The public preaching of the Word of God, coupled with the small groups and the specific ministries in small groups come together to provide a genuine ministry to the people.
EXUBERANCE AND JOY EXUDED FROM THE VOICE OF BRIAN EFFINGTON WHO had just been baptized in a 1993 evangelistic series in Nashville, Tennessee. "This evangelistic series gave me a new life! For the first time in my life I have found real meaning and purpose. And I found something more: a group of people that genuinely care about me. The acceptance and support I found in the small group ministries helped me overcome a debilitating sense of worthlessness. And believe it or not, these new friends helped me to kick a enslaving addiction to alcohol. I know that God led me to the Adventist church!"
Frank Cordona, a chaplain at Tennessee Christian Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, broke new ground when he developed a strategy for small group ministries in preparation for a city-wide evangelistic program in Nashville. I had felt the need of small group ministries in public evangelism for some time, and now with the help of TCMC's chaplains I felt it could become a reality. Frank suggested the strategy and the second night of the evangelistic meeting we offered the small group ministries to those attending.
One hundred fifty people indicated in writing their needs and desire to participate in the small group program. The responses were divided into six categories. They were: depression, addiction, family problems, youth problems, health problems, and spiritual needs. When we asked the people to join a group in one of those six categories they failed to respond. We decided that fear was the culprit. Consequently, we decided to have general groups ministries without labels. That worked! Ninety percent of those that attended the small group ministries were baptized and joined the church.
Ellen White underscores this needs approach to evangelism, "Our Lord Jesus Christ came to this world as the unwearied Servant of man's necessity." 1 Varied were the circumstances and needs of those who sought Christ's aid. "None who came to Him went away unhelped. From Him flowed a stream of healing power and in body and mind and soul men were made whole."2 As Jesus journeyed from city to city, from village to village, His ministry was a vital current bringing joy, peace, and life to all who would come to Him. It was a ministry of love, as ours must be.
MINISTRY MORE THAN PREACHING
Our ministry is primarily the ministry of God's Word, and we must preach the doctrinal and prophetic truths of Adventism. However, we, like Christ, must present the truths of Scripture in a practical way so as to meet the varied needs of our hearers.
Not only are we to bring the people hope and courage, we must help them understand how to cope with discouragement and doubt, fear and anxiety, anger and hatred, depression and hopelessness. Also, people need help dealing with the power of temptation and addiction to habits that destroy their physical and spiritual well being.
While we may not have time in the public meeting to deal with these problems in their entirety, help in these practical areas can be addressed in all of the doctrinal and prophetic teachings.
However, the preaching of the Word in the public meeting is only a beginning. We have not always understood this even though Ellen White hammered home the importance of working with people privately in many of her books.3 Herein lies a great problem. What is meant by the above statement by Ellen White?
Could it be that preaching has a broader definition than simply our work in the pulpit? Preaching involves the public proclamation of the word, the teaching of God's Word, and the practice of the Word of God as well. We must not obscure the importance of our work in the pulpit; however, neither do we want to obscure the work of teaching and practicing of the Word of God. Ellen White tells us that the kingdom of heaven is established through the "teaching and practicing of the Word of God."4
LEARNING FROM THE PAST
In our early history, we possibly understood this a little better than we do now. Prior to A. G. Daniels, we always presented more in our evangelistic meetings than just the preaching of the Word. We employed Bible workers who taught various courses on health, Daniel and Revelation, etc. each evening. They, as well, went into the homes and taught the people the practical aspects of Christianity, much more than we do today. I believe that Christ's method is still the model we should follow.
We understand that Christ sought people out in their homes, at various social gatherings, individually and in small groups. In this way He shared with them the practical aspects of Christianity thus enabling them to make application of those principles to their own lives. Jesus' work with His disciples is a graphic illustration of this. Surely Jesus had taught the nature and purpose of the gospel in His public ministry; however, working quietly in a smaller setting, Jesus was able to be more direct and practical in presenting His teaching to the disciples.
