Dr. Bobby Kelly, chair Ruth Dickinson Chair of Bible, has taught New Testament, Greek, and Biblical interpretation at Oklahoma Baptist University since 1997. He received his undergraduate degree from Clear Creek Baptist College (1988), and the M.Div. (1992) and Ph.D. (1998) from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. In 2000 he was awarded OBU’s Promising Teacher Award and in 2011 he received the Distinguished Teaching Award. In November he was invited to preach the 2012 BGCO Convention sermon at FBC Moore. He has served as interim pastor in eleven Oklahoma churches and teaches Bible studies throughout Oklahoma. In his spare time, Dr. Kelly enjoys UK Basketball, OU Football, and running. Dr. Kelly and his wife, Angie, have two boys, Luke, 12, and Levi, 7.
A Theology of Small Groups
Small Groups Have Been Around Since Eternity
A theology of small groups begins where all theology begins, with the nature of God. The first small group existed in eternity; God the Trinity existed as one in three persons, a small group by any measure. Two of the most important assertions about are God are: (1) God is one (Deut 4:34-35; 6:4; Isa 45:5, 21; Mark 12:32; 1 Cor 8:6; Gal 3:20; James 2:19) and (2) God’s oneness is expressed in three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit (Matt 3:16-17; 28:19; Acts 7:55; 1 Cor 12:4-6; 2 Cor 13:14). This basic affirmation of the three-in-oneness of God provides the foundational belief of genuine Christianity. Although God is one and each member of the trinity is involved in every aspect of God’s work in the creation, it is valid to emphasize that the Father was especially at work in creating us, the Son was especially at work in redeeming us, and the Spirit is especially at work in sanctifying us.
From eternity this God existed in perfect unity and fellowship within the Godhead. Before God spoke the first word of creation the Father, Son, and Spirit shared love, fellowship, and the community of three in one together. The early church father Augustine affirmed as much when he stated that “The Holy Spirit, whatever it is, is something common both to the Father and the Son. But that communion itself is consubstantial and co-eternal; and if it may fitly be called friendship, let it be so called, but it is more aptly called love” (On the Trinity VI.5.7). And again he stated “And the Holy Spirit, according to the Holy Scriptures, is neither of the Father alone, nor of the Son alone, but of both; and so intimates to us a mutual love, wherewith the Father and the Son reciprocally love one another” (On The Trinity XV.17.27). The great Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards agreed, stating that “Both the holiness and happiness of the Godhead consists in this love, especially in the perfect and intimate union and love there is between the Father and the Son. But the Spirit that proceeds from the Father and the Son is the bond of this union . . . The happiness of the deity, as all other true happiness, consists in love and society [community] (Jonathan Edwards, Treatise on Grace, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 21, 186). More recently, N.T. Wright contends that the very heart of God’s own being is “the love which passes continually between Father, Son, and Spirit” (Simply Christian, 139). In a profound sense the first and ultimate small group existed in eternity, the three-in-one God sharing love and fellowship and as such provides the foundational context for a theology of small groups.
From Heaven to Earth: The Small Group Ministry of Jesus Christ
A theology of small groups should also take seriously the life and teachings of Jesus. One of the most significant aspects of Jesus’ ministry was the choice of apostles who would become his closest followers and eventually the primary agents of the spread of Christianity. How many would Jesus select? What was the maximum number of people that he could mentor, teach, and share his life with on a regular basis? The answer of course was twelve (Mark 3:13-15). While that number had deep theological significance relating them to the twelve tribes of Israel, it also indicated Jesus’ affinity for a small group as the setting for his most radical discipleship. Jesus called these twelve to come and follow, but eventually he would send them out to go and minister, and when he did it was in even smaller groups, two-by-two (Mark 6:7; Luke 10:1). Within the small group of twelve, Jesus invested his
attention on an even smaller group, namely Peter, James, and John (Mark 5:37, 9:2, and 14:33). With that type of mentorship we should not be surprised that after Jesus’ departure Peter, James, and John were at the forefront of the Christian movement (Acts 1:15-5:42). Jesus was the ultimate small group leader.
The Small Group Teachings of Jesus Christ
Through his teaching Jesus demonstrated the value of a small group. Jesus said in Matt 18:15-16 “If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private . . . But if he won’t listen, take one or two more with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established”. The work of accountability is something done most effectively in small groups. The small group provides corroboration while also initiating a private procedure that is more conducive to restoration and redemption.
Jesus continued, “Again, I assure you: If two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them” (Matt 18:19-20). Here a small group of two fortifies prayer and two or three
assures Jesus’ presence in worship. James offered support for Jesus’ words when he urged his audience to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (James 5:16). What type of setting liberates us to confess our sins to each other? The answer is a small group of believers who have earned our confidence, know us, and love us. And what about praying for each other? The larger the group the more impersonal the prayers must be. Yet the greatest needs are often the most personal. Finally he provided the greatest incentive of all to gather in a small group: Jesus will be there.
The Small Group Example of the Early Church
The remarkable growth of the early church in the book of Acts established the critical role small groups play in evangelism, missions, and discipleship. In Acts 1:15, Luke reported 120 believers. Ten days later, in response to Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, 3000 believed and on that day a kindergarten, mega-church was born (Acts 2:41). In a very short period of time the number grew to 5000, not including the women and children (Acts 4:4). Following the death of Ananias and Sapphira, “Believers were added to the Lord in increasing numbers” (Acts 5:14). Luke then moved from the language of addition to the language of multiplication: “In those days, as the number of the disciples was multiplying” (6:1) and again, “the number of the disciples in Jerusalem multiplied greatly” (6:7). A key component of such rapid growth was revealed in Acts 2:42-47: “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers . . . Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house” (Acts 2:42, 46). The meeting in the Temple courts would constitute larger group worship, with the outer courts able to accommodate several thousand worshipers easily. But the majority of their activity would occur as they gathered “house to house.” The fellowship (koinōnia) spoke of close association involving mutual interests, shared communion, and shared possessions.
Thus, the house church, a small group numbering between 10-40, became the primary expression of the early church (Acts 12:12; Acts 16:40; Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Philm 1:2). The large gatherings in the Temple courts offered the 0pportunity for worship and witness; but the small group provided the possibility of fellowship, teaching, prayer, and the building of genuine community. The intimacy and safety of the house churches provided an effective means for the early Christians to connect people to Jesus, connect people to God’s truth, connect people in community, and connect people to God’s mission. Two thousand years later, Southern Baptists most effective small group organization, Sunday School, still provides the most effective strategy for connecting people to Jesus, His truth, His community, and His mission. What better reason to ReConnect Sunday School?!
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