The following is a review of Chapter 3 of Why Small Groups? by C.J. Mahaney. This free e-book is available on the Sovereign Grace Ministries online store and is a helpful guide for accountability groups.
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All the inspiring reasons to have a small group ministry given in chapters one and two of Why Small Groups? won’t make them just pop up into churches. Church members must take ownership of them to make that happen. I tell the church I pastor, all the time, “You can’t get everything at a 99 cent store. Some things require sacrifice and commitment.” A successful small group does. Using personal, practical, and biblical appeals in his chapter titled “Take This Group and Own It!” Somerville strives to persuade his readers to make the commitment to take personal ownership of a small group ministry. He writes:
“Small groups don’t succeed unless the entire group is working together. It doesn’t take a highly gifted leader to build a small group. But it does take men and women who are devoted to applying Scripture, to practicing fellowship, to serving their church, and sharing the Gospel” (34).
I have to admit, when I first read this chapter I was a bit disappointed. It didn’t seem as fresh and theologically piercing as the first two chapters in Why Small Groups?” But my opinion changed when I read it a second time. I felt reproved for failing to appreciate its potential impact because it lacked the fresh theological appeal of the first two chapters. All Christians need to be reminded of well-worn timeless truths. Somerville does that well in this chapter. A seasoned small group leader himself, he shares insights, suggestions, practical truths, and quips and quotes that only someone who knows what he is talking about can do.
In our consumer age, where Christians are constantly tempted to upgrade churches like computers, Somerville asks, “What’s going to keep you from seeking ‘greener pastures’?” (35). He roots his answer in developing deep relationships grounded in Christian love. Living out a small group commitment gives faithful church members those kinds of relational ties. He leads the reader to this conclusion after pressing the question “What makes a group successful?”
This perspective turns Christians away from our natural tendency to be professional church critics. Somerville challenges the reader to embrace the biblical mandate that the success of the church doesn’t rest with the spiritual elite because all believers are empowered by God to serve His body. It is the faithful service of all and not the marginal percentage of the few that makes a church strong (and ministries successful). Somerville applies Hebrews 10:24 by encouraging its readers: regardless of their self-conceived status in their church, God intends to use them. His key texts of Scripture are 1 Cor. 12:7 and 1 Pet. 4:7-11, which clearly teach that God gave every Christian a spiritual gift(s) to be used to build up His spiritual body, the church (Eph. 4:12-16).
I’m not a small group expert, but I have led them for years, during which time I have never seen a job description for a small-group member. What an idea. Somerville provides a great one too (37). Among the duties for small-group members, he lists five key principles: have consistent devotional life, apply God’s Word, serve the church, evangelize the lost, and “open one’s life to others by being honest, transparent, and teachable” (37).
He explains: “An honest confession can break a superficial meeting wide open.” He quotes Richard Foster: “Confession begins in sorrow, but it ends in joy. There is celebration in the forgiveness of sins because it results in a genuinely changed life”(37). That’s good stuff for a sinner buried under guilt and longing for forgiveness. What all Christians need is a place where they can share their real burdens and get real help. According to the Bible, there is a healing balm in Gilead (Jer. 8:22), but God’s people at times must be lead to it. Small group members can get close enough to know that someone is struggling and are close enough to care in a loving way. This section is worth reading a couple of times for its classic quotes and liberating truths.
Here’s a list of other headings under which he discusses “What Makes Small Groups Successful?”: meet outside the meeting, open your home, de constructive, not destructive. Under each heading he adds a little sugar from his sense of humor to make the medicine go down more easily. I love the subtitle “Give your gifts,” to encourage Christians who think they are not good enough to make a contribution to other believers (40). He quotes Jack Deere, who says, “The only good athlete you will ever see is a bad one who didn’t give up” (41). Serving other believers is what practice and exercise are to an athlete. We can all grow stronger but not without working for it.
All in all, this chapter is another very helpful contribution for the man who doesn’t want failure but spiritual growth, consistency, and victory to characterize his walk with Christ. Some battles, like overcoming porn addictions, are easier to win with a small army rather than by a lone ranger or an entire brigade. The precepts that Somerville applies in his chapter makes this point. And through the use of thought provoking meditation (side-bar) questions, he leads the reader to embrace it. Small groups are an effective God-ordained means to help Christians grow when believers commit to making them work.
From this reviewer, kudos to Mr. Somerville.