 of John's Gospel indicate repeatedly that Jesus' life, words, and actions all flowed from His Father's impulse and direction. This means that the primary focus of Jesus' ministry was toward the Father.

"Christ's primary ministry is to the Father for the sake of the world, not to the world for the sake of the Father. This means that the world does not set the agenda for ministry, but the Father, who loves the world and seeks its good, sets this agenda." 1

The implications for us are obvious. Just as Christ received His agenda from the Father, we receive our agenda for ministry from Christ. We learn and receive God's agenda through the concrete words and deeds of Jesus. Jesus lived on this earth for the sake of the world; the church also exists on earth primarily on the world's behalf rather than its own.

The church is the ongoing presence of God's revealing, reconciling word, through Christ, in the world. "And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way" (Eph. 1:22, 23, NIV). "And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit" (Eph. 2:22, NIV).

What we see emphasized in the Bible is a living, growing love relationship between Christ and the church that is akin to the relationship Christ had with His Father (seeJohn 17). This enables the church, in a very real and substantial sense, to be God's presence in and for the world, in both word and deed.

Therefore, as we consider the church as a community, we are looking at more than simply a group of people who respond obediently to God's Word through Christ. We are, in fact, reflecting on the continuing presence of God in the world and through the church.

BUILDING FELLOWSHIP

Something has happened to the church that threatens it at the very core. The church has drifted from Christ-centered fellowship to individualistic Christianity. It happened first in society and then infected the church.

Almost by default, the church has become largely a group of isolated individuals living out their Christianity in very private and independent ways. Their involvement with each other takes place on a very superficial level.

This condition is absolutely contrary to the biblical portrayal of what the church should be. It is also a contradiction of what Jesus had in mind when He first established the church.

At its heart, the church is called to build relationships. The church is people getting next to people, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, for the purpose of ministering and being ministered unto, "to the praise of his glorious grace" (Eph. 1:6, NIV). This means that the saints will come together in ways that directly challenge individualism and independence.

Yet many attempts at building fellowship have failed because the basis for such interaction was primarily humanistic in one way or another. Christians do not gather primarily for warmth, openness, self-actualization, et cetera. Christians gather because of Jesus Christ! The basis of our coming together is what Christ has done to and for us.

Those who gather around their own egos will not find Christian community. There may be some positive results (usually short-lived), but Christ-centered fellowship will not be one of those.

It is easy to assume superficially that as Christians, all we do is done in and through Christ. However, this can be a false assumption. For Christian community to evolve, there needs to be an intentional focus around Scripture and prayer. Without this center, things rather quickly deteriorate into the limitations of groupie life, and true spiritual community is cheated.

As the church focuses together on Scripture and prayer, it will be led to respond to Jesus' call to live out the new commandment (John 13:34, 35). Jesus indicated very explicitly that His own credibility (John 17:21, 23) and the credibility of the very idea of discipleship (John 13:34, 35) depend on the love and unity manifested by the church.

We must guard against the temptation to define the new commandment simply as "warm fuzzies." It is much more than warmth and good feelings for each other. The Bible's challenge is to care actively for each other, attending to the interests of others (1 Cor. 12:25; Phil. 2:4); to forbear and forgive (Eph. 4:2, 32); to submit to each other (Eph. 5:22-29); to bear each other's burdens (Gal. 6:2); to teach and admonish each other (Col. 3:16, 17); to encourage and build up one another (1 Thess. 5:11); to confess and pray together (James 5:16); and above all, to love each other (1 John 3:11, 23; 4:11).

There is an indissoluble bond between unity and mission (John 17:18, 21, 23). Superficial treatment of the new commandment too frequently has us thinking and working on the "inward" life of the church. The context of Jesus' call is an "outward" focus toward and for the world. Jesus is saying that a central part of unity is mission. A community of disciples that comes together because of and through Christ is a sent community through which the new commandment is fulfilled.

THE WORK OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

The church gathers because of and through Jesus Christ, and this can happen only because of the Holy Spirit's role and work. Jesus said that the Spirit would call attention to Christ and make Him real to and through us. The divine entity that reincarnates the Word in the church is the Holy Spirit. Therefore, when we speak of a community of believers, we mean a body that has been formed and enabled because of the Spirit's work.

As the church remains open to the creativity of the Holy Spirit, it will more and more experience itself first as a spiritual fellowship rather than an institution. So the reformed community that Christ is creating becomes visible in groups that have a quality of life that reflects the mind of Christ. Small groups are very effective in providing a climate for the Spirit to give this quality of life.

GROWING SPIRITUALLY

Since the church comes together because of and through Jesus Christ, it will address, both in understanding and practice, that which the Bible calls "the mind" of Christ. "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 2:5, RSV).

The most common word for "mind" in the New Testament is nous. The word is found 24 times of which 21 occurrences are in Paul's writings. Without going into a detailed study of this word, we can safely say that it includes the whole of man as a rational, moral, emotional, and spiritual being. In a true sense, when we talk of having the mind of Christ, we are speaking of the image of God in us.

The second chapter of Philippians is a plea for the fulfillment of God's image in us. The mind of Christ is to be incarnate in the church. It doesn't take long to learn from Paul's writings that the end result will be a love community with Him and with others. Thus the church will work to build relationships between God and─man and between man and man.

