Pastor Priit Tamm of the Tartu St Luke’s Methodist congregation, Inna Välja, a small group leader of the Tallinn Estonian-speaking Methodist congregation, and pastor Aleksandr Fjodorov of the Tallinn Russian-speaking Methodist congregation discuss the meaning and importance of Small Group Ministry in the following article.
Priit: Let’s start with what it isn’t. Small group ministry doesn’t have factions or groups in the congregation wherein the main communication is based on talking badly behind others’ backs or opposing the rest of the congregation, or the pastor. Most generally, the purpose of a small group is rather to bring the general level of theology of the Church and the congregation, as well as fellowship, closer to people.
Inna: Small group ministry means jointly supporting one another’s faith and pursuing growth to strengthen the Body of Christ.
Aleksandr: We cannot draw a line between these two. A small group has functions that the worship service cannot fulfill and vice versa. Both are needed for every Christian’s wholesome growth and development.
Inna: Both of these are means of grace, as John Wesley has noted. If we leave one of them out, we will lose a crucial part of means of grace. Both are important and needed – coming together to serve and worship Him, and the time when we come together to discuss our faith, ask questions, and share our thoughts.
Priit: We cannot really contrast these two because they are, on the one hand, two totally different things, and, on the other hand, they are two elements that jointly support one goal – a person’s growth in holiness. The most important thing for a Christian is the Sunday worship, being the peak event of a week. Its purpose is to keep our focus and dedication on the only life-giving relationship that one could have – our relationship with God. A small group is a tool that supports everything that happens in the congregations’ liturgical life. If a person only participates in a worship service, he or she could even manage as a Christian, but a small group gives an added value to it. If a person only participates in a small group, however, then it is not possible for him or her to take part of the crucial means of grace for Christian life – gathering of the congregation as a Body of Christ, where the Word of God is proclaimed, and the holy sacraments are shared.
Inna: During a period of time, that may be so. For example, I had such a period in my life when our children were little. But it should be temporary. I cannot imagine that a Christian’s life is always so busy that he or she cannot find time in a week for two church-related events. If a person leaves out one mean of grace, with a reason being that they don’t have enough time, then it means that they don’t value it enough. If people claim to be Christian, moreover Methodists, then it is a great deception if they think that only participation in a worship service once a week is enough. Wesley’s greatest accomplishment was the fact that he gathered and organized people into small groups where they could strengthen their faith.
Inna: In a small group, there is discussion and opportunity to ask questions. It is unbelievable how much people don’t know and how many questions they have. It is revealed when they open their mouth.
Priit: When a congregation member is at a worship service on Sunday, he or she is just one of many, and it is difficult to make a deep connection with others during this kind of fellowship. It is a similar case with sermons on a worship service – pastors need to address all the participants, if possible. But this results in a more generic sermon, and therefore, a person listening might feel that the teaching is too abstract or not even relevant to them. But in a small group, the same topic can be discussed in much more detail in a smaller circle. A small group can help people go deeper, and to understand that everything happening in a church is real and relevant.
Aleksandr: It is written in the Bible that when you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, etc. It is generally not possible to use all of it in one worship service. Even displaying or developing the gifts of Spirit in a worship service is difficult. But in a small group, as people have got to know each other, everybody has a chance to share their gifts and thoughts. If then, something doesn’t go right, he or she will be given guidance. It is the best place for growth. The purpose and goal of a worship service are to come together, worship God, receive guidance for life and service. But a small group is a place where one grows for service and grows in it.
Inna: I probably wouldn’t have kept my faith without a small group and fellowship where I was welcomed right away. It helped me to persist and to be grounded in faith.
Aleksandr: Through being in a small group, I have learned to listen to God’s voice better. I have also got to know people better and to know their needs.
Priit: It has always had the most impact on me when people have shared their personal experiences in their life of faith. It’s a great privilege to hear your fellow Christians sharing their thoughts, doubts, the clarity they have experienced, or the battles they have faced, lost, or won. All of it is a precious gift that brings forth gratitude and shows how real life with God is. Sharing our thoughts and understandings in a group has helped me to also see my own thoughts in the light of others’ experience and discussion.
Inna: We as Christians don’t have anything to give to non-Christians if we only sit in the church pew anonymously, don’t read the Bible or pray, or if we only pray in great distress. In that case, God’s impact on our lives isn’t so great that we could effectively share our faith. A small group is a place that helps to prepare Christians for evangelism and to provide us with power for everyday life so that we could be what the world around us needs.
Priit: Small groups are definitely a means for sharing the Gospel. As small groups are personal and direct, and also with quite a free format, they help people to see the so-called “behind the scenes” of a Christian person’s life. It is definitely a very real experience. It seems to me that right now the people who are interested in the life of a believer, have the following question: “What happens or what will change in me if I start believing in God? “It is best experienced in a small group.
