Biblical Christianity is about relationships. Jesus taught us that the greatest commandment in the Bible is to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself." (Luke 10:27 NIV)
Love can only be practiced in relationships. There is no such thing as a solitary Christian because we are redeemed into a community - the Body of Christ, the Church. One can have a spiritual experience of closeness to God alone in a fishing boat, but that is not real Christianity. This Biblical faith is a relationship of trust and following Jesus that inevitably results in loving and caring for others.
We are not alone. We need each other. We have been given each other. That means no matter how introverted and shy we are, we all need people. And as Christians, we need other Christians for encouragement, prayer, accountability and love.
Small groups are discipleship labs. Bible study groups, prayer groups, accountability groups, service groups all provide the petrie dish in which faith can grow stronger and maturity in Christ can grow deeper. This is both Biblical and practical.
In Acts 2:42 we are given insight into the life of the earliest Church. Pentecost has just taken place, and the disciples have been filled with the Holy Spirit. God speaks through Peter in that Pentecost day sermon, and 3,000 come to faith in Christ. The discipleship plan they follow is this:
"They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." (Acts 2:42 NIV)
They devoted themselves to God and to one another. We can do the same, and in doing so, we will grow in our discipleship.
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching... We find the apostle's teaching in the New Testament. The Gospels and the Epistles (letters) of the apostles (Paul and Peter and James and John) give us the apostles' teaching. We devote ourselves to the apostles' teaching when we devote ourselves to studying and digesting the Bible. This is done most effectively in small groups!
They devoted themselves to fellowship... Fellowship is more than going bowling together. Fellowship is being fellows with one another. It is being there for one another. It is caring for one another. It is giving and receiving encouragement, prayer, support and accountability to one another. This is also done most effectively in small groups!
They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread... Who doesn't enjoy sharing a meal with friends? The early church practiced this in two ways. They shared in love feasts, which are similar to a church pot-luck or a meal together as a small group, with intentionality to share the love of Jesus with one another. They also "broke bread" together, of course, in the Lord's Supper. In our experience, Holy Communion is usually received in the big church gathering of worship. But love feasts can take place in our homes, in parks, in restaurants, etc. This is done most effectively in small groups!
They devoted themselves to prayer... Praying together builds intimacy with God because there is synergy in praying in unity with other believers. Praying together also builds intimacy between the believers who share in the prayer. In praying with one another, we naturally pray for the known needs of one another. The caring and spiritual connection of praying together builds love and relationship among the pray-ers. This is done naturally and effectively in small groups!
When you think about it, going to a movie is not exactly a great date night activity. We sit next to each other and experience the film "together." And yet there is little interaction between us. We individually experience the film, even though we are sitting right beside one another. The building of relationship happens in talking together about the individual experience afterward.
In the same way, our relationships with one another do not primarily grow while we are in worship. We individually experience the singing, the praying and the message. We grow in our relationship with God that way. Growth in our relationships with one another takes place primarily in the interaction afterward as we share with one another what we experienced with God.
I am convinced that small groups are discipleship labs. They give us opportunity to connect. They give us opportunity to love and be loved, to encourage and be encouraged, to pray and be prayed for, to serve together shoulder-to-shoulder, and to grow in love for God and one another. They give us the opportunity to devote ourselves to the apostles' teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
If you are not already participating in a small group, I hope you will take the initiative to get connected to one. Here at Dayton UMC, you can contact our Discipleship Pastor, Eric Schneider (firstname.lastname@example.org) Let's devote ourselves to God and to one another as they did in the early church. And let's grow together in discipleship!