Small Groups Make a Big Difference
to the People
Turn in your Bibles to Acts 6:1‑7. I want to make eight observations from this passage.
The first observation is that an increase of people without an increase of pastors or people to
oversee them causes problems.
This is the first time in the church that we notice that strife has broken out. Most of the people in this new church described in Acts were those who had grown up in the local community. They spoke Aramaic. They were like Mennonites whose parents spoke Low German or Pennsylvania Dutch and who had names like Yoder, Hostetler, and Kaufman. These people in the early church knew each other well. They knew who the widows were, and they knew who the people were who had special needs.
The early church seemingly took over a custom from the Synagogue. Every Friday two collectors went around the market and to homes collecting for the needy. They called it the Kuppah or the basket. Some people gave money; others gave food, used clothing, or whatever they had. Before sundown on Friday, that which had been collected was distributed. Those who were in temporary need received some basic essentials. The widows and shut‑ins received enough food for two meals a day for the next week. You can be assured that the needs of the local people were well taken‑care of. Acts 2 says that Christians even sold what they had so that they could share with whoever had need. Giving alms for the poor was one of the greatest acts of devotion.
The problem came with the new people who were coming in. The Jerusalem church was a growing church. It was like a mustard seed growing overnight into a huge tree. People moving in from Rome, from Greece, from Egypt, and from all over were impressed with what they saw. They were giving their hearts to the Lord, and the Lord was adding to the church daily those who were being saved. But the church had a hard time meeting all of their needs . . . especially those who came from the outside. They weren't in the grape vine. The pastors didn't know all the people; they didn't know all the needs.
There is a reason why people come to church. They come to worship God, but they also come to get their needs met. When people get their needs met, they will keep on coming. You come to Calvary because you get your needs met. If you don't get your needs met, you will stop coming. You will go to where you do get your needs met. Some churches meet the needs of some people, while others meet the needs of others.
Abram Maslow has helped us by developing a hierarchy of needs. Let me modify it a bit. At the bottom is what we would call physical needs. Everyone needs food, water, and shelter. When basic physical needs are met, people can move to the next set of needs which are called safety needs. People need to feel secure. They need hospital insurance, police protection, and assurance of retirement. The Amish and Hutterites provide these needs in a special way. We do it as a family and in our small groups.
The next level of needs is social or relational needs. We all need to feel loved. We need to belong to a family . . . to a group of people where we feel accepted. This need is connected with the next level of need which Maslow calls esteem needs. We need to be recognized and affirmed for the gifts that we have or the contributions that we make. If this need isn't met in the church, people are going to go elsewhere.
The most important need is spiritual. The primary reason why we come to Calvary is to get our spiritual needs met! We do that in the singing, in the prayers, and in the preaching of the word. We come here to meet God!
There were people in the early church, especially those who had come in from the outside, who were not getting their needs met. They were dissatisfied. There was an increase of people without an increase of pastors. They brought the complaint to Pastor Peter and to Pastor James, Pastor John, and the rest of the twelve. What did they do?
Observation number 2 is that the congregation came together to discuss the problem.
Verse 2 says, "The twelve gathered all the disciples together." Why did they do this? There was going to be a major change. Up until now the pastors had done all the ministry. But it wasn't working any more. The church had become too large. People's needs were not being met.
The Apostles, who functioned like a board of elders, were going to suggest a change. They were going to suggest that some of the ministry be done by lay pastors. This was going to be a major, major change! Up until now the pastors had done it all. Because everyone would be affected, they called the whole congregation together.
Most people don't like change. When change is proposed, most of us are automatically against it. We are used to having it the way it was. Change is uncomfortable.
I heard of an old man who lived up in Maine. He turned one hundred, and a reporter from New York went up to interview him. He got out his legal pad and said, "Now, mister, a hundred years is a long time. I'm sure that you have seen many, many changes during that period of time." The old man crossed his arms, set his jaw, and said, "Yep, and I've been against every one of them!"
Change isn't always comfortable; but if we are going to make progress in our personal lives or in our church, we will need to make changes from time to time. The church was faced with change. The disciples pulled the congregation together to discuss it.
Observation # 3 is that many needs force a pastor to clarify priorities.
It is interesting to note that Peter, James, John, and the rest of those early pastors came up with the same priorities that Jethro had advised for Moses. As senior pastor of Israel, Moses was to pray for the people, to teach them the ways of God, and to lead a team of lay ministers. Moses was trying to meet all the needs of the people; and Jethro said, "What you are doing is not good. You are losing your focus. You are wearing yourself out and the needs of the people are not being met."
Here in Acts 6 verses 2, 3, and 6, the lead pastors of the church declared their priorities. Their priorities were prayer, ministry of the word, and leading the church.
Leading the church leads us to observation # 4: Lay pastors were selected to assist the professional pastors.
Verse 5 tells us that they chose Stephen and six other men to assist in the ministry.
