A careful look at the New Testament reveals the nature of the church as essentially a lay movement. The Apostle Paul indicates that it was Jesus Christ “who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph 4:11-16). The scriptural pattern for the church then, is that clergy are to equip laymen and women to minister to the world. The prominent American Quaker Elton Trueblood insists, “The ministry is for all who are called to share in Christ’s life, the pastorate is for those who possess the peculiar gift of being able to help other men and women to practice any ministry to which they are called.”61

Historically, however, the church (whether Protestant or Catholic) has operated as an institution more resembling a top-down business corporation than a bottom-up organism shaped by the spiritual gifts and callings of the whole body of Christ. Indeed, one of the rallying cries of the fifteenth century reformers was for the “priesthood of all believers” meaning that most distinctions between the clergy and the laity were to be abolished. What remains is a difference in role or function. To recapture the New Testament concept of full body life there must be a renewed emphasis on the pattern that sees the primary function of the pastor-teacher as an equipping ministry.62

The small-group structure, more than anything else, has the potential for mobilizing lay members for ministry. The beauty and value of small groups is that they are led by equipped lay members of the congregation who have a call to this ministry and the spiritual gifts to carry it out.63 Small groups shift the work of the ministry from the pastor or clergy to the laity, fulfilling the prescribed pattern of Ephesians 4:11. A small group is the place to begin an equipping ministry as a successful and effective small-group ministry provides a foundation on which the rest of the equipping ministry can be built.64

Corinne Ware also encourages the notion that small groups be a lay-member project. She suggests that group leadership is particularly adaptable to the gifts of the lay people and groups are more likely to flourish if leadership emerges from the grassroots rather than if it is directed from a church official. What, then, is the role of the clergy in small-group ministries? Their work, like that of the apostle Paul, is to “equip the saints” to do the work of dynamic small-group ministry.65

Harley T. Atkinson, The Power of Small Groups in Christian Formation (Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications, 2018).