Small Group Training Guide

Small-Groups

The future of the local church will largely depend on the successful development of a small group ministry, especially since small groups are vital to both growth and discipleship, on the part of the believer, and the church as a whole. According to Rod Dempsey, “Churches that are not functioning in this manner run the risk of becoming inward in their focus”[1] and inward-focused groups die. Additionally, as Phil Zambaro explains, “Loneliness is the most devastating illness of our day [and] I know of no more potent killer than isolation. There is [also] no more destructive influence on the physical and mental health than isolation… [Because,] our hunger for relationships is an identifying mark of our humanity.”[2] This need for relationships and connectivity makes the role of small groups a fundamental part of any successful church. As a result, this Small Group Training Manual will first define small groups, by illustrating their biblical foundation and by providing the necessary motivations for developing them. Once a clear understanding of a small group’s influence, vision, and mission are formulated, this manual will then address how to grow and multiply small groups, how to develop group leaders, and lastly how to transition from a “with,” model to a “of,” or “is” model using the “S.M.A.L.L. G.R.O.U.P.S.” acrostic.

MOTIVATIONS FOR DEVELOPING GROUPS

Dempsey explains, “The church has a head; the head of the church is Jesus. The church also has members that need to be connected to the head and connected to each other.”[3] Small groups provide the conduit to satisfy all these needs and they also allow for the opportunity of spending time with one another because there is a huge commitment needed to growing and sacrificing as a disciple of Christ. Jesus, Himself said, “Take up your cross,”(Matthew 16:24) illustrating the necessity of commitment and doing life together in small groups. Additionally, the relational aspect of following Christ means followers should join together as brothers and sisters in an attitude of love for one another. This was the identifying mark Jesus said would reveal His true disciples; by the love he or she showed the world (Matthew 22:36-40). Dempsey also points out, “The process must be intentional, individual, and missional in focus, as small groups have the potential to provide and create a perfect environment and context to develop people for God’s kingdom and for God’s glory.”[4]

One’s primary reason for wanting to develop small group ministry must be rooted in love and a desire to fulfill the commandments of the Lord. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) is a wonderful representation of what God calls every believer to do as followers of Christ. Dempsey and Earley further explain the importance of, “Loving God, loving one another, and loving our neighbor [because these] are universal principles. They will work anywhere, at any time, and in any political situation. The key to your success is to begin practicing the principles behind the commands Jesus gave us. Live your life purposefully for God and lead by example.”[5] Another important reason for developing small groups is found in the principle of multiplication. Dempsey and Earley illustrate the strongest churches in the world have tens of thousands of members in thousands of small groups. As humans, and with finite minds, it can oftentimes be hard to fathom the omnipotence of God and His marvelous plan of salvation and redemption. As a result, when most churches are planning areas of ministry, the addition of believers is used as the primary litmus test for success; however, God, as Dempsey and Earley convey, “Has given us an exponential plan to reach the world. The question is… are you following an addition or a multiplication plan? Why should you lead a group? That is easy: to follow His command to make disciples of all the nations.”[6] A final reason for forming small groups lies in the desire for community. As Jeffrey Arnold explains, “Jesus Christ is our first and greatest model for how small groups can stimulate faith and growth in others… [Ultimately,] disciples are made intentionally, disciples are made to be like Christ, and disciples are made in relationships”[7] and there is no better place for these to occur than in a community made up of small groups.

BIBLICAL FOUNDATIONS FOR GROUPS

At the heart of the Great Commission is the commandment to make disciples and this instruction is why Bill Hull emphasizes, “The small group is the most strategic training environment used by Christ to make the kind of disciples that glorify God.”[8] Small groups are vital to the future success of the local church and as a small group leader, he or she is essentially engaging in the same ministry Christ Himself was committed to. Small groups have the potential to change lives and there are multiple breakthroughs that will happen in small groups, that rarely happen within the four walls of the church, as Chuck Swindoll illuminates, “[In small groups,] fences come down, masks come off, welcome signs are hung outside the door, keys to the doors of our lives are duplicated and distributed, and joys and sorrows are shared.”[9]

While the Great Commission is a wonderful representation of what God calls every believer to do as followers of Christ, the sad reality is many so-called followers of Christ have reduced the Great Commission to nothing more than the great suggestion. However, this command from God points to the small groups as being the perfect environment to develop and train disciples. The early church is a prime example of doing life together. In Acts, chapters one and two, specifically (Acts 2:41-47,) the reader becomes aware of the DNA of early small group ministry. These home churches met together, studied the apostles’ teaching, shared meals together, met each other’s needs, prayed together, had favor with the local people, and went everywhere proclaiming the good news of the gospel. These early churches understood the importance of every person having a role to play in the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:23; 1 Corinthians 12:21) and the necessity of serving one another. The final passage that illustrates the role of small groups is (Ephesians 4:16.) Here, Paul explains how some followers of Christ are: apostles, prophets, shepherds, teachers, or evangelists, but how each of their primary duties is to train and equip God’s people for the work of the church. The ultimate goal is for believers to grow into the fullness of Christ, as each member of the body contributes to this growth, but it is small groups, which provide the optimal context and environment for this process to take place.

In the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:36-40), Dempsey demonstrates, “Jesus took 619 rabbinical laws and pharisaical practices and reduced them down to two simple principles: Love God and love your neighbor.”[10] Jesus Himself was a small group leader, so Dempsey and Earley raise a very relevant question: “If Jesus, the Son of God, chose to strategically minister to a small group, how much more should you and I?”[11] Jeff Tunnell then illustrates, “By sorting out one’s biblical values, [this] will lead to principles and conducts that glorify God and His ways, which ultimately make the gospel irresistible to some and repulsive to others.”[12] By using the Bible as authority, prayer as a means, dependency upon God as one’s posture, and love as the primary motive, Tunnell reveals multiple principles that are consistent with the truth of the gospel. As a result of embodying and devoting oneself to this truth, Tunnell shows followers were devoted to: “following the apostles’ teaching, fostering unity, sharing meals, practicing prayer, corporate worship, celebrating communion, living in community, and sharing generously, [resulting in,] salvations and favor with all the people.”[13]

Hospitality was one of the major things Jesus was known for; in fact, He set the standard. Jesus is repeatedly seen dining and visiting with outcasts. Joel Comiskey explains, “Most of the ancient world regarded hospitality as a moral practice… [And,] eating together in the household was one of the primary ways to share life together as well as to welcome strangers and those outside the household. Most would agree that sharing a meal is the second most intimate encounter one can engage in outside of the bedroom, which is why sharing meals together is such an important principle for small groups. When Jesus chose to send His disciples out in pairs, this approach showed He knew it was not good to be alone, especially in ministry. Comiskey explains when the disciples entered a home, “They were supposed to convert the members of that particular household, and reach the other homes from a base location – rather than witnessing from house-to-house (Luke 10:7). Remaining in a house only makes sense if, beyond the initial proclamation of the kingdom message, the messengers stayed on to further nurture and establish a faith community.”[14] This strategy led to entire households and villages being converted to Christ and new home churches being formed and by modeling this same strategy, small groups meeting in homes are having great success today.

WHAT IS A SMALL GROUP

Dempsey and Earley use the acrostic S.M.A.L.L. G.R.O.U.P.S. to demonstrate the necessary components small groups must possess. Seek God’s vision and direction from His Word,[15] (Acts 1:8; 2:32-47; Ephesians 4:11-16; Colossians 1:28) which allows the group’s foundation to be set on solid ground. Make sure the lead pastor is in the lead position.[16] Without the senior pastor’s full backing, it will be very difficult for small groups to reach their full potential. Adopt a model that fits who and where you are, as long you are emphasizing: winning people to Christ, helping them grow in Christ, and then sending them out for Christ.[17] Leadership training and recruitment[18] because as Jerry Falwell asserts, “Everything rises and falls on leadership,” so this component is vital to the future success of any small group. “Launch the new groups, [while also] providing the leaders with additional training to stay focused and to improve the quality of discipleship.”[19] After careful prayer, planning, and training it is time to launch new groups and according to Dempsey, the best time to do this is after Labor Day, when children are back in school and people are settling into their new schedules and routines.[20]

Two G.R.O.U.P.(S.) acrostics are presented in forming and maintaining small groups. Guided by a leader is the first objective, since, “In order for a group to be successful, the leader of the group needs to view their role as drawing out the new creation God has in mind for every individual in the group.”[21] Regular meeting times are vital to the success of small groups and Dempsey believes, “Meeting weekly is best, so people can gather to serve and share God’s love and gifts with one another and with the world.”[22] Opening God’s Word is mandatory in small groups due to the Bible’s power to change people’s lives from the inside out (Hebrews 4:12; Romans 12:2). Dempsey illustrates, “Studying and applying the Word of God has the power to change us from what we are into what God has in mind for us.”[23] United in service is rooted in the Great Commandment (John 13:34-35). Dempsey explains, “Spiritual gifts are designed to strengthen the body of Christ and to serve the world… [And] every believer has at least one spiritual gift to build up the body of Christ and to minister and serve others.”[24] Prayer for one another is what separates a Christ-centered group from a civic club. As Jerry Falwell so brilliantly put it, “Nothing of eternal significance ever happens apart from prayer,” making this a necessary component to any successful small group ministry.

Dempsey’s second G.R.O.U.P.S. acrostic entails:

Grow the groups in quantity and quality, paying special attention to new groups. Retrain the leaders to retrain the leaders, through personal mentoring and coaching and reward the right behavior. Over communicate, to make sure the small group leaders are getting enough information from the leaders in ministry. Utilize and develop a coaching structure, (Exodus 18) so the groups stay on target with the vision and mission of the church. Pray, because as Comiskey discovered, prayer was the common denominator in multiplying groups where leaders of the groups prayed at least one hour a day. See God’s blessing as new disciples are being made and remember small groups provide the best place to make disciples, because Christianity is more caught than taught.[25]

HOW TO DEVELOP SMALL GROUP LEADERS

According to Dempsey, “Leaders are grown in small groups, most successful churches have an emphasis on small groups, and small groups are a true representation of the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:23).”[26] Dempsey and Earley provide eight habits, which will enhance the effectiveness of small group leaders and will, “Create a path that leads to fruitfulness, and multiplication, helping leaders, and those under them, experience greater fulfillment in ministry.”[27] They are as follows:

(1) Dream of leading a healthy, growing, multiplying group. (2) Pray for your group members daily. (3) Invite new people to visit your group weekly. (4) Contact your group members regularly. (5) Prepare for your group meetings. (6) Mentor an apprentice leader. (7) Plan group fellowship activities. (8) Be committed to your own personal growth.

In developing leaders, there is much that can be learned from the early church model and several strategies can be implemented today. For example, by using Rod Dempsey 4 M’s model: “Model it, by being the paradigm; Mentor it and never do anything alone in ministry; Motivate it by personally giving encouragement to people; and Multiply your ministry by handing it off to others so they can have ownership and run with it.”[28] Leaders must realize Satan works in isolation, but God works in community, so find a Paul who can be a mentor; find a Timothy, someone to disciple; and find a Barnabas someone to be an encourager.

HOW TO LEAD A GROUP

As Dempsey asserts, “Anyone who knows Christ can be a leader, since being a leader is all about influence.”[29] Within the framework of small groups, Dempsey and Dave Earley identify three key leadership positions. The first is the small group leader who, “Understands their job is to serve and empower [the attendees] to ‘be all they can be’ for Christ. The small group leader [also] selects the curriculum, finds a good location to meet, and chooses an apprentice who will be trained to start a new group.”[30] The second leadership position in a small group is the apprentice who is basically a small group leader in training, with the goal of leading his or her own small group within several months. The apprentice is involved with all areas of planning and leadership, to provide the best chance for success when facilitating his or her own small group. The third leadership position in a small group is the host, who are primarily responsible for making attendees feel welcome. Dempsey and Earley illustrate hosts are, “Vital to making the small group experience a good one for everyone who comes to their home and [when these three positions are] involved in the planning, preparation, and execution of small groups, the groups have a much better chance for healthy growth and multiplication.”[31]

Leadership was paramount in the house church and much can be learned in the way Jesus first trained His disciples, who would become the first small group leaders. Comiskey illustrates, “Because of the growth of the early church, the need for leadership expanded rapidly… and the early apostles provided the overarching leadership, but depended on the house church leaders to shepherd and care for the rest of God’s church. As in the case of Acts 6, leaders who had proven themselves were chosen to care for the needs of the Grecian Jewish widows, and oversee the distribution of food. In many cases, the individual who opened up their home would assume the leadership role and Comiskey attributes Paul’s use of the oikos structure as the perfect environment to develop leaders naturally.[32] In all small groups, Paul taught on the importance of allowing the Holy Spirit to guide and develop leadership. Comiskey agrees and explains how, “The early church believed that the Spirit was given to all believers and was actively working through each member.”[33] Interestingly, it would be in the early church that women found themselves on equal footing with men and on numerous occasions presented in the New Testament, women were actually presented as being significant leaders.[34]

Leadership roles in the early church differ from today, in the sense that in the New Testament, there were no bishops-pastor-elder hierarchy and Comiskey explains these terms were actually interchangeable for the same role. Over the years, one of the unfortunate errors is how elders have been transliterated as overseers, instead of being translated as workers of the church. While the early church met primarily in homes, sometimes those individual entities would gather together for larger meetings. Throughout the New Testament, ecclesia was used to refer to the house church gatherings, the larger gatherings, and the universal church, Ultimately, as Comiskey illustrates, “Churches must determine if they are going to view the cell group as the church and the primary care structure for members, or just another program to keep people coming back to the Sunday gathering. If the church chooses to prioritize cell ministry, those cells and cell leaders need to be equipped, coached, and cared for in a cell structure that includes training, coaching, and celebrating together.”[35]

In addition to the three leadership positions, Dempsey and Earley cite three components/streams that when employed combine to form one powerful, moving force. The first is the biblical stream, made up of the qualities found in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3, which relate to the leader’s values and being blameless. This “Means that he [or she] does not have any major spiritual area that could come into question or attack from the enemy.”[36] The second component is the spiritual stream, which is rooted in an understanding and execution of the first stream. This stream is composed of: prayer, spiritual gifts, fruit of the Spirit, armor of God, and Spirit of God. Dempsey and Earley explain, “Many leaders are one the front lines of the battle, but they may not be aware of the [spiritual] weapons and armor that they have as soldiers of the King. Another challenge is that many leaders may be aware of the tools they have at their disposal, but they may not be skilled in using the spiritual arsenal.”[37] The third component is the practical stream, which as Dempsey and Earley demonstrate allows, “The small group leader to receive a vision from God and communicate it clearly to the people entrusted to his or her care.” This stream is made up of: planning, organizing, communicating, training, mentoring, multiplying and vision casting.

