Why Small Groups?

Many Christian Reformed churches have incorporated small group ministry as a way to encourage fellowship and develop a deeper relationship with God. According to Christian Reformed Home Missions, small group ministries are an indicator of a healthy church. It is a primary space for nurturing relationships and for individual faith formation, but also overall church growth.

At Church of the Servant Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., small group ministry has been in place since the 1970s. The church currently has 32 household groups based on a range of special interests such as reading books together, attending concerts or plays, cooking and eating together, or hiking. Janice McWhertor, minister of congregational life for the church, has worked to start and maintain these ministry groups for over 24 years. Some groups meet for a year, but others have been together for over 20 years .

“I have found that a group is successful if each person who joins makes a commitment to show up,” explained McWhertor. “Success does not seem to be related to age, personality, vocation, or even mutual interests. The [groups] that stay together are those that make the group a priority, who give of themselves to the group, and who actively care about each adult and child in the group.”

For Faith CRC in Burlington, Ont., the Home Church small group ministry is the main adult ministry. Currently the congregation has 12 groups that meet regularly, mostly on Sundays. The groups meet through the fall and winter, using a weekly study based on the Sunday morning sermon. In the spring, the church offers classes on various topics such as finances, parenting, or spiritual development.

Leanne De Weerd, coordinator for Faith’s Home Church ministry, supports group leaders and encourages church members to join. “This is a place where care and accountability happens. We have purposely not developed any other adult classes or events so as not to take the place of Home Church.”

In Scarborough, Ont., Grace CRC decided to make small group ministry a priority this year. In September, members were encouraged to sign up for one of 10 groups offered on topics ranging from “Living Justly” or “Seeking God Intentionally” to nights of games and dinner fellowship. The groups are held at various times, some in people’s homes and others at church. There are also small groups that meet for prayer ministry or after church to discuss the Sunday morning sermon. “We pray that this year small groups will take root in our church’s ministry and become an important aspect of congregational life,” said Rev. Bart Velthuizen.

Developing a successful small group ministry is hard work. It can be difficult to find good leadership to start and maintain a group. Attendee commitment is another challenge as busy schedules dissuade members from either joining or attending regularly. But leaders attest to the importance of the ministry.

“In these groups we invite people to speak into our lives, encouraging us, challenging and correcting us. God can use these groups to speak all these things in and through ourselves and others,” said De Weerd.

McWhertor agreed that small groups can be key spaces for spiritual and emotional growth. “Even if it is a challenge to convince people to be a part of one, we continue to embrace their importance. When a group is healthy there is deep sharing of faith and deep caring for one another,” she said.

“What I have learned is to not worry so much about making the perfect group and let God be in charge of what happens in each group,” De Weerd said. “God will work out what he has brought together for a purpose.”

About the Author

Krista Dam-Vandekuyt is a freelance news correspondent for The Banner. She lives in Jerseyville, Ontario.

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An article of this caliber doesn't just appear out of thin air. I salute Krista Dam-Vandekuyt, both for the care she has taken in composing it, and for the research that she has put into it. I also salute Janice McWhertor of Church of The Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Leanne De Weerd of Faith CRC in Burlington, and Reverend Bart Velthuizen of Grace CRC in Scarborough. Without such 'visionaries' in a given church congregation, the magic of church small groups would remain merely a 'good idea.' I needed to read this article. I needed to see objective evidence that the concept of the 'small group' is not only NOT in vain, but is in fact of extreme importance to the spiritual formation of church congrgational members. My own experiences with small groups has alas, been a mixed bag of blessings and woundedness, joy and anger. I have always delighted in taking notes during such sessions, since so many insightful observations are made, yet so few are remembered, at least in the long term. Also, I'm very much a contemplative. I enjoy musing over something poignant that is said, referencing it and engaging in further dialogue. For one thing, this affirms to the speaker that what he/she has expressed is significant. But everyone speaks in such rapid-fire fashion, that by the time I've written down the comment that has struck me, and reflected upon it..... The moment is long past; the conversation has already steamrollered ahead to something else. So I'll interject and say: "I'm quite intrigued by what ----- has said." Then turning to ----, I'll smile and say, "Could you please expand on what you've shared?" At this point, I've actually been gently derided by others for 'stopping the presses' and revisiting something profound that was said. Apparently, if one listens to REFLECT rather than listening to RESPOND, one is at a singular disadvantage in this sound-bite age. "So be it" I then sigh to myself. "I will simply write to the group later, when they have had a chance to think through the wonderment of what has been shared." Well. Guess what? Virtually no one responds. Their lives are too breakneck in pace, too busy, to afford any further musing or connectedness. So the only chance to make a point is during the session itself..... To attempt to break in with a quick thought before the 'conversation' changes gears and moves on. There is never a lull, a moment's silence to allow what has been spoken to sink in and register. Why are people so averse to giving a profound comment a bit of space to breathe before jumping in with their own two cents worth? Look. I know that the 'spirit of the age' is given to exactly this: terse sound-bite responses. Asserting oneself to be heard over the din of the chaos. But surely we Christians shouldn't be bowing the knee to the 'spirit of the age,' should we? Just look at what King Solomon notes/warns in the Proverbs: "A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion." (Proverbs 18:2). Here's the thing: It doesn't have to be like this. I attended a Lenten session in an Anglican church, facilitated by one of the church's associate priests. And the tone that he set for the gathering was one of such leisureliness, such serenity, that I thought I had been transported to an alternate universe. Nobody spoke over anybody. Everybody was allowed the dignity of expressing themselves unhurriedly, pensively. And then someone else would thoughtfully layer on what had just been spoken. I could feel the weightiness of the dialogue. The precious words that were shared seemed to soak in like a stain, rather than dissipating as the next crush of words bore down on them. I am most intrigued by the churches, both American and Canadian, that Krista has profiled in this article. How did they overcome this insidious modern-era tendency to 'listen to respond' rather than to 'listen to reflect'? They have obviously done so; just look at the comprehensiveness of their planning, the level of importance that they attach to the whole small group enterprise, and in the case of the Grand Rapids church, the sheer longevity of the groups in question. Has a tone of unwavering intentionality been set by the leaders? A tone in which the members find themselves delightfully immersed in the experience, rather than, to quote my friend Darren: "Whoosh, swoosh, gone"? I would love to hear how they have done this. Because they are truly zigging while the world zags. And I daresay that my own heart would be lightened considerably. Yours in the Keeper of the Fire and the Wind, PhiL {'•_•'}