Tony Payne: Small groups really are a key feature of the Christian landscape these days. Small groups as they operate today… Col, you go around, you see a lot of churches, you talk to a lot of pastors… What’s your feeling about how small groups are travelling? What’s the state of small groups in modern evangelical Christianity?
Col Marshall: As you say, they are everywhere, there’s hardly a church I come across that does not have small groups. It seems that if you’re an evangelical ministry that doesn’t offer small groups, you’re not the real deal and you’re not going to be attractive. So they are everywhere. I think generally, both here in Australia and overseas, the purpose has become confused. A lot of small groups are stuck, without a lot of progress: we have them because we have them because we have them. Sadly, very little attention is being given to small group leaders. So the groups just happen with little training of leaders or ongoing encouragement and direction for leaders.
TP: If leaders don’t get enough attention paid to them in training, recruiting and ongoing mentoring, what seem to be the consequences?
CM: The purpose of the group then grows out of the personality or the bias of the leaders or that particular church. So some become more care and support groups—which is a great thing in and of itself—but the relationship becomes the focus. Other groups become more task-centred: they get through a Bible study, they get through the prayer time and activities, but they do this without much ongoing relationship. Without biblical guidance from pastors they just take off in different directions like that.
One of the dangers of small groups is that you decide on truth by consensus, so whoever speaks loudest ends up shaping the ideas and theology of the group…
TP: …which can lead to division within the congregation. Small groups without meaningful accountability structures, or good leadership, or a sense of common purpose, can easily seed division and factionalism within congregations.
Some millennia ago, Col, you were practising the training of small group leaders, and out of that came Growth Groups, a Matthias Media manual for training small group leaders. Why did you call it Growth Groups? Did the name have something to do with what you were trying to get across?
CM: Yes. We used Colossians and 1 Thessalonians in that training manual, and so the language of growth, particularly from Colossians—the growth of the gospel, growing and maturing in Christ—came out of that. It was our general understanding, yours and mine and many others’, that the purpose of gathering together in small groups was not to have a small group in and of itself, but to grow as Christians and to grow the gospel. Those were the two foci: growing the individual and growing the gospel, rather than just being a small group. That’s what we were trying to do by using that language.
TP: So how does that growth happen?
CM: Growth happens through the word of God, taken by the Spirit of God, and applied to the hearts of people, so it’s exactly the same as a big church meeting on Sunday or any other ministry. The growth happens by getting into the Scriptures, by God speaking to us by his word through his Spirit and transforming our lives. And then, taking that through us to others around the fringe of the church or in the community. We were trying to get across this ministry understanding of evangelicals: that growth in the individual, growth in the church, growth of the gospel come by being in the word and prayer together.
TP: Looking back over 20 years, nearly, since you wrote Growth Groups, in what sense has it failed, do you think? In what sense have we not succeeded in spreading that culture within small groups?
CM: I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I think it’s the growth of the gospel to others—the outward reach of the group—that has failed. Because of this conversation with you today I had a look at Growth Groups this morning, and was both pleased and disappointed. There’s a whole section on seeing the group as an evangelistic team, with some really good ideas we had back then. But I don’t think we see many groups functioning as evangelistic teams. We see a lot of groups in churches growing in their knowledge of God and their practice of obedience, in repentance of sin and in relationships with each other—they’re the really good groups. But even those groups are not doing much, and don’t know how to do much, to grow the gospel in terms of others. People think, “That’s some other activity in the church; it’s not supposed to happen through growth groups. We’re growing each other, we’re growing individually and in our group life, but we’re certainly not an evangelistic team.”
TP: It’s hard to grow as a Christian, hard to imagine how someone could grow in the likeness of Christ, without having a heart for other people—without laying down our lives for others. In a sense, a group that is inward looking demonstrates a failure of spiritual growth.
CM: That’s right. I think the practical problem with the language of Growth Groups is that ‘evangelistic team’ terrified everybody, including the leaders. They thought it meant going out and sharing Two Ways to Live, or preaching on a street corner or something.