HOW TO GROW SMALL GROUPS

Arnold presents one of the best models this writer has come across when looking at the role and dynamics of small groups, especially when one takes into consideration the 80/20 principle he highlights. Arnold illustrates, “As members of the body, we are reliant on one another and on Christ, and mutually responsible to use whatever contribution we make to grow the body into maturity.”[38] When a group reaches inward, the focus is on group care. Arnold demonstrates how, “Groups provide love and care for their members in many ways [and] a loving community offers members a positive body life experience by engaging people in the discovery of their spiritual gifts, developing the lay leadership of the church, and caring for its members.”[39] There is something so empowering about finding one’s gifting and then engaging in ministry fulfilling the role God has called the person to. However, without an environment to first define and second to refine the areas of spiritual gifting(s), many people never reach his or her full potential. In addition to equipping individuals with various giftings, the spiritual maturity of the individual is also a byproduct, which further refines his or her discipline and produces great future leaders. For large churches especially, this inward focus is vital because congregational care, unknown, and unmet needs are a daily occurrence. With a focus on small groups, this is an amazing step in making people truly feel cared for and also provides an area of ministry for other members with the gift(s) of prayer, comfort, love, and compassion.

As groups focus on reaching upward, this cultivates an attitude of nurture and worship. Nurturing allows members to not only get to know one another better, but it lays the foundation and vision for the group to help people get connected to God. Doing life together is an amazing experience and this sense of community is hardwired into humanity. God created His children with this desire to love and be loved by. As small groups develop times of fellowship and walk through trials and circumstances, opportunities to pray and grow their faith are presented. As a result of answered prayers and faith in God’s plans, thanksgiving and praise are the appropriate response. Arnold demonstrates, “When enough people in a congregation start experiencing these worship moments, the entire church begins to change. Spiritual renewal that begins in groups can begin to create revival in the larger body of Christ.”[40] However, neglecting the power of worship is one of the main reasons Dempsey and Earley cite for groups failing to reach their full potential, stressing, “Worship is a moral obligation and a natural response to the absolute worth of God. Worship completes us, is transforming, puts life back into perspective, and intensifies the presence and therefore the activity of God.”[41] Dempsey and Earley could not be more correct on the power of prayer, as they illustrate, “God often manifests His presence in proportion to our expressed recognition of our need and love for Him.”[42]

HOW TO MULTIPLY SMALL GROUPS

When groups begin to reach outward through acts of service and evangelism, they reach their full potential. As Arnold explains, “One of the inherent weaknesses in any small grouping of people is the natural tendency to maintain an inward focus (care), ignoring the outward focus (service and evangelism)… [making] the outward focus the most difficult group discipline to cultivate.”[43] Arnold clarifies how evangelism then leads to both spiritual and numerical growth as healthy groups work to attach people deeply to their God and show them how to minister to the world. Ultimately, as Arnold explains, “Biblical evangelism is not a program but a person-to-person process of sharing the good news about forgiveness of sin and new life in Jesus. Because small groups are likely to be the most personal setting offered by a church, they are natural places for this kind of evangelism to take place.”[44]

HOW TO DEVELOP/TRANSITION TO SMALL GROUPS IN CHURCH

Dempsey provides eleven suggestions for churches trying to develop or transition to being a church “of” or that “is” small groups: First, the leaders must search the Scriptures and come up with a group philosophy rooted in the Great Commission and Great Commandment to make disciples, to gather together and study the Word, and to meet each others needs and the needs of others. The group must also focus on equipping the saints and growing up to be like Christ. Second, the group must make sure the senior pastor and leadership team share the same vision as the group. This is vital because if the group is not contributing to the vision and mission of the church, they are not truly a part of the church. Third, the group must adopt a model that fits who they are and this is done by engaging the culture, while also maintaining the principles of loving God, one another, and neighbors. Fourth, there must be continual leader training and each person in the group should be mentoring someone else how to do their job, so when the time comes for the group to split, there will people ready to assume leadership roles. Fifth, the group is ready to launch, so times, places, and curriculum must all be in place. Sixth, is growing the group by praying, inviting people and having good quality, which will ultimately lead to quantity. Seventh, is rewarding the right behavior by exhorting and pointing out when people are doing the right thing or go above and beyond expectations. Eighth, is over communicating because as Rick Warren says, “People are down on what they are not up on,” so small groups must continually communicate the why, the how, and the next steps. Ninth, is utilizing coaching structures and a great model to use is the 5X5 model, which spreads the load out amongst directors, overseers, and groups. Trying to do everything alone will always lead to burnout or moral failure, so making sure you have a strong team is vital to the success of small groups because groups are only as strong as their weakest link. Tenth, is pray before, during, and after all small groups because the enemy does not want small groups to thrive because individuals are most vulnerable when they are in isolation. Eleventh, is to see God’s glory. The Great Commission’s command is to make disciples and the one promise we find is when we are in the business of making disciples in small groups, Jesus promises to be there with us.[45]

CONCLUSION

This small group-training manual has shown the need for relationships and connectivity in the disciple making process, which makes the role of small groups a fundamental part of any successful church. By illustrating small group’s biblical foundation and by providing the necessary motivations for developing them, this manual can be utilized to become a church “of” small groups or a church that “is” small groups. With a clear understanding of a small group’s influence, vision, and mission being formulated, this manual has shown how to grow and multiply small groups and also how to recruit and develop group leaders.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Arnold, Jeffrey. The Big Book on Small Groups. Rev. ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Comiskey, Joel. Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church: New Testament Insights for the 21st Century Church. Moreno Valley, CA: CCS Publishing, 2016.

Dempsey, Rod and Dave Earley. Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups. Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2016.

Dempsey, Rod. “How to Develop Leaders,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Four Video Presentation, 6:35. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196596_1 (accessed June 5, 2017).

________. “How to Transition to a Small Group System.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Eight Video Presentation, 8:17. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196616_1 (accessed June 29, 2017).

________. “Small Group Outreach/Mission.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Six Video Presentation, 6:36. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196606_1 (accessed June 22, 2017).

________. “Transitioning to Small Groups.” DSMN 630, Course Content, Lecture Notes, Week Six: 1-3.

________. “Why Lead a Group.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 9:33. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196581_1 (accessed May 15, 2017).

Donahue, Bill and Russ Robinson. Building a Church of Small Groups. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

House, Brad. Community: Taking Your Small Group Off Life Support. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishing, 2011.

Hull, Bill. Jesus Christ Disciple Maker. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1984.

Reeves, Josh. “10 Simple Ways to be Missional in Your City.” May 26, 2017. http://www.vergenetwork.org/2011/10/11/10-simple-ways-to-be-missional-in-your-city-part-1/ (accessed June 22, 2017).

_________. “25 Simple Ways to be Missional in Your Neighborhood.” May 26, 2017. http://www.vergenetwork.org/2011/08/23/25-simple-ways-to-be-missional-in-your-neighborhood/ (accessed June 20, 2017).

Swindoll, Chuck. Dropping Your Guard. Waco, TX: Word Incorporated, 1983.

Tunnell, Jeff. “Biblical Values and Time-tested Principles.” Joel Comiskey Group Website, http://joelcomiskeygroup.com/blog_2/2011/09/19/biblical-values-and-time-tested-principles-2/ (accessed May 22, 2017).

[1] Rod Dempsey and Dave Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups (Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2016), 2.

[2] Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson, Building a Church of Small Groups (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 24.

[3] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 2.

[4] Rod Dempsey, “Why Lead a Group,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 9:33. (accessed May 15, 2017).

[5] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 10.

[6] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 10.

[7] Jeffrey Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups. Rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 18, 23-24.

[8] Bill Hull, Jesus Christ Disciple Maker (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1984), 235.

[9] Chuck Swindoll, Dropping Your Guard (Waco, TX: Word Incorporated, 1983), 22.

[10] Rod Dempsey, “Biblical Foundations,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Two Video Presentation, 7:58. (accessed May 22, 2017).

[11] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 26.

[12] Jeff Tunnell, “Biblical Values and Time-tested Principles,” Joel Comiskey Group Website, http://joelcomiskeygroup.com/blog_2/2011/09/19/biblical-values-and-time-tested-principles-2/ (accessed May 22, 2017).

[13] Tunnell, “Biblical Values and Time-tested Principles.”

[14] Joel Comiskey. Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church: New Testament Insights for the 21st Century Church (Moreno Valley, CA: CCS Publishing, 2016), 82.

[15] Rod Dempsey, “Transitioning to Small Groups,” DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Six: 1.

[16] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 182.

[17] Rod Dempsey, “Transitioning to Small Groups,” DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Six: 2.

[18] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 183.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Rod Dempsey, “Transitioning to Small Groups,” DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Six: 2.

[21] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 31-32.

[22] Rod Dempsey, “What is a Group,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Three Video Presentation, 7:08. (accessed June 2, 2017).

[23] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 32.

[24] Ibid., 33.

[25] Rod Dempsey, “Transitioning to Small Groups,” DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Six: 2-3.

[26] Rod Dempsey, “Why Lead a Group,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 9:33. (accessed May 15, 2017).

[27] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 115.

[28] Rod Dempsey, “Group Multiplication,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Seven Video Presentation, 5:57. (accessed June 25, 2017).

[29] Rod Dempsey, “How to Develop Leaders,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Four Video Presentation, 6:35. (accessed June 5, 2017).

[30] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 66.

[31] Ibid., 67.

[32] Comiskey, Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church, 121.

[33] Ibid., 126.

[34] Priscilla Romans 16:3; Mary 16:6; Junias 16:12; Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis 16:12; Julia 16:15

[35] Comiskey, Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church, 185.

[36] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 69.

[37] Ibid., 70.

[38] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 31.

[39] Ibid., 34.

[40] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 37.

[41] Earley and Dempsey, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 45-46.

[42] Ibid., 46.

[43] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 38.

[44] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 39.

[45] Rod Dempsey, “How to Transition to a Small Group System,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Eight Video Presentation, 8:17. (accessed June 29, 2017).

Case Study for Growing Churches in America

churchgrowth

Measuring growth and success in churches is not something new, but given the major shift currently taking place in Christianity’s center, moving from America to nations like: Africa, South America, and parts of Asia, there has been a special emphasis on what is working and what is not working in churches in the United States. Additionally, as Joe Carter illustrates, “Mainliners may try to comfort themselves by claiming that every denomination is in decline, but it is simply not true. While conservative churches are not growing as quickly as they once were, mainline churches are on a path toward extinction. The mainline churches are finding that as they move further away from biblical Christianity, the closer they get to their inevitable demise.”[1] Growth and success can be misleading words, so a proper definition must be established for both. In many cases, growth is assigned to the numerical attendance, while success points more towards community impact, spiritual formation/development, and reproducing disciples. For the purposes of this case study, three of the top five churches, when looking at numerical growth will be evaluated, compared, and contrasted.[2] By looking at the vision and mission of each church, core doctrines, and values, special areas of ministry will be highlighted and gauged to see if one’s numerical growth is representative of their success.

EVALUATION OF CHURCHES

Gateway Fellowship Church, in San Antonio, Texas is the fastest numerical growing church in the United States with an average attendance of 2,332 people, up 187% over the previous year. Virtually doubling in size over the course of a year is not the norm, but Gateway’s senior pastor; John Van Pay attributes this growth to their passion for discipleship. Van Pay says, “We follow a simple process of discipleship, in which friends are encouraged to belong to a small group so they can grow and be sent to start new small groups where disciples are made.”[3] Small group ministry appears to be the primary focus of Gateway Fellowship Church because small groups present the best environment to form friendships, spiritual formation, and reproducing disciples. At the core of Gateway’s vision is love because, “Love finds a need and meets it.” Other areas to serve center around meeting the needs of: single parents, first responders, the poor and elderly, inner-city ministries, and orphan/foster care programs.

Gateway’s website is very well organized, especially for the first time visitor. In addition to stating their doctrine of faith, their core values center on being: “Spiritually Engaged by Walking With Jesus, Having Passionate Purpose, Through the Making of Disciples, and Being Relationally Connected by Resolving Conflict Biblically.”[4] Getting people plugged into ministry, meeting the needs of others, and serving are the driving forces of their marketing efforts and this is likely one of the primary reasons for their tremendous growth.

Red Rocks Church, in Littleton, Colorado ranks fourth in terms of numerical growth. Current attendance is 9,624, up 26% over last year. Founded in 2005, senior pastor Shawn Johnson credits the church’s growth to, “Pursuing God, Making Him Known, Living in Gospel-Centered Community, Serving with Purpose, and Multiplying Disciples.”[5] What makes this church stand out from any other was their choice to use a run-down theme park to plant the church. Pastor Johnson gives God the complete glory for, “Turning this remote and awkward location into a place where people are able to pray, sacrifice, serve, give, and go for the sake of making heaven more crowded.”

Red Rocks Church, “Exists to make Heaven more crowded.”[6] Getting people plugged in and involved in ministry seems to be the primary focus and intent of the website. Their motto is: “One church, with four ways to get involved: Group Life, Sports, Care, and Serving. Pastor Johnson says, ‘Authenticity and transparency are vital for forming relationships and making the Word of God come alive.’”[7] This mindset is not the norm in many churches or pulpits, but this writer believes it is vital for the congregation to know they are not alone in their struggles, trials, and temptations.

Church of the Highlands, in Birmingham, Alabama is the fifth fastest growing church in America, with attendance of 38,346, up 24% over last year, making them the second largest church in America. Pastor Chris Hodges explains, “Our story begins with the dream of planting a church with a simple goal: ‘help people connect with God in a church without letting structure and programs get in the way.’”[8] The main focus of Church of the Highlands is: “Relevant teaching, heartfelt worship, honest friendships, constant prayer, and compassionate care for others. These focuses help Church of the Highlands line up every ministry with the vision and mission, to make sure all efforts maximize people in becoming fully devoted followers of Christ.

Church of the Highland’s website is easy to navigate and despite the large size of the church and multiple campuses, it was not overwhelming finding a growth track or area of ministry/fellowship to get plugged into. Pastor Hodges, “Co-founded ARC (Association of Related Churches) in 2001, which has launched hundreds of churches all across the USA. He also founded a coaching network called GROW, which trains and resources pastors to help them break barriers and reach their growth potential. Hodges is also the founder and President of the Highlands College, a ministry training school that trains and launches students into full-time ministry careers.”[9] These endeavors, coupled with the Highland’s Growth Track, “Guides you to discover your redemptive purpose and live the life God created for you. The Growth Track is made up of four steps that equip you to 1) connect to the church, 2) discover the strengths of your purposeful design, 3) develop your personal leadership, and 4) use your God-given gifts to make a difference in the lives of others.”[10] In addition to the great growth track, Highland’s Small Groups have one, simple purpose: “To bring people together. We believe God created us to live in relationship with others and only then can we live the full life He intends for us. Sharing life through community is part of our design, but meaningful relationships are not always easy to find. That is why small groups exist—to make these life-changing relationships relevant and accessible to you.”[11] Training, equipping, and empowering their members to do the work of the church is one of the primary reasons for this church’s numerical growth and spiritual health and vitality. The one area that really stood out, when looking through the website was not only their commitment to those who called Highlands their home church, but also to pastors and leaders in other churches, who are looking for resources and/or training.[12] In a climate of church versus church or denomination versus denomination, it was truly refreshing to see a body of believers committed to fulfilling the Great Commission, in partnership with other churches.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

It was very enlightening looking at the various similarities and differences among some of the fastest growing churches in America. While numerical growth was the determining factor used in the survey, it seems evident the spiritual formation and discipleship for all churches cited are on point with their numerical growth. In recent years, there has been a much-needed shift from focusing on church membership to getting people plugged into ministry and serving. When this occurs, there is a transformation that happens in the life of the believer as he or she taps into their God-given potential. There also seems to be a common thread in all of these churches using small group ministry as the primary place where discipleship, spiritual formation, and relationships are formed. These three areas are vital when assessing the health of a church and also contribute to the spiritual/numerical growth of the church. Each of the churches cited above also offer Española as a ministry and service offered, which is something many new churches have identified as an important outreach. Ultimately, understanding the demographics in one’s area is critical when determining what areas of ministry will be offered. In addition, each of the churches had a clear vision and mission and every area of ministry offered either supported or helped achieve the specific vision or mission. Much of the ministries listed were laity led, which is another trend in many churches and points back to equipping the body of the church to do the work of the church. The sad reality is twenty percent of most church attenders are doing eighty percent of the work, and without a paradigm shift, many leaders and volunteers will burnout because others either refuse or feel ill-equipped to serve. In each of the growing churches, the growth track helped identify the areas of service people were suited for and serving was made a priority for all churches listed. The problem many churches face is how to get the remaining eighty percent of seat warmers to become actively engaged in serving in some form of ministry. For churches that have been around for over five to ten years, this is an ever-increasing dilemma, but one that must be addressed if growth is going to occur. It is all about getting the right people on the bus and in the right seat, and sometimes that means there are people that need to get off the bus because he or she is limiting progress and growth.

