Changing the World through Small Group Discipleship
It all began with a question “What do you seek?” and an invitation “Come and See.” With these words, Jesus initiated his plan to change the world through a handful of disciples. They did not seem a likely band of brothers let alone potential leaders of a global movement – several fishermen, a tax collector, a zealot and others somewhere near the lower rungs of the social ladder. Yet Jesus chose twelve men to transform history. And they did. Jesus calls us to the same in our own time and place.
The Life and Ministry of Christ
Reading the Gospels, at first glance, it may seem that Jesus was always surrounded by crowds. Certainly, large gatherings of people did hear him preach and witness his miracles. At the height of his popularity we have the account of the miracle of the loaves and fishes—he not only physically nourished the crowd but spiritually fed them with his teaching. There are also accounts of his one-on-one conversations with sinners. For example, the Gospel of John recounts Jesus’ nighttime meeting with Nicodemus and the noonday encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Notwithstanding Jesus’ very public ministry of preaching and healing, a careful reading of the Gospels reveals that the majority of those three years was spent with his twelve disciples. During this time, he lived, talked, prayed and walked with them through the Holy Land.
When the apostles committed to accompanying the Rabbi from Nazareth they likely did not know where the journey would ultimately lead. Yet they followed him. Alongside the crowds, they were present to behold incredible miracles and to hear inspiring teaching from the Lord. As you read the Gospels, though, you begin to realize that not all of Jesus’ words and deeds from his public ministry were recorded. We are invited to imagine all the conversations and discussions that would have taken place as the apostles walked the dusty paths with their Teacher. We can envision the disciples asking questions as they and Christ recline beneath the starry sky before drifting off to sleep. With silent meditation we revere the times they saw him pray to his Father in the Spirit and even prayed with him. There is so much more that is hidden from us than revealed – moments to be treasured between Christ and his friends.
These experiences and countless others, which might seem mundane to an outside observer without faith, must necessarily have been part of his plan to transform these disciples into apostles—from mere followers to evangelists of the Kingdom. He intentionally spent time with his apostles praying and discussing the things of God and deliberately taught them through his life. He knew this intensive time-consuming focus would bear the greatest fruit in their lives and in the lives of those whom they would encounter in their own future ministry.
The Early Church
This simple method of purposely spending time with others to grow in one’s Christian life is one of the keys which made the early Church so effective in changing the world. To be certain, in imitation of their Savior, the apostles boldly preached to the multitudes and spent time with individual sinners. Yet they must have expended most of their time sharing the Christian life within a smaller setting of people.
St. Paul discloses his approach to evangelization and formation to the community of Thessalonica: “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). He recognized that the Christian life is one of apprenticeship. It is learned and strengthened by spending time with other committed disciples in a relationship built on charity. In all his travels, Paul was always accompanied by other Christians so they could regularly converse about the plan of God revealed in Jesus Christ. This is how he believed he could best accomplish spreading the Catholic faith throughout the Roman empire.
What about Now? Our Parishes Today
We know that the apostles changed their world for Christ, but what are we to do today? A simple answer is proposed by Pope St. John Paul II in his encyclical on the permanent validity of the Church’s task of evangelization, Mission of the Redeemer (Redemptoris Missio 1990). He encouraged the development of small group communities within parishes which gather “for prayer, Scripture reading, catechesis, and discussion on human and ecclesial problems with a view to a common commitment” (Redemptoris Missio 51). We are called to live out our Christian lives within the Church in our local parishes. The parish is where we receive our regular nourishment and strength from the sacraments for our life of discipleship. The parish, however, should not be like a gas station – a sacramental fuel station where we “fill up” with the graces we need to make it through the week until Mass next Sunday. It is so much more.
One of the predominant challenges of parishes large and small—those with many activities and those with few—is how to give their parishioners a sense that the parish is a community to which they belong and in which they play an important role. Pope St. John Paul II is suggesting that to make our parishes places where the Gospel message is proclaimed and heeded in the lives of the faithful we should follow the model Christ patterned for us and which Paul imitated. It is the seeking and communication of truth within the context of trusted relationships built on the charity found in a small group setting. If these are properly focused on growing in the life of discipleship, small groups will be, according to John Paul II, a “sign of vitality within the Church, an instrument of formation and evangelization, and a solid starting point for a new society based on a ‘civilization of love’” (Redemptoris Missio 51). This is a plan for how to start a movement of transformation in the lives of Catholics—committed disciples who gather together in communities to learn, understand and share the faith with one another.
A Test Case
Pope St. John Paul II was convinced that small groups could lay a solid foundation for the civilization of love because he had seen their power to convert individuals—beginning with his own life. As his native Poland was occupied by the Nazi regime, young Karol Wojytla participated in a small group led by a layman and tailor with an eighth-grade education. Most of the priests in his parish had been removed to extermination camps. One of the remaining priests asked a parishioner named Jan Tyranowski to regularly meet with several young men and teach them the essential aspects of the faith -- the stories of Scripture, the Catechism, and how to pray. Since it was illegal to organize Catholic groups, this task carried with it, if discovered, the possibility of a death sentence. Because of Jan’s courageous “yes,” the students didn’t just learn about the faith, they learned how to live the faith.
Karol Wojytla was one of these members of the “Living Rosary” groups held in Jan’s apartment. He was initially hesitant to join and follow the directions of Jan but he persevered and attributed his growth in the spiritual life to this relationship. Within two years, Jan had 60 young men involved in the program. In just a few years, 10 of the men in the Living Rosary groups went on to become priests, including the future Pope John Paul II. Indeed, the saintly pontiff held his former teacher in such high regard he himself opened Jan’s cause for beatification.
From the outside no one would think this small group was impressive. One night the gestapo discovered this meeting but regarded it as a meeting of religious fanatics to be left alone. They seemed too small to actually “do” anything. They certainly were “wasting” their time if they thought that would change the culture of their country back to a Christian one. Yet within a few years the Nazi regime had been destroyed and within one generation, the communist regime in Poland, which had replaced the Nazi occupation, would itself be overthrown.
Jan Tyranowski was an ordinary person with an ordinary life living in a challenging time. He decided to do something with the gift of faith he had been given. He did not try to do great things, extraordinary things. He opened his home and his life to these men in a small group setting to pray together, to discuss eternal truths and to encourage one another to live their lives conformed to Christ in a culture that opposed them. The Church has St. John Paul II because of it.
The lessons of history are apparent and applicable to our situation today. The investment of time spent with others pursuing the truth found in the Scriptures in a small group setting can change your life, the lives around you, your parish community, and, eventually, the world.