Ken Hemphill: ORGANIZING SMALL GROUPS FOR ONGOING CARE
The fellowship experienced by Christians living in community should foreshadow and create a longing for the eternal community we will experience in heaven. In heaven our joy will be perfected; unsullied by sin, grief, or sadness. In our present experience of community where joy is still mixed with pain and suffering, pain becomes bearable and joy becomes sweeter because they are shared with members of our family. It is this mutual sharing of both pain and joy that knits us to those who have become members of our heavenly family while we yet live on earth. So our pain and suffering is divided and our joy is multiplied.
Does that sound too good to be true? Does it sound too much like preacher-speak? Every time I read the book of Acts, it creates a longing in my heart for true community and it gives me hope that such community is both our calling and our heritage. God, who designed us for community, has also promised to create it and sustain it by His Spirit.
The resurrected Lord counseled His first century followers not to leave Jerusalem until they had received the promised Spirit (Acts 1:4-5). In response they “with one mind” devoted themselves to prayer as they waited for the empowering of the Spirit (Acts 1:14). On the day of Pentecost they again were all together in one place (Acts 2:1). Are you beginning to notice a common thread? You can’t experience true community without spending time with one another. Believers must be in one place and with one mind.
At this point in his narrative, Luke tells us that the Spirit comes in great power, enabling the gospel to be preached with such power that people from the surrounding nations were able to hear it in their own language (Acts 2:8) and about three thousand souls were added to the community of believers (2:41). The powerful preaching of the gospel is not the end of the story concerning the work of the Spirit. “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common” (2:42-44). The creation of community was as much a work of the Spirit as was the conversion of 3,000.
Many commentators, church growth authors, and pastors have looked to this passage to define the essential elements of the work of the church. They point to matters such as doctrinal teaching, prayer, worship, fellowship, and evangelism as the five core functions of the church. However, too little attention has been paid to the fact that without community, the other elements will not be sustained. If we are not “devoted” to fellowship, there will be no foundation or gathering where prayer, worship, and doctrinal instruction can flourish.
Luke gives us another glimpse at the importance and impact of community. We looked at these verses in chapter 4. He describes the believers as being of one heart and soul (Acts 4:32). This was not sentimental rhetoric. The early believers didn’t cling to anything as if it was their own but freely shared with any who had need (4:33 and 34). The impact was such that “there was not a needy person among them” (4:34). The unique fellowship of the early church bore testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and gave evidence that His grace was upon them all (4:33). In other words, effective evangelism is dependent on visible community. The world is longing for authentic community and the church which dares to provide it will flourish in terms of evangelism and assimilation.
This level of fellowship will not occur simply because we long for it. It will not occur by accident. While community is the work of the Spirit, it demands human cooperation. God is not a God of confusion, but one of order (1 Cor. 14:33). We must organize through our small groups and then work the process. We suggest you apply the “ISSE” formula. You need an Intentional plan which is Sustainable, Simple, and Expandable. Once again we find such a strategy in God’s Word as we turn together to Exodus 18.
Ken Hemphill is the author of several books related to Sunday School. He will be speaking at several of our All Star Sunday School Training events. We have several dates we are looking for dates in the Fall. See http://allstarsundayschool.com/