Home Groups – Helping People Connect
by Craig Corkill
Interact Magazine 2000
Volume 11 Number 3
A couple of years ago, the city of Sydney was shocked at the discovery of an old man who had died in his home. While it’s sad when anyone dies, Sydney was stunned to learn that the man had been dead for about six weeks prior to this discovery. During those weeks, no one in Australia’s most populated city had contacted him in any way – no one called, no one cared. Talk-back radio was flooded with callers all asking the same question: ‘How could this happen here in Australia?’
While church leaders may shake their heads and comment that tragedies such as these are a ‘sign of the times’, if truth be told, many within the four walls of our churches feel disconnected from one another and from God. At Southwestern Community Baptist Church, we discovered that once our weekly attendance at church regularly exceeded 100, the level of disconnection we experienced rapidly rose. As pastor, I began receiving comments like ‘It’s hard to get to know everyone’ or ‘I just don’t feel a part of this place anymore’. Also I found it more difficult in my shepherding role to know how spiritually, emotionally and physically healthy people were at any given time. As I reflected on these comments and my own frustrations I understood how valid they were. Yet surely God didn’t want us to close the doors of the church at the 100 mark – there were still thousands of people in our community who needed a relationship with God through Jesus!
After prayerfully talking it through as a church leadership team and looking at what some other churches were doing, we made a commitment to the establishment and growth of healthy home groups at Southwestern. Our vision was like that of John Lee, Associate Pastor in charge of small groups at Thornlie Church of Christ, who writes: ‘We are moving from Small Groups being one of those extras in Church involvement to Small Groups being a vital part of each person’s Christian journey.’ In fact, at Southwestern we speak of the 1-1-1 Principle. We ask people to commit to:
one church service
one home group
one ministry area
The book of Acts is filled with examples of this principle, yet perhaps Acts 2:42,46 highlights it best: ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (multiple examples of ministry areas). Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts (the corporate church gathering). They broke bread in their homes (smaller Home Group gatherings) and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.’
A sole emphasis on what happens in the Sunday church service is not the early church model. Similarly, a sole emphasis on Home Groups to the exclusion of the corporate gathering of God’s people is also not the early church model. In Acts 2 we see both are vital to the connectedness of God’s people.
Given that in most evangelical Australian churches the Sunday service has received much attention over the past decades, allow me to describe to you our seven goals for Home Groups. Our experience is that these goals have complemented what we seek to do on Sundays, and aid in connecting people with God and one another.
Goal #1: To study God’s Word
As we will see shortly, Home Groups are not traditional Bible study groups where members sit in a circle, answer ten or so questions about a Bible passage and then go home. However, as is, Home Groups retain a strong emphasis on discipleship through the examination and application of the Word of God. To facilitate this discipleship process further, the pastoral team at Southwestern writes the Home Group studies which link up with the current preaching series. The material covered in the Sunday sermon is examined in even greater depth during the following week in Home Groups. This allows discussion in a safe environment about difficult issues which the material may have raised. Additionally, one of the great advantages we have found is greater accountability in the application of Scripture. It is relatively easy to walk away from church on Sunday and forget to apply what you have learned. It is far more difficult to walk away from conviction in a Home Group situation, where there is a high level of accountability to each other and when your friends will be asking next week, ‘How did you go?’
Goal #2: To Provide a Forum for Pastoral Care
As we stated earlier, pastoral care becomes increasingly difficult when a church grows much beyond 100. Therefore, rather than abandon the whole notion of pastoral care, our Home Groups have become the primary medium for this vital ministry. To facilitate and promote pastoral care in Home Groups, Southwestern regularly runs the course Learning To Care, which aims to train people in how to care for others. Learning To Care is a six week course written by Selwyn Hughes and Trevor Partridge and is available through CMC Australasia. (For details call 1800 808 139). We have found this course to be a thoroughly Biblical and sensitive approach to empowering people in the church to care for each other. However, we recognise that from time to time certain issues arise in people’s lives which are beyond the skills of a trained Home Group carer. These issues are referred on to the pastoral team. Yet as Jennifer Turner (founding member of the Australian Small Group Network) writes, ‘’This ‘one-anothering’ in the biblical pattern takes the stress off the paid staff and encourages mutual growth in Christ as we face the normal ups and downs of life together.’
