Our Calling to Community
The biblical basis for Home Group ministry begins in the very nature and character of the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Whilst the doctrine of the Trinity is undoubtedly challenging and complex (it’s still a lot easier than string theory), what is abundantly clear from the Old and New Testaments is that the God who has revealed himself in creation, in the scriptures and supremely through Jesus Christ is a God who lives in perfect community. John of Damascus, a seventh century Greek theologian, captured something of what this means by using the word perichoresis which literally means “circle dance.” Choros in ancient Greek referred to round dances performed at banquets and festive occasions. (These dances often included singing, hence the origins of the English word chorus.) The prefix peri (Greek for round about or all around) emphasises the circularity of this holy dance envisioned by John. God’s existence, he suggests, can be well illustrated in the imagery of this flowing, circular movement of dance; by the intimacy, equality, unity and yet distinction it represents – and all of this in the embracing context of unfailing love. It is indeed a wonderful image but it becomes even more wonderful when we realise that what God has, in effect, decided to do in creation is to widen His circle. From Genesis to Revelation, but especially in the ministry and teaching of Jesus, it is clear that the God of creation who has created this world, and who has created us, has done so entirely that we might come to know Him and likewise enter into this glorious, liberating, embracing communion that he has enjoyed within Himself for all eternity. This is one of the most amazing parts of the Gospel message.
But God has not only created us to know and be know by him, he has also created us to know and be known by one another. As he has widened his circle to include us, so he calls us to wider our circles to include one another. “A new commandment I give you,” Jesus says in John 13:34-35, “Love one another. As I have loved you so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” This clear call to live in genuine community with one another is then repeated again and again throughout the New Testament. The following are only a few examples.
“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above your selves.” Romans 12.10-11
“Accept one another” Romans 15.7
“Have equal concern for each other” 1 Corinthians 12.25
“Serve one another in love” Galatians 5.13
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other..” Ephesians 4.32
“Encourage one another and build each other up.” I Thessalonians 5.11
“Spur one another on towards love and good deeds” Hebrews 10.24
“Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other.” James 5.16
But how can we do all this if we only meet together for one hour per week and do so as a large gathering? To share openly and intimately, to receive and give the gift of acceptance and love, to find out and meet each others needs, to encourage and build up, to confess our sins and receive forgiveness, to care and pray for one another – all of this can only happen in a much smaller context were relationships of trust can be established and developed. This is why being involved in small communities such as Home Group is so crucial.
The Strategy of Jesus
Matthew 28.16-20 records the great commission given by Jesus to the apostles shortly before returning to his Father’s side – a commission that he continues to give to his followers today:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Three basic elements stand out in our commission as we examine these verses:
1. Proclamation: We are to ‘go’, Jesus tells us, and bring the good news of the Gospel to every person in every land.
2. Incorporation: We are to ‘baptize’ those who respond to the Gospel in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. In other words we are to incorporate them into the body of Christ, into the fellowship of the family of God.
3. Discipleship: We are to ‘make disciples’ not just converts. We are to lead others not only to faith but to maturity in their faith in Jesus Christ by teaching them to obey everything Jesus has taught us.
But how are we to do it?
Well, the place to start is to look again at how Jesus himself accomplished the task he has now given to us. How did he go about making and multiplying disciples? What was his strategy, his methodology? When we investigate this in the pages of the New Testament we discover that Jesus’ primary method for making true disciples was not centred on preaching to the crowds in a large group setting (often the primary method used today) though he did this regularly. His primary strategy, rather, was to gather around himself only a few in a small group context so that “they might be with him” (Mark 3.14) and that by being with him they might truly discover the life he had come to bring. Particularly towards the end of his ministry, it is very clear that Jesus invested most of his efforts, not trying to reach and greatly impact the thousands or even hundreds, but rather trying to truly reach and greatly impact only a few in a small group setting, a few in whom he determinedly invested his time, his knowledge, and his life, a few who then having been chosen as apostles went on to change the world using the method taught to them by their master.
