If we look for them, we can find opportunities in even the most uncertain situations. For Ontario Conference churches during COVID-19, one such opportunity is the resurgence of small group ministries. Small groups can foster a stronger bond between church members sheltering in place and build a bridge to the post-pandemic church, which may feature smaller gatherings. More than just another program, they can provide members with a greater sense of Christian community than the corporate worship service.
One pastor who has long embraced small groups, which he calls LifeGroups, is Ardison Bernardo, pastor of Mississauga Filipino & Faith Filipino Churches since January 2018. After a few weeks of adjustment, on the 28th, the churches had their first combined Zoom meeting and have been successfully functioning as one unit, including their small group ministry. At Pastor Bernardo's churches, LifeGroup members are "members who are Living in Faith Everyday (L.I.F.E.) from witnessing into baptism to spiritual maturity into becoming a devoted and committed disciple-maker like Jesus."
Pastor Bernardo views these groups, in combination with corporate worship, as helping to fulfill the five purposes of Christianity—worship, discipleship, ministry, mission/evangelism and fellowship. Thus, in the first year at Faith Filipino and Mississauga Filipino, he conducted a series on the biblical foundations of such a ministry. The second year, he launched LifeGroups with a LifeGroup Sabbath held in members' homes. Groups were initially formed due to geographical location, but now are more needs-based. From this foundation, small group ministry was able to flourish during the pandemic, from 15 groups meeting weekly, biweekly or monthly, to all groups meeting weekly. Notably, their 15th life group, Growing Together, which formed from other groups, includes six non-members who wanted to go deeper into church doctrines.
Some members who haven't attended church for quite some time have reconnected through the LifeGroups, including one lady who recently testified on how she felt the Lord called her back. Other members have grown closer to God during this time. Members invite non-members, such as their friends, family members or colleagues. In one case, a member invited her colleague to the Tuesday night group on Daniel and Revelation. This led to her attending prayer meeting, then the Sabbath service and now the Growing Together group meeting on Sundays.
Moreover, while these groups typically meet to discuss topics related to spiritual growth and Christian living, they also become small families within the church. They have prayer partners within the groups and check in on each other during the week. Pastor Bernardo shared that one of his district's LifeGroups delivered groceries to a student infected with COVID-19 in Niagara with no family nearby. In another group, a leader came up with a website to help parents with children's ministry at home - http://childrensministry.adap.org/. Pastor Bernardo speaks of members being more committed to these groups since COVID-19, such as a group of young families that used to meet monthly and now meets every week. "[For LifeGroup members], these aren't just a men's ministry meeting or women's ministry meeting. They go there because they feel they're a part of the family, they belong there."
At Ontario Conference, we are continually looking at ways to foster a spiritual revival and commitment to the great commission among our members. According to the Natural Church Development survey, thriving small groups signify a healthy church, with spiritually healthy members. Sadly, across Ontario Conference, we scored the lowest (out of eight categories) in holistic small groups and loving relationships. Like all crises, COVID-19 has offered us a chance to reset and reconfigure the way we do church. Consider the following pointers for small groups, based on an interview with Pastor Bernardo, as your church starts or expands this vital ministry.
Keys to a Successful Small Group Ministry
Before launching life groups, Bernardo spent a year sharing his vision for the church as a two-winged bird, with corporate worship, including prayer meetings, on one side, and small groups on the other. For small groups to be effective, the church must understand their relevance. During this phase, he also spoke to possible leaders and conducted trainings on small groups.
Whereas before the groups went virtual, he was limited as to how many groups he could attend, now, he says, “I have never been to so many LifeGroup meetings in my life in one week!” His presence at several of the meetings, even if just for 30 minutes, is intentional. It’s a chance for him to get to know his church members more intimately and offer spiritual guidance as needed. Pastors should similarly make themselves available to small group members.
Support for LifeGroup Leaders
Some groups have experienced facilitators, others less experienced. However, once they meet certain requirements—e.g., baptized church members, spiritual mature—he and the elders work with them. Overall, he believes the leaders are doing a wonderful job and does his best to provide them support. “My task as a pastor is making sure that the life group leaders are well cared for. We train them, we communicate with them. I pray for them individually. I just make sure that each of the LifeGroup leaders are at their best.”
While Mississauga Filipino and Faith Filipino both had active Facebook groups, he created a digital hub for life group meeting schedules, online worship services, announcements and more. All the groups also have a WhatsApp chat, where Bernardo participates, sending content from the hub, such as video prayers, devotionals and lesson summaries, and bonding with members.
Whether the group studies prophecy, prayer, doctrine, relationships or youth, all curriculum links back to discipleship. Generally, the groups have been asked to go through the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Discipleship Handbook. However, leaders have the freedom to choose curriculum that matches the needs of their group; thus some are studying Steps to Christ, others Daniel and Revelation, and others are doing the General Conference’s 100 Days of Prayer.
Even if you have been engaging in small groups in your church, there will be an adjustment phase during and after the COVID-19 crisis. For Bernardo, the first few weeks of virtual church were stressful, as groups were already having meetings and he had to synchronize schedules and times with the different leaders. Accept that it may take a while to find a rhythm.
The benefit of Zoom meetings is that people don’t have to rush home. Thus, in Bernardo’s district, small groups often stay on for an afterglow, where they chat, joke around and just enjoy virtual social time. This time helps people feel more comfortable with one another, so they can truly help one another in this Christian walk.
In small groups, connection, belongingness, support and fellowship take place; and in these unusual times, it follows that we must return to the simplicity of the Acts 2 church, which started out as a small group. Bernardo concludes, “LifeGroups are the main connection hubs of the church. We aim to be a church of small groups, not a church with small groups.”
For small group resources, visit https://adventistbookcenter.com/featured/small-groups.html and order online, or, for faster service, place an order for pickup with our local bookstore – (905) 579-2311.