Goal #3: To Engage God Creatively in Prayer
Prayer forms a vital component of our Home Group gatherings. Groups are encouraged to express creativity in prayer and over the past 12 months have experimented with prayer walks, praying through various psalms, crafting collages from current magazines and praying about issues raised on the collage, and praying for the nations using an atlas. Prayer connects us with God in profound ways. Yet we have also found that some of the greatest connections between people come as they share their prayer needs with one another in a safe environment.
Goal #4: To discern spiritual gifts
Many pastors struggle to accurately know the gifting of every member of the church. Apart from implementing programs such as Willow Creek’s Network (an extensive program which seeks to identify giftedness and seeks to match giftedness to ministry), there is a difficulty we face when seeking to discern the spiritual gift mix that God has placed in our church. Home Groups provide a forum where members can discover and develop their spiritual gifts amongst friends who will provide affirmation and love. Given the Australian aversion to doing anything in public, many prefer to discern their spiritual gifts in a small group rather than in the larger church gathering.
Goal #5: To Provide a More Intimate Setting for Worship
Times of worship are encouraged within the Home Group setting. Whilst the style of this worship will probably vary according to talents within the group, backgrounds of group members and the age of possible children in the group, meaningful worship is entered into on a regular basis. The leader of one of our ‘young marrieds with children’ groups recently shared with me how special it was to partake in the Lords Supper within the Home Group environment. His comment was that it gave families the opportunity to explain to their children what Communion was all about and then to celebrate that as a family unit, in much the same way the whole family unit would celebrate the Passover in the Old Testament.
Goal #6: To Form Deep Relationships
Experts tell us that for a person to feel part of a church they need to be able to identify with 8 to 12 people in a meaningful way. It is next to impossible to get to know everyone at Sunday church in a meaningful way, yet Home Groups provide a forum for the development of deep relationships. I remember attending the Willow Creek Leadership Summit two years ago in Chicago. During a question/answer time, Bill Hybels was posed the question: ‘If you could change one thing in your past 25 years at Willow Creek, what would it be?’ Without even pausing, Hybels replied, ‘I would set up a healthy small group ministry from day one.’ He went on to say that while Willow Creek had seen tremendous growth, many had left the church unnoticed because they simply didn’t connect with anyone in a meaningful way. In this sense Home Groups can help to close the ‘backdoor’ of the church.
Goal #7: To Multiply Home Groups
At Southwestern we agree at the very commencement of a group that one of our goals for the group is to reproduce itself. In September this year the group I lead multiplied. While this multiplication meant pain in separating from those with whom we’ve formed deep relationships, it also means that we can incorporate others into the blessings associated with being a part of such a group. At the conclusion of our old group we held a dinner to reminisce and to celebrate the birth of a new group. I’m looking forward in the coming months and years to ‘granddaughter Home Groups’ and ‘great-granddaughter Home Groups’ being established. I’m looking forward to increasing numbers of people enjoying the many benefits of healthy Home Groups. Yet to do that we’ll need to maintain our goal of multiplication, which works against our natural tendency to be selfish and exclusive. Having multiplication as a purpose ensures that inclusiveness is valued over exclusiveness.
As our culture (and dare I say it, the church) increasingly feels the effects of isolation, loneliness and people perceiving themselves as ‘just another number’, it is my hope that healthy Home Groups will provide a catalyst for powerful connections with God and other people.
Craig Corkill is currently Senior Pastor of Southwestern Community Baptist Church at Wattle Grove, Sydney.
© Rev. Craig Corkill (1 November 2000)