Hero Image

The Daring Idea of Small Groups

A Short History of a Common Ministry

ABSTRACT: The small group has not always been a feature of Christian church life, even for Protestants. Among evangelicals, the small group traces its origins to two parallel lines of development in the sixteenth century. In Germany, the Lutheran Pietist Philipp Jakob Spener used small groups to revive experiential faith in Christ. In England, the Anglican Anthony Horneck employed them to channel the zeal of earnest young men. The small group later became a vital means in the movements of the Moravians and Methodists and, partly because of them, throughout the churches of the First Great Awakening. Alongside its role in fostering awakening, the small group realized the Reformation ideal of the priesthood of all believers, inviting ordinary Christians to meet, sing, pray, and mutually encourage each other’s faith.

One warm Sunday morning in July 1669, a 34-year-old minister mounted the pulpit in the principal church in the city of Frankfurt and looked out over a congregation that seemed to have the form but not the power of godliness. Young as he was, he was the senior Lutheran pastor in this important city of fifteen thousand people, and he supervised a number of congregations and at least eleven other ministers. As he stood in the pulpit that morning, though, he longed for a deeper spiritual renewal of the people gathered there. They seemed sermon-proof.

The glory days of Martin Luther and the German Reformation were long past, and for a whole generation now there had been bitter religious strife between Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics. The strife led to a war in Europe that had lasted most of his life and had only recently ended with an uneasy détente. It left Frankfurt a divided city with a merely superficial Christian faith. The old strategy of enforced uniformity and top-down reform, imposed by civic rulers and ministers, was clearly not going to work. One could no longer hope to achieve conformity to high religious standards through law, custom, and sermon-scolding. And in any case, doctrinal rectitude and moral propriety were not the essence of religion. A second Reformation was needed, one that would reach the heart.

So, instead of using the old ways, this young minister reached out on this particular Sunday morning with a daring proposal. In his student days, he had been part of a small group that met for Bible study and hymn-singing, and he knew about various house groups common in other places. How about if here in Frankfurt, then, after Sunday service, a group of friends might meet for convivial conversation, but instead of drinking and playing cards, they might read devotional books together or discuss the sermon? They could “speak with one another about the divine mysteries, and the one who received most from God would try to instruct his weaker brethren.”1

By the following year, these weekly private meetings were established and began to attract women and men from all classes of society in growing numbers. It was the beginning of small-group ministry within the church.

‘Ancient and Apostolic Church Meetings’

The pastor’s proposal sounds so humdrum today, when most of us take small groups for granted. But as implausible as it seems, this moment was a watershed. Until then, small groups or private house meetings tended to be regarded as schismatic, and they were looked upon as the sectarian resort of mystics and radicals. Now it was suggested that these groups could serve as little renewal cells within the church itself. It would take some discipline to make sure they didn’t sheer off into separatist conventicles, but why not keep the fire in the fireplace?

The proposal offered to the Frankfurt congregation that morning marked the start of a practice of incorporating voluntary small groups into the ongoing life of the church as a means of spiritual vitality. These were sometimes described in Latin as ecclesiola in ecclesia, or “a small church within the church.” They were also described as collegia pietatis, or “gatherings for religious devotion.” Those small groups among university students were later called collegia philobiblicum, or “gatherings for the love of all things biblical.” It is perhaps ironic that a practice that would become so popular among ordinary believers began with so many academic-sounding titles. Essentially, these were seventeenth-century home groups.

The minister who rose to preach that July morning in 1669 was Philipp Jakob Spener (1635–1705), and he had been raised and trained as an impeccably orthodox Lutheran. His concern for renewal within the church by such means as these small groups channeled a general “movement for piety” into the more formal Pietist movement in Lutheran Germany. The manifesto was a little book that Spener produced in 1675, six years after the sermon. It expanded on his program. Entitled Pia Desideria (Heartfelt Longings), it presented his hope for “a more extensive use of the word of God among us.”2 In other words, he wanted to see Scripture used in ways beyond the Sunday sermon. How could the power of God’s word be truly released through the priesthood of all believers in a way more extensive and personal? How might the word of God stimulate spiritual renewal?

