Pastor's Nine Insights about Small Groups

A Bible group of the students in Heilongjiang Theological Seminary read the Bible this month.
A Bible group of the students in Heilongjiang Theological Seminary read the Bible this month. (photo:  Heilongjiang Theological Seminary)
By Zhu JianNovember 1st, 2019

After nearly 30 years of rural church revival and growth, the Chinese church has seen the rise of urban churches and experienced a new wave of growth. However, the problems faced by the church are also increasing, such as more congregations with less pastors; an extremely heavy burden for the pastor; a lack of obedience on the part of believers with high mobility; stagnant spiritual growth of old believers; the church's lack of a sense of intimacy and close connection, etc.

Faced with these problems, the tradition of the "Sunday sermon as the main service and weekday visit as a supplement" pastoral model has been unable to meet the needs of believers. So the Chinese church is actively considering a new ministry model, and small group pastoral care has been one of the most discussed models in recent years.

However, in the process of introducing and practicing small group pastoral care, the Chinese Church has also found that it will face many challenges. These include the problem of the contextualization issues due to different cultural backgrounds, among which there is the contextualization of teaching materials, group styles, and the establishment, training and pastoral care of group leaders. Pastors also face the problem of professionalization of religious services.

In this regard, Pastor Li of a church in Beijing was invited to share what he has experienced in group pastoral care care over the past four years. Beginning in 2010, he was officially positioned in the direction of service in the church's pastoral group, and over the next seven or eight years he set out to help the church establish a pastoral system of ordained pastors, pastoral leaders, and group members. Here are the nine ideas from the author's collated interview with the pastor about the group's pastoral care ministry.

I. Repositioning group: Where Everyone Knows You

At first there were groups in the country, but they were set up for Bible study. The family church started out with small-scale gatherings, with seven or eight people spontaneously organizing a study together. These were some of the first forms of groups meeting in the country. But as the church grew larger, the church's position on groups changed.

Since the establishment of my church in 2007, there has been an adult Sunday school after worship. After the worship, the congregation will break into different groups to study the Bible, responding to the contents of the day's Bible passage. As the number of people increased, the post-worship Bible study could not be carried out, as the church had two consecutive services. Everyone after the worship on Sunday is scattered. The atmosphere of the church setting was broken. The mindset of the congregation became very different.

So the church decided that small-scale group gatherings had to be set up. However the former structure of the groups had to change. During the "trying out" period, groups also tried different forms of meeting. Initially they just met and gathered during the week, and there were relatively mature people to lead them. However, this could not be sustained in a healthy way, as the leaders themselves need to be cared for and needed time to study. Gradually as this "trying out" period came to an end, the church now has initially established the system whereby the pastor leads district overseers, district overseers lead group leaders, and group leaders lead members with the combination of a district and small-group leader pastoral care model.

Pastor Li has been participating in small-group pastoral care for nearly four years during which he shared his personal definition of a "group" with a group of pastors from abroad. He said, "For the group I now am a part of, everyone knows one of your things, and that's the group." In other words, when you need help, the place you can show up in is in the group. That one may change. But when you need help, there's the place where you'll come for help, and that's a group."

Such groups can certainly complement parts that the Sunday worship cannot, such as the inability to provide a home-like environment for believers, building each other up, and carrying each other's burdens.

II. The course on contextualizing small-group pastoral care: Bible study, chapter by chapter.

In 2010, after Pastor Li's role of caring for small groups was defined, he read many local and foreign books on small-group pastoral care, including materials from South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong and China. The church has also introduced different group models. After many attempts, Pastor Li found that the church is still mainly interested in Bible study, chapter by chapter. Therefore, it is also currently promoting this method in the groups.

"We want the group leader to follow the church's steps and follow the material provided by the church, but we also want to give them some freedom to choose." From our experience, such a cohesive group will develop solidly."

When looking at some small-group pastoral care materials produced outside of China, Pastor Li also specifically shared some problems encountered in the process of contextualization, mostly due to different cultural backgrounds.

Chinese consider materials written by American pastors to be very westernized, such as materials from the Saddleback Church. Mainlanders have found that some of the things that existed in the US were not available in China. Pastor Li analyzed, "Because they (westerners) have been in a civilization with Christian roots of Christian spanning hundreds of years, they have ask certain questions. There is however no such background in this country." And with the influence of hundreds of years of Christianity, society has formed such a culture. Whether you are a believer or not, you grow up in a Christian cultural atmosphere. So many values and Christian ideas are closely related."

"Chinese are different. For instance, when Americans do evangelism they ask: Do you believe you will enter the kingdom of heaven when you face death?" This is a starting point for evangelism, a way of evangelism in the United States. However, this will not work if one ask this question in this way to a Chinese. Because we do not believe in heaven and hell, because we have grown up with atheist teachings, there is no way to answer this. One gets stuck at this point. There are many such questions that are a part of this, so it can't continue on like this."

