Small Groups: An Ancient Idea for a Digital Age

Jesus came to earth to establish his kingdom and manifest his kingdom in his works, but that work was not finished when he died and rose from the dead. It was to be continued by his followers—by his disciples. Significantly, the Bible states that they were not expected to carry out this work unilaterally but rather as community and family—in fellowship with one another—supporting, encouraging, and correcting one another.

And so we see from the very beginning—with the disciples continuing Christ’s mission—a connection between that mission and his followers’ relationships with each other. Small gatherings of Christians were very important for the development of the early Church. In Acts 2:41-42, St. Luke writes, “So those who received his word were baptized…. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Implicit in this statement is the critically important idea of the small group setting of the early Church that deserves our attention. It wasn’t just at the temple or a meeting hall where teaching took place. It was small groups getting together in house churches. There they would receive the apostles’ teaching and fellowship with one another. With that powerful bond of fellowship they encouraged one another in the midst of the journey of faith, and exchanged ideas and insights. This is the source from which authentic communities develop.

In my work with The Great Adventure and Ascension for almost three decades, I have witnessed hundreds of parishes transform and become vibrant in large part by simply following the small group model of the early Church. Reclaiming this model may be the single most important thing we can do to strengthen the Church today.

Here are seven good reasons to make small group experiences the center of your faith formation efforts:

1. Affirmation as a Member of the Body of Christ

You’re not alone. You have a common experience with other people. That’s a very important dynamic when you’re trying to live counter to the culture. When there are others trying to do that and you meet with them and learn, pray, fellowship, and even share a meal with one another, that’s affirming. The small group gives a place to ask questions, see other people in their journey, and the successes they’ve enjoyed, or the struggles they’ve encountered.

2. Healing and Support

If you find yourself in a struggle, you have a group of people whom you’re closer to, and with whom you might be able to share. This is especially true for men’s and women’s small groups, because it offers the opportunity to share with other men and women, and ask for advice as you might do from your brother or sister.

Also, when there’s somebody in the group that’s hurt, or when there’s trauma in someone’s life, the people in the group surround them and are able to bring healing, hope, and support to the one that is hurting.

3. A Witness for Children

Often small groups will meet with their children. When children see their parents praying and in fellowship with other adults discussing the Faith, this has a lasting influence on the children’s longevity in their church community. This witness has a profound impact on their own attachment to their church.

4. Building Community

Within a parish setting, when there are small self-organizing groups studying the Bible and the Faith together, it becomes an ideal way to bring new people and entire families into the parish. In this way, people will begin to see their church as not just a building where we go for the sacraments, but a genuine meeting place for Christian communities.

Also, small groups provide a built-in web of relationships within a parish. When a pastor utilizes small groups he has created a network in which people can immediately find care. It’s almost like little emergency rooms around a parish. The pastor can send quick word to the small groups to pray for a particular issue, or to steer their attention to something that’s timely or really important. There’s an automatic web of communication that arises in a parish through small groups.

5. Fostering Leadership

If we’re all called to be disciples, it also means we’re called to be leaders. A leader has the courage and conviction to say “follow me.” What better way to foster leadership than through small groups where people learn to lead by example? Small groups allow a pastor to interface with a certain number of potential leaders and help form and encourage them so they can serve in the parish.

6. It’s a Good Reason to Get Together with Friends

We live in a society where people have never been more connected thanks to social media. But by people’s own admission, we are lonelier than we’ve ever been, we feel more separate than we’ve ever felt before, and we’re not created to live that way. We are created to be social beings. We’re created for relationship. “We’re radically relational,” as Catholic evangelist and speaker Kelly Wahlquist puts it. We desire to be with other people, to receive the comfort and encouragement of other people.

One of the reasons people won’t go to a church study is because it’s impersonal. They don’t know a lot of the people there. But a small group allows you to get together with people you may know, with whom you may have something in common. Then you can begin to study the Faith from that place of fellowship.

7. Small Groups Mean More Groups

If a parish announces that there will be a study on Mary in Room 102 on Tuesday night at seven, the church is asking many people experiencing different things in their life, at different times, at different levels, to all be available at one time in one place for one topic. The odds that everybody who needs that study will be able to meet at seven are slim. You’re asking a very busy, diverse group of people to fit into one time slot. This is one of the reasons many people don’t attend. Their schedule doesn’t allow it.

With small groups and Ascension’s video streaming options, a parish can hold multiple studies in the parish at multiple levels, times, and places, and on multiple topics. We make it easy to start a group and share an amazing experience with others. Meet at your parish. Your home. At school. At a bar, a library, or a prison cell. With friends, co-workers … however, wherever, and with whomever you want. Through our study management tools and video streaming, you can make connections with others anywhere.

The opportunities this helps create for people to encounter Christ in study and formation are almost endless. It’s just dependent upon the organization, the leadership training, and the level of commitment. The beautiful thing about Ascension’s study streaming option is that you basically have gone from one restricted time, space, and topic, and you have multiplied the opportunities in so many ways. We’re seeing parishes that used to have one study twice a year—one in the spring and one in the fall—now having ten in the spring, four in the summer, thirteen in the fall, but they’re smaller groups each accommodating different times and locations.

In terms of running small group studies, video streaming offers churches more powerful and flexible options than ever before. While parishes and groups used to be limited by a finite number of DVD sets they were able to purchase, now the possibilities are virtually unlimited.

Definitely Worth the Effort

All of these reasons, at their heart, are about evangelization. Small groups are the ideal setting to encounter Christ, and it has been this way since the dawn of Christianity. The first Christians knew the value of relationship, not just with Christ but also with one another. It’s easy to forget the power of genuine fellowship in our fast-paced, media-saturated culture, but those who take the time to come together and help form one another in the Faith do more for themselves and their community than they can ever know.

This article was first published in Ascension’s 2017 Faith Formation Catalog.

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Jeff Cavins

For thirty years, Jeff has dedicated his life to developing The Great Adventure, the visually engaging and interactive Bible study system that enables students to understand the chronological flow of Scripture. As the founding host of EWTN’s Life on the Rock, he has been recognized both nationally and internationally as an exciting public speaker who has a deep love for Jesus Christ and who communicates his zeal with clarity and enthusiasm. Jeff, his wife Emily, and their daughters live in Minnesota.

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  • TexasSense

    Is the Trail of Tears reference in #6 appropriate? I’m not even sure it makes sense as a metaphor…

  • rainesu

    So–there are many good perspectives here, but I have an honest question as to theology. Point #2 says the “human person never departs from the body”. My understanding has been that the soul is always alive, even after the body dies, and we have not yet been given our “glorified bodies” that we are to receive at the final resurrection. Jesus says God is a god of the living, not the dead. Hence, when I pray for the intercession of the saints, I am not asking things of the dead, although clearly, their bodies are dead. Can you please clarify this point for me? Thank you!

    • Bill Donaghy

      Thanks for the comment and question! So the statement I made above that the “human person never departs from the body” refers to our identity. “The human person is a unique composite – a unity of spirit and matter, soul and body, fashioned in the image of God and destined to live forever.” (St. John Paul II)

      Death is the separation of body and soul, but this happens as the tragic consequence of our sin. As the Catholic Catechism teaches, “Death is a consequence of sin… death entered the world on account of man’s sin. Even though man’s nature is mortal God had destined him not to die. Death was therefore contrary to the plans of God the Creator and entered the world as a consequence of sin. ‘Bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned’ is thus ‘the last enemy’ of man left to be conquered.” (CCC 1008)

      So Jesus conquers death, and restores the entire human person, body and soul, in the end! St. John Paul II has some powerful insights on the body/soul (full human person) experience of Heaven. “(Heaven) will be a completely new experience, and yet, at the same time, it will not be alienated in any way from the experience man shared ‘from the beginning’… with reference to the procreative meaning of the body and of [its] sex.” (TOB 69:5)

      “The heavenly reality “will above all be man’s rediscovery of himself, not only in the depths of his own person, but also in that union that is proper to the world of persons in their psycho-somatic constitution (that’s a fancy way of saying body/soul union).” (TOB 68:4)

      “For man, this consummation (Heaven) will be the final realization of the unity of the human race, which God willed from creation… Those who are united with Christ will form the community of the redeemed, ‘the holy city’ of God, ‘the Bride, the wife of the Lamb’” (CCC, 1045)

      Does this help shed more light on things.


      • rainesu

        Thank you so much for your response! However, I still find the whole thing confusing. Jesus told us that we will not marry or be given in marriage in heaven as we will be spirits, which implies not having body in the same way as we have body with its needs and inclinations down here. Whether or not sin is responsible for the separation of soul and body, it still seems as if they will be separated at least for a period of existence (which I guess is the same thing as “time”, but I’m not sure!) I really don’t understand the difference between soul and spirit, either! I guess it remains a mystery, but hearing arguments for certain ideas without my really understanding the premise is problematic to me. Anyway thank you, again!

        • Bill Donaghy

          Sure thing. Thanks for the conversation! If I could comment on this point of yours, and it’s such an important one! You said “Jesus told us that we will not marry or be given in marriage in heaven as we will be spirits, which implies not having body in the same way as we have body with its needs and inclinations down here”…. Let’s consider the “gap” between the death of the person here and the reunion of the whole person in the End of Time with the body…. time only exists here now for us. Once we slip the bonds of time and space (aka death) there is no time or space as we know it, to measure. So I’d imagine the reunion of the body and soul might appear almost instantaneous from Heaven’s perspective. And Heaven will be a bodily experience. Christ in His bodily resurrection leads the way! Scripture speaks of the new heavens and a new earth (“I saw a new heaven and a new earth… – Revelation 21:1) Jesus says we will be “like” the angels in the sense that we will gaze on the Face of the Father in bliss, but we do so in the glorified body. Marriage and being given in marriage as we know it now dissipates because the Heavenly Marriage (that human love was always pointing us towards) becomes our glorious end! The Wedding Feast of the Lamb…. “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” (Rev 21:2) “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” (Rev 21:9) “… the Spirit and the Bride say come!” (Revelation 22:17) How exciting is this? Bishop Sheen called it the Divine Romance!