Spener reminded his readers that this was Luther’s chief concern and the reason he translated the Bible into German in the first place. Luther did not want people reading even his own writings to the neglect of Scripture. So, Spener proposed that families regularly read Scripture together in the home, and he thought it would be good to read book by book through the Bible in church services too. But then listen to how he describes what today we might just call a home Bible study: “It would perhaps not be inexpedient (and I set this down for further and more mature reflection) to reintroduce the ancient and apostolic kind of church meetings.” He must have been thinking of passages such as Colossians 4:14, where the apostle Paul sends greetings to “Nympha and the church in her house,” together with 1 Corinthians 14:26–40, where Paul instructs believers to speak one at a time when exercising their gifts. Spener suggested, accordingly, that

one person would not rise to preach (although this practice would be continued at other times), but others who have been blessed with gifts and knowledge would also speak and present their pious opinions on the proposed subject to the judgment of the rest, doing all this in such a way as to avoid disorder and strife.

This was clearly not the place for a theological brawl: there had been enough of that in the past. Here, instead, laypeople and minsters would together “take up the Holy Scriptures, read aloud from them, and fraternally discuss each verse in order to discover its simple meaning and whatever may be useful for the edification of all.” As Spener said, “Not a little benefit is to be hoped for from such an arrangement.”3 So it proved.

Small groups have been a part of Protestant evangelical religious life ever since. When I was a young person involved in high school and college ministry in the late 1970s and 1980s, I was trained to lead small-group inductive Bible studies by a leader from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I still have a little book from those years, Leading Bible Discussions, that I just pulled off my shelf. It was originally published in 1967, but as I leaf through it now, the continuity with Spener’s program is remarkable. Group Bible study and prayer would, it says, open up the group “to a deeper work of the Holy Spirit in promoting obedience to Jesus Christ.” I did not know I was part of a collegia philobiblicum. Evidently, three hundred years after Spener’s original proposal to his Frankfurt congregation, there was still the expectation among evangelicals in my generation that “not a little benefit is to be hoped for from such an arrangement.”

Wesley’s Fetter Lane Society

Spener’s program soon expanded. Sixty years later, on the evening on January 25, 1736, an earnest 32-year-old Anglican minister named John Wesley was on board a ship in the North Atlantic, bound for Georgia along with a group of mission-minded, German-speaking believers. He was intrigued and was teaching himself German to be able to converse more with them. On this evening, however, the third in a series of violent storms descended upon them all with such fury that the sea broke over the deck, covering the ship from stem to stern, and splitting the mainsail. People screamed, cried out, and trembled, and even Wesley later confided to his diary, “storm very high . . . a little afraid.”4 Yet, he noticed that throughout the panic the German believers maintained their calm and continued singing hymns and praying together. There was something about the quality of their shared life and simplicity of their faith that was different. It was deeply attractive to Wesley.

The believers Wesley encountered were the Renewed Moravian Brethren, a group of erstwhile central European exiles who had come together under the guidance of Count Nicolaus von Zinzendorf on his estate in Saxony nine years earlier, near where today the borders of Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic meet. The godson of Spener, Zinzendorf shared many Pietist ideals, but what emerged under his leadership was new. The Renewed Moravian Brethren, as a distinct movement, came out of a revival in 1727 among these refugees. A church service on August 13 turned into a kind of Protestant Pentecost, where the many became one.

“Across the North Atlantic, small-group devotion was at the heart of the awakening.”

Spiritually, this dynamic drove the Moravian Brethren in two directions: inward, in an intensity of community life together; and outward, in missionary enterprise to places like Georgia and the American frontier. Although they differed with their Pietist forebears over various theological issues and were more ecumenically minded, they carried forward the ideal of small-group fellowship and heartfelt, personal devotion to Christ. At the core of their common life were small bands of perhaps eight to ten believers, meeting together for fellowship. When Wesley encountered them, he thought maybe he had discovered a kind of pure remnant of the early church. He would in turn carry forward their devotional ideals in English Methodism.