When using Korean materials, Pastor Li felt they were relatively more suitable, but very little material has been translated. Moreover, although Korea is also a country with an eastern cultural context, there are similarities but there are also many differences. In Korean culture there is more Confucian content than in China, so some of the content in a Korean Bible study is not feasible to use at home.

"For example, the question of studying the Bible by strictly following the order of its contents is difficult to accept here," said Pastor Li. In the cultural environment in Korea it is very natural, but not so by directly adopting it here. So we still feel that our preachers are a little more burdened, and we're still working out our own chapter by chapter approach to provide such materials to feed believers with the Word of God. Last year, we studied Nehemiah, Corinthians, Ruth and Judges."

III. Another core function: care

In the group's pastoral care, it is important that the group be fed by God's Word and not just study the Bible.

It is also important that after the Bible study, everyone responds to the Scriptures and shares with each other so that the member's lives are built. You will find that there are many problems when a person studies and responds, one of which is the problem of human growth, the lack of supervision, and the lack of a good example.

"We want to use the group to open ourselves up to the Scriptures we find today. What kind of response do I have in my life? What kind of testimony do I have? How do I overcome temptation or how do I stand up despite being weak? With this kind of exchange, all the members can build each other up.” Pastor Li shared.

Pastor Li believes that the group leader has the leading role of just bringing the group together. At the beginning, the role of the group leader is still quite large. As the group slowly sets up, the group leader will retreat to the background and, through organizing group activities, allows more of each brother and sister’s role to function, applying their gifts to build the group, which is the goal that the church wants to achieve.

IV. The analysis of the group meeting agenda

The "4Ws" is about the group meeting agenda.  The  4 "Ws" are "welcome", "worship", “word” and "work".

The "4W" model actually exists locally, but we didn’t come to a conclusion regarding this model. The meeting starts with an ice-breaker. The atmosphere in the group will be more active after the worship time. If you go straight into the Bible study, the atmosphere may be less conducive to everyone opening their hearts. This initial part also includes preparing some refreshments and a simple meal. The believers enjoy refreshments and wait for the fellowship to begin so that the atmosphere becomes a little more lively and easier to build closer relationships with each other.

After the human relationships have been established, the "upward" relationship can be established. This is about entering into worship. Through worship we set our hearts only on God in order in order to receive a word from God who gives us such a heart.

Then we start the Bible study. After we follow this step, our spirit is elevated and the atmosphere gets more exciting. We then enter into the time of sharing of our thoughts.

We open up to each other and share how God's Word can be applied. After sharing, we also need a service part, which includes internal and external service. There are prayers for each other for each other's requests. Regarding external service, we need to pray for the vision to work this out because each group has a purpose for existing--its reason for serving, such as evangelism, participation in social services etc. The last part of the time is about praying for each other and to pray for the ministry of serving.

V. Selecting and training group leaders

"The kind of group leader determines the kind of group," Pastor Li said with a sigh. He finds that some group leaders are more focused on their knowledge, and some are even more argumentative. For example, a group once discussed the word "Jesus Christ" and spent the whole gathering time doing that.

The spirit was good, but because the group gathered for the whole time and only discussed that subject, it felt like time and energy was wasted because the group had more important things to discuss than that question, questions such as. "How have the Bible's words been revealed to us? How has it been provided for us? What do we need to do to be broken?"

In terms of appointing the head of the group, Pastor Li was also quite impressed. Selecting the group leader is done in Bible study. His church has a training session, and the participants are recommended by the group leader. The training includes educating the participants about what the group is about, what the group's responsibilities are, what the role is, the group's cycle and operation, how each part of the group's 4W's are worked out, etc. Also, during this process they are examined on whether they are suitable in becoming a group leader.

They are given more opportunities to practice in the group, and the group trainer will make some observations and give some feedback regarding their serving in the group. The problems they might encounter during practice helps them gain more skills.

After training they will not directly lead a group. They can be given a certain amount of time. The shortest may be two or three months before starting to lead a group, and the longest may be half a year. Of course, some people may be left behind because not all of them are suitable in being a group leader.

VI. Establishing a pastoral system of pastors, district overseers, group leaders and group members

Being a group leader is a ministry position, but the group leader also needs to be served, supported, and cared for. So since 2012, Pastor Li's church has strengthened the pastoral system so that the pastors, district overseers, group leaders can be connected together in a service which happens every Tuesday. A fellowship time is held the first week of each month involving the head of the pastoral group together with the participation of seven district overseers. The second and fourth weeks are the fellowship times for the group leaders, all of whom are gathered together. The content of the gathering is mainly to listen to a special lecture or have a bible study. The third week is the fellowship time for each district, and the head of the pastoral group leads three to five group leaders in their fellowship time.

