Through small groups, First Church helps its members increase their faith in Jesus and their boldness to share about God’s work in their lives.
For First Church (RCA) in DeMotte, Indiana, growth is about so much more than numbers. Though the church has experienced rapid growth in new members, the main focus is on helping each person develop spiritually, in particular through what they call life groups.
“We don’t want people to just enjoy a great message and worship experience with us on Sunday,” says life group coordinator Molly Ciancanelli. “We want them to really know Jesus Christ. We want them to grow.”
First Church’s life groups function like small groups. These communities within the church welcome new and old members, teach biblical truths, and help those involved live out their faith.
Ciancanelli and her team of almost 50 leaders use a combination of new technology and old techniques to make personal connections, challenging group members to ever-deeper levels of commitment. Through innovative technology like RightNow Media, which offers a library of video Bible studies, and a Bible app for smartphones, members can keep one another accountable in Bible reading and share reflections on passages or studies.
Kristin Hill, a longtime life group leader, calls her smartphone “the greatest tool” she has for keeping group members in touch with one another and seeing what questions people have about the readings between meetings.
Aleah Witvoet leads a singles’ group and has seen how connecting online during the week has helped some of the more introverted members engage in group discussions—and with a group that’s grown from five to twenty-two members, speaking up can be intimidating!
The life groups are set up to support people in any age or stage of life. Some topics include Grief Share (for people struggling with the loss of a loved one) and Financial Peace (a course designed to teach people biblical truths about money). Leaders are trained to see how they can move their individual group members into a deeper relationship with Christ.
From the moment someone new walks into the church, the idea is to get them connected with someone who is willing to share their personal story of God at work in their life. Through the life groups and other church training, the church’s goal is for everyone to gain a passion for sharing the gospel with old and new friends alike and for inviting others to be part of the body of Christ.
“Equipping people to share their faith is at the root of all this,” says Ciancanelli. “Every saved person has a God story.” In a systematic and practical way, First Church teaches everyone to tell their Christian and non-Christian friends about how their life has changed since they met Jesus.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Ciancanelli’s own life. Her husband, Paul, had been attending church with her and had even served for a time on the leadership team when he realized that he didn’t have a true understanding of the gospel story he had been hearing for years. Ciancanelli helped him hear the words in a new way, and he recommitted his life to Christ. Now, he lives a changed life, one passionate about God.
Hill and Witvoet have similarly compelling stories of transformation from members of their groups. For some of the women in Hill’s group, this is the first time they’ve been around a group of people consistently and passionately living out their Christian faith, and it’s inspiring to everyone in the group.
“It’s so cool to see people living for Jesus here on earth,” Hill says.
Witvoet admits she was nervous leading a group for the first time last fall, but through mentors like Ciancanelli and Hill and, more importantly, through the power of Holy Spirit, she feels blessed to guide the people in her group. “Knowing the Holy Spirit lives in me and works through me makes leading a life group another offering of praise for me,” she says.
Hill encourages new leaders by reminding them of a fundamental truth: “Jesus Christ is the ultimate leader, and he lives inside each of us.”
For all the life group leadership at First Church, the process starts and ends in prayer—something they emphasize any church should do when working to grow and disciple members.
“We started with a bold prayer for church growth and God blew our expectations out of the water,” Ciancanelli says, emphasizing that “growth” is not just numerical; it’s primarily about seeing new spiritual fruit in people’s lives.
“The last thing we want is for someone to learn about Jesus Christ, and not have an opportunity for discipleship after that,” Ciancanelli says. “Life groups are the heart of Christian community. Without these relationships, there would be no church.”