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The best way for a church to start to grow is to think small, like Jesus did.

Go small to get big. That's the strategy that seems to be working for thousands of growing churches. For a congregation to become healthier and grow bigger, it must organize smaller.

… meet house-to-house in small groups for heart-to-heart fellowship …

In 1972, New Hope Community Church was started in Oregon, pioneering recovery ministries and small groups. Today their worship attendance is over 3,000, and they average 70 percent more people attending their weekly group meetings.

New Hope's founding minister says: "The way to build a great church is to follow the master plan that was so effective in the early Church. Meet in the house of God on Sunday to celebrate all together the resurrection power of Jesus. Then, throughout the week, meet house-to-house in small groups for heart-to-heart fellowship. … This plan is perfect for meeting the needs of people who are lonely and isolated in this generation."

"Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name! And they're always glad you came."

That's the theme song from Cheers, the hit '80s TV series about the regulars hanging out together at a Boston bar. People need close supportive relationships and they'll get them any way they can.

Christian small groups are a healthier way. Jesus modeled this pattern by mentoring the 12 disciples as a group, as well as worshipping in the synagogue and speaking to the crowds. The early Christian movement met in the temple courts, and in homes (see Acts 2:42-47).

What is a small group, and what do they do?

A small group is usually made up of four to ten people. More than that loses effectiveness: as numbers go up the quality of caring and level of sharing goes down. The group should meet at least twice a month (often weekly).

With some variations, an effective small group will live out four components: love, learn, decide, do. Let's examine them one at a time.

  • Love: Here is where Christian community is lived out. Group members care for each other, and encourage and support one another in life's challenges. Mary is new to our church, a recent widow. Dave, also a newcomer, is an intense 32-year old businessperson. In a circle of six in a living room, Mary talked about her loneliness, and the tears flowed. I saw Jesus' love before my eyes as Dave picked up his armchair, carried it and positioned himself beside Mary, to hold and comfort her. Christian community.

  • Learn: The leader is usually a moderator, not a lecturer, guiding the sharing and discussion. It's team learning. Bible study, prayer courses, life skills, recovery strategies, spiritual growth — so many ways to develop our faith together.

  • Decide: The logistics. When and where will we meet? Who brings the munchies? What are the rules and responsibilities?

  • Do: Service back to Christ's cause. Most groups find big or small projects they can do together. Maybe it's a short-term, one-time event; maybe it's a year-round commitment that shapes their existence.

If God dumped a dozen newcomers on your church steps tomorrow, how would you handle them? What would be the best system to support them and to see them grow? Small lay-led groups provide the only adequate answer.

Orville James serves a United Church in Burlington, ON that offers traditional and contemporary worship each week. He can be reached at

Originally published in The United Church Observer, October 2001.




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