The first is that Pastor Li, through the parish overseer's fellowship know the parish and the situation of the various group heads. In this way, Pastor Li can receive timely feedback from the parish overseer once a month, and then provide some supply and spiritual support to the parish overseer, such as the Bible or some training to improve their pastoral ability.

As the head of the parish, he will also visit all the groups in his parish on a two-month cycle with an average of 5-6 times a year to contact a group so that the head of the parish can participate in the group and know about the group. This also gives the parish overseer and the group leader a one-on-one opportunity to meet. As listeners and mentors, the parish overseers strengthen their attention and support the group leaders so that they have the strength to support and manage the groups.

VII. The challenges encountered in practicing small group pastoral care

Giving pastoral care still has various challenges. Pastor Li said the number of people in the groups was about 50 percent of the total number of worshippers, which is not very high. He pointed out several reasons for this.

First, there is a lack of suitable people to be group leaders. Second, there is the question of venue. The church's space is limited. And some brothers and sisters share a house with others, which is not convenient for holding groups. Some groups had not gone well, but the families had to move for some reason, which also had a significant impact on the group.

Third, some believers are weak. There are many Christians who are very unsympathetic and only willing to be Christians on Sundays. This is also one of the maladies of modern urban churches.

Pastor Li also noted that the group leader's pastoral care is also one of the challenges. The group first asked the leader to make more of an effort in this. Bu the pressure to live and work in Beijing is great. The church now requires the group leader to spend at least two nights a week at care, which is a lot of pressure on the brothers and sisters who are currently in the workplace.

In addition, the group leader will also be frustrated. For example, the church reports weekly attendance at each group gathering. This may lead group leaders to compare themselves to others which may also lead to frustration. The district overseer needs to encourage, comfort and pray for the group leader and him them reflect on the shortcomings and issues in the group. Before this problem is overcome, the district overseer may consider joining the group, encourage the group leader and help him/her grow beyond his limitations.

Therefore, regarding small group pastoral care, it is very important to maintain communication the pastor, the district overseer, and the group leader so as to find timely and accurate solutions to problems.

VIII. The role, function and influence of the groups in the Church

Pastor Li also shared a few points about the group's role in the church. The first is to equip and train the church to serve more. For now, the church has many ministry positions, and the vast majority of those serving in these positions come from small groups. They are more willing to participate in the serving the church because they are given pastoral care in the group and will also have the burden of serving.

Second, the group also plays an important role in training disciples. Pastor Li is also considering how to take advantage of the initiative of his brothers and sisters and introduce some one-on-one training methods to create more disciples to the Lord.

In addition, one of the group's most important functions is to share the gospel to the outside world. If it comes to church, there may be people who are conflicted. But if it is a group gathering, the style is about singing songs, sharing food, and talking about life. This is all very conducive to evangelism.

The group also is involved in social service and care as part of their evangelism effort, which is the group's service to the outside world. There are groups that have a greater burden for orphans and the disabled so that they can organize regular volunteer work. Some groups are more interested in community activities such as serving the widowed and elderly people in the community whom they care for. Groups can also participate in cultural activities in some communities, indirectly exposing them to the gospel.

In particular, Pastor Li stressed the need to stimulate the group's external evangelism efforts and social participation function so that it can operate more vigorously since it cannot be infinitely reproduced and multiplied. When the group adds new people in, there will be vitality. However, after a while this vitality will disappear. This time is no longer multiplied, and without new ministry, the group will also be weak.

IX. The attempt to serve professionally

Going from being part-time in charge of caring for small groups to being full-time in charge, Pastor Li has gradually chosen to be more specifically focused on small group care. When he first came to his church, he shared, he was positioned to supervise everything including church administration and pastoral care for small groups. But in practice, you find that you are unable to balance administrative tasks and care for groups.

The lead pastor of his church also needed to be responsible for some seminaries and connecting and promoting other ministries and therefore had not enough time to provide more pastoral care for his brothers and sisters. After careful consideration, Pastor Li took the initiative to request that his service position should be more specific--specifically responsible for small group care. Some administrative work was entrusted to the officers employed by the church.

In fact, regarding full-time pastoral work, Pastor Li also came into contact with such a church model while studying abroad. But at home, such a model is still rare, so it cannot be decided entirely by the pastor. The need for church deacons, the same workers at the same height have this understanding, otherwise it will cause everyone to be confused. Because it takes more to pull priests out and hire officers, and the church's dedication is limited, everyone wants to spend it on the cutting edge. But after such an attempt, we all see this need, and agree that the Church needs people who are dedicated to administrative affairs so that the pastor can focus on teaching.

"During the 1950s in China, the legacy of the church was broken and many church-growth models were lost. We now need to study ideas from abroad and use them again. However, for such a model to be implemented in this country, it will take some time because of the need for the approval of the coworkers. As the church grows, they will also see the professional need for pastors' efforts. Pastor Li finally shared this passage of the process of choosing to serve professionally.

- Translated by Charlie Li

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