The Common Good
December 1994-January 1995

A Revolution From Within

by Rose Marie Berger | December 1994-January 1995

Small groups and the renewal of the church.

Christian cell groups are building blocks of the revolution, the cataclysmic turnaround we call the reign of God. From the early church communities (formed in the footsteps of Jesus to re-examine Hebrew scriptures in light of this new revelation), through the small prayer meetings of the Anabaptists, Methodists, and Pentecostals, to the base Christian communities in Latin America and the former Soviet Union, small groups have always been central to the Christian discipling process.

Many of us agree to lead our church's RENEW group, Bible study, prayer meeting, or house church gathering out of a desire to serve; besides, somebody has to do it. Sometimes the opportunity comes with prepared materials or leadership training, but often it is simply "make it up as you go." Wouldn't it be nice to have some help?

Palmer Beck-er, a Mennonite pastor and graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary, has penned companion books Called to Equip and Called to Care, that offer just such guidance. The first is specifically by a pastor for pastors: Using the "care group" model (as op-posed to the "staff model" or "shepherd model"), Becker explores how pastors share the vision of their church, nurture leadership under that vision, train and commission new leaders, call forth care groups, and follow up once they've started. He includes extensive cross-referencing to other helpful materials as well as a solid scriptural base, reflection questions, and assessment forms.

Called to Care is dedicated to the new generation of lay pastors. This is the book most of us need. It begins by looking at the big picture, the whole congregation. What are the natural networks that exist within your church? Where do members go to get their needs met? If worship, scripture study, and prayer needs are being met, what about dialogue? Care groups can provide a place for exploring our quality of life as Christians, considering our spiritual growth and salvation, and training us for service and witness.

Becker also helps lay leaders discern the type of group their church needs. Should the focus be personal nurture, support for those in need, evangelism, or a particular mission? Once the group is formed, what are the basic elements needed to build a strong working community? Exploring how leaders facilitate open sharing and acceptance among members, developing a strong Bible study component, responding to God through various styles of prayer and worship, and identifying and tending to the mission of the group are essential to the health of the small community.

Doug Whalon of InterVarsity says, "Good leadership unlocks a small group's potential...just as a good conductor guides the orchestra into harmony." The most important contribution here is exploring the definition of leadership. The Christian model of servant leadership has to do with people and their growth, not programs and processes. New leaders must identify and develop their own leadership style and use it to create dialogue and increase participation.

A well-developed leadership style will be crucial in times of conflict, especially in understanding where the conflict is rooted. Differing personalities, control issues, divergence on goals, and human brokenness are all areas ripe for causing conflict. Having the courage to deal with tension and differences head-on, as well as knowing the road to resolution, are key skills for the lay leader. Ultimately, lay leaders must place themselves in the discipling process so that they can shepherd others into their own emerging leadership capacity. This is the way of evangelization and the conversion of hearts toward the gospel.

FOR CATHOLICS who want to explore the life of small Christian communities and Bible study groups in the post-Vatican II church, I recommend Barbara Fleisher's Facilitating for Growth. When Pope John XXIII called Vatican II, he used the image of the Catholic Church opening windows that for centuries had been sealed shut. With that opening came a return to the charisms of the early church and a deeper understanding that the "church" is the people of God. Old habits were taken off (forgive the pun) and a brightly diverse new mantle of Christ was put on. Now, 30 years later, as many individuals and parishes suffer institutional backlash under a conservative pope, the energy and empowerment of Catholic cell groups are more important than ever.

Fleisher arranges her work into eight clear workshops, each with study essays, timelines, identified goals, scripture passages, discussion questions, and reflection forms. These are training sessions for lay leaders who will then start small groups. She has a stronger emphasis than Becker on basic communications and listening skills, as well as integrating diversity and working with group transitions. She also points the reader toward other helpful resources and materials.

All of these books are implicitly geared toward those already participating in the life of a congregation or parish, but what about those thirsting for the gospel outside the church setting? When young gang bangers say that what they need from the churches is "to be led to the Lord," then lay leadership and the life of Christian cell groups begins to take on a whole new meaning. Perhaps these training tools could also open up windows to your own backyard, block, or barrio where kids on the stoop steps are hungering for life.

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