I like the way that we’re talking about it now—that they’re disciple-making teams. So everyone in the group is learning how to pass on the word of God and to pray for others as a group, to share the word of God with others in a whole range of ways—which will include the non-Christian friends and neighbours and so on at some stage. The way I’m thinking about teams now is that we are a team ministering to one another, not just from the leader, following up one another, following up people from church, and training the team in some very basic and practical ways how they can get into the word with other people. Some of it will be what we would normally call evangelism, as with non-Christians, and some of it will be with Christians.
TP: Sometimes we think of discipling purely as what we do with a Christian—discipling a Christian in growth. And sometimes we think of disciple-making as going out to the nations and baptising them into the name of Jesus, converting people and so on. Whereas when we’re using that language, and when I suggest the New Testament uses that language, making disciples is a comprehensive sort of process. It starts with moving people towards Christ and sharing the gospel with them, and seeing them come to Christ. But then it’s also teaching them to obey everything Christ has commanded, and growing in maturity and godliness in Christ. So in that sense, we’re saying a disciple-making team is a team of people who are applying themselves to that whole process of trying to move others forward—to move each other but also others in or outside the congregation, forward—because that’s just the normal Christian life. We want to move people forwards.
CM: Yes, that’s right. How can we have the blessings of the gospel in our own lives without wanting to do that? I’m starting a new team in a week’s time with some men from church. We’ll study the Bible, pray, get to know each other, do some fun things together, all the things we’d normally do in growth groups, but from day one I’m going to be sowing the seeds of who they can get alongside and take under their wing—whether it’s someone in their church, someone at work or in the community—to build a relationship and get to the point where they are opening the word of God with one other person, and make that a normal part of our group life and our Christian life. That’ll take a few months to work on—it’ll just be slowly over the year. So there’s an outward-looking focus of the group: disciple-making in the two senses of bringing someone to Christ but also helping them grow and get established. We’ll do some group projects together on that.
TP: So the person they’re opening the Bible with might be a fringe person at church, a newcomer, or a Christian who’s struggling, it could be their children—it could be anybody.
CM: We’ll talk about and pray for individual people like that in terms of who it could be in their own family, or other guys at church who are on the fringe and struggling, and some guys at church may not be Christian yet. But also within the group, meeting with each other one on one, to open the word together. But I’m thinking we’ll also go down to the train station and invite people to church, and do some things that get us out on the front foot as a team, meeting people. It sharpens the whole process of our own growth, apart from anything else. The gospel and disciple-making is a matter of heaven and hell; it’s not just a comfortable discussion in a lounge-room on a Wednesday night. We need to be working as a team together to make disciples, so let’s go and do it together in some challenging ways.
TP: Someone from the UK—I forget who said this now—commented that very often in British evangelical culture people will evangelize as a pack, and then follow up people individually. In some other cultures, and I think Australian culture is an example, we tend to see evangelism as a lone wolf activity. When somebody shows interest or is converted, we follow them up by putting them in a group. Your way of thinking about the team…
CM: Is the English way! It must be my Scottish heritage. But yes, I think so. I still find it difficult on my own to reach my neighbours and talk to them. But if I’m in a group of guys, and we are all trying to do that, and we’re overcoming our fears, we might put on a tennis afternoon where I can invite the neighbours, or a barbeque or whatever, and we end the year putting on Simply Christianity where we invite our neighbours and friends… If I’m in a process like that, that’s going to help me do evangelism in the pack and then we can carefully follow up both in groups and one to one. So that’s my team idea.
TP: I really like it. I think conceiving of and even giving your small group a different name—saying we’re a team of people seeking to do something for each other, to build and grow each other, to care for each other, to disciple each other—we’re also going to think it doesn’t terminate with us. The word of God, as Archie Poulos likes to say, should never terminate with us, it should be passed on to somebody. So we’re a team of people who want to pass it on to others. This year the team I’m on in my congregation is going to be particularly focused on newcomer follow up. So we’re going to be a disciple-making team, who think and pray and talk about new people in the congregation, visit them, read the Bible with them, do all we can to love and shepherd those people forward in Christ and, God willing, into our congregation. That’s going to be our outward focus, our team activity.