The image of God does not develop at all effectively in individual isolation or in large corporate settings. People need to come together where they can truly learn to relate. It was in small group settings that the early church flourished during its first two centuries, and the need for and effectiveness of these small gatherings continues today. "Today the church needs to rediscover what the early Christians found: that small group meetings are something essential to Christian experience and growth."2

Witnessing needs to be reclaimed as an activity that takes place as much within the church fellowship as outside it. The members of the body will not be free and winsome in their witnessing to unbelievers if they haven't learned the skills and experienced the joys of witnessing to fellow believers.

Furthermore, witnessing needs to have a very personal element to it. This does not mean that our personal witness will draw more attention to self than to Jesus. It simply means that when we witness, we tell whose we are in very personal terms. When this happens, evangelism in its richest sense is happening. Scripture has much to say about the subject of commitment for the Christian. In fact, it says more on this subject than on the topic of doctrinal purity. Faith is primarily the integrity of commitment, not completely correct propositions. This suggestion should not be construed as undermining the importance of doctrine. Rather, it should be understood as saying that commitment comes first and that doctrinal understanding arises best within integrity of commitment. It seems that theological purity is too often more important to believers than faithful obedience to the will of God. Gathering together with a few other Christians is one of the most helpful settings in which to grow in faithful commitment and obedience to God's will.

An aspect of commitment that is not discussed much is discipline. Possibly the least understood of the Beatitudes is "Blessed are the meek" (Matt. 5:5). The Greek word is praus. "Meek" does not refer to the weak and spiritless, but rather describes energy that has become channeled and directed through discipline and training. It is a word that was used to describe the taming of wild animals.

It is fascinating to notice how often military metaphors are used in the Bible to refer to Christians and their experience. We read of "Epaphroditus my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier" (Phil. 2:25, NIV); of "a good soldier of Jesus Christ" with his share of suffering (2 Tim. 2:3); of "Archippus our fellow soldier." (Philemon 2); of the "whole armour of God" (Eph. 6:11).

If there is one characteristic of the military, it is discipline. "There is no real chance of victory in a campaign if 90 percent of the soldiers are untrained and uninvolved, but that is exactly where we stand now."3

The benefits of discipline and involvement are necessary to spiritual growth. An excellent setting for this to happen is through the commitment, shared life, and accountability that small groups provide.

SERVING IN MINISTRY

As the Holy Spirit reforms us more fully into the mind of Christ, our perspective will increasingly grow toward serving others. Receiving this others-centered attitude from the Spirit may be our greatest challenge. Particularly so in a narcissistic society bent on self serving, "finding oneself," etc. It is surprising how the church has taken the gift of the Holy Spirit and reversed the role that the Bible gives Him. "The doctrine of the Holy Spirit does not invite introspection, the self-contemplation of the creaturely Instead, it directs attention away from the self." 4

Jesus told us that the Spirit Himself would model an attitude focused away from self. "He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you" (John 16:14, RSV).

The church has too often seen the Holy Spirit's work as focused primarily on the interior experience. The emphasis is very self-centered. A study of Luke's and Paul's writings quickly reveals that the purpose of being filled with the Spirit is not primarily to produce an exalted interior experience. Rather, this infilling has to do with the external consequences it produces the building up of the body of Christ. 

Admittedly, this cuts across the grain of much superficial understanding of the Spirit. It also challenges the creeping influence of secularism in the church that leads us to become too self-preoccupied.

We must deepen our study, understanding, and experience of the Holy Spirit in order to stay open to His gifts. This will direct us toward the discovery of the Spirit's gifts within Christ's body for the purpose of equipping us to serve the church and the world. This will make an enormous difference in both attitude and behavior.

If the church, possessing the Holy Spirit's gifts, is primarily a serving community, then it must at every turn resist the temptation to dominate and control. In Scripture the understanding of power and authority are in contradiction to how worldly society understands them. Power and authority are the result of self-sacrificing love and service. "Power in the church is not a question of position or hierarchy or authority: it is a question of function and of service."5 The church must renounce the world's definition and practice of power.

When people spoke with awe about the authority of Jesus' words and deeds, they were referring to His love and service-which was all He had to offer. Jesus firmly rejected all attempts to place Him in positions of power.

Jesus likened the Holy Spirit to a wind blowing wherever it pleases (John 3:8). As we allow the Spirit to blow on us, the coals of our hearts will warm into flames of living fire, and we will experience the power that comes through sharing the self-sacrificing love of Jesus with others.

The New Testament model for this process is for it to happen in small, face-to-face gatherings-what the early Adventists called "social meetings," "small companies," or "bands," and later "cottage meetings." That continues to be an important tool in the church today-the ministry of small groups.

NOTES

1 Ray S. Anderson, "A Theology for Ministry," in Theological Foundations for Ministry, ed. Ray S. Anderson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1979), p. 8.

2 Howard A. Snyder, The Problem of Wineskins (Downers Grove, III.: InterVarsity Press, 1975), p. 140.

3 Elton Trueblood, The Company of the Committed (New York Harper and Row, 1961), p. 38.

4 Helmut Thielicke, "The Evangelical Faith," in Theological Foundations for Ministry, p. 62.

5 Howard A. Snyder, The Community of the King (Downers Grove, III.: InterVarsity Press, 1977), p. 111.


W. Clarence Schilt, D. Min., is an associate professor of religion at Loma Linda University, in Loma Linda, California.