CONCLUSION

As Ed Stetzer demonstrates, “Growing churches are showing a great commitment to multiplying themselves, as we see in the development of multiple campuses, and this commitment to multiplication often creates a need for sacrifice. Sacrifice is inherent to the experience of every growing believer—and every growing church.”[13] Sacrifice is also needed for church growth and kingdom growth and churches that understand this principle are poised for God to do great things in and through their congregation. It is sad to say many congregations have the mindset that everything should be about them, while the exact opposite is true. Every service and every ministry must be geared towards the first time visitor and to the people who are not yet serving. The missing catalyst to growth in many churches is helping people discover and refine their areas of spiritual gifting and then plugging them into ministry where he or she can reach their God-given potential in advancing the kingdom of God. This assignment is something every church leader should research and then determine if the vision and mission of their church lines up with the various forms of ministry and fellowship being offered. For some, it will be a wake-up call, while for others, it will help refine and correctly target where God is leading them.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Carter, Joe. “Are All Christian Denominations in Decline?” March 17, 2015. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/factchecker-are-all-christian-denominations-in-decline (accessed June 8, 2015).

Christianity Today Website. “Trends Among Growing Churches.” September 24, 2013 http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/september/sacrifice-is-trending.html (accessed June 8, 2017).

Church of the Highlands Website. https://www.churchofthehighlands.com (accessed June 8, 2017).

Gateway Fellowship Church Website. https://mygateway.tv/ (accessed June 7, 2017).

Outreach Magazine Website. http://www.outreachmagazine.com/outreach-100-fastest-growing-churches-2016.html (accessed June 7, 2017).

Red Rocks Church Website. http://www.redrockschurch.com/ (accessed June 8, 2017).

[1] Joe Carter, “Are All Christian Denominations in Decline?” March 17, 2015. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/factchecker-are-all-christian-denominations-in-decline (accessed June 8, 2015).

[2] Outreach Magazine Website, http://www.outreachmagazine.com/outreach-100-fastest-growing-churches-2016.html (accessed June 7, 2017).

[3] Outreach Magazine Website, http://www.outreachmagazine.com/view-2016-top-100-church.html?id=101 (accessed June 8, 2017).

[4] Gateway Fellowship Church Website, https://mygateway.tv/ (accessed June 7, 2017).

[5] Outreach Magazine Website, http://www.outreachmagazine.com/view-2016-top-100-church.html?id=40 (accessed June 8, 2017).

[6] Red Rocks Church Website, http://www.redrockschurch.com/ (accessed June 8, 2017).

[7] Red Rocks Church Website, http://www.redrockschurch.com/learn-more/ (accessed June 8, 2017).

[8] Outreach Magazine Website, http://www.outreachmagazine.com/view-2016-top-100-church.html?id=2 (accessed June 8, 2017).

[9] Church of the Highlands Website, https://www.churchofthehighlands.com/about/pastor (accessed June 8, 2017).

[10] Church of the Highlands Website, https://www.churchofthehighlands.com/connect/growth-track (accessed June 8, 2017).

[11] Church of the Highlands Website, https://www.churchofthehighlands.com/groups (accessed June 8, 2017).

[12] Church of the Highlands Website, https://growleader.com/ (accessed June 8, 2017).

[13] Christianity Today Website, “Trends Among Growing Churches,” September 24, 2013 http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/september/sacrifice-is-trending.html (accessed June 8, 2017).

Small Group Leadership

small group leader training

As Rod Dempsey asserts, “Anyone who knows Christ can be a leader, since being a leader is all about influence.”[1] Within the framework of small groups, Dempsey and Dave Earley identify three key leadership positions. The first is the small group leader who, “Understands their job is to serve and empower [the attendees] to ‘be all they can be’ for Christ. The small group leader [also] selects the curriculum, finds a good location to meet, and chooses an apprentice who will be trained to start a new group.”[2] The second leadership position in a small group is the apprentice who is basically a small group leader in training, with the goal of leading his or her own small group within several months. The apprentice is involved with all areas of planning and leadership, to provide the best chance for success when facilitating his or her own small group. The third leadership position in a small group is the host, who are primarily responsible for making attendees feel welcome. Dempsey and Earley illustrate hosts are, “Vital to making the small group experience a good one for everyone who comes to their home and [when these three positions are] involved in the planning, preparation, and execution of small groups, the groups have a much better chance for healthy growth and multiplication.”[3]

In addition to the three leadership positions, Dempsey and Earley cite three components/streams that when employed combine to form one powerful, moving force. The first is the biblical stream, made up of the qualities found in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3, which relate to the leader’s values and being blameless. This “Means that he [or she] does not have any major spiritual area that could come into question or attack from the enemy.”[4] The second component is the spiritual stream, which is rooted in an understanding and execution of the first stream. This stream is composed of: prayer, spiritual gifts, fruit of the Spirit, armor of God, and Spirit of God. Dempsey and Earley explain, “Many leaders are one the front lines of the battle, but they may not be aware of the [spiritual] weapons and armor that they have as soldiers of the King. Another challenge is that many leaders may be aware of the tools they have at their disposal, but they may not be skilled in using the spiritual arsenal.”[5] The third component is the practical stream, which as Dempsey and Earley demonstrate allows, “The small group leader to receive a vision from God and communicate it clearly to the people entrusted to his or her care.” This stream is made up of: planning, organizing, communicating, training, mentoring, multiplying and vision casting.

Dempsey and Earley provide eight habits, which will enhance the effectiveness of small group leaders and will, “Create a path that leads to fruitfulness, and multiplication, helping leaders, and those under them, experience greater fulfillment in ministry.”[6] They are as follows:

(1) Dream of leading a healthy, growing, multiplying group. (2) Pray for your group members daily. (3) Invite new people to visit your group weekly. (4) Contact your group members regularly. (5) Prepare for your group meetings. (6) Mentor an apprentice leader. (7) Plan group fellowship activities. (8) Be committed to your own personal growth.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Dempsey, Rod and Dave Earley. Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups. Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2016.

Dempsey, Rod. “How to Develop Leaders,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Four Video Presentation, 6:35. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196596_1 (accessed June 5, 2017).

 

[1] Rod Dempsey, “How to Develop Leaders,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Four Video Presentation, 6:35. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196596_1 (accessed June 5, 2017).

[2] Rod Dempsey and Dave Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups (Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2016), 66.

[3] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 67.

[4] Ibid., 69.

[5] Ibid., 70.

[6] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 115.

Definition and Focus of Small Groups

small-group

Small groups are playing a major role in the advancement of the gospel and the spiritual formation of believers. Relationships are key in this process and are extremely difficult to form during weekly services, making small groups the ideal venue for discipleship and ministry efforts. Groups can vary in size, they can be open or closed, and they can meet at the church or off campus. The beauty of small groups is the fluidity of each group’s dynamics. Ideal groups will stay under forty people; otherwise, the group members will not be able to fully express his or her views and each member’s spiritual gifts cannot be utilized when the group gets too large. The overreaching goal of small groups is to function as the body of Christ, essentially becoming His hands and feet in various forms of ministry, by serving both the community and each other.

DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A CLIQUE AND A SMALL GROUP

According to Jeffrey Arnold, “A small group is intent on participating with Christ in building His ever-expanding kingdom in the hearts of individuals, in the life of the group, and through believers, into the world.”[1] Conversely, cliques are characterized by the inward, unfocused, and random nature of undisciplined groups, which are scattered throughout the church, with no emphasis on the Bible or biblical living. Arnold then stresses the importance of small groups saying, “If we do not focus on returning to our biblical roots by building intentional community, we will miss the greatest lessons that our faith offers. As we observed with Jesus, disciples are best made in community. Unlike cliques, these communities are intentionally small, outward in focus, and intent on participating with Christ in the building of His kingdom.”[2] Over time, if small groups do not stay focused on kingdom living and godly principles, they will crystallize, making it difficult for anyone new to join the group, which ultimately turns what used to be a small group into a clique. These cliques are like cancerous cells within the church and can wreak havoc if not brought under the umbrella of God’s grace and realigned to fulfill the Great Commission by enacting the Great Commandment.

DEFINITION OF G.R.O.U.P.

Dempsey and Earley use the acrostic G.R.O.U.P. to demonstrate the necessary components small groups must possess. Guided by a leader is the first objective as, “Everything rises and falls on leadership…[And] in order for a group to be successful, the leader of the group needs to view their role as drawing out the new creation God has in mind for every individual in the group.”[3] Regular meeting times are vital to the success of small groups and Dempsey believes, “Meeting weekly is best, so people can gather to serve and share God’s love and gifts with one another and with the world.”[4] Opening God’s Word is mandatory in small groups due to the Bible’s power to change people’s lives from the inside out (Hebrews 4:12; Romans 12:2). Dempsey illustrates, “Studying and applying the Word of God has the power to change us from what we are into what God has in mind for us.”[5] United in service is rooted in the Great Commandment (John 13:34-35). Dempsey explains, “Spiritual gifts are designed to strengthen the body of Christ and to serve the world… [And] every believer has at least one spiritual gift to build up the body of Christ and to minister and serve others.”[6] Prayer for one another is what separates a Christ-centered group from a civic club. As Jerry Falwell so brilliantly put it, “Nothing of eternal significance ever happens apart from prayer,” making this a necessary component to any successful small group ministry. In addition, as Joel Comiskey emphasizes:

To continue to lead a group, multiply that group, and care for the new leaders as a coach, you need Christ’s light and easy yoke. Avoid the common cell leader sins that will damage or even kill your ministry. Make feasible goals; use your team; discover where God’s working, and persist until you see breakthroughs. With this kind of ministry, you will be able to avoid burnout and continue a fruitful cell ministry throughout your life.[7]

FOUR QUESTIONS RELATED TO GROUPS AND CHURCH

Are we introducing Christian disciplines into our small groupings? This is an area many small groups fail to fully utilize because Christian disciplines are more caught than taught and small groups present the best opportunity to learn these disciplines because the members of the group typically spend more time together. If Christian disciplines are not being introduced in small group settings, this is huge missed opportunity to instill key traits in the lives of the other members. Behavior is often emulated, so there must an intentional focus on mentoring and training members of a small group in biblical disciplines.

Are our small groupings building the kingdom or hindering the kingdom? This should be the question one must answer in every form of ministry the church is involved with. If an event or ministry does not line up with the vision and mission of the church, it should not be done. With this mindset, small groups only hinder the kingdom when they crystallize and are merely cliques or when the small groups do not receive full endorsement from the lead pastor. A church of small groups or a church that is small groups will be much more impactful than a church with small groups. Small groups are essentially a mini-version of the larger body of Christ, so the vision and mission of the larger body should be portrayed in the small group DNA as well. However, as Comiskey illustrates, “Small groups and cells have become commodities in today’s church. When someone mentions a cell, what registers is a Bible study, a social gathering, a Sunday school class or anything else (small and a group). And many cell models are even adding to this thinking by liberally sprinkling the word cell over all groups in their church.”[8] This paradigm must change for biblical small groups to have the most impact in advancing the gospel.

Are we training leaders who bring Christian disciplines into small groupings? The sad reality to this question is no. Unfortunately, there are a great many opportunities being missed by not training the younger generations up and mentoring them, so they then too can mentor those who will become leaders one day in the future. Age segregated ministries is detrimental to this process, as many generations have little to no interaction. However, in the small group environment, there is an opportunity to become multi-generational and intentional in training future leaders.

 Is our entire congregation working to develop a disciplined small group mentality? If there is not congregational buy-in, especially as it pertains to developing a disciplined small group mentality, any model will ultimately fail. Churches of small groups and church who are small groups stand a better chance to develop this healthy mentality because it is a major indicator of the church’s health as well. A strong case can be made that churches with an emphasis on small groups stand a much better chance of developing a disciplined small group mentality.

INWARD, OUTWARD, AND UPWARD CONCEPTS AND CONTEXT

Arnold presents one of the best models this writer has come across when looking at the role and dynamics of small groups, especially when one takes into consideration the 80/20 principle he highlights. In many churches, it is probably closer to 85/15, where fifteen percent of the members are doing eighty-five percent of the work, and this generally translates to giving as well. The interesting principle Arnold illustrates is, “As members of the body, we are reliant on one another and on Christ, and mutually responsible to use whatever contribution we make to grow the body into maturity.”[9] If a part of the human body is dead, it is surgically removed, but in the church, the eighty to eighty-five percent of people who sit idly by taking up passive roles are not treated like a dead or diseased appendage would be. This illustration is profound and to ultimately engage those who are not currently serving or active in the church, small groups are the answer, as long as the groups are healthy, by reaching inward, outward, and upward.

When a group reaches inward, the focus is on group care. Arnold demonstrates how, “Groups provide love and care for their members in many ways [and] a loving community offers members a positive body life experience by engaging people in the discovery of their spiritual gifts, developing the lay leadership of the church, and caring for its members.”[10] There is something so empowering about finding one’s gifting and then engaging in ministry fulfilling the role God has called the person to. However, without an environment to first define and second to refine the areas of spiritual gifting(s), many people never reach his or her full potential. In addition to equipping individuals with various giftings, the spiritual maturity of the individual is also a byproduct, which further refines his or her discipline and produces great future leaders. For large churches especially, this inward focus is vital because congregational care, unknown, and unmet needs are a daily occurrence. With a focus on small groups, this is an amazing step in making people truly feel cared for and also provides an area of ministry for other members with the gift(s) of prayer, comfort, love, and compassion.

