If you watched the hit movie Crazy Rich Asians, you might remember the unfortunate depiction of a women’s Bible study in the beginning: reading of Scripture shamelessly interlaced with the latest gossip about the protagonist’s new relationship. Sadly, it’s not uncommon that small groups or Bible studies earn a reputation for being a haven of gossip or a place to vent about life. As sinners, it’s easy to complain and gossip (and sometimes, to veil it in the guise of a prayer request). On the other hand, it’s hard to wrestle through Scripture, ask probing questions, and confront one another’s sins, all of which we are called to do.
Yet for all its potential pitfalls, small groups can serve as a vital ministry for fellowship and spiritual growth. The writer of Hebrews regularly exhorts believers to not forsake meeting together:
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.Hebrews 3:12-14
This is one of many Scriptural commands that the church fulfills when we gather together for worship, fellowship, and the preaching of God’s Word. While “small groups” are not a biblical mandate, they are one means of helping each other stay the course and persevere to the end. We all bear responsibility for exhorting one another, and in smaller settings, we have the opportunity to know the unique life situations and struggles of fellow saints, so that we can more effectively speak into each other’s lives. For the sake of our spiritual growth, we must seek to faithfully meet together and steward that time in such a way that honors Christ and spurs us on in pursuing Him.
What Does a Small Group Look Like?
For most of my college and post-college years, I’ve been blessed to be part of various women’s small groups from church. None of them have been perfect, but God has used each one to grow and teach me. Some of the girls I was in a small group with years ago remain my closest friends today, which is not surprising when I consider how we walked through critical seasons of life together. When I first came to Creekside Bible Church, I was blessed to join a small group through Grace Campus Ministries at Stanford. But as our ministry changed and people transitioned, my small group became more of an informal, organic gathering. We weren’t listed on a church sign-up sheet anywhere, but we were just a few ladies in similar life stages that wanted to grow in studying the Word and accountability.
Meeting with my small group is one of my weekly highlights. Each Tuesday, we gather in one of our homes, catch up on life, study the Word, pray for one another, and enjoy delicious snacks. We spent the last few months studying Ecclesiastes, and we take turns leading the study of a few verses on a rotating basis. Some nights we spend a lot of time poring over a difficult passage. Some nights we spend more time sharing about particular trials in our lives. While we can always grow in how we use our time more effectively, I am grateful for how the girls in my small group seek to be intentional and prioritize the Word and prayer.
Prioritize Fellowship and Prayer
One of the great benefits of small groups is the close-up view we get of our sisters’ lives. This gives us the unique opportunity to encourage each other in specific ways and follow up each week. “How did your interview go?” or “How was the meet up with that friend you’ve been sharing the gospel with?” Even among close friends, it can be hard to stay up-to-date with such minute details. We’ve gotten to know each other’s ongoing trials and triumphs.
More than just meeting and sharing about our lives, we strive to pray for one another at small group and throughout the week. Personally, I have always struggled to pray consistently for others, and often feel like I do it out of obligation. But I am constantly learning how praying for my sisters throughout the week is a blessing not just to them, but also to me. I’m guilty of quickly running through the “laundry list” of prayer requests to check the box, but when I take the time to come before the Lord and thoughtfully pray for a sister, not only lifting up her practical needs but also asking for her spiritual growth in Christ, I’m encouraged by the biblical truths that come to mind. My heart for my sisters grows as well, as I yearn to see God answer these prayers and sanctify them. I’m always challenged and convicted by the way Paul prays for his fellow saints:
For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.Eph 1:15-21
Paul prayed powerfully and expectantly for other believers. How amazing it is that he prayed these “big” prayers and had faith that God would answer. He prayed that believers would have “the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him” and they would know “the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe.” Even as we pray for each other’s jobs, relationships, and health, we desperately need to pray as Paul did for others.
Keep the Focus on God’s Word
It can be easy to meet and just talk. Two hours pass quickly when we have four or five girls gathered in one room. I’m grateful that my small group strives to keep God’s Word a priority during our time together. Practically, if our time is limited, we will start the evening with Bible study. Each week, I’m refreshed and encouraged by our time in the Word: each of the ladies in my small group has a different style for leading a lesson, but all of them put in the effort to diligently study, consult commentaries, and prepare meaty questions. We don’t need to be biblical scholars to understand God’s Word, and in recent years, we’ve gone through both Old and New Testament books like Micah, 2 Corinthians, and Ecclesiastes. As I reflect on how we have grown in our Bible study time, a few principles come to mind:
- Strive to understand the original intent. We can be honest about passages we’re not sure about, but we are careful not to devolve into “well, this is what it means to me.” We do our best to use the context of the verses, cross-references, and the plain meaning of the text to extract Scriptural truth.
- Don’t be afraid to disagree. We are prone to nod along and agree with what someone else has said, because that’s easier and inoffensive. But I’ve learned there are plenty of gracious ways to offer a different view, and if a right understanding of God’s Word is at stake, it is crucial we don’t shy away from it.
- Don’t be afraid of silence. When someone asks a good question, expect a lull in conversation. We need to give each other time to wrestle with the question and how to bring Scripture to bear. Sometimes, the best insights come if we just wait a few more moments before moving on.
- Ask an application question. I remember when some of the girls started incorporating these into the lessons, and it generated great conversation. It pushed us to connect Scripture with our daily lives. This doesn’t need to feel forced, either. Even if we study an OT passage that’s seemingly unrelated to our lives, we are always learning something about the character of God and man. We can always apply that.
Small groups can also go to the other extreme, where they become hyper-spiritualized and formal. I’m thankful that I’m also good friends with the girls in my small group. We celebrate birthdays, go on spontaneous adventures together, ask each other for advice about random things, and are each other’s rides and food/medicine delivery in times of need. Most of us are not originally from the Bay Area, so we have the privilege and blessing of being a family away from home.
Friendship in Christ should look distinct from the secular world. This means loving when it’s inconvenient, and not just saying things to flatter one another. One of the many ways I’ve seen this distinction is in how my sisters have prayed for me: they have prayed for my sanctification and overcoming sin, and they have prayed compassionately for those who I have felt hurt by. As sisters in Christ, we are not there just to be on each other’s side in struggles or relational conflicts, but to pursue radical Christlikeness together. As Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of any enemy.”
Praise God that He has created us to live in community with one another! The early church in Acts served as a beautiful example of this through selfless service, fellowship, and worship together (Acts 2:45-47). As we live in a time of frantic schedules and heightened individualism, it takes greater effort to pursue fellowship with the saints. But I have found it absolutely worthwhile to invest in small groups as a means of sharing life, service, and going deeper into God’s Word. I also get a front row seat to God’s work in my sisters’ lives, and believe me, He works in marvelous ways!