In fact, four years after that terrible storm at sea, Wesley was back in central London and working with the Moravian Brethren to establish a religious society at 33 Fetter Lane (near the Chancery Lane Tube station). Spener would easily have recognized their program. Several years ago, I looked at a manuscript record of the original rules of this society, kept in the Moravian records in Germany. The front cover says, “Rules & Orders of a Religious Society meeting in Fetter Lane, 1738, May 1. Brethren and Methodists.” A 25-year-old Moravian minister named Peter Boehler was the guiding spirit, but the initial members listed, in addition to Wesley, eight working men: a brasier, a poultry-seller, a clog-maker, a bookseller, a wine dealer, a barber, and an attorney — all members of the Church of England. This was a typical size for a Moravian-inspired band, or small group. They soon expanded to form multiple bands, including some for women.

It was quite moving for me to read the first few rules this group set for itself, and to see how earnest they were. “That they will meet together once a week, to confess their faults to one another, & pray for one another, that they may be healed.” It appears they met in the evening for about two hours. The rule was, “That each person in order speak freely, plainly, & concisely as he can, the state of his heart, with his several temptations and deliverances, since the last time of meeting.” Corresponding to this level of sharing was a commitment to confidentiality: “That nothing which is said in this conference be by any means mentioned out of it.” All this was bookended or contained by prayer: “That every meeting be begun & ended with singing & prayer.”5

Moravians and Methodists

Parallel lines of development converged in this Fetter Lane Society. There was the line that can be traced from Spener through Zinzendorf to the Moravian Brethren. But there was another remarkably similar line of development in England itself. Here we must pause and go back again to the seventeenth century, before returning to Wesley and the story of Fetter Lane.

Only four years older than Spener, Anthony Horneck (1641–1697) was born about twenty miles from Frankfurt. He was raised Reformed, rather than Lutheran, but he shared many of Spener’s ideals and carried these in his luggage, as it were, when he moved to England in 1661 and became an ordained Anglican minister. About the time that Spener’s Pia Desideria was having an impact in Germany, Horneck’s heart-searching sermons in London caused a spiritual awakening among a large number of earnest young men who were “touch’d with a very affecting sense of their sins.”6 Horneck knew exactly what to do. He organized them into small groups and gave them rules to order their common life together. This was to do for the Anglican church what Spener did for Lutheran church. If anything, though, it was more tightly mortised to a high Anglican ethos, and the focus was upon the quest for holiness. We would not go too far wrong to describe it as a kind of high-church Anglican pietism.

These were not separatist Puritan conventicles; they were renewal cells or ecclesiolae subject to the authority and sacramental life of the church. But they became popular. A contemporary wrote, “Many, in and about London, began to meet often together, both for devotion and for their further instruction: things of that kind had formerly practiced only among the puritans and dissenters; but these were of the Church, and came to their ministers to be assisted with forms of prayer and other directions.”7 The heightened moral concern of these small groups is reflected in their first rule, “that all . . . should resolve upon an holy and serious life.”8 Another clue to the ethos of these groups can be inferred from a popular spiritual handbook written by Horneck during these years with the splendid title The Happy Ascetick (1681). The so-called “holy club” that Wesley formed at Oxford in 1729 was in continuity with these disciplined Anglican religious societies that go back to the ministry of Horneck. Since at least 1725, Wesley had himself been one of these young men on an earnest quest for “an holy and serious life.”

However, the Fetter Lane Society, with its small groups, was formed later, at a critical period in early May 1738. It owed something to both the Pietist and Anglican ideals for small-group devotion, and it outwardly looked a lot like the bands organized by Horneck. But this was the very month that John Wesley and his brother Charles would each experience a crisis that led to a profound evangelical conversion. They came to realize that no amount of moral earnestness would be enough to bring them peace with God. John Wesley went along to a religious society meeting in London on May 24 and “felt his heart strangely warmed” as someone read from Luther on the meaning of faith in Christ. Wesley said, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins.”9 His brother had a similar spiritual breakthrough three days earlier.