As groups focus on reaching upward, this cultivates an attitude of nurture and worship. Nurturing allows members to not only get to know one another better, but it lays the foundation and vision for the group to help people get connected to God. Doing life together is an amazing experience and this sense of community is hardwired into humanity. God created His children with this desire to love and be loved by. As small groups develop times of fellowship and walk through trials and circumstances, opportunities to pray and grow their faith are presented. As a result of answered prayers and faith in God’s plans, thanksgiving and praise are the appropriate response. Arnold demonstrates, “When enough people in a congregation start experiencing these worship moments, the entire church begins to change. Spiritual renewal that begins in groups can begin to create revival in the larger body of Christ.”[11] However, neglecting the power of worship is one of the main reasons Dempsey and Earley cite for groups failing to reach their full potential, stressing, “Worship is a moral obligation and a natural response to the absolute worth of God. Worship completes us, is transforming, puts life back into perspective, and intensifies the presence and therefore the activity of God.”[12] Dempsey and Earley could not be more correct on the power of prayer, as they illustrate, “God often manifests His presence in proportion to our expressed recognition of our need and love for Him.”[13]

When groups begin to reach outward through acts of service and evangelism, they reach their full potential. As Arnold explains, “One of the inherent weaknesses in any small grouping of people is the natural tendency to maintain an inward focus (care), ignoring the outward focus (service and evangelism)… [making] the outward focus the most difficult group discipline to cultivate.”[14] Arnold clarifies how evangelism then leads to both spiritual and numerical growth as healthy groups work to attach people deeply to their God and show them how to minister to the world. Ultimately, as Arnold explains, “Biblical evangelism is not a program but a person-to-person process of sharing the good news about forgiveness of sin and new life in Jesus. Because small groups are likely to be the most personal setting offered by a church, they are natural places for this kind of evangelism to take place.”[15]

CONCLUSION

Leading healthy small groups is the key to building the church. Much can be learned from the early church model, as people regularly met together in each other’s homes, sharing meals together, providing the apostles and early church teachers the perfect environment to fulfill the Great Commission, by encouraging one another to live their lives with love for one another, and faith and obedience to God. The process of making disciples largely rests on making relationships a priority and this means putting the needs of others ahead of our own. This outward focus is the ultimate goal every individual and small group should be working towards in their walk with Christ.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Arnold, Jeffrey. The Big Book on Small Groups. Rev. ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Comiskey, Joel. Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church: New Testament Insights for the 21st Century Church. Moreno Valley, CA: CCS Publishing, 2016.

_______. “What is a Cell Church?” http://www.joelcomiskeygroup.com/resources/cell_basics/en_leader_deadlysins.html (accessed June 2, 2017).

________. “What is a Cell Group?” http://joelcomiskeygroup.com/resources/cell_basics/en_whatisacellgroup.html (accessed June 2, 2017).

Earley, Dave and Rod Dempsey. Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups. Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2016.

Dempsey, Rod. “What is a Group?” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Three Video Presentation, 7:08. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196591_1 (accessed June 2, 2017).

House, Brad. Community: Taking Your Small Group Off Life Support. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishing, 2011.

[1] Jeffrey Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups. Rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 23.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dave Earley and Rod Dempsey, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups (Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2016), 31-32.

[4] Rod Dempsey, “What is a Group,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Three Video Presentation, 7:08. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196591_1 (accessed June 2, 2017).

[5] Earley and Dempsey, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 32.

[6] Ibid., 33.

[7] Joel Comiskey, “What is a Cell Church?” http://www.joelcomiskeygroup.com/resources/cell_basics/en_leader_deadlysins.html (accessed June 2, 2017).

[8] Joel Comiskey, “What is a Cell Group?” http://joelcomiskeygroup.com/resources/cell_basics/en_whatisacellgroup.html (accessed June 2, 2017).

[9] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 31.

[10] Ibid., 34.

[11] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 37.

[12] Earley and Dempsey, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 45-46.

[13] Ibid., 46.

[14] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 38.

[15] Ibid., 39.

Why Churches Need Small Groups

Small_Group_logo

Developing small group ministry in the church is important to both growth and discipleship, on the part of the believer, and the church as a whole. According to Rod Dempsey, “Leaders are grown in small groups, most successful churches have an emphasis on small groups, and small groups are a true representation of the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:23).”[1] Dempsey explains, “The church has a head; the head of the church is Jesus. The church has members that need to be connected to the head and connected to each other. And finally the church’s members need to serve one another and serve the community at large. Churches that are not functioning in this manner run the risk of becoming inward in their focus”[2] and inward-focused groups die. Dempsey then demonstrates the necessity of spending time with one another because there is a huge commitment needed to growing and sacrificing as a disciple of Christ. Jesus, Himself said, “Take up your cross,”(Matthew 16:24) illustrating the necessity of commitment and doing life together in small groups. Additionally, the relational aspect of following Christ means followers should join together as brothers and sisters in an attitude of love for one another. This was the identifying mark Jesus said would reveal His true disciples; by the love he or she showed the world (Matthew 22:36-40). Dempsey also points out, “The process must be intentional, individual, and missional in focus, as small groups have the potential to provide and create a perfect environment and context to develop people for God’s kingdom and for God’s glory.”[3]

One’s primary reason for wanting to develop small group ministry must be rooted in love and a desire to fulfill the commandments of the Lord. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) is a wonderful representation of what God calls every believer to do as followers of Christ. Earley and Dempsey further explain the importance of, “Loving God, loving one another, and loving our neighbor [because these] are universal principles. They will work anywhere, at any time, and in any political situation. The key to your success is to begin practicing the principles behind the commands Jesus gave us. Live your life purposefully for God and lead by example.”[4] Another important reason for developing small groups is found in the principle of multiplication. Earley and Dempsey illustrate the strongest churches in the world have tens of thousands of members in thousands of small groups. As humans, and with finite minds, it can oftentimes be hard to fathom the omnipotence of God and His marvelous plan of salvation and redemption. As a result, when most churches are planning areas of ministry, the addition of believers is used as the primary litmus test for success; however, God, as Earley and Dempsey convey, “Has given us an exponential plan to reach the world. The question is… are you following an addition or a multiplication plan? Why should you lead a group? That is easy: to follow His command to make disciples of all the nations.”[5] A final reason for forming small groups lies in the desire for community. As Jeffrey Arnold expounds, “Jesus Christ is our first and greatest model for how small groups can stimulate faith and growth in others… [Ultimately,] disciples are made intentionally, disciples are made to be like Christ, and disciples are made in relationships”[6] and there is no better place for these to occur than in a community made up of small groups.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Arnold, Jeffrey. The Big Book on Small Groups. Rev. ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Comiskey, Joel. Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church: New Testament Insights for the 21st Century Church. Moreno Valley, CA: CCS Publishing, 2016.

Earley, Dave and Rod Dempsey. Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups. Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2016.

Dempsey, Rod. “Why Lead a Group.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 9:33. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196581_1 (accessed May 15, 2017).

House, Brad. Community: Taking Your Small Group Off Life Support. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishing, 2011.

[1] Rod Dempsey, “Why Lead a Group,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 9:33. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196581_1 (accessed May 15, 2017).

[2] Dave Earley and Rod Dempsey, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups (Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2016), 2.

[3] Dempsey, “Why Lead a Group.”

[4] Earley and Dempsey, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 10.

[5] Ibid., 10.

[6] Jeffrey Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups. Rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 18, 23-24.

 

Jesus and the Samaritan Woman Encounter

jesus-and-samaritan-woman-by-well

An analysis of the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well reveals Jesus’s Messiahship, it unveils His primary mission and purpose, and it also provides fundamental truths about worship, salvation, and the gift of eternal life, all of which are found only in and through Jesus Christ. Even more profound is how and why these truths were passed on to a woman, considered an outcast among her own people. It was through this divine encounter, Jesus overcame immense racial and cultural barriers, demonstrating a clear personification of the love He had for all people. It also opened the door to share the gospel with the Samaritans, leading to the salvation of many, and revealing the Messianic status of Jesus to a multitude of people.

GOSPEL OF JOHN OVERVIEW

Andreas Köstenberger demonstrates, “At the very outset, John’s Gospel claims to represent apostolic eyewitness testimony regarding Jesus’s earthly ministry,”[1] yet only eight percent of John’s Gospel is found in the Synoptic counterparts. The differences between the Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel are overwhelming, but perhaps the biggest difference is John’s interest in drawing out the theological implications of Jesus’s ministry and proving He was the Messiah. T. C. Smith demonstrates, “The author of the Fourth Gospel used the term Christ as a title for Jesus with two exceptions,[2] both referring to the name of Jesus similar to the way Paul used the expression Christ… and perhaps this is why he gives such a noticeable place for questions concerning Messiahship.”[3] John the Baptist’s denial that he was the Messiah further evidences this.[4] However, in contrast, Andrew ran to tell his brother Simon Peter/Cephas that he had discovered the Messiah.[5] Again, this revelation is seen after the encounter with the woman of Samaria, as she went to the people in her village, saying, “Is not this the Christ.”[6] Given proper context, it is important to understand that claiming to be the Messiah was punishable by excommunication or worse by the Jewish rulers, so this declaration was not taken lightly, however the people of the time anxiously awaited the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy[7] and Jewish officials would regularly ask Jesus if He was the promised Messiah.[8]

Two further points are important to note: first, the Samaritans did in fact believe in the future coming of the Messiah prophesied about and secondly, the poor relations between Jews and Samarians cannot be understated. The animosity dates back to the fall of the northern kingdom to the Assyrians. As a result, many Jews were taken off in bondage to Assyria, and outsiders were then brought in to tend the land and help keep the peace.[9] As a result, the intermarriage between the outsiders and the remaining Jews create a mixed race, an abomination in the eyes of Jews who still lived in the southern kingdom. The pure-blooded Jews hated this mixed race and considered them less than dogs, because they believed those who had intermarried betrayed God, their people, and the nation of Israel.[10]

Purpose of Signs

John’s use of signs highlighted the divinity and high Christology of Jesus and John 20:30-31 reveals the purpose of his Gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.” Unfortunately, the unbelief of the people was tragic as John writes, “Though He had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in Him.”[11] Despite seeing miracle after miracle, the people were still spiritually blind, causing God to harden the hearts of the people who chose not to believe Jesus had come to save the world and restore Israel. Despite changing water into wine,[12] clearing the temple,[13] healing the nobleman’s son,[14] healing the lame man,[15] feeding the multitude,[16] healing the blind man,[17] and raising Lazarus from the dead,[18] the Jewish people and leadership rejected Israel’s Messiah and perpetrated His death. However, John’s recording of two drastically different encounters provides a clear lens to illuminate the Messianic status and mission of Jesus.

Purpose of Encounters

Chapters three and four in the Gospel of John record two very different encounters with Jesus. In chapter three, Jesus meets with Nicodemus, and in chapter four He speaks with a Samaritan Woman. Köstenberger explains and contrasts these encounters by pointing out that, “He was a Jew, she a Samaritan; he a respected member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, she ostracized from society to the extent that she must draw water at the communal well in the heat of the noon hour when no one else would be there; he a rabbi, a Jewish religious teacher, she steeped in folklore and ignorant about religion; he a man, she a woman.”[19] Despite the vast differences, it is Nicodemus, the respected Jewish leader who fails to grasp Jesus’s words. Jesus was emphasizing the need for spiritual rebirth and regeneration, which only came through being born again/from above. Following the light and darkness theme John uses throughout his Gospel, he places this first encounter late at night, and then reveals how it ends only in doubt and misunderstanding. It is evident this encounter had no immediate impact on Nicodemus or any of his friends. During dealings with the Pharisees and Jews, Jesus would often speak in veiled terms, but during the second encounter, Jesus chooses to provide one of the clearest statements of His true identity to the Samaritan woman.[20]

The second encounter took place during the middle of the day and as Thomas Lea illustrates, “shows Jesus exhausted after His long journey,”[21] which highlights the humanity of Jesus. Then, immediately after Jesus reveals His true identity and purpose, the Samaritan woman goes back to her village to share her testimony, which led to the Samaritans receiving the Messiah as the Savior of the world.[22] Despite her past and present sin, it was she who saw Jesus with unveiled eyes as the Messiah. It is interesting to note, since both the Jews and the Samaritans awaited the coming Messiah, what stands these two encounters apart was the Samaritans were not looking for the coming Messiah to be a politician or military leader. This allowed Jesus to reveal His true identity as the “I Am” to the Samaritans.

The Interview with the Samaritan Woman

The most direct route from Judea to Galilee went through Samaria, but strict Jews, like the Pharisees, avoided Samaritan territory as often as possible. However, even though most Jews and Samaritans did not get along, Galilean Jews still would travel through Samaria rather than taking the longer route through Perea. In this account, John writes that Jesus “must” or “had to” travel through Samaria, which as Leon Morris illustrates shows, “The necessity lay in the nature of the mission of Jesus. John often uses the word ‘must’ of this mission.[23] The expression points to a compelling divine necessity. Jesus had come as ‘the light of the world.’[24] It was imperative that this light shine to others than Jews.”[25] Although Jesus initially focused His ministry on the nation of Israel, He did not exclude Gentiles. In fact, Jesus revealed Himself as the Messiah to this Samaritan woman very early in His ministry. Thomas Smythe demonstrates, “For a Jew to speak socially with a Samaritan would have been considered scandalous during Jesus’s day. The fact that this Samaritan was ‘immoral’ and a woman further strained the boundaries of acceptable mores.”[26] Frank E. Gaebelein further explains some other key details in this account, “the well of Jacob was located at the foot of Mount Gerizim, which was the center of Samaritan worship and the ‘sixth hour’ would probably have been about noon, which was an unusual time for women to come to a village well for water, so in consideration of her general character, the other women may have shunned her.”[27] Theologically, it is also important to note the Samaritans only regarded the Pentateuch as being divinely inspired and authoritative. Despite this fact, it was still a Samaritan who recognized Jesus as the prophesied Messiah.

All people are valuable to God

Ben Witherington III explains the customs of this time period insisted that, “Jewish men should speak little or not at all with women, especially strange women, in public places. This was all the more so in regard to women of ‘ill repute,’ [especially] Samaritan women who were regarded by rabbis as ‘menstruants from the womb’, i.e., unclean, untouchable, outcasts.”[28] Despite any customs, Jesus had left Judea out of a necessity to share His mission with Samaria and to declare Himself as the Messiah. It mattered little to Jesus what sins the Samaritan woman had committed, or the cultural divide that existed between Jews and Samaritans, so when Jesus spoke to her at the well asking for a drink, she was stunned and asked in return, “How is it that you, a Jew a for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” The implications are profound, but Jesus uses this opportunity to discuss one of the greatest truths of spiritual life: that of living water.[29] When the disciples return Witherington explains how in the disciples’ eyes, “Jesus had no business talking with this woman at the well. Jesus, however, not only speaks to her but also refuses to treat her as unclean, engaging her in one of the most significant theological discussions in the whole of the Fourth Gospel.”[30] This lesson further demonstrates while Jesus’s male disciples were busy scurrying for food that only temporarily satisfies, this woman would receive and proclaim the message from Jesus of a food and water that offers eternal life.[31] Witherington believes, “The Fourth Evangelist then sees the Samaritan woman as one who properly models the role of disciple — to the shame of the Twelve, [so] this implies that even such a woman, as she was a proper recipient of theological information and indeed a proper candidate for discipleship.”[32]

Jesus as living water and eternal life

When Jesus claimed He would provide living water, which would forever quench a person’s thirst, He was proclaiming Himself to be the Messiah. Initially, the Samaritan woman did not understand, which makes sense given most Old Testament references of thirsting for God as one thirsts for water occurred outside of the Pentateuch.[33] However, Jesus’s interaction with the Jews at the Feast of Tabernacles also came from the image of living water found in Numbers 28:7, Isaiah 58:11, and Isaiah 12:3. Wandering in the desert for forty years made water a necessity for survival, so when Jesus says, “Anyone who believes in Him will have rivers of living water,” it had deep implications of not mere survival, but overflowing abundance. Köstenberger shows these passages point to Jesus being the dispenser of the Holy Spirit, through whom those who come to Him for salvation will become abundant blessings to others.[34]

The Samaritan woman asked two important questions about this gift of living water: first she wanted to know where He would get this water and second, she wanted to know if Jesus considered Himself greater than Jacob, the very person who dug the well. To the first question, Köstenberger explains, “It is not so much that Jesus gives certain gifts – He Himself is the gift, [and] only He can satisfy people’s hunger, and only He can quench their thirst, not merely for material food and drink, but for spiritual sustenance.”[35] Jesus being “greater than” is a common theme in John’s Gospel,[36] but in this occurrence, Jesus was not only claiming to be greater than Jacob; He was also claiming to be the only way to quench thirst forever. This brings to light humanity’s physical needs being different from spiritual needs and how living water gives life. John Polhill demonstrates how, “Many interpreters would see this as a discourse on baptism, as an example of Johannine sacramentalism, but verse 14 rules out any reference to a mere external rite of water baptism. The ‘living water’ Jesus brings is a spring within one’s inner being, a life-renewing stream. The water is not literal but a metaphor for the new life that Christ brings.”[37] Matthew Henry then illustrates how, “Christ shows that the water of Jacob’s well yielded a very short satisfaction. Of whatever waters of comfort we drink, we shall thirst again. But whoever partakes of the Spirit of grace, and the comforts of the gospel, shall never want that which will abundantly satisfy his soul. Carnal hearts look no higher than carnal ends.”[38] The Samaritan woman was very interested in obtaining living water, if it meant she did not have to travel to the well everyday, but Jesus was speaking of so much more.