LEARNING FROM JOHN WESLEY
So it can be with us in our worship services or even in the context of our public evangelistic meetings. How do we do this? I believe that John Wesley's approach can guide us in this most important endeavor. After Wesley preached and an interest was awakened, he placed them in small groups where pastors could deal with the individual questions and problems of those who had been spiritually awakened by his preaching. Wesley's use of small groups was very simple. The classes normally met once every week for an hour or so and:
1. Each person reported on his or her spiritual experience.
2. They shared any particular needs or problems they had.
3. Help was given as needed.
4. Advice or reproof was given.
5. Doctrinal instruction was given.
6. Evangelistic activities were encouraged and coordinated.
7. Prayer was made for all expressing needs.
The application of Wesley's method that I have endeavored to use in my public meetings is a simple one that involves a number of small group ministries. When used in public meetings, we tell the audience that we want to minister to them and their varied needs. Consequently, starting the second night of the meeting we invite those who have specific needs to join with others in an informal, small group setting, right in the auditorium or church where they can find fellowship, a listening ear, encouragement, practical help, and prayer. The number of areas of ministry that the public evangelistic meeting can address will depend on the talent in the particular church or churches.
A SPIRITUAL PROBLEM
Adventists believe that the cause of most problems experienced by individuals, or groups of individuals, are of a spiritual nature. Consequently, the ministry of the Word, the teaching and application of the principles of the Word of God are the best remedy. Bringing people into a relationship with other Christians and with Jesus Christ is our goal. We work to help people claim Christ's victory, Christ's wisdom, Christ's peace, Christ's joy, as their own. This is the best help the small groups can provide.
Naturally, there are some situations where a person needs professional help. If they are totally out of control, then those in charge of the small groups must be quick to recognize this and guide them to professional help where they can receive special treatment. Often in a church there are professionals in these areas who can provide the help needed. If they are not available, then those in need should be guided to a Christian professional outside the church. The small group discussions may address a wide variety of problems found among the members of the small groups: addiction, depression, discouragement, family problems, anxiety and loneliness. However, the purpose should be to provide fellowship, encouragement, and support for the individuals in the group.
Depression is a major problem in North America today. At least 25 percent or more of the population suffer from some degree of depression. Also, many are dependent on some form of chemical to cope with their circumstances. Even medical science teaches us that the best treatment for depression is cognitive therapy. We know, as well, that most depression is caused by negative habits of thought. Science today is talking more about chemical imbalances, etc.; however, the best research shows that the problem can be traced to negative habits of thought. There may be some chemical imbalance, but often negative thinking is the root cause. In an article entitled, "Think Your Way Out Of Depression," Edward Ziegler references research that has been done quite recently in this area by the National Institute of Mental Health. Books are being written and extensive research done that underscores the validity of an approach that seeks to heal by building positive thought patterns in the mind. It is possible that the pharmaceutical companies will obscure this work by the promotion of drugs; however, we know, not only from research in the medical community, but from inspiration as well, that developing healthy habits of thought is the best approach to overcoming the debilitating habits that enslave millions today.5
SMALL GROUPS REINFORCE RIGHT THINKING
Small group support systems can be a potent agency in developing thought patterns of courage and faith, hope and joy. These attitudes are best learned in small groups and will enable a sincere person to conquer almost any problem including depression and chemical dependency, which are common problems to those attending evangelistic meetings. Also the small groups can reinforce the spiritual truths learned in the sermon each evening. And the small group provides the counterculture needed to enable the individual to break with their past, keep all of God's commandments and unite with the church.
If problems surface that are too serious to be dealt with in the small group, individuals with these problems are referred to a professional for help; however, these individuals should still continue to be a part of a small group during the evangelistic meetings. This group contact can provide just the additional help needed to free individuals from their addiction. An area that needs special and separate attention and care is that of physical diseases. Where it is possible, we should run a medical health-screening program in conjunction with the evangelistic meeting. This can be done for a very minimal cost. Consultation should be provided for each of those who have the screening done. A full blood workup is done, with blood pressure checks, etc. Large numbers respond to this, especially when consultation is provided when the report is returned. A form is sent out with scheduling so that there is minimum time spent waiting for their turn to see the doctor. This is a ministry that is much appreciated and leads to a view of Adventists that is most positive.
The last is a ministry to the poor. In some areas this is more effective than others. However, Christ constantly focused on ministry to the poor just as we should. Many churches have Community Service organizations that can provide help during the meetings. Those who have needs in this area are invited to meet with the community service leaders who provide the help needed. Also, the announcement can be made in the public meeting to invite other needy individuals to the meetings where help will be provided in this very practical area.
