Small Groups Have a Mission
Sabbath School Director Focuses on Fellowship
Mary Yepes, convinced that the seventh day was the Sabbath, began attending an Adventist church. And though she had casual interactions with its members, it was not until she had attended for three years that someone realized she was not a Seventh-day Adventist.
That someone was a church greeter named Ruth Villanueva. She introduced Mary to another member, Jocelyn Sonsona, for Bible studies. From there, Yepes joined a small Bible study group led by Levi Pagunsan. Three other members in that same group had already been baptized as a result of joining it.
After Rudy Bermudez, conference adult Sabbath school ministries director, helped Yepes with the more difficult topics, she was baptized by Robert Streib, the pastor of Laguna Niguel church, on July 31.
Because of that story and others like them, Bermudez believes that the small group method has great potential for outreach. And he has a plan to keep small groups in big churches. When Jesus started His ministry, He started with 12 disciples and trained them to teach and preach. Bermudez advocates a similar approach. Within each small group, the veteran members are trained as teachers and leaders so that when their group becomes large enough, they can split off and lead a new group. The pastor of the church must play a big role in guiding and forming these groups.
Bermudez supports his assertion about the value of small groups by quoting from James Cress’s You Can Keep Them If You Care: “A lack of fellowship was the strongest factor influencing personal decisions to leave the church” (p. 41).
He also calls upon Ellen White’s Selections From the Testimonies Bearing on Sabbath School Work: “The formation of small companies as a basis of Christian effort is a plan that has been presented by One who cannot err” (p. 20).
These testimonies reveal a solution not only to prevent losing members, but a resolution to bring back those who have left. Bermudez believes in including each church member in a group of eight to 10 people, whether it be through Sabbath school, Pathfinders, prayer groups, or other groups. In a small group, members are more likely to participate and interact for a closer fellowship than in the church at large.
Because of their small group format, Bermudez says that Sabbath school classes serve “as the catalyst to strengthen church members by including the care ingredient in the class before the lesson is presented. A time is set aside to get to know the members and build rapport with them, establish relationships, recognize special events in their lives and encourage them to bring their friends. And the Sabbath school members will visit absent members and communicate with them during the week.”
Fellowship is the focus, Bermudez says, but the three other goals of Sabbath school (spiritual growth, world mission, and community outreach) are not neglected. In fact, to avoid merely becoming a clique, these groups must have a mission: to nurture the existing group members and to reach out. Small groups not only create a more solid, smaller church family within the bigger church family, but they can also help the church grow. When a member invites a friend from outside the church, that newcomer will feel less overwhelmed and intimidated when introduced to the church in a group small enough that they can remember names and faces. The small group method spiritually grounds Christians in human relationships, and the intimate fellowship it can offer may attract newcomers as well.
Bermudez has been advocating small groups for seven years, and aims to make visits to every church in the conference to give seminars about them to each congregation. Bermudez acknowledges that small groups may not attract new members as dramatically as other forms of evangelism, but they specifically address the factors that may cause a new member to abandon church. And if the church is to grow, the church must not only attract new members but give them reasons to stay. Bermudez suggests that Christian fellowship is one such reason.