In the spring of 1972, my high school youth pastor Bob Lieve asked four of us faithful guys in the youth group if we would like to do an experiment with him. He had recently heard about an innovation that some of the more progressive churches were trying in their youth groups. They were calling it “small groups” or “discipling groups.”
We had to ask him to explain, because at that time in suburban American churches, youth discipleship pretty much consisted of showing up for youth group on Sunday evenings (especially when there was a hundred-foot banana split involved!), singing some songs, and listening to a large group lesson. This was long before the small group movement we all enjoy today had taken root. In fact, many church leaders at that time were opposed to small groups. They were afraid that they would turn into “cliques” and people would be excluded. Or there was too much risk of a group going AWOL doctrinally. So when Bob decided to try this, I’m sure he had to do some good salesmanship with the church leaders!
Of course, I only have that understanding in retrospect. We were just kids, and all we knew was that it was really cool to be singled out by our beloved youth pastor and get to hang out with him. We did life together with Bob for an extended period of time, and those of us in the group experienced significant growth in Christ.
At some point, we began to think that others in our youth group might want to join us. So we started a Wednesday night, youth-led gathering. Our parents took turns hosting us in their homes. I have no human explanation for what happened from there. Within six months that small group had turned into dozens of high-schoolers spread all over someone’s basement or backyard. We studied the tough passages about the lordship of Christ. We prayed fervently, sometimes for an hour or more. And it became my first experience with true (what we used to call) revival—the supernatural work of God. Over 20 people from that youth group went into full-time ministry. And it all began because a few Christians started meeting in a small group.
God has been using small groups since the beginning of the church to work revival and growth. But it’s been fun to see the evolution of groups in my lifetime. I rejoice that a little seed of an idea caught Bob Lieve’s attention more than forty years ago. And that seed turned into a lifetime of building growth in groups for me.
Reflecting on those long past events has made me start thinking again about something. As a small groups pastor, I usually settle for too little from our groups. I love it when genuine discipleship happens. But why not revival? There are lots of ways to mark a small group as “successful.” But to be honest, I haven’t really been expecting any of the groups at our church to actually experience God at work in a supernatural way.
And for that to happen, I’m going to have to spend less time running the big program and more time on my knees.
Rick Lowry has been the spiritual growth pastor at First Church in Burlington, Kentucky, since November 2011. Before that, he was the small groups pastor at Crossroads Christian Church in Evansville, Indiana, for twelve years. He enjoys leading small groups of all kinds, but especially men’s groups. His undergraduate degree is from Ozark Christian College, and he got his master’s degree at Cincinnati Christian University. He’s been an adjunct teacher in philosophy for Community College of Indiana since 2003 and also teaches at Cincinnati Christian University. He enjoys woodworking, writing, running, reading good fiction, and spending time with his wife, Becky, and his children, Amanda and Bryant.