This small group approach to discipleship was actually well known in the first-century Jewish world of Christ. Many Jewish teachers, or Rabbis as they were known, gathered together a small group of apprentices and spent much time instructing and building close relationships with them. They taught, involved, encouraged, corrected, and equipped them until they were mature in their understanding and practice and ready to become teachers themselves. These disciples, in turn, would then gather more apprentices around themselves and begin the process again, effectively passing on the teacher’s message to more and more. It was the authority of his teaching (Mark 1.22) and the purity of his example (John 13.15), rather than the strategy he used, that set Jesus wholly apart from all other disciple-makers.
In this close community Jesus formed with them, the first disciples were taught and shown what living in submission to God really meant. They saw Jesus as he was in the morning and as he was at night. They viewed him in rejoicing and in sadness. They observed him in times of blessing and in times of trial. They watched him pray, heal, preach and teach. They witnessed how he dealt with easy people, and difficult. They saw how he acted, and perhaps more importantly, how he reacted to the events of daily life in the real world. The meaning of true Christian discipleship was something the first disciples caught as much as were taught as they lived in community with Jesus and with one another seeking to follow His example together. This discipleship dynamic remains as true today as it did back then.
How are we as disciples to produce more disciples? How are we as leaders to produce more leaders? We are to do so in the way that Jesus modelled for us. Central to this is the gathering together of small groups of people who want to live for God and who are willing to live out the Christian faith together. The lives of the early disciples were radically transformed when they chose to live in such a context and so will be the lives of modern disciples when they choose to do the same.
The Method of the Early Church
As Jesus had developed his disciples by investing himself in their lives, developing close community amongst them, modelling as much as teaching the Gospel, so the early church developed the next disciples. When the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles at Pentecost, we read that about 3000 were added to their number (Acts 2.41). In the aftermath of this event, notice the community pattern that immediately resulted:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2. 42, 44, 46,47)
Three characteristics emerge from Luke’s account:
1. The Focus of their meeting together. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship together, to breaking bread and to prayer.
2. The Location of their meeting together. They worshipped as a whole in the temple courts AND also gathered together in smaller groups in homes, eating, rejoicing and worshipping with one another.
3. The Impact of their meeting together. The lifestyle they displayed together in this pattern of meeting brought them praise from “all the people” and led others to come to the Lord on a daily basis.
In other words, these first Christians met together in the larger group AND in smaller groups where they studied the words of Jesus and the teaching of the Apostles, where they applied this teaching to their daily lives, prayed, ate and celebrated together – and in these home groups discovered a lifestyle that drew people to Christ in great numbers.
As the Church Expanded
As time went on and the church expanded, the importance of these home groups grew even more. In some areas opposition began to arise and it became dangerous to meet in public. Home groups or House Meetings then became the norm of the Christian church and this remained the case right up until the fourth century when Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Empire and large church buildings began to be built for the first time. In Acts 5.42, for example, we read that the Apostles went from “house to house” preaching and proclaiming the astonishing news of Christ. Later we read that Paul also taught and evangelised “from house to house” (Acts 20.20). (see also Romans 16.5 and Phil 2)
These home meetings, especially during the severe persecutions that arose at the end of the first and through the second centuries, were the chief means of passing on and living out the teaching of Jesus and of the apostles, and were the cornerstone of the Gospel’s advance throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. Home Groups are, therefore, no new fad but are an ancient, Christ-initiated strategy.
The Methods of the Modern Church
This twofold pattern of meeting together as a whole and in smaller groups has been just as vital in our modern church history. Martyn Luther, John Knox (who was largely responsible for the reformation coming to Scotland and then to Ireland in the form of Presbyterianism), and many others saw the great benefits of deeper fellowship and accountability than the larger setting would ever allow. Later, the Moravians, and under their influence the Wesleyan Revival, again focused on the need to be together in small groups. The same has been true in every century in every part of the world. Paul Miller, writing almost four decades ago, goes as far as to say,
“Every lasting surge of renewal during the history of the church was carried forward in small class meetings or other primary groups and so it must be now.”
(Miller, Concern 5 (June 1958) p41)
These points discussed above give only a brief outline of the historical and Biblical basis for Christian Home Groups. Yet they are sufficient for us to realise that Home Groups are not only an effective way to develop a discipleship strategy within a local church, but encapsulate the pattern of discipleship used by Jesus himself, continued by the early church, present throughout the centuries, and ever more implemented in our own time. They also reveal the vital importance of quality Home Group Leaders.