The History of Small Group Christian Gatherings

Bible study groups similar to ours have occurred in many different places throughout Church history. After the death of Martin Luther in 1546, there was a gradual decline in the spiritual life  of the Lutheran churches in Europe. In 1675, a man named Philip Jacob Spener wrote a book called “Pia Desideria” (meaning “heartfelt desires”) calling for a “God-pleasing improvement” of the Lutheran church.” Spener’s  idea was to have “small prayer and study groups” of “awakened Christians” for the purpose of “mutual encouragement in individual faith and practice.” This began a movement called “Pietism” which spread throughout Europe, to Scandinavia, and eventually to America. Pietism spurred tens of thousands of people across the world to seek a life-changing personal relationship with God.

In England in 1729, John and Charles Wesley and a number of other Oxford students began meeting together to pray and study the Bible, hoping to grow closer to God and find ways to serve to others. This group was mockingly nicknamed “The Holy Club” by fellow students who thought its participants—dubbed “enthusiasts”—were religious extremists. Members of the Holy Club fasted until 3 PM on Wednesdays and Fridays, received Holy Communion once each week, and studied and discussed the Greek New Testament each evening in a member’s room. They also visited lonely prisoners and sick people and taught orphans how to read.

Following a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit at one of their evening prayer meetings in 1739, John Wesley and George Whitefield began preaching to large crowds and ignited a revival which spread to all parts of the world. The key to the growth of this new movement called “Methodism“ was the establishment of “Methodist Societies” everywhere that they went. The “societies” were groups of people who agreed to meet once a week to pray, study the Bible, encourage one other to live for Christ, and perform works of mercy. They were virtually identical to what many churches now call “home Bible studies,” “cell groups,” or “small groups.” While these small groups seem like new ideas when churches decide to try them, they hearken back over 275 years to what the early Methodists did, what the Pietists did 100 years earlier, and what the first Christians did over 2000 years ago.

In America, in 1858, a prayer meeting in New York City led to one of the greatest revivals in history. It began when a businessman from Coxsackie, N.Y. named Jeremiah Lanphier began a weekly noon-time prayer gathering to allow people to break free from the pressures of their occupations and seek God. On the first Wednesday, six people attended. Within two weeks, interest had increased to the point where the meetings occurred daily. Within six months, ten thousand people were gathering daily in New York City for prayer in various locations. Within two years, the idea had spread across the country and a million converts were added to churches in America. This revival, called “the Prayer Meeting Revival,” eventually spread to abroad and produced similar results in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, South Africa, and India.

Two recent examples of how small Christian gatherings helped to spread the gospel occurred in South Korea and China. In 1950, Christians made up only 5% of the population of South Korea; however, steady growth over the last 65 years has significantly changed that. Through a movement of house churches and self-multiplying “cell groups,” the Church in South Korea has grown to a point where 31% of South Koreans now profess faith in Christ.

In China, an underground network of house churches meeting in secret because of persecution has multiplied to the point where there are now believed to be as many 200 million Chinese Christians. Many Chinese believers do not own Bibles and have to share whatever Bibles are available. Others do not own entire Bibles, but hand copy and memorize individual books of the Bible and trade them among themselves. Despite these handicaps, believers in the underground Church continue to meet faithfully, and their numbers continue to increase.

The Christian life is not meant to be a life of disconnection from others. On the contrary, one of its richest blessings is the way in which it connects people in deep, loving, and supportive relationships. The Christian faith has survived for over two thousand years despite ruthless persecution because wherever people call upon His name, Jesus responds by manifesting His presence and raising people out of spiritual death into the glory of His holy life.

Jesus is still true and will always be true to the words which He spoke to a little band of disciples meeting in the open air on a hillside and soon to be opposed by power of the Roman Empire and the religious rulers of Israel: “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18b KJV).

The Church cannot be stopped because it is eternal and because Christ, who supplies it with His Heavenly life, is eternal. Remember: The Roman Empire and the religious authorities who wanted to eliminate Christianity no longer exist, but the Church continues to meet across the Earth wherever God’s people can find a place to meet. And it is still growing! Hallelujah!

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