As told by Pastor Ken Long – Associate Pastor
In 1994, GFC began as a church plant with 6 families. In 1996, they called Brad Bigney as the first full-time pastor. Brad insisted that small groups and biblical counseling be the core of the church life along with worship on Sunday mornings. His passion for biblical counseling came from being helped in his own marriage, ministry and life by Stuart Scott a number of years earlier. The insistence on small groups was a reaction to the typical church culture he’d grown up in that was founded on a multitude of ministries producing little spiritual change in the faithful. There had to be a better way with God’s help of fulfilling Ephesians 4:11-16.
From the very beginning, Small Groups have been the “heart of the church” where people are cared for, but most importantly, where spiritual transformation is “intentionally, intrusively” pursued and celebrated. In other words, we are a church “of SmallGroups” rather than just a church with small groups as one of its many ministries. For us, “a win” is to have someone say that they have never grown in Christ-likeness as they have since being with us.
Attending the 50+ groups are over 700 hundred adults, which is about 80% of the regular adult attendance of GFC. We think that participation must be at 75%+ for the church to be moving in a healthy direction with the Lord. Typically a SmallGroup will meet weekly with some taking 1 week off a month and/or the summer months.
For me, the last 3 years have been like living in the times that the Book of Acts was written. The hand of God is moving among us, and we have been just trying to humbly keep up. And those that know me well that for me to say or write something like this is out of character. Most people would say that I lean more toward the “frozen chosen” end of the spiritual experience spectrum.
Since “SmallGroups are the heart of the church,” they are in the center of our Ministry Structure. Most people enter the church through an appreciation of the “Gathering – Sunday Morning Worship.” From the moment anyone enters the church for the first time, they are being gently, intentionally directed into a relationship with other followers i.e. “Growing – SmallGroups.” Once a person is participating in a transformational environment, they are allowed and directed to be “Going – Serving/Missions.” If someone is truly a part of GFC, they are freely enjoying and living within these three areas. This is the GFC version of “Simple Church” presented in Rainer and Geiger’s book of the same title. The servant-leadership of GFC did not know that this is what they were doing until after reading the book. Knowing that we are not alone in the way God is leading us to be a church is appreciated.
For a Small Group to be unashamedly for the purpose of helping all of the participants to grow and change toward Christ-likeness, the servant-leader of the Group must be equipped to be used by God to carry out this vision. The requirements for becoming a Small Group leader contain milestones that demonstrate theological understanding, personal spiritual maturity, and being used by God as an instrument for transformation in another’s life. Once a person’s aspirations are known to become a Small Group Leader, they are designated an Apprentice and begin intentionally completing the “Requirements for Being a Small Group Leader.”
Small Group Leader Training
A major component of an Apprentice’s training is the completion of Joshua’s Men (JM) if male and Women of the Word (WOW) if female. JM and WOW meet separately covering basically the same material. Involvement in this training is in addition to participating in a weekly Small Group. For 2 years, JM and WOW participants meet once a month for 3 hours early on a Saturday morning to discuss the reading assignment through sharing their written answers to the provided questions and to go over memory verses together. One year is devoted to working through Systematic Theology by Grudem. The other year is devoted to reading a book a month. The books studied are Knowing Godby Packer (2 months are set aside for this one), Spiritual Leadership by J. Oswald Sanders, Trusting God by Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges, Seven Reasons Why You Can Trust the Bible by Erwin Lutzer, Why Small Groups by C.J. Mahaney, The Heart of Anger by Lou Priolo,Disciplines of a Godly Man by R. Kent Hughes, and The Complete Husband by Lou Priolo.
Another component of the training for Apprentices is completing the Fundamentals of Biblical Counseling training. This is the initial 30 hours of counseling training based on the ACBC model. Having this counseling background has been invaluable for the Leaders. When a soul care issue comes up in SmallGroup, the Leader has confidence that the Scriptures have answers. By the Spirit’s power, the Leader will be able to provide hope and possibly even some initial help from God’s Word. In the past, Leaders who did not have this training struggled greatly when soul care issues came out in Group. For some Leaders the struggle was so great that they set themselves aside as Leaders until they were able to attend Fundamentals. Since a long, fruitful and joyful ministry is desired for Leaders, Fundamentals has become essential training.
Once a Small Group Leader, the Leader is asked to participate in the Advanced level of Counseling and Discipleship Training (CDT). Our CDT extends over 3 weekends – one in September, one in October, and one in November. This provides an opportunity for 10 hours of training each weekend with a total of 30 hours. Advanced level training material is changed each year so it is timely and fresh for the SmallGroup Leaders and others who take it year after year. The presenters for 2009Advanced level were Paul Tripp, Ken Sande, Elyse Fitzpatrick, Stuart Scott, Don Whitney, and Garrett Higbee.
The training begins at 5 p.m. on Friday evening and continues through Saturday from 8 a.m. until around 5 p.m. Our format is very similar to ACBC’s CDT, which allow for people to get excellent training without having to miss much time from their employment. The invited speakers are involved just one of the weekends. Two training tracks run concurrently i.e. Fundamentals of Biblical Counseling and Advanced. In 2009, CDT attendance was over 500. Only about half the attendees are from our church the others come from 9 different states.
To support the discipling process focused in the Small Group ministry is our Counseling Center. When a person’s or couple’s soul struggle cannot be cared for in the Small Group, they then enter into intensive discipleship through the Center. After completing a Personal Data Inventory, they are paired with a counselor.
While they are in counseling, they also are to participate in the Sunday morning worship and with a Small Group. This provides 3 avenues of grace where they are involved with the community of believers. We have found that when these additional avenues of grace are present, counseling has been more effective.
Typically there are about 40 to 50 active cases being cared for by 20+ counselors associated with the Center. We are amazed at how God is using all of our church in this ministry. Most counselors are laypeople not the vocational staff. Also, we are thankful to God that 10 of the counselors are currently ACBC Certified with 5 more working through their 50 hours of supervised observation toward certification. Currently the Center itself is in the process of seeking ACBC Certification as a Counseling Training Center.
If a church is going to have a small group ministry focused on helping one another grow to be more and more like Christ some kind of counseling center is also needed in that church. Not all issues can or should be handled in a small group setting. Churches that have a small group ministry focused on spiritual growth but do not have a counseling ministry run into difficulties. What do you do with the people with problems who catch the desire for sanctification but there is no one spiritual who is able to come alongside (Gal 6:1-2)? We have found that churches that want to imitate our Small Group ministry and do not have a developed counseling ministry have difficulty. Either the pastoral staff is swamped with counseling requests or the small group ministry becomes less focused on sanctification so soul issues are less likely to arise. Either situation is unsatisfactory.
We are not proud of our church but we are overly thankful for what God is doing among us.