When Chairman Mao Tse‑Tung was leader in China, he observed that the population of the country was growing so fast, and the medical needs of the people were so great, that they couldn't train enough professional doctors to meet the need. So they selected what they called "barefoot doctors." They called them barefoot doctors because these doctors could walk to your house when there was a need. They were barefoot because they couldn't pay them much. What they found was that these barefoot doctors could meet about 90% of the physical needs of the people. For the 10% who needed surgery or specialized care, they developed hospitals and professional doctors. When we were in China twelve years ago, we went both to a hospital where specialized care was given and we went to a village medical clinic out of which a barefoot doctor worked. It was amazing what happened. The capacity of the Chinese people to meet the physical needs of their people was dramatic!
As we further develop the small group ministry here at Calvary, we are going to have what we might call "barefoot lay pastors." They will come to your house, and we won't pay them much. We will meet in homes and meet each other's needs. The leaders or lay pastors will help us meet each other's needs.
When people's needs are being met, the church will grow. The leaders of the early church weren't afraid of the church growing too large. Sometimes we are afraid if the church gets too big, we won't get our needs met anymore. In the early church they met in their small groups where they knew everyone personally. They also met in the temple with all 3,000. With this combination they had their physical, social, and spiritual needs met. That can also be true for us.
Observation # 5 is that lay pastors had to be qualified.
In this passage I see six qualifications. First, they were to be members. Verse 3 says, "Choose seven men from among you." They were part of the body. They had given their testimony. Everyone knew where they stood in relationship to the Lord.
Second, they were to be people of integrity. The King James Version says they were to be men of honest report. They were to have a good reputation. They were to be trustworthy.
Third, they were to be Spirit‑filled. They were to have the qualities mentioned in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.
Fourth, they were to be filled with wisdom. They were to be people of good common sense.
Fifth, they were to be responsible people. Verse 3 says, "We will turn this responsibility over to them." We will put them in charge.
And finally, they were to be full of faith. Verse 5 says, "They chose Stephen, a man full of faith . . ."
(Insert information relevant to your church.) We are developing our own set of qualifications for small group leaders here at Calvary. If a new leader doesn't have a qualification, we will help that person acquire it. We want our leaders to be models that others will want to follow. We want them to be qualified so that they can set the pace for us in their life, their attitude, and in their giving.
Observation # 6 is that the congregation responded positively to the suggestion.
Verse 5 says, "This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose seven qualified men and brought them to the apostles." By their names we can tell that they included Greek speaking Christians.
Here at Calvary we want to make sure that those of you who have been coming into the church more recently have your needs met. You need to help us choose leaders that minister to your needs and that speak for you to the elders, to the council, and to the whole church. Let us know from time to time how we are doing.
Observation # 7 is that the pastors approved and laid hands on the lay pastors.
(Insert information relevant to your church.) On September 17 we want to have a short service of dedication and commissioning for our lay leaders. It should be a good time of being thankful for the gifts and the willingness that God has given them.
There is a special power that flows to a person who knows that he or she has the blessing of God and the congregation. We want to give our approval and our blessing to these people whom we believe God is choosing to help meet the needs of the people who are coming to us.
Observation # 8 is that the needs of the people were met and the church kept on growing.
Verse 7 says, "So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith."
I wonder what attracted the priests? Might it have been that the priests in the temple were people in charge of meeting the spiritual needs of the people? When they saw how well the spiritual needs of the people were being met in the church, they converted and got on board. I am excited about the possibilities of the church. Our purpose is to meet the needs of the people.
The Results of Choosing Lay Pastors What was the result of choosing these lay pastors? I see five results.
First, it helped those who had needs. Their needs were met. We ask, "How are we going to care for those that we already have?" This passage gives us the answer. Lay pastors can help meet the needs of widows and of all of us when we have needs.
Second, this pattern of doing ministry healed the strife. The emerging schism was healed. People were no longer talking about who was Greek and who was Jew. When we have a good cross section of leaders, we will no longer talk about who grew up in the Mennonite tradition and who did not. We will all be one in Christ.
Third, the pattern eased the burden of the pastors. They had a manageable job description. They knew that they could pray, and preach, and lead the church well.
Fourth, the pattern gave the lay pastors an important ministry in the church. They felt needed. And God used them greatly.
And finally, the pattern helped to raise up two lay people to greater work than they had been doing. Stephen and Philip became great evangelists.
Conclusion I have often said in my seminars across the country, "The small group movement is the best thing that has happened to the church since the Reformation! The Reformation turned the Scriptures back to the people. The small group movement is turning the ministry back to the people." When that happens, God has a lot more to work with.
I believe God has something great in store for us here at Calvary. Let's not be afraid of it. When people's needs are being met, they will know that God is present. Small groups make a big difference for the people whom God is calling. They have their needs met. They come into a relationship with God. And they are added to the church.