Need for true worship

After bringing the woman’s sins into the open, Craig Blomberg demonstrates how the woman, “On her own manages to call Jesus a ‘prophet’ and given the overlap in Samaritan theology between the prophet of Deuteronomy 18:18 and the Messiah, she may have begun to suspect something even more exalted about Jesus. This would certainly explain the transition to her next topic of interest in, which explicitly deals with the role of the coming Messiah.”[39]  Blomberg advances this belief explaining, “Still, it remains reasonable to infer that John sees the Samaritan woman as inside the kingdom, despite some ambivalence concerning her faith, whereas Nicodemus remains outside, however close to the truth he may have come.”[40]

After this declaration, the issue of where to worship is brought up as Jesus says, “You worship what you do not know.” Morris explains, “Though they worshipped the true God, the Samaritans did so very imperfectly. When we consider that they rejected the writings of the Prophets, the Psalms, the historical books of the Old Testament, and much more, we realize that their knowledge of God was, of necessity, very limited.”[41] Here, Jesus’s concern is with the nature of worship, meaning it is more important what is worshipped than where the worshipping occurs. This truth becomes even more evident upon the glorification of Christ, as He becomes the temple. Smith explains, in the controversy between Jesus and the Samaritan woman concerning the true place to worship, “Jesus responded with an affirmation that He was the Messiah. [This] aligned with the Samaritan concept of Taheb, which sets forth a future prophet like Moses who would speak about the commands of God. The Taheb[42] would be the prophet predicted by Moses and would be like Moses, whose function was to restore God’s pleasure to the Samaritans.[43]

 Now, Jesus is foreshadowing how worship will look after His atoning death. It must be done in spirit and truth as Morris explains, “True worshipers worship ‘in spirit and truth.’ Here, it is the human spirit that is in mind. One must worship, not simply outwardly by being in the right place and taking up the right attitude, but in one’s spirit. The combination ‘spirit and truth’ points to the need for complete sincerity and complete reality in our approach to God.”[44] Thus, worship centers both on doctrinal truth and complete devotion, which are guided by the Holy Spirit. Right on the heels of worship comes the topic of Messiahship, as the woman says she knows the Messiah, who is called Christ, is coming and when He comes, He will reveal all things. It is here Jesus makes several bold claims: (1) He claimed to be the Messiah; (2) He claimed to the great “I Am,” which was the name reserved only for God; and He claimed to be the One who would reveal all things. As proof, Jesus exposes the sin in her life and explains the only way to take care of the sin is to worship God in spirit and in truth. This meant dealing with God honestly and with an open heart.

Jesus’s explanation of evangelistic ministry 4:27-38

This seems to be the climax of the encounter as Jesus has just boldly proclaimed Himself as the Messiah saying, “I who speak to you am He.” Morris demonstrates, “There remains to be recounted only the effect of all this on others. John shows us both the surprise of the disciples and the evangelistic zeal of the woman. She bore such an effective testimony that people went out of the village to meet Jesus.”[45] Two things stand out here: first, the woman was an outcast to her own people, but the encounter with Jesus changed her to the point where the people of her village looked, listened, and believed what she said. Second, she was successful in her witness to the people and as a result many set out to see the Messiah. This is evangelism in its purest sense.

Disciples’ response to interaction

Upon returning, the disciples were marveled to see Jesus engaged in conversation with a woman, as this went against all customs and teaching, but as Morris explains, “Though the disciples were astonished, they did not question the action of the woman (the first hypothetical question) or that of their Master (the second). They had learned enough to know that, while Jesus did not always respect the conventions of the rabbis, He always had good reasons for what He did.”[46]

Work of Jesus and will of God

A common occurrence in John’s Gospel is the use of misunderstandings to teach profound lessons. In this scenario, the disciples have just returned from town where they most likely went to buy food. Upon arriving back at the well, Jesus says, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” This must have been difficult to comprehend, just as the principle of living water was initially beyond comprehension for the Samaritan woman. Jesus then says to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to accomplish His work.” In this example, D.A. Carson illustrates, “Jesus is almost certainly echoing Deuteronomy 8:3, where Moses addresses Israel and seeks to explain God’s way to them: ‘He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.’”[47]

The important concept Jesus is teaching here is every believer’s life should be centered upon the will and work of God. In day-to-day life, losing focus of the spiritual and being consumed by the physical causes a divide between earthly things and heavenly things. Jesus had just told the Samaritan woman about spiritual living water, and He also told the disciples He had food from another source, but they are still only concerned with the physical needs of Jesus. This demonstrates their lack of spiritual depth at this point in the metanarrative and clearly shows a lack of focus on Christ’s mission of salvation. Christ wanted His disciples to seek spiritual nourishment before tending to His physical needs, and this could only happen by seeking and doing the will and work of God. On the cross, Christ finished the work He was sent to accomplish and now He calls all believers to live in obedience and perseverance until the work and will of God is fully realized.

Köstenberger further demonstrates, “When the Samaritan woman leaves to tell the townspeople about Jesus, this creates a window of opportunity for Jesus, which He promptly uses to instruct His disciples about their role in the Messianic mission.”[48] In this discourse, Jesus is demonstrating the important principles of sowing and reaping. When doing the work of the ministry, Jesus demonstrates the importance of meeting the most basic needs first. In the disciples’ case, this was purchasing food and in the Samaritan woman’s case it was retrieving water. Upon meeting the physical needs, the door to meeting the spiritual needs opens. During the interaction, as Köstenberger illustrates, “Jesus develops water symbolism in the direction of His ability to give eternal life (evangelism); in talking with His disciples, He talks about His mission and how they have entered it (discipleship).”[49] One sows and another reaps, so here Jesus is explaining the spiritual harvest season has arrived and every believer has been sent to play a part in sowing seeds, producing fruit, and reaping the harvest.

The response to Jesus in Samaria 4:39-42

John writes many Samaritans from the town believed Jesus to be the Messiah and this was largely because of the woman’s testimony. The Samaritans believed the coming Messiah would reveal all things[50] and since Jesus had told the Samaritan woman all she had ever done, many believed. Gaebelein indicates two necessary and interrelated bases for belief:

(1) The testimony of others, and (2) personal contact with Jesus. This woman’s witness opened the way to Him for the villagers. If He could penetrate the shell of her materialism and present a message that would transform her, the Samaritans also could believe that He might be the Messiah. That stage of belief was only introductory, however. The second stage was hearing Him for themselves, and it brought them to the settled conviction expressed in “we know.”[51]

This progression clearly shows the development of the Samaritans’ faith. Initially the Samaritans’ belief was rooted in the testimony of the Samaritan woman, but it soon advanced based upon their own personal encounter with the Messiah.

Messianic status of Jesus shown

The proclamation of Jesus’s Messianic status was a lengthy process, one in which Jesus frequently kept out of the public, especially in the Synoptic Gospel accounts. Despite this, Everett Harrison illustrates how, “Andrew’s use of Messiah in reference to Jesus stems from his association with the Baptist and Jesus’s use of Messiah in the presence of the Samaritan woman creates no real difficulty, since the barrier between Samaritans and Jews would prevent the saying from being heralded abroad.”[52] John the Baptist openly denied he was the Messiah when questioned by Pharisees, but it is clear from John 3:26-28 that John knew Jesus to be the Messiah and John the Baptist clearly understood his role as being the forerunner for Christ.

Merrill Tenney shows, “Jesus affirmed His Messiahship when He told the Samaritan woman, “I who speak to you am He.” When she announced to the town her belief, they listened to Him, and then believed, saying, ‘Now we know; this is the Savior of the world.’ Their equation of Messiah and Savior indicates their estimate of Him was theological, not political.”[53]

Smith then shows, “It was the intent of the Evangelist to prove to his readers that Jesus was Messiah [because] among the Jews ‘The Messiah’ had a definite meaning. They looked for a descendant of David who was a powerful person, a warrior and a hero who would deliver them from their oppressors, the Romans, and usher in an era of prosperity and peace.”[54] This was in sharp contrast to what the Samaritans were looking for, since their core doctrine came only from the Pentateuch. The Jews of the time could not understand the concept of a suffering Messiah, which caused many to be spiritually blind.

Mission and purpose of Jesus

Matthew Poole emphasizes, “What our Savior spoke metaphorically, comparing His grace, or His Spirit, or the doctrine of His gospel, to living water, this poor woman [initially] understood as being literal. So ignorant are persons of spiritual things, till the Holy Spirit of God enlightens them.”[55] The Samaritan woman moved from thinking of things strictly on the physical level to being able to comprehend them on a spiritual level. This allowed her to see the spiritual counterpart of eternal life and she then leaves her water jar at the well. Robert Hughes shows how, “The gift of living water relates to the gift of life-giving bread from heaven and the ongoing theme of Israel in the wilderness. Spiritual thirst and hunger are only satisfied by the living water and bread from heaven.”[56] D.A. Carson further demonstrates how this gift was to be spread:

Those who read John in light of antecedent Scripture cannot help but think of the prophecies that anticipate the extension of the saving reign of God to the farthest corner of the earth. It was appropriate that the title ‘Savior of the world’ should be applied to Jesus in the context of ministry to Samaritans, representing the first cross-cultural evangelism, undertaken by Jesus Himself and issuing in a pattern to be followed by the church: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[57]

There was a sense of urgency as Jesus revealed His mission, which would soon be passed on to His disciples. Morris explains, “The disciples must not lazily relax, comfortable in the thought that there is no need to bestir themselves. The fields are ready for harvest. There may even be the thought the kind of harvest in which they were engaged there is no necessary interval between sowing and reaping. The disciples must then acquire a sense of urgency in their task.”[58]

Power of testimony

Regardless of the Samaritan woman’s past, she immediately shares her testimony with others. This transformation and action is the model Jesus is passing on and Scripture indicates, by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony[59] believers’ willingness to proclaim the message overcame even the natural fear of death.”[60] It is evident that at some point in the Samaritan woman’s past a seed was sown for her to have knowledge of the Messiah, and during her encounter, Jesus reaped her soul, which led to the further reaping of many others.

Samaritan’s Response and Salvation of a City

Köstenberger recognizes but rejects the possibility that the Samaritan story can function as a romantic picture of Yahweh’s wooing back to Himself wayward Samaritans, but some of the similar characteristics are undeniable. He cites several elements reminiscent of a wayward Israel:

(1) Jesus is called a bridegroom in the pericope immediately preceding this incident;[61] (2) the well (v. 6), Jesus’s request for a drink (v. 7), and the reference to food afterward (v. 32) frames the story as a betrothal type-scene;[62] (3) the Samaritan woman is depicted as sexually wayward, with five husbands, much like the Samaritans who prostituted themselves with the gods of five nations;[63] and (4) the story ends with a reunion—the Samaritans embrace the bridegroom (vv. 39–42).[64]

Samaritans “believed”

To “believe” here means the Samaritans put their faith in and entrusted their spiritual well being to Christ.[65] Initially, the people believed in Him because of the woman’s testimony, but after the Samaritans went out to meet Jesus and invited Him to stay with them, many more believed because of His word. When the Samaritans heard for themselves what Jesus had to say, they proclaimed Him to be the Christ and the Savior of the World. Further evidence of real and lasting transformation is revealed when Philip’s ministry takes him to Samaria[66] and as F.F. Bruce shows, “Philip would be able to build on this hope when he began to preach Christ to them. Jesus, it appears, was already identified by His followers in Jerusalem, both ‘Hebrews’ and ‘Hellenists,’ as the promised prophet like Moses.”[67]

Savior of the world is revealed

 It is interesting to note the words “Christ” and “Messiah” are the same word. Messiah is the Hebrew word and Christ is the Greek word, but both words refer to the same person and mean the same thing: the anointed one.[68] The Samaritans recognized the Messiah as the anointed one of God and as the Savior of the world. Savior here means deliverer and as Morris explains, “They had been impressed by what she had said, though their faith was not fully formed. The woman might introduce them to Jesus, but faith is not faith as long as it rests on the testimony of another. There must be personal knowledge of Christ if there is to be an authentic Christian experience. Their belief about Jesus is crystallized in the expression ‘the Savior of the world.’”[69]

CONCLUSION

The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman is a profound encounter as Jesus breaks down cultural and racial barriers to proclaim Himself as the Messiah to an outcast among her own people. Francis Hayes reveals, “The evangelism of the future will depend less on sermons than on the prayers and testimonies of the many and its burden is like that of Andrew’s to Peter, and that of the Samaritan woman to her fellow-villagers, “I have found Him.” The new evangelism is the old in this particular, that it is preeminently the testimony of experience.”[70] Upon revealing Himself as the Messiah, Jesus then unveils His primary mission and purpose, and passes on to His followers the mission to engage in evangelism and discipleship. Lastly, Jesus shows how to remain “in Christ” through worship rooted in spirit and truth. This encounter is relevant to the church today, in that it shows how to break down racial and cultural divides to communicate the fundamental truths about salvation, and the gift of eternal life, all of which are found only in and through Christ Jesus.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Blomberg, Craig. “The Globalization Of Biblical Interpretation: A Test Case John 3-4.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 05, no. 1 (1995), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 10-11.

Bruce, F. F. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Book of Acts. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John: The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1991.

Chan, Frank. “John, by Köstenberger.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48, no. 3 (September 2005), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 649-650.

Gaebelein, Frank E., ed. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Volume 9: John and Acts. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Harrison, Everett. “The Christology of the Fourth Gospel in Relation to the Synoptics Part III.” Bibliotheca Sacra 116, no. 464 (October 1959), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 308-309.

Hayes, Francis. “The Effective Blend Of The Old And The New Evangelism.” Bibliotheca Sacra 064, no. 256 (October 1907), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 733-735.

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry Concise Bible Commentary. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Hughes, Robert B. and J. Carl Laney, Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1990. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Köstenberger, Andreas. Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective, 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing, 2013.

