From the notes for our small group organizational meeting this evening:
Community “means being Christ to one another, sharing the fullness of His life with everyone we meet. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it this way, ‘It means, first, that a Christian needs others because of Jesus Christ. It means, second, that a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ. It means, third, that in Jesus Christ we have been chosen from eternity, accepted in time, and united for eternity.” (Building a Church of Small Groups, Donahue and Robinson)
While Christianity started with significant numbers in the temple, it quickly realized the need for smaller groups: “They broke bread together in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:46 & 47) Historical sources show that the home/smaller gathering model was primary in the early church.
American churches historically have been smaller organizations, and often met for times of fellowship, both within their buildings and in homes. However, two dynamics have impacted this:
Christian families have grown increasingly busy and isolated
Christian churches have grown beyond the size where people know each other well.
Princeton Free Church is no exception. We average 230-250 on Sunday mornings, and serve 400+ total with Wednesday’s youth/children’s ministries and the Sunday “irregular regulars” (those who would identify PEFC as their church, but come less than twice per month). We are too big to know each other well. Our Sunday Schools are designed for training & discipleship, not fellowship. Our ministries and councils meet to serve. Our events are either irregular or attract too many to fellowship deeply.
We have attempted to launch small groups movements over the last five years with limited success. In 2004 we trained 15 leaders, but only produced two groups, both of which have disbanded. During 2005-2006 we launched a Sunday evening ministry (message & groups), it started with 45-50 in attendance, declined to 15 by the end of the (school) year. During 2008 we attempted to launch an elder-based small groups ministry, which died as elders (and their spouses) realized how busy they already were.
We also face the additional challenge of living in a “commuter community”, people tend to have less time in the evenings for meetings or activities.
But we need the fellowship! We need the accountability! Newer people need to connect with our members and regular attendees! We need the dynamics that only tend to occur in groups.
The picture is not entirely dismal. There are active women’s and men’s small groups. The youth group is committed to small groups. There are a few “mixed” groups that have existed for years. But we simply do not have enough groups to meet the church’s needs.