Friday, 12 December 2014

Home Groups

Question: What strategic place do home groups have in the life of a local church?

HERE LIES ONE OF THE GREAT SECRETS OF CHURCH GROWTH.  History, romance – and the Bible - are all interwoven in the use that God has made of the homes of his people down the centuries.  The evangelist John Wesley knew of the secret back in the eighteenth century, in his remarkable development of the Methodist ‘societies’ or ‘class meetings’ that he established under chosen leaders, as he rode around the towns and villages of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

(From Richard Bewes’ book WESLEY COUNTRY: ISBN 1-904636–01–2)

But of course the pattern of devolved leadership was established as far back as the time of Moses. Overwhelmed by sheer numbers as he led the people of Israel out of Egyptian oppression, Moses received wise advice from Jethro, his father-in-law. Ministry was never meant to be a one-man show! “Select capable men from all the people – men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain – and appoint them….” (Exodus 18:21).  

Naturally the sub-divisions had to be related to the larger body; no group was to exist in its own right. So it has always been throughout spiritual history. The Gospel comes to Europe – and takes root through someone’s home – Lydia’s…. the town jailor’s…. Jason’s…. Aquila’s and Priscilla’s…. Crispus’…. Paul’s rented house…. (Acts 16:15, 34; 17:7; 18:3, 8; 28:30,31) – and apparently even in the household of Caesar himself (Philippians 4:22). But always these house fellowships are related to the wider work of the apostles, to the church at large. 

Whenever in history the vision of home groups has been recaptured, the church can expect to advance! It happened in seventeenth century England. Across the country men and women were studying the Scriptures in their homes, and the effect was marked. The great historian G.M. Trevellyan observed, of the seventeenth century, that the effect of the study of the Bible - 

          upon the national character, imagination and intelligence
           for nearly three centuries to come was greater than that of
           any literary movement in our annals or any religious
           movement since the coming of St Augustine.
           (‘History of England’, Longmans Green & Co, 2nd ed.
           1942, p.367)

As great numbers of working class people began to read the Scriptures for themselves, so literacy grew across the nation, and with it social and economic development. The Trades Union movement was to owe much of its origin to Methodism.

One of Wesley’s class meetings

It was the Bible that did it.  The power lies there. People were not meeting each other simply to discuss the political scene, or the price of corn. When joint study of the Bible is the point of focus, that home group becomes a living unit and an integral part of the local church.

Some might maintain that such a home group is a church in its own right, but the New Testament pattern is rather one of interdependence and accountability, with regard to the wider fellowship. In this way reports could be delivered and counsel taken together, as in Acts 15, in the Council at Jerusalem. A group that subsists only within its own walls, as a club of like-minded members. is liable to fall prey to outside pressures or internal wrangles. Your experience of church is limited if all you know is a tiny group in your home. Further, as Lesslie Newbiggin has pointed out, if the church is invisible in people’s homes, it means that they have abandoned engagement with society in the public square. For that, we need a bigger canvas.  

If, however, a network of home groups develops - linked by a common allegiance to a mother body – the result is likely to be growth. Take the Masoretti Church in Ethiopia. During the days of Communist domination it was not allowed to hold formal meetings. Yet, its numbers grew over a five year period from 5,000 members to 50,000 – without a single church service taking place.

Here in the UK, a vicar in East Anglia told us that nothing was working in his parish. But when a pamphlet about the study programme Open Home, Open Bible dropped through his letter box, he ordered one of the videos, with the accompanying handbook The Bible Truth Treasury, and showed them to his church council. Immediately several members said, “We’ll give it a try. We’ve had no training at all, but this looks as though it can run itself.”

For details of this international programme, see the All Souls website

This very thing happened. The small group that was formed played the fifteen-minute video programme, dug out some Bibles, looked up the relevant Scripture passage and questions set by The Bible Truth Treasury handbook - and within the space of an hour had got into one of the major truths of the Christian faith.  Later the vicar was able to report, “We now have ten groups, totalling a hundred and twenty people, all studying the Bible! They tell me, “Don’t stop the programmes; we want more!” 

Whether with videos and DVDs or simply with programmes and questions written by a trained church member, the potential of small satellite groups clustered around the mother church body lies in this – that believing people are learning to dig out the truths of the Bible for themselves - preferably doing the same Bible passages across the board - and in this way the teaching and ministry of the church is being multiplied.

It’s more than Bible study, too. One of the secrets of the early church growth was that they ate together, and so generated trust and friendship. Further, they prayed together, and so learnt to carry one another’s burdens and concerns. When the New Testament tells us to love one another, bear with one another, forgive one another – how can that realistically be done in the formal church setting? The answer lies in small groups, for that is where we get to know each other; habits, characters, weaknesses and all. 

“I hate my fellowship group!” a young German woman once announced to me, at All Souls Church. “Can I change to another group?” 
  1. “Of course you can,” I replied. “We don’t want anyone to be unhappy in their group. But I tell you what. Try it out just twice more. Then if you’re still unhappy, we can do something different.”
A month later I saw her again. “How’s the group going?”  The answer was interesting.
  1. “I love my fellowship group!”
That’s growth too – learning to adapt, adjust and accommodate within a gathering of highly varying types of people.

Learn from Moses. 

He was urged to select his leaders, not elect them. Two and a half centuries ago William Grimshaw, tough Yorkshire vicar of Haworth in Yorkshire, did the same. He organised his parish into roughly ten areas, and made sure that there were leaders who were mature enough as Christians to lead those areas, and the home groups that would be formed within them. For Grimshaw could no more be everywhere any more than Moses could. 

Haworth Church, & the Rev William Grimshaw (1708-1763)

A mighty revival broke out all around Grimshaw’s area, in which many thousands of people were lastingly blessed – and to a great extent it was the ministry in the homes that, under God, brought this about.

So when you hear it said, “I want to see the Vicar! I want the Minister to visit me! I want a personal talk with the Rector!” – it may fall in the end to a selected and trained home group leader to act as a church elder, and be the one who gives pastoral counsel and ministry within the smaller fellowship. If a home group member falls ill, it need not necessarily be the minister who makes the hospital visit. It could well be one or more members of the group who exercise the care that is necessary.

One leader per group, or more? Perhaps a man and a woman together make for a good pastoral balance.  And when one of the leaders moves away from the area, let it be the central mother body that appoints a successor. In this way the relationship and sense of accountability to the wider fellowship is maintained.

As home groups multiply, so the training and support of the leaders themselves will eventually prove to be more than the church minister can manage. Another layer of pastoral leadership then needs to be created, so that several times in a year the home group leaders can meet and eat with the support group leadership, share their experiences and problems, and receive the refreshment of further training.

Eating together, studying together, praying together – but also serving together.  Is there some need within the mother church body that can be met by members of the satellite groups?  This needs exploring!

More, perhaps, in a subsequent article – on the actual organising and leading of a home group – how it’s actually done!

For the moment, grab hold of the vision in which, in whole streets across a village or township, people are actually reading the Bible again in home after home, and history begins to turn.