Lea, Thomas D. and David A. Black. The New Testament: Its Background and Message, 2nd Edition. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2003.

Morris, Leon. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Mounce, Robert H. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Polhill, John. “John 1–4: The Revelation of True Life.” Review and Expositor 085, no. 3 (Summer 1988), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 454-455.

Poole, Matthew. Matthew Poole’s Commentary on the Holy Bible. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1985. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Smith, T.C. “The Christology of the Fourth Gospel.” Review and Expositor 071, no. 1 (Winter 1974), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 23-28.

Smythe, Thomas. “The Character Of Jesus Defended.” Christian Apologetics Journal 05, no. 2 (Fall 2006), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 114-116.

Strong, James. Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary. Austin, TX: WORDsearch Corp., 2007. WORDsearch CROSS e-book, Under: “4100”.

Tenney, Merrill. “Literary Keys to the Fourth Gospel Part I: The Symphonic Structure of John.” Bibliotheca Sacra 120, no. 478 (April 1963), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 121-122.

Witherington, Ben III. “Women in the Ministry of Jesus.” – Ashland Theological Journal 17, no. 0 (1984), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 24-25.


[1] Andreas Köstenberger, Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective, 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing, 2013), 4.

[2] John 1:17; 17:3

[3] T.C. Smith, “The Christology of the Fourth Gospel,” – Review and Expositor 071, no. 1 (Winter 1974), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 24-25.

[4] John 1:20 and 3:28

[5] John 1:41

[6] John 4:29

[7] 2 Samuel 7:12-13; Isaiah 7:14, 9:7, 53:3; Zechariah 9:9; and Psalm 45:6-7, 69:8

[8] John 7:25–31, 40–3; 12:34

[9] 2 Kings 17:24

[10] Kenneth Kantzer, Life Application Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1988), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 1757.

[11] John 12:37 (ESV)

[12] John 2:1-11

[13] John 2:13-22

[14] John 4:46-54

[15] John 5:1-15

[16] John 6:1-12

[17] John 9:1-41

[18] John 11:1-44

[19] Köstenberger, Encountering John, 68.

[20] John 2:18-22 and John 4:26

[21] Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black, The New Testament: Its Background and Message 2nd Edition, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2003), 188.

[22] John 4:42

[23] John 3:7, 14; 9:4; 10:16; 12:34; and 20:9

[24] John 9:5

[25] Leon Morris, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 226.

[26] Thomas Smythe, “The Character Of Jesus Defended,” – Christian Apologetics Journal 05, no. 2 (Fall 2006), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 115.

[27] Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Volume 9: John and Acts, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 54.

[28] Ben Witherington III, “Women in the Ministry of Jesus,” – Ashland Theological Journal 17, no. 0 (1984), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 24.

[29] John 4:11-12

[30] Witherington III, “Women in the Ministry of Jesus,” 24.

[31] John 4:39

[32] Witherington III, “Women in the Ministry of Jesus,” 24.

[33] Psalm 42:1; Isaiah 55:1; Jeremiah 2:13; and Zechariah 13:1

[34] Köstenberger, Encountering John, 92.

[35] Ibid., 85.

[36] Greater than Jacob: John 4:12; Greater than Moses: John 6:30-31; and Greater than Abraham: John 8:53

[37] John Polhill, “John 1–4: The Revelation of True Life,” – Review and Expositor 085, no. 3 (Summer 1988), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 454-455.

[38] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry Concise Bible Commentary, WORDsearch CROSS e-book, Under: “Chapter 4”.

[39] Craig Blomberg, “The Globalization Of Biblical Interpretation: A Test Case John 3-4,” – Bulletin for Biblical Research 05, no. 1 (NA), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 10.

[40] Ibid., 11.

[41] Morris, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel According to John, 238.

[42] Restorer or one who returns

[43] Smith, “The Christology of the Fourth Gospel,” 28.

[44] Morris, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel According to John, 239.

[45] Morris, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel According to John, 242.

[46] Ibid., 248.

[47] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John: The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), 228.

[48] Köstenberger, Encountering John, 74.

[49] Ibid., 74.

[50] John 4:25

[51] Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Volume 9: John and Acts, 58.

[52] Everett Harrison, “The Christology of the Fourth Gospel in Relation to the Synoptics Part III,” – Bibliotheca Sacra 116, no. 464 (October 1959), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 308-309.

[53] Merrill Tenney, “Literary Keys to the Fourth Gospel Part I: The Symphonic Structure of John,” – Bibliotheca Sacra 120, no. 478 (Apr), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 121-122.

[54] Smith, “The Christology of the Fourth Gospel,” 23.

[55] Matthew Poole, Matthew Poole’s Commentary on the Holy Bible, (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1985), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, Under: “Chapter 4”.

 [56] Robert B. Hughes and J. Carl Laney, Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1990), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 470.

[57] Carson, The Gospel According to John, 232.

[58] Morris, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel According to John, 246.

[59] Revelation 12:11

[60] Robert H. Mounce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 238.

[61] John 3:29

[62] Genesis 24:1–61; 29:1–20; and Exodus 2:15b–21

[63] 2 Kings 17:24, 30–31

[64] Frank Chan, “John,” – Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48, no. 3 (September 2005), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 649-650.

[65] James Strong, Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary (Austin, TX: WORDsearch Corp., 2007), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, Under: “4100”.

[66] Acts 8:5-8

[67] F. F. Bruce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 164.

[68] Leadership Ministries Worldwide, The Preacher’s Outline & Sermon Bible – John (Chattanooga, TN: Leadership Ministries Worldwide, 1991), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, Under: “Deeper Study 2”.

[69] Morris, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel According to John, 250-251.

[70] Francis Hayes, “The Effective Blend Of The Old And The New Evangelism,” – Bibliotheca Sacra 064, no. 256 (October 1907), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 733.

Explanation & Response to the Gospel

JESUS_NOTHING

            Greg Gilbert best describes the gospel as, “The proclamation that Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, is the one, true, and only Lord of the world.”[1] Gilbert also demonstrates how Paul’s letter to the Romans is a great place to find the most basic explanation of the gospel. In chapters 1-4, Paul first wants his readers to know they are accountable. Gilbert illustrates, “We are made by Him, owned by Him, dependent on Him, and therefore accountable to Him.”[2] Secondly, Paul tells his readers that their problem is that they rebelled against God. This applies to Jews and Gentiles alike because every single person in the world had sinned against God.[3] Thirdly, Paul says that God’s solution to humanity’s sin is the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Gilbert demonstrates, “Having laid out the bad news of the predicament we face as sinners before our righteous God, Paul turns now to the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ.”[4] Lastly, Paul tells his readers how they themselves can be included in this salvation. This is where every individual must decide if the gospel is good news for him or her or not. Gilbert summarizes these four points as: God, man, Christ, and response.[5]

How One Properly Responds to Gospel

            Gregory Faulls provides four steps as a response to the gospel: (1) Confess before God any sin and responsibility. The first response to the gospel always begins with repentance and then faith.[6] (2) Turn away from life apart from Christ and toward a life of following Christ. This step is critical as many Christians are currently asking Christ to follow them instead of following Christ’s lead. (3) A Christian must believe that Jesus died on the cross for his or her sin and that He rose again. The believing has to do with personally trusting what Jesus did for the believer’s salvation.[7] (4) The believer must completely surrender his or her life to His leadership.[8] Using these four declarations as a foundation, every believer should strive to spread the gospel while also showing love and compassion to everyone. A true response to the gospel causes a transformation to take place in the believer’s life, one in which the work of the cross is central to what is said and done. Gilbert demonstrates by keeping the cross at the center of one’s life, he or she will become dependent on the cross both for salvation and sanctification.[9]

Vital Connection Between Evangelism and a Believer’s Spiritual Growth

            Spiritual growth is vital in the life of a believer because if one is not growing, then he or she is essentially dying. For growth to occur, the believer must maintain intimacy with God in the form of praise, prayer, and daily reading of God’s Word. The natural progression of spiritual growth leads to evangelism, as the believer is transformed more and more into the image and likeness of Christ. Another crucial component to spiritual growth is obedience, which combines the Great Commandment[10] with the Great Commission[11] to form powerful evangelism as the believer shares the love and mission of Christ with others. Gilbert reminds the reader that despite all the evangelism efforts, “The kingdom promised in the Bible will only come about when the King Jesus Himself returns to make it happen, [so] our social and cultural [evangelistic] victories will never bring about the kingdom of God. Only God Himself can do that since the heavenly Jerusalem comes down from heaven and is not built from the ground up.”[12]

Ways to Improve Evangelistic Commitment

            For something so life-changing, it is a mystery why people are so afraid to share the gospel with friends, family, co-workers, and the people they interact with on a daily basis. Fear of rejection, insecurity of not having all the answers, or any other number of excuses prevent the spread of the gospel. For this writer, watching what is said as well as what is done remains at the forefront of daily living. People are always watching and since actions speak louder than words, a Christian’s life should be his or her testimony to God’s love and forgiveness. Scripture says, “They have overcome [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.”[13] Robert Mounce shows, “Not only does Satan suffer defeat at the hands of the archangel, but he is overcome by faithful believers as well. The primary cause of their victory is the blood of the Lamb. The great redemptive act that freed them from their sins and established their right to reign is the basis for their victory. Their share in the conquest then stems from their testimony.”[14] These saints’ willingness to proclaim the message overcame even the natural fear of death, so it is interesting to look at the areas of the world where Christians are experiencing great persecution and witnessing that those are the only areas that are experiencing real growth. In America, the culture has made everything about them by providing things, easier, cheaper, and faster. A real relationship with God cannot be obtained through some six-minute video to get six-pack abs routine. Instead, God must come before all other things, so that He becomes the motivator behind everything the believer says and does. It ultimately boils down to loving God and loving others.

Bibliography

Faulls, Greg. From Dust to Destiny. http://prevailinglife.com 2014. (accessed July 27, 2016).

Gilbert, Gregory D. What is the Gospel? (gǒs’pəl). Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010.

Mounce, Robert H. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.


[1] Gregory D. Gilbert, What is the Gospel? (gǒs’pəl), (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 19.

[2] Gilbert, What is the Gospel?, 28.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4] Gilbert, What is the Gospel?, 30.

[5] Gilbert, What is the Gospel?, 31.

[6] I John 1:9

[7] Romans 10:9-11

[8] Greg Faulls, From Dust to Destiny. http://prevailinglife.com 2014, 39. (accessed July 27, 2016).

[9] Gilbert, What is the Gospel?, 110-111.

[10] Matthew 22:36-40

[11] Matthew 28:16-20

[12] Gilbert, What is the Gospel?, 92-93.

[13] Revelation 12:11

[14] Robert H. Mounce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Book of Revelation, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 238.

Unreached People Group Project: The Soninke of Mali

Soninke People

In order to fulfill the Great Commission in today’s world, one must first understand the command Jesus gives to His disciples, “to make disciples of all the nations,” flows from the very heart of God. Throughout the Old and the New Testament, God is seen moving toward the lost and broken-hearted. As part of His redemptive plan, God sent Jesus to restore the communion that was corrupted between man and God, and Jesus gave His life, so that all who would call upon His name would be saved. Jesus tells His disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”[1] This means anyone, any nation, and any people group can be redeemed, forgiven, and receive salvation.

Over time, the word “nations” has become synonymous with people groups or cultural groups and according to the Joshua Project; the world is currently made up of 16,464 people groups. Of those groups, forty percent or 6,659 are considered as being unreached, meaning the evangelical population is less than two percent and they lack the ability to evangelize their own people.[2] The 1982 Lausanne Committee defines people groups as, “The largest group within which the Gospel can spread as a church planning movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.”[3]

This project will focus on a region within the 10/40 window of the world because as A. Scott Moreau et al. illustrate, “this [region represents the] vast bulk of people who have yet to hear a clear communicated invitation to repent, return to Christ, and worship God…”[4] While Christianity ranks as the number one religion in the world, Islam follows closely behind it. Within the 10/40 window, this paper will specifically target the people group called the Soninke who are located primarily in Mali. In order to do this, this project will first endeavor to give a brief background of their history, language, culture, economy, religion(s), and family structure and values. Secondly, a brief overview of past and present mission efforts will be detailed, demonstrating the current state of the church, number of known believers, challenges, and any successful strategies. Lastly, a proposed strategy will be presented detailing how best to evangelize and reach the Soninke people. Given this writer’s role as a church pastor, a plan will be designed centered on taking the gospel to the unreached people of Soninke, in the form of church laborers to work among them, with the end-goal ultimately being the establishment of a mission’s outpost/church and the digging of a water well.

Background Information

Status of the World

In a world with 7.3 billion people, where every second that passes two people die and four babies are born,[5] there has never been a greater need for evangelism and missions. John Piper believes, “Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more.”[6]  Daily, between 150,000 – 175,000 people perish and 325,000 – 350,000 births occur.[7] The good news is everyone has everlasting life; the bad news is not everyone will spend it in heaven. These are unsettling statistics because out of the world’s population, only 1.9 billion people profess to be Christians, and of that number, only two percent regularly share their faith with others, and only five percent have ever led someone to Christ.[8] To make matters worse, the Barna Group recently found that seventy-five percent of Americans who said they were “born again” could not even define what the Great Commission[9] was.[10]  This is the fundamental problem facing Christianity today, as George Barna explains, “The gap between the churched and the churchless is growing, and it appears that Christian communities of faith will struggle more than ever to engage church outsiders…”[11]

History of Soninke People

The Soninke people primarily live along the Senegal River where it enters the western border of Mali in the Kayes, Yelimane, Nioro, and Nara regions. According to the Joshua Project, other small tribes settled along the borders of Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso and due to influence by a large nomadic tribe known as the Fulani, the Soninke have become farmers and herdsmen.[12] One of the earliest Soninke settlements was established in Ghana around A.D. 750 and because of persecution by the Berbers, the Soninke dispersed into small groups within the neighboring regions. The three main sub-groups of the Soninke are the Marka, the Nono, and the Azer. Often, these three tribes are further broken into even smaller clans that specialize in various crafts. Four of the most important Soninke tribes are the Sisse, the Drame, the Sylla, and the Kante. Some of these groups eventually intermixed with the local Wolof, Serer, and Malinke tribes.[13] Today, there are roughly 800,000 Soninke in Mali, making up seven percent of the country’s total population.