Nerve Center of Spiritual Awakening

It was this Wesleyan and Moravian dynamic of evangelical conversion that turned Fetter Lane into the nerve center of spiritual awakening across London and beyond in the late 1730s and the 1740s. As the fires of evangelical revival spread, the fervor of small-group religion branched out too. As one historian observed, “Certainly the cell, the koinonia, the society, was at the heart of the Revival.”10 And in the newly expanding social space of a democratizing world, these voluntary groups had great appeal. In 1745, Wesley reminded his Methodist followers that a distinguishing feature of their societies is that they were freely gathered together and they “do still subsist without Power.”11

“As the fires of evangelical revival spread, the fervor of small-group religion branched out too.”

From this point forward, the eighteenth-century evangelical awakening in the North Atlantic, as in the earlier Anglo-German context, would have a local cellular structure. Whether in the Methodist band meetings, or the Moravian Singstunde or quarter-hour meetings, or the lay prayer meetings in the parishes of Congregationalists in New England, the ideal of the ecclesiola spread far and wide. It was a vital expression of evangelical devotion. As the single mother Margaret Austin wrote to Charles Wesley in 1740 after evangelical preaching touched her conscience, “I had a strong Desire to get into the Bands: I went to the Reverend Mr John Wesley and he admitted me. And the first night we met, hearing the others tell the State of their Souls — it was of much strength to me to speak of the State of mine.” Almost immediately after Sarah Osborn’s conversion in Newport, Rhode Island, across the Atlantic, she began to meet with a number of young women who were spiritually awakened to a concern for their souls, and, as she later put it, they would “converse on vital and experimental religion.” John Newton described the believers in his Anglican parish in the English Midlands in Pietist terms as “Ecclesia intra Ecclesium [sic],” adding, “and it is much the same in all the parishes where the Lord has placed awakened ministers.”12 Across the North Atlantic, small-group devotion was at the heart of the awakening.

Newton wrote a hymn to dedicate a new meeting place for his religious society, and its first stanza communicates something of the hopes for these small groups. It was a prayer for a deep experience of peace with God and spiritual communion with other believers:

Within these walls let holy peace,
And love, and concord dwell;
Here give the troubled conscience ease,
The wounded spirit heal.13

It is a lovely picture of the small group as a place for the healing of wounds and for mutual concord. His friend the poet William Cowper wrote a hymn likewise for opening a new place for prayer, and he recognized that women and men genuinely encountered God here, outside of the church building:

Jesus, where’er thy people meet,
     There they behold thy mercy-seat;
Where’er they seek thee thou art found,
     And every place is hallowed ground.14

We could continue to trace the history of small groups and voluntary societies down the centuries into the era of home and foreign missions and the expansion of evangelical faith across the globe, up to the Chinese house churches in the East and the Alpha course in the West. But this is enough to get a sense of the origin of the “small church within the church” and the critical role these groups played in the rise of evangelicalism.

Leaders such as Spener knew that the dynamism of lay voluntarism released in these small groups could overspill the container. The fire could break out of the fireplace. Small groups could become dangerous or schismatic. As William Cowper once put it, “Instrumentality is generally taken up with some reluctance, and laid down with a great deal more.”15 In other words, it might be hard to get lay people going, but it can be even harder to get them to stop. Still, Spener and Wesley and all these others thought it was worth it. The water of the Spirit could be kept flowing within the high banks of the church. And the possibilities for spiritual vitality were endless.

Realizing Luther’s Ideal

In conclusion, we might ask what some of the qualities were that marked these groups distinctively and made them a spiritual powerhouse for the reviving of vital faith in Christ. We can identify several features just in outline. Probably most importantly, these groups were clear in their aims to foster a real, lived experience of the Christian faith. These were not book clubs, lifestyle enclaves, or discussion groups. These were places for those who were serious about the life application of the teaching of Scripture. To this end, these groups invited honest sharing of personal successes and failures in the Christian life. Absolute confidentiality was the corollary of this honest sharing and essential to building trust in one another. The freedom of the individual was contained within a structure of accountability and discipline, with high expectations of one another. Thus, almost all of these groups set out their own ground rules in one form or another. Still, the experience of a shared spiritual