The following is a review of Chapter 4 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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There are many different kinds of Christian books. There are some that you’ll enjoy reading and some you won’t. There are some that are filled with error and others that are so enlightening they change the course of your life. There are some that you’ll wish you hadn’t read, much less purchased, and others that compel you to keep reading and to tell others to read. Why Small Groups? for this reviewer falls into the latter category: The more I read, the more I am driven to read. This is not because it makes me feel good—just the opposite. As a pastor, this book is convicting.
Let me explain. In my formative years as a Christian, small groups were as natural to me as going to church. The campus ministry I served in was based on small groups. Everyone was in one. We met every week through the school year and vigorously trained new small group leaders over the summer. It was spiritually the strongest and healthiest ministry I have ever been in.
Imagine a ministry with a hundred plus young adults on the completely secular campus of UCLA, many miles away from their parents for the first time, and exposed to all sorts of temptation every day. And now imagine that that group didn’t have any purity problems. Guys who struggled with masturbation made themselves accountable and found victory. Girls who were unequally yoked (dating the dead, as we would call it) dumped their old boyfriends to follow Christ. There wasn’t even a hint of porn in the group. I should add that a good number of us had grown up unchurched and lived thoroughly immoral lives before we came to Christ. So how did a group like that (single young adults living free from parental accountability) stay pure? What was the secret? How did we maintain a level of purity described in Ephesians 5:2-3? How? Small groups!
Our success was not due to a magic wand, or to us being super-Christians, but due to real biblical, encouraging, transparent, nurturing, accountability provided by small group fellowship. Yet, as the years have screamed by and my service to the Lord has transitioned from campus ministry to that of a pastor-teacher and Bible professor, I have allowed my conviction to keep small groups central in my ministry to slip. In fact, for the past five years we haven’t had them in our church. Then Covenant Eyes asked me to review this book. I jumped at the opportunity, not knowing whether the book would be good or not, because I had just shared with our elders my desire to restart a small group ministry. So I must confess: how convicting and yet encouraging it has been that every chapter has reunited me with a lost but dear friend.
Chapter 4, “What Makes a Great Small Group Leader?” is no exception. Mark Mullery does a masterful job of providing a biblical overview of the responsibility of a small group leader.
Mullery starts his discussion of leading a small group by providing the following instructive purpose statement:
“small group leaders are in place
to extend the pastoral ministry of our church
by providing a context
in which to apply God’s Word
so that growth, care, and relationships may occur” (45).
He further explains in details that could only be gained from personal experience, that small group leaders should labor to extend the shepherding influence of the pastors without trying to replace them. In his citation to Jethro’s advice to Moses (Exod. 18:17-23), Mullery tries to persuade his readers that a multiple leadership model of ministry far exceeds the strengths of ministries built upon the single-handed work of even the most gifted pastor. Too many churches fail here. If sin begins to smolder in the life of a believer, a small group leader would see the smoke, whereas the problem most likely wouldn’t reveal itself to the pastor until it had become a forest fire (especially the painfully shameful struggles with pornography).
Mullery’s extensive discussion on how the Word of God is effectively applied in small groups is worth the price of the book alone. I’m not sure how any pastor who wants his congregation to live victoriously over sin could read this and not start training small group leaders the same day. Then using light-hearted humor, Mullery saves the potential small group leader a lot of heartache by carefully walking him through the minefield of dangers that could ruin a small group. His discussion on the dynamics of leading a discussion oozes with wisdom. For example, he teaches, “Good questions cause people to interact with the material and apply it to their lives” (56). Hence, the goal of the teacher shouldn’t be to give the answer, but to empower his students with the skill to find the answer. It’s always better to teach people how to think biblically than to think for them. This chapter is loaded with transformative insights like this.
I could go on and on and discuss the persuasiveness of his precision in explaining the difference between learning what a Bible verse says and applying it. But this is only a review and not a study guide of Mullery’s chapter. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t say a word about his concluding reflection questions about grace. Small group leaders and large group leaders, at home leaders (moms and dads) and conference leaders, can all learn from Mullery’s insights on how to be a grace teacher rather than a guilt teacher. Guilt teachers do little to give hope or lift the burdens of saints weighed down by sin. As Mullery prods, we need to learn how to preach a holy God who extends grace, which saves and sanctifies sinners. Mullery does a lot to show us the grace way.
Again, bravo! This is an exceptional work and should be mandatory reading for every pastor. And not for the pastor’s sake, but in order to extend his labor to guide His flock into Christ-like holier living (Col 1:28-29).