CM: That’s a great focus. I think we need to come up with more examples of different groups. Some could be disciple-making teams attached to the kids’ club, so they’re following up the parents from the kids’ club. Some could be connecting with a particular ethnic group in the community because they’re Chinese or Slovenian or whatever they are. Or a sports interest. I think we need every group in our church to have this team concept, and then to have some sphere of focus where they’re making disciples. And one of the best and easiest ones is exactly what you’ve said—the contacts and fringe contacts at church. I think that’s a good place to start.
The key in all of this is the training of the leaders. Rather than starting with existing leaders, who may or may not want to head down this path, start with a few new leaders, train them to think of themselves as team leaders running disciple-making teams, and let them loose to do that for a couple of years. So rather than trying to change all of the groups at the same time over six weeks, just start with a new strand of groups coming through and see how that works out over a couple of years. We can build some groups with this team culture through the pastors doing it themselves and then having input into the pastor’s training team.
TP: One of the key things there is that it’s going to take a few years. I’m an impatient person. When this sort of thing occurs to me I want everything to be changed by July, and to be all fixed. But it doesn’t work like that and people are not like that. Whereas if you think about it on a longer-term scale, not only could you start some new strand groups that you’re building from scratch with a different culture, but you could perhaps do things that you haven’t been doing with the existing leaders and start gradually to train them, to mentor them, to shift their mindset over time as to what they’re trying to do in their groups.
CM: If you’ve got a couple of groups demonstrating the idea, it’s much easier to excite the other leaders. The demonstration effect is pretty powerful. It is both/and. If there isn’t a group in the church that’s actually doing it, then it’s very hard to persuade anyone else to run a group like that.
The other thing of course is to pray for a lot more persecution, because I know of groups in other countries where if you stick your head up and stand for Christ you get it lopped off. There’s no question if they have a group as to whether they’re going to evangelize and make disciples; they can’t help it. Part of the problem for us here is our comfort—we can so easily go into our ghetto and not stick our heads up. We’ve just got to be braver and bolder and more courageous individually as pastors, and then transmit that kind of discipleship to our groups. I really think it is a normal Christian life to have groups that are teams like this.
TP: And that is a work of God’s Spirit. In Acts 4, when there’s persecution happening in the church, they have that prayer meeting with Peter and John after they’ve been dragged before the authorities, and they pray, and the place is shaken, and it says in 4:31, “and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness”. That’s the effect of the Spirit within us: as the Spirit is poured out in the new covenant he prompts us to speak, to share God’s word, so that God’s words spill out of us. That’s what we’ve got to be praying for in ourselves and our groups—that the Spirit would work in us in that way.
CM: I saw that last year. I ran a training team with fairly reserved sorts of guys in it: like me, in terms of personality. They started following up guys from church, and meeting with them, and then we hadn’t even talked much about the workplace but they started speaking to their work colleagues and standing for Christ and copping a bit of flak for it. God does work like that; we do see that happening.
TP: So small groups aren’t somewhere where you park people, they’re not just a structure that you have to have. They really are a cluster of relationships: disciple-making relationships, where a team of people can disciple each other and build each other up in the word. And as they grow as disciples they want to reach out and do other things, they want to see other people move forward in Christ.
CM: And we’ve been criticized on that—for being too task-centred, or too mission-centred, or something—but I think it’s a big feedback system. If you have a team making disciples, it’s going to improve their Bible study and their learning, because they’re actually learning for the sake of explaining it to others and growing, and not being hypocritical but obeying it themselves. It’s no longer just academic learning. And then the relationships deepen because you’re on the front line together, deeper in the war, running the race together, whatever metaphor you want to use. So the relationships are not the superficial group dynamic kind of relationships where you need clever questions to tell people your favourite movie, you don’t even worry about that kind of stuff, because you’re on a mission together, trying to get the gospel out and copping some flak for it. The elements of relationship and task and influence all come together I think, if you have a concept of disciple-making teams.