Map of Soninke in Mali

Soninke in Mali

[14]

Language, Culture, and Economy

The Soninke are believed to have descended from the ancient central Saharan people and archeologists believe they used to make and trade woven textiles through a process called strip weaving. It was from this region that led to the Songhai Empire expanding across West Africa and some of the earliest evidence of the Soninke people can be traced near the Tichit-Walata and Tagant cliffs dating back to 2500 BC to 2000 BC. There is also evidence, which supports the Soninke were early producers of stone settlements. Some these establishments still have traces of the massive defensive walls that once stood. Mali’s most famous Emperor was Kan Kan Mussa, also known as the Lion of Mali. Under his rule, this became an extremely rich area and during his pilgrimage to Mecca, he brought over one hundred and eighty tons of gold with him. As Global Prayer Digest illustrates,

Looking at the poor farmers working their fields in Ghana, one would never guess that the ancestors of these Soninke people once ruled a powerful empire along the banks of the Niger River. Gold flowed like water from the mines of the Ghana Empire. This people group also once traded in salt, copper and slaves. Then in the 13th century Berber invaders from Morocco drove the Soninkes from their homeland along the Niger River scattering this people group across West Africa and pillaging them as they had once pillaged others. Greed had come full circle.[15]

The social structure and organization of the Soninke are typical of the Mande-related people groups, who speak many of the Mande languages of the region of West Africa. They are now mostly farmers who raise rice, peanuts, and millet. They also raise large numbers of livestock including: goats, sheep, horses, chickens, and cattle. Because little to no fishing and hunting is done, trade among their neighbors is extremely important. While the Soninke trade in the local markets, it is also common for them to travel to markets in other regions to trade their goods. Interestingly, while in the past, the Soninke men worked the land and cultivated the crops and the women worked in the gardens, today things are much different. Part of this may be attributed to their high migration rate, but the primary factor is directly related to roughly half of the men leaving anywhere from two to five years doing migrant work. This is common practice, so the men can send money back to dig wells and provide for their villages and families in ways not possible if they were back home. As a result, the Soninke people have taken on more of a matriarchal society, where the women hold prominent positions of power and authority over the older men and children who are left behind. Recently, two hundred thousand Soninke people up and moved to Paris, making them the largest West African group in France. This has led to many problems in France, partly because of the unsanitary condition they live in and because they brought their religious customs with them (i.e. polygamy, high birth rates, and female genital mutilation).[16]

Religion(s) and Family Values/Beliefs

The poor Soninke live in small villages, with homes made out of brick and thatched roofs, while the wealthier people have brick homes, flat terraced roofs, and an interior court. Houses will typically line both sides of the main road, and a mosque will be positioned in the village square. Much like other cultures, the town square was where the market was located as well as where the religious influences were made known. According to Islamic law, the men are allowed to have four wives and while a dowry is customary in their culture, the payment goes to the bride instead of to her parents, which is vastly different from other cultures. Pre-marital sexual relations are strictly forbidden, so they do possess moral integrity, but there inheritance laws only give daughters half shares, while sons get equal shares, and the widow only gets a one-eighth share.

The Soninke were forcibly converted to Islam beginning around the 11th century and currently Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the Soninke in Mali at seventy percent of the population. Just less than thirty percent of the population is made up of ethnic/syncretistic religions, which are more animistic in nature. As with most Muslims, they follow the teachings of Mohammad, who they believe to be the Islamic prophet. Their holy book is known as the Koran, and they believe it was given to Mohammad by the angel Gabriel. The Muslim faith is centered on the five pillars or duties of Islam. They are extremely devout followers who believe there is no god but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet. They pray five times a day while facing Mecca, they observe religious holidays, and if possible they make at least one pilgrimage to Mecca.

According to Global Prayer Digest, “This Soninke for centuries looked to the north for inspiration, adopting Islam, brought to them by Berber traders from North Africa. Despite their conversion to Islam, some still practice Animism, the worship of nature spirits.”[17] Ernst Dammann illustrates, “Though Islam has gained a footing in these parts of Africa in the thirteenth century already, and though since the middle of the nineteenth century there has taken place an intensive Islamization here as well as elsewhere in West Africa, the tribal religions are far from being extinguished.”[18]

 Paolo Gaibazzi details the influence the outside world has had on the Soninke people stating: “The end of internal slavery in West Africa is generally associated with an increase in labor mobility. However, in Sabi, a Soninke village in Upper River Gambia, economic migration intensified and globalized from the 1950s onward. Although they have since been free to move, the descendants of slaves have migrated less than those of the freeborn.”[19] Gaibazzi argues, “the persistence of social liabilities linked to slave descent after emancipation has partially prevented slave descendants from accumulating the resources needed to out-migrate.” He then demonstrates while emancipation from slavery and migration are usually seen as closely related events, which lead to a free and mobile labor market that is not the case in people groups like the Soninke.

Survey of Missions Work

History of Missions Among the Soninke People

Missions can be dated back to the early church, which shows God desires that everyone come to faith in Him through Christ, but that not all will. Romans 10:13-14 demonstrates the significance of Christian evangelism when it comes to reaching those who have never heard: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” A great example is Cornelius who knew about God, but not about Christ; however, because of his sincere desire to know God, Cornelius came in direct contact with the Apostle Peter who told Cornelius about Jesus.[20]

The first Christian missionary translators began working among the Soninke in the 1980s. While there are only a few books of the Bible that have been translated into their language, they do have access to the Jesus film[21] and global recordings.[22] [23] After consulting with several missionaries based in Mali, it became abundantly clear Christianity came at a great cost. The missionaries consulted for the purposes of this report were very cautious about giving any information, they did not want their names mentioned anywhere, and they all insisted only exchanging information if it happened using FaceTime, so they could see whom they were talking to. All of the missionaries have had multiple death threats on themselves and their families from followers of both Islam and from the people who still follow the animalistic ethnic religions.

One missionary couple had been down there for two years working to finish a complete Bible in Soninke’s native language. They have just come back to the states to raise additional funds so they can go back and hopefully finish what they had started, and they said raising money is one of the hardest parts of missions’ work. While they have many people who sponsor them, the effects on the economy in the United States has had worldly impacts and all the missionaries consulted said raising money has become harder each year. The missionaries who are working to finish a complete Bible said part of the difficulty was there are five different dialects for the Soninke language in Mali alone: Touba, Serecole, Azer, Kinbakka, and Xenqenna. They cannot wait to go back and finish what they started and they expressed gratitude to the instructor who encouraged this project of his graduate students. Some of their work on can be found at http://bienvenueafricains.com/en/soninke/ and at http://www.wycliffe.org. They have played a huge role in presenting the gospel to a people group who had not previously heard of Christ and the sacrifice He made for anyone who would respond. Despite their amazing work and contributions to the Soninke people, they wanted it to be known there are still over 1,800 languages that are still waiting for complete Bible translations, so while Wycliffe just celebrated twenty-three new languages receiving access to scripture, they stressed, there is still much work to be done.[24]

Current Status of the Church

            Seek first the kingdom of God are lofty words, but without action behind them, the result is a lukewarm Christianity. Bruner illustrates, “The church exists by mission… [And] when a church is no longer on mission, it is no longer a church.” The question that is highly debated is whether the church should meet the physical needs or the spiritual needs first. This writer is of the opinion that both must be reached, and through meeting both needs, a bonding relationship will form. In the past, Islam has been the religion observed by the majority and as a result, much of their infrastructure and supplies are from fellow Muslim believers. If Christianity wants to take root among the Soninke people, there are many physical needs that must be considered. While these needs provide great opportunities for God to produce wonderful miracles of blessings and new ways for converts to grow their faith, they cannot be ignored when attempting to evangelize, convert, baptize, and teach the Soninke people.

Known Believers

The Soninke people group is represented in eight different countries around the world: Cote d’Ivoire, France, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, and the United States, with a total population of 2,390,700. Currently, the Soninke in Mali have a population of 1,440,000 and Islam represents 94.99% of the population, with only .01% being Christian and .00% being evangelical. Of the .01% of known believers, 85% are Roman Catholic and the remaining 15% are Protestant. Among the Soninke in Mali, there are very few known Christians and those who convert to Christianity are severely persecuted by the Muslims. This has made evangelizing efforts extremely difficult.

The second missionary interviewed for this report said, “For most Soninke, they have still not yet heard a clear presentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” When asked the question whether it was harder to evangelize someone who believed in Islam or someone who held no religious beliefs at all, he responded saying, “It was easier evangelizing someone who already believed there was a God versus someone who did not believe in any god, held to ethnic religions, or had no religious values.” He also said, “the main obstacle was building trust with the locals and making provisions for those who are open to the gospel.” After asking what role the Holy Spirit played in their mission, he replied: “The Holy Spirit was relied upon heavily and that he had seen the Spirit at work on a constant basis, both in converts and in those who were open to hearing what he had to say.” This writer holds to the belief that the Holy Spirit has the power to undo what happened at Babel, but for missionaries in this region, the language barrier still seems to be the biggest stumbling block to bonding and forming lasting relationships. Peter Wagner illustrates, “An estimated 48% of the world’s non-Christians find themselves in unreached people groups. That means over two billion individuals for whom Christ died will not hear of His love unless someone follows the call of God and leaves their own culture.”[25] A research team from Link Up Africa (LUA) reported, “We know of only one born-again believer among the Senegal Soninke and five to ten Soninke Christians in Mali. This believer in Jesus is like a flickering candle that the Holy Spirit can use to ignite a spiritual awakening to bring deliverance from sin, deception and the bondage of evil spirits.”[26] Darkness, by definition, is the absence of light, and all it takes is one spark to lead to a wildfire revival, with the power of the Holy Spirit. This is currently happening in other regions of Africa and LUA’s prayer is that the Lord would raise up messengers to carry the good news of the gospel across the Soninke territory, so they will no longer be isolated from the knowledge of the truth.[27] From this report and the information gathered from the missionaries consulted, there are now approximately twenty professing Christians among the Soninke people. This is a good start, but there is still much that needs to be done, especially as it relates to forming an indigenous church and teaching them how to evangelize their own people.

Challenges

Currently there is still no complete Bible in the Soninke’s native language, which all the missionaries cite is one of the primary obstacles in spreading the complete gospel and evangelizing the unreached. Wycliffe research shows, “When people finally get the Bible in their own language, lives often change in amazing ways. People are transformed as they are led to Jesus Christ and a right relationship with God.”[28] Both missionaries said it was important to also know the culture and traditions, which meant it was often necessary to go with the flow, almost like what the apostle Paul was referring to when he said: “Do whatever it takes.”[29] The only exception to this notion would be anything that would violate the inherent and infallible Word of God.

While each new day has presented different obstacles, it has also allowed opportunities for God to show up and meet a need. According to Claude Hickman et al., “When it comes to God’s will, many of us want the GPS version of God’s plan, [but] the Bible does not lay out a map, it gives us a compass.”[30] The missionaries said there are still many obstacles that stand in the way of evangelizing the Soninke people. Some of the biggest they have faced were: lack of understanding, language barriers/dialects, or cultural variations. When a complete Bible is available, the missionaries will be able to show how much of their Koran is found in the Bible, and how the chosen people of God came from the descendants of Isaac, not Ishmael. It will also rightly portray Jesus as the Son of God and not just a prominent prophet.

For the second missionary team consulted, they said their end-goal was for the indigenous people to begin evangelizing within their own communities. This model will cause churches/communities of faith to be self-sufficient and become multipliers of people of faith. In some cases, this process can be lengthy, since new languages must be learned, the translated Bible may not yet be available, or the people group may be resistant to Christian missions. This however was an area the two missionaries consulted differed on. One thought the notion of an indigenous church was great and the other had mixed emotions about it. This was something William Smalley believed was extremely misunderstood by many missionaries asserting, “An indigenous church is one in which the changes taking place under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, meets the needs, and fulfills the meanings of that society and not of any outside group.”[31] As Americans, it can very easy to try and duplicate and impose one’s own ideas and values in the people group trying to be reached. This is also an area that must be watched very carefully because syncretism has a tendency to blend a new believer’s previous customs and traditions with any newfound faith.

A great resource in helping to fulfill the Great Commission is the Joshua Project, which is a research initiative focused on taking the gospel to all unreached people groups. They use Revelation 5:9 and 7:9-10 to show that there will be some from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people before the Throne of God. Their goal, through the collaborative efforts of missionaries, is to help define the unfinished task of the Great Commission by highlighting unreached people groups. Their data and information is extremely helpful to: mission agencies, different denominations, churches, and missionaries to accelerate the Gospel’s advance into each of the least-reached people groups.[32] For the Soninke people, they are specifically praying for, “the Lord to send forth laborers into Mali to share Christ with the indigenous people, that Christian broadcasts will soon be made available in their region, that God will give the small number of Soninke believers’ boldness to share Christ with their own people, and that God would rise up people who will begin breaking up the spiritual soil of Mali through worship and intercession.”[33]

Global Connections is another great resource that believes missions are at the heart of the church and the church is at the heart of missions. They illustrate some additional challenges that they have personally faced in country: “Soninke live in difficult areas with a hard climate, their living conditions are primitive, there is little to no technology, they are subject to tropical diseases, and witnessing to them is very hampered by the mobility of the population.” Interestingly, over the last few years, through their continued commitment to the Soninke people, they have been leading a small number of people to the Lord and some have even expressed an interest in obtaining more Christian literature. Global Connections also found the Soninke people preferred reading in Arabic rather than Roman script.”[34]

Proposed Strategy

For the Great Commission to be truly fulfilled the gospel must be taken to every tribe, tongue, and nation, otherwise this commandment becomes nothing more than the “Great Suggestion.” R. T. France further illustrates,

The phrase panta ta ethne, “all the nations,” has occurred already in Matthew 24:9, 14; 25:32, to denote the area of the disciples’ future activity, the scope of the proclamation of the “good news of the kingdom,” and the extent of the jurisdiction of the enthroned Son of Man. In each case we have seen that the emphasis falls positively on the universal scope of Jesus’ mission rather than negatively on “Gentiles” as opposed to Jews.[35]

Survey of Past and Present Mission Work

Missions and evangelism are being done with great success in the “Global South” and according to Todd Johnson, places like “Africa have seen the most vigorous growth, exploding from 10 million Christians in A.D. 1900 to 360 million in A.D. 2000.”[36] This is in sharp contrast to what is happening in America as Johnson demonstrates, “After A.D. 1980, Christians from the southern hemisphere outnumbered Northern Christians for the first time since the 10th century.”[37] Considering in A.D. 1500, ninety-two percent of all Christians were European, the future of Christianity in the south is exciting, while the future in the north is in trouble. For a nation, which was founded on biblical principles, America has hardened their hearts and turned their backs on God. While North American missionaries, over the last few centuries, played a huge role in the outpouring of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, it is now the sending nation of America that needs an awakening and spiritual rebirth.

