In late 2015, my wife and I were approached by Pastor Alan Hitt about a new program that our church (First United Methodist Church of Coppell) wanted to launch. The program, tentatively called Group Life, would go church wide after the New Year, but Pastor Hitt wanted us to be part of a pilot group testing the concept.
The idea was simple: small groups (around 6-12 members) that would meet weekly in member’s homes. The groups would focus on Bible study, prayer, and fellowship. Most congregations have similar programs.
“It is possible to sit in worship week after week, as well as a Sunday School class, and sing all the songs, pray all the prayers, nod in affirmation at all the right places, and never really grow spiritually at all,” Pastor Hitt said. “But you cannot be part of a weekly small group where members love each other, pray for each other, open up to each other, encourage each other and serve with each other, and not grow spiritually.”
We agreed to join, but I didn’t feel a lot of enthusiasm for the project. I’m incredibly awkward in new social situations, self conscious and reserved. Once I settle in I tend to fault in the other direction, feeling a sort of prideful compulsion to be insightful and witty, the consummate raconteur. Both are, I suspect, the result of an over-sensitive ego (a topic for another time and post I’m sure).
I came up with excuses for why we should opt out. We went to church weekly, including a Sunday school class. I had two jobs, one as a freelance reporter for the local newspaper and another that actually paid the bills. I came up with a thousand petty reasons not to go, but in the end I went.
The concept of the small group, or house church, has roots in the earliest days of Christianity. In the book of Acts we read that, “Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes” (Acts 2:46a) and later, ““When he [Peter] realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who is called Mark, where there were many people gathered in prayer” (Acts 12:12). In the Epistles of Paul, the earliest documentation of Christian history, we read repeated references to small congregations that met in the homes of believers like Lydia, Prisca, and Aquila, among others. Biblical archeologist have even found what some believe to be Christianity’s oldest church, made in the remains of a home in Capernaum and generally referred to as the “House of Peter”. The evidence seems to suggest that the Gospel first spread in small, intimate gatherings hosted in the homes of believers.
Small group meetings were foundational to John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement. Wesley established what he called “class meetings” where members gathered to encourage each other in prayer, confess their sins to each other, and generally hold each other accountable as they progressed on their journey of faith. The groups helped the rapid spread of Methodism and went even further to establishing it as a sustained religious movement.
In countries like China, where there are state sanctioned versions of Christianity (the Three Self Patriotic Movement, Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, and the China Christian Council among others), the house church continues to flourish among those seeking a faith experience that has not been regulated by the government.
It seems that the small group or house church appears everywhere we see the rapid spread of the faith.
I’m sure there are a lot of academic and sociological reasons for this. Pastor Hitt, when describing the foundation of our congregation’s group, alluded to some of them.
“Research has shown that groups like these are the best way for people in an increasingly isolated culture to grow as disciples of Jesus,” he said.
I don’t know all of the research, but I can speak to my own experience. Almost two years have passed since we first attended our small group and we still go every Tuesday night. It has blessed my life in countless ways. The group has shared joys (welcoming new babies, celebrating new jobs, etc.) and griefs (the death of family members, job uncertainty, and the like). We’ve studied scripture together and prayed together. We’ve expressed our doubts about faith and admitted our struggles, vented our stresses and laughed about the absurdities of adulthood and parenting.
We don’t always gather for heavy theological conversations. Sometimes we get together to play games, go out to dinner, or go to the movies. We’ve established friendships. Because of those relationships, we’ve become candid. There is a sense that when we are together we are safe, we are with family, and we can say anything.
I love congregational worship and liturgy and believe it plays a key role in spiritual development, but it can be easy to fake, to sit in the pew and mentally check out. The prayers and familiar hymns can become a sort of spiritual white noise. In a large congregation, the relationships can easily end after the passing of the peace. You can share the same space with other members and never truly be together. This becomes virtually impossible when you are sitting together around a dinner table or in a living room.
The Christian faith can’t be lived alone. The Gospels call us to community. As Jesus said to his disciples, “Where two or three gather together in My name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20). In the Book of John, Jesus prays for his disciples, “that all of them may be one, even as You, Father, are in me, and I am in You.” (John 17:21). It takes work to build that kind of relationship, work that takes time and sustained effort, work that can’t be done simply by passing each other on our way to and from the pews or the altar. We have to invest in each other’s lives.