The result of this approach is that evangelism becomes a genuine ministry to those who attend the meetings and join in the small groups. Also meaningful relationships are established, practical help is received, and the people come to have a sense of belonging and loyalty to the group and ultimately to the church. Both the preaching and the small group ministries work together to lead the respondents to a full surrender of their lives to Christ and ultimately to baptism and union with the church.
LONG-TERM BENEFITS OF SMALL GROUPS
A second and equally valuable asset is that the small groups continue after the meeting. Consequently they become an integral part of the ongoing life of the church which provides support for those who are baptized and for those not quite ready to be baptized. The groups also become a pathway into church membership for those who need more time to get their lives in order and make a full surrender to Christ. The public preaching of the Word of God, coupled with the small groups and the specific ministries in small groups come together to provide a genuine ministry to the people. Following this plan will result in greater numbers being baptized, more converts being loyal and faithful to the church and more involvement of the members in the church's ministry as well. Finally this approach builds a much needed positive image for evangelism both in the church and in the community.
A few suggestions follow that can help in developing small group ministries in a local church.
HOW TO USE SMALL GROUP MINISTRIES IN PUBLIC MEETINGS
1 Determine the purpose of small group ministries in your evangelistic series. In a public evangelistic series the purpose of ministry of small groups is to provide fellowship, encouragement, and support for those who are struggling with specific problems. The primary purpose is not usually to provide in-depth counseling or therapy.
2 Select and train small group leaders. If the local churches have functioning small groups, the leaders of those groups can, with additional training, be used in the public evangelistic meetings. An abundance of materials is available for the training of small groups.
3 Determine the needs of the evangelistic audience. This can be done early in the evangelistic series, preferably the second night. A simple form can be used to encourage the audience to share the specific needs they have. The forms should allow them to do this anonymously. The form should list possible needs, such as: discouragement, doubt, depression, addiction to alcohol or drugs, family problems, financial problems, etc. The night the form is used, share with the audience the plan to provide ongoing encouragement and support to those who are struggling with difficult problems.
4 Determine how many of the audience have an interest in participating in small group ministries. The form will indicate approximately how many will be interested.
5 The next meeting after the form is used, an announcement should be made as to the time and place the small groups will meet. The time of the year will dictate whether the meetings are conducted before or after the evangelistic meetings. The small groups can meet in the main auditorium or, if available, individual rooms can be used.
6 Begin the small group ministries immediately. The earlier the small groups begin, the more quickly help can be provided, meaningful relationships can be established and the confidence of the audience won.
7 The goal of the small group ministries is to provide a support system that assures acceptance, understanding, encouragement, and prayer. Coupled with this can be practical suggestions as to how to cope with difficult situations that the group members face. Brief presentations can be made by the leader to accomplish this.
8 Encouragement should be given to the members of the small group to continue attending the evangelistic series; however, the purpose of the small groups is not to discuss or to rehash the evangelistic sermon. Any in-depth questions regarding materials presented by the evangelist should be referred to the evangelist and those assisting him in the meeting. Encouragement should be given, however, to the group members to accept Christ, recognizing that Christ alone can help us resolve our problems.
9 The group leaders should make every effort to make the small groups a genuine ministry to those attending the small groups, and at the same time, make the small group meetings a means of assisting the evangelist in his/her work to bring souls to Christ and His church. The group leader should be aware of the response of the members of his/her group to the evangelistic messages.
10 Regular meetings of the group leaders with the evangelist should be conducted to ensure careful coordination and cooperation so that an integration of the emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs can take place during the evangelistic series.
11 The small group ministries should be continued I after the evangelistic series is completed to ensure continuing support and encouragement for the new members and for those who have not yet made decisions to join the church. Also, the small groups can provide on-going training and coordination for some form of ministry by each of the group members.
1 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers, p. 41.
2 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers, p. 41.
3 Ellen G. White, Evangelism, pp 352, 441.
4 Ellen G. White, Desire of Ages, p. 510.
5 David B. Burns, Feeling Good; The New Mood Therapy, Wm. Murrill Co. Inc., New York, NY, 1980; Aaron Beck, Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders, International University Press, Inc., New York NY, 1976; Readers Digest, Dec. 1980, p. 123. E. G. White, Ministry of Healing, Review and Herald Publishing Assoc., Washington D.C. 1942.
John W. Fowler, pastor, evangelist and administrator currently is the secretary of Kentucky-Tennessee Conference. He is the author of several books on evangelism and practical theology in the church.