Larry Stockstill recently said that missiologists tell us that over one million souls are being saved every week around the world and that over 180,000 new churches are being planted every year and even among Muslims; there is a huge influx of Christianity. It is interesting to note, when looking back over the history of Christianity, the times when it thrives were and still are during times of the church’s greatest persecution and turmoil. For example, before ISIS, there were one million Christian believers in Egypt and now there are 4 million.[38]

As Luke Keefer illustrates, “We live and minister in a world that is changing quickly and much. But God has given the church a genetic code, a particular DNA, which gives us an identity in a world that is losing its face, and a mission in a world that is losing its way. That genetic code is the gospel, which has endured from the first to the twenty-first century.”[39] At PeopleGroups.org, their goal is to fulfill the Great Commission by informing the body of Christ about the people groups around the world: who they are, where they are located, and the progress of spreading the Gospel among them. Their vision is to see a multitude from every language, people, tribe and nation knowing and worshiping the Lord Jesus Christ.[40]

Phase One: Going There to Work Among the Soninke People

C. Peter Wagner illustrates, “The teeming multitudes of all colors, languages, smells, and cultures are not just a quaint sideline in our nation; they are America. And it is America that God has called to evangelize, [but] the first step in reaching [people] for Christ is to want to do it. Motivation is key.”[41]

For the purposes of this report, this author has decided to team up with Operation World, an organization dedicated to evangelizing the world. Their key strategy is prayer and Patrick Johnstone believes, “When man works, man works; when man prays, God works, [demonstrating] the ministry of the children of God is not just doing but praying, not just strategizing, but prostrate before God seeking His will, not just clever strategies for manipulating people and events but trusting in God who moves in the hearts of even His most implacable enemies.”[42] They believe firmly that prayer changes people, situations, and even the course of history. Only after prayerfully considering the mission that waits and counting the cost will a team be sent. Given the relationships formed with several missionaries in country and other organizations through the research of this project, it became clear there were many physical needs that needed to be addressed, in addition to the spiritual needs. As a result, the initial team going down will consist of people trained in the medical field, to heal the sick; contractors, to help build key infrastructure and begin work on the multipurpose mission outpost/church; and also laborers to help both in the treatment of the sick and in various construction roles. Another initiative will be the drilling of a well in a key location. Upon visiting the people and discovering where the greatest needs are, the goal will be drill a well very close to where the mission outpost will be. This will act as a central point where people will travel, not only to receive water for human consumption, but also to receive water from the river of life, that will cause one to thirst no more.[43]

After addressing their most basic human needs, the focus will then turn to meeting their spiritual needs. Fulfilling the Great Commission always leads to planting churches and involves three parts: going, baptizing, and teaching them to obey. Beram Kumar, when talking about the Western and non-Western church demonstrates, “We need one another. We need to be careful to guard that relationship. Of equal importance, however, is the need for the Church in the West to move out of the ‘they are emerging’ mentality and recognize that non-Western missions movements are equal and able partners.”[44] When looking at unreached people groups, what separates them from other groups is they lack an indigenous community of believing Christians who are able to engage with the group and have a church planting strategy, consistent with evangelical faith and practice. Emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s guidance is key, as Ed Stetzer illustrates, “Without the Holy Spirit’s work, we are not planting churches; we are starting religious clubs.” The end-goal must be the gathering of believers and planting churches to establish an effective and multiplying presence among the people group.[45] This will be the vision and strategy for this project. Training and equipping the people to do the work is fundamental to the health of the church. The same is true for any church, as it is the job of the church pastors to teach the laity of the church how to do the work of the church. This model has gotten lost, been forgotten, or blatantly been ignored out of a desire to control and do everything themselves, but in doing so, they are essentially robbing the people out of the blessings they would have received in doing the work they were called to do. The body is made up of many parts for a reason and each one contributes something specific according to the giftings God has given them.[46]

For some of the Soninke, it is harder to become a Christian because they already believe in a god, while for others it is hard because they do not believe in any god. However, the majority of the Soninke people believe in some form of god, so a strategy must be developed to illustrate how the Koran is really accounts from the Bible twisted to show it was the offspring of Ishmael that were God’s chosen people. Once the complete Bible is available, this will be a huge benefit to present the entire gospel meta-narrative. Next, a strategy must also be implemented to deal with the animalistic witchcraft currently being practiced. By showing God created all the animals on the earth in the Genesis account would be a good starting point to showing God’s supremacy over animals and man’s dominion over them, once that part of the Bible is completely translated.

One of the biggest obstacles faced in evangelism is explaining how a loving God can send people to hell. In their book, Faith Comes by Hearing, Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson write, “How could it be fair and just for those who have never even had a chance to hear the gospel, which is necessary for salvation, to be condemned to hell? The question sounds powerful, but behind it lies faulty assumptions.”[47]  Morgan and Peterson demonstrate the first mistaken assumption is that, “our condemnation is based on a rejection of the gospel.” They then show Scripture teaches that our condemnation is based on the fact that we are sinners, not because at some point in time we rejected the gospel. Morgan and Peterson then show, “God’s wrath is revealed against everyone who suppresses His truth revealed through creation … [And] strictly speaking, the Bible denies that there are persons who have never heard of God.”[48] Another faulty assumption that will have to be addressed pertains to “a confusion of justice and mercy.”[49] God is gracious and merciful in that He has provided a way of salvation through faith in Christ for those who will accept Him, but God also cannot let un-repentance go unnoticed. Ultimately, God will deal fairly with those who have not received a direct presentation of the gospel, just as He will deal fairly with those who have. God’s way is wide enough for everyone willing to accept it and receive Christ. The most important question any of us can answer is the one Jesus asked his own disciples, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?”[50] This will be the question every Soninke will eventually have to answer.

Phase Two: Setting Up a Mission Outpost/Church and Well

The American Missionary Fellowship has developed a four-tier goal/system of planting churches where there is presently no clear gospel witness to reach the un-churched by: influencing future generations by reaching their children and young people; establishing ministry centers in the areas of trade and commerce, where there are desperate spiritual needs; and by multiplying leaders who can then take the gospel even further, and by developing ministries to target peoples of other diverse cultures. David Schenk and Ervin Stutzman affirm, “Church planting is thus the most urgent business of mankind. It is through the creation or planting of churches that God’s kingdom is extended into communities, which have not been touched by the precious surprise of the presence of the kingdom of God.”[51] Planting churches matters because people matter.

Eugene Scott explains, “One of the biggest mistakes pastors of white evangelical churches can make is not addressing policies that affect the poor. Coming to urban environments and endorsing policies that only benefit new transplants and businesses directs attention away from issues that have affected neighborhoods for generations.”[52] If someone is starving, you should first offer him or her bread for their body and then talk to them of the bread of life for their eternal soul. Efrem Smith says church planting has to be about serving the undeserved, not just following the latest trends: “We don’t simply need more churches… We need church planting and leadership development movements. These movements should specifically center on the empowerment of the poor. This will call church planting movements to connect evangelism, discipleship, and a liberating witness to the marginalized and outcast.”[53] These are whom Jesus sought out in His ministry and Wagner believes new church planting is the single most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven,[54] but as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. popularly said, “Sunday is also the most segregated hour of Christianity in America.”

David Mechanic and Jennifer Tanner illustrate a fundamental issue facing any outreach effort is: “The behavior that the public views as personally controllable is fundamental to whether they see people as sinners or victims. Governments provide assistance to those who are not seen as responsible for their vulnerability. When people are seen as responsible for their life circumstances, there is less public compassion and often stigma.”[55] Making disciples and multiplying churches must be the unified goal. At the first Southern Baptist Convention in 1845, the Foreign Mission Board (FMB) was founded as part of “one sacred effort, for the propagation of the Gospel.” Southern Baptist churches believed that by working cooperatively, they could accomplish more for God’s kingdom. Today this organization is know as the International Missions Board whose focus has shifted from geographic countries to people groups, with a concerted effort to start church-planting movements among unreached peoples.[56]

With this team-focused approach, the goal will be to identify a key location to setup a mission outpost/church, and also dig a well within a close proximity. For the water well, World Vision will be consulted, as they have just dug their 1,000th successful borehole drilled in Mali since 2003 marking a substantial breakthrough in the effort to provide as many as 120,000 Malians a year with access to clean water and improved sanitation and hygiene.[57] Having access to clean water is of the utmost importance, as nearly one thousand children die everyday as the result of unsanitary water conditions. Depending on the location of the well will determine how deep it needs to be dug. The deeper the well, the more expensive it is to have access to clean water. For shallow wells, a hand pump is sufficient and only cost between five to ten thousand dollars. For deeper wells, where a diesel motor is required to bring the water up, the cost can be as high as thirty thousand dollars. However, with the deeper and larger well, the pump can tend to the consumption needs of several thousand people.[58]

The overall goal with the mission outpost/church will be to have versatility with the space, so it can be used for medical needs, teaching, church, and even a place where the local people can come together under one roof. Most of the villages all have mosques, so presenting this location, as a church may be problematic. In addition, Africa requires numerous permits for both building and drilling, and this process varies greatly at every location. The assistance of locals and organizations familiar with the process will be relied upon heavily. Before phase two can be implemented, a significant fundraising effort must be started back home, in addition to soliciting any support from the local Soninke people.

The Stone-Campbell Movement in Mali is a great example of sustaining a long-lasting partnership with the Soninke people. The missionary couple began their ministry in the late 1980s and made the commitment early on that they were going to stay for at least fifteen years to establish a local church that would be indigenous and self-sufficient apart from missionaries and the mission. Their plan was, “instead of focusing on a quick growth in numbers in the church, they concentrated on laying a firm foundation for the church.”[59] This meant a great deal of time and resources were spent on teaching new believers, building cement block structures, establishing irrigation and agriculture projects, and raising up natives to function in leadership roles within the church. This team also used their medical training to help better the lives of those they came to serve. One of the things, previously stated, that must be avoided is offending the Muslims; this regrettably was a reality this missionary team eventually faced:

Unfortunately, as time went by, the work had become more of a “church,” and except for programs on the radio station, their outreach was greatly diminished. When it was still at its beginning and the assorted buildings in the villages were seen as multi-purpose buildings, most Muslims did not object to participating, but when the local Christians insisted on setting up a large sign with a church name and hours for the service, the Muslims quit coming. Muslims do not want to be seen going to “church”. Church traditions are prevailing over the need to reach out to the un-reached.[60]

This is what will prevent growth from beginning and it will stop it even quicker. The mindset of the mission team must be focused on meeting the needs of all, both physical and spiritual, and not segregating those who are not Christians. This is what has happened in America, and as a result, the world knows more what the church is against than anything it is for. Love must be the motivation behind all actions, as reflecting the image of Christ is the ultimate goal and the only way the Great Commission will truly be fulfilled.

Conclusion

This project has given a brief background of the Soninke’s history, language, culture, economy, religion(s), and family structures/values. By understanding the people, their past, and their culture/religious views, an action plan was presented to reach the Soninke people. A detailed presentation of past and present mission efforts was then presented demonstrating the current state of the church, number of known believers, challenges, and successful strategies. Lastly, a proposed strategy was then presented on how best to evangelize and reach the Soninke people. Given this writer’s role as a church pastor, a plan was be designed, which was centered on taking the gospel to the unreached people of Soninke, in the form of church laborers to work among them, with the end-goal ultimately being the establishment of a multipurpose mission’s outpost/church and a water well to provide clean water for consumption. The location picked will be the Antioch of Mali, as this project will be the epicenter of missions to the Soninke people. By meeting the physical needs of the Soninke people, bonding will be developed and relationships will be formed. Over time, this will open the door to meeting their spiritual needs and fulfilling the mission Jesus passed onto the church after He ascended to heaven. By being imitators of Christ and showing love to the Soninke people, the mission effort will have the best possible chance of making an eternal impact.

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[1] John 14:6 (ESV)

[2] Joshua Project Website, https://joshuaproject.net (accessed April 19, 2016).

[3] Joshua Project Website, https://joshuaproject.net/resources/articles/what_is_a_people_group (accessed April 19, 2016).

[4] A. Scott Moreau, Gary R. Corwin, and Gary B. McGee. Introducing World Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Survey, 2nd Edition, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2015), 281.

[6] Moreau et al., Introducing World Missions, 75.

[8] Bill Bright, The Coming Revival, (Orlando, FL: New Life Publications, 1995), 65.

[9] Matthew 28:18-20

[10] Dave Earley and David Wheeler, Evangelism Is… How to Share Jesus with Passion and Confidence, (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic Publishing Group, 2010), 35.

[15] J.S. Global Prayer Digest, “Soninke People,” http://www.globalprayerdigest.org/index.php/issue/day/Soninke-People5/ (accessed May 7, 2016).

[16] J.S., Global Prayer Digest, “Soninke People in Paris, http://www.globalprayerdigest.org/index.php/issue/day/Soninke-People-in-Paris/ (accessed May 7, 2016).

[17] J.S. Global Prayer Digest, “Soninke People,” http://www.globalprayerdigest.org/index.php/issue/day/Soninke-People5/ (accessed May 7, 2016).

[18] Ernst Dammann, Review of La Societé Soninke (dyahunu Mali). Journal of Religion in Africa 6 (2). 1974. Brill: 153–54. doi:10.2307/1594893. (accessed May 10, 2016).

[19] Paolo Gaibazzi, “THE RANK EFFECT: POST-EMANCIPATION IMMOBILITY IN A SONINKE VILLAGE.” Journal of African History 53, no. 2 (07, 2012): 215-216, http://ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1041238287?accountid=12085. (accessed May 8, 2016).

[24] https://www.wycliffe.org/celebrate (accessed May 9, 2016).

[25] C. Peter Wagner, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: On the Cutting Edge of Mission Strategy, 4th Edition. Edited by Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library Publishers, 2009), 577.

[27] Ibid.

[28] https://www.wycliffe.org/about/why (accessed May 9, 2016).

[29] I Corinthians 9:19-23

[30] Claude Hickman, Steven C. Hawthorne, and Todd Ahrend, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: Life on Purpose, 4th Edition. Edited by Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library Publishers, 2009), 725-726.

[31] William A. Smalley, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: Cultural Implications of an Indigenous Church, 4th Edition. Edited by Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library Publishers, 2009), 499.

[33] Joshua Project Website, https://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/14996/ML (accessed April 27, 2016).

[35] R. T. France, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel of Matthew, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 1114.

[36] Todd Johnson and Sandra S. K. Lee, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: From Western Christendom to Global Christianity, 4th Edition. Edited by Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library Publishers, 2009), 387.

[37] Johnson and Lee, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 388.

[38] Larry Stockstill, Why I Give a Flip About Missions, http://larrystockstill.com/missions/ (accessed May 2, 2016)

[39] Luke Keefer, “The Changeless Gospel,” – Ashland Theological Journal 32, no. 0 (NA), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 20.

[40] People Groups Website, http://www.peoplegroups.org/Understand.aspx (accessed April 19, 2016).

[41] C. Peter Wagner, “A Vision for Evangelizing the Real America.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 10, no. 2 (Apr 01, 1986): 59 & 63, http://ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1299982994?accountid=12085. (accessed April 21, 2016).

[42] Operation World Website, http://www.operationworld.org/prayer-and-nations (accessed April 21, 2016).

[43] John 4:14

[44] Beram Kumar, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: No Longer Emerging, 4th Edition. Edited by Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library Publishers, 2009), 369.

[45] People Groups Website, http://www.peoplegroups.org/ (accessed April 20, 2016).

[46] I Corinthians 12:12-27

[47] Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, editors, Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008), 241.

[48] Morgan and Peterson, Faith Comes by Hearing, 241.

[49] Morgan and Peterson, Faith Comes by Hearing, 242.

[50] Matthew 16:15; Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20

[51] David W. Schenk and Ervin R. Stutzman, Liberty University GLST 500, Week 7 Course Content, Fulfilling the Great Commission through Church Planting, https://media.liberty.edu/cqhne (accessed May 6, 2016).

[52] Eugene Scott, “Evangelizing in the inner City: the role of white evangelical churches in urban renewal.” Kennedy School Review 15 (2015): 23. Academic OneFile. http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/ps/i.do?p=AONE&u=vic_liberty&id=GALE|A414840773&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon&userGroup=vic_liberty&authCount=1# (accessed April 21, 2016).

[53] Efrem Smith, “Church Planting Among the Urban Poor,” Christianity Today, 15 May 2014.

[54] Wagner, “A Vision for Evangelizing the Real America.” 63.

[55] David Mechanic and Jennifer Tanner, “Vulnerable People, Groups, and Populations: Societal View.” Health Affairs 26, no. 5 (Sep, 2007): 1221-1222, http://ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/204641146?accountid=12085. (accessed April 21, 2016).

[56] International Mission Board Website, http://www.imb.org/about-us/history.aspx#.VxknPj-J-8U (accessed April 21, 2016).