Aleksandr: Evangelism is the main task of a small group. There is no point in creating a small group only for conversation. The main purpose of a small group is to serve non-believers. It is much easier for non-Christians, who are interested in matters of faith, to come to a small group, drink a cup of tea, listen to great stories and ask questions about what interests them. In the 1990s, we went to the streets and organized huge gatherings and events to share the Gospel. But this form of evangelism doesn’t work right now. The best tool to share the Gospel is via small groups.
Inna: The choice of topics depends on the people who make up the group. For example, I have participated in a “discipleship study group” that consisted of people who wanted to study the Bible more thoroughly. But when people who come together aren’t in such a time and place in their lives where they could learn the Bible in-depth, then there is no point in doing that. Then the group needs to discuss the topics that the participants themselves need. Here, Jesus is our example again: when He talked to the adulterous woman, He didn’t speak to her in the same way as He did to the rich young man. The starting point of a small group has to be people’s needs.
Priit: I think that you can basically talk about everything in a small group. But it needs to be kept in mind that it shouldn’t become just a chatroom. And, by the way, it can very easily happen so. A good small group definitely has a time dedicated for people to share how they are doing: what are they struggling with, what has been going well or not so well, what are the temptations, etc. For example, John Wesley’s small groups were created with the main purpose being accountability, so that nobody would fall into sin and that the road to holiness would be as efficient as possible.
Aleksandr: The choice of topics needs to be based on three things: the needs of the participants, the vision of the congregation, and the sermon topic of the previous Sunday. I believe that God gives His Word for Sunday worship. When people listen to that Word and then come together in a small group to discuss it, then the sermon that was shared will become much more practical through the small group.
Inna: Why not talk about them? All the current topics are very welcome. My small group has been gathering for almost 20 years, and we have had a great variety of topics, including political and other popular topics on the news. It is good that people can discuss those topics in a safe environment, and therefore, they don’t have to invent theories that might or might not be true. Through discussions, people hear the opinions and suggestions of their fellow-participants. And this is how God works – through other people.
Aleksandr: If the topic is not opposed to the vision of the Church or the congregation, then it might actually be useful. But not if the main reason for coming together is only to chat. We have an example of what happened based on the news about the war in Ukraine. We had to forbid people from talking about the issue because some group members listened to the news from Russia and therefore got some ideas and emotions that conflicted with the others who listened to the Western news. And, as those situations, there doesn’t actually impact us directly, and nobody of us is sent to Ukraine to solve the problem, then getting overly emotional about it is useless. On the other hand, when we have a situation as the coronavirus that is spreading, and we need to do something about it to protect us, then it is a practical question and needs to be discussed.
Priit: Generally, in this world, there always needs to be someone who would take the responsibility and be a leader to keep things together, push things forward, and make things enjoyable. The same principle applies to small groups. A leader needs to have a calling to be a leader, and the rest – knowledge and skills – can be taught; experience comes with time. A leader must want to serve Christ and care for and love the congregation members. The leader’s life should also be an example for others. A small group leader doesn’t necessarily need to know everything about the theology of the Church and the Bible, but they have to have strong basic faith principles.
Aleksandr: A small group doesn’t function without leadership: if nobody takes the responsibility, then people gather not knowing why and nobody knows what to do. There definitely needs to be a leader. Experience shows that usually, a leader who is accountable to someone – meaning a leader-led by another leader – is the one who grows and develops. When a leader is exhausted and burned out, having “carried a group on their back “for a long time, then a small group doesn’t function well (anymore). If, on the other hand, we have a group of good and strong leaders, then new small groups emerge naturally.
Inna: A small group leader should be a person who is naturally not critical. Otherwise, he or she will start drawing the group away from the congregation or create discords and rifts in the church. Some decades ago, we had a person like this in our congregation. They led a group out of the congregation. It seemed to me that the leader of the group was a conflicting person. This individual used to criticize pastors and other leaders a lot.
Priit: There is definitely this kind of situation. Generally, a group gathering should be stopped if the group has ceased to fulfill its purpose, meaning it doesn’t support the functioning or ministry of the congregation and doesn’t build up the Body of Christ through supporting the spiritual growth of church members. It can happen when a small group becomes too self-centered, presuming they are better than the other members of the congregation, and if they start considering only the fellowship within the group to be sufficient for their spiritual growth. Another example can be a situation where the relationships between the group members become unhealthy in whatever way. There can also be a situation where a theological misperception develops within the group, or it can also be dissolved without anything downright negative, but when it is visible that there is no benefit of gathering that specific group anymore. Of course, the life-span of a group can be defined in the beginning. It is sometimes quite liberating for the leader, as well as the group members, especially considering that in our day and age, “dedication for forever “seems absolutely impossible for people. What is more, “Till death do us part “does definitely not apply to small groups.
Interviewed by: Marjana Luist
The UMC in Estonia is planning a Small Group Ministry Training for September 19th, 2020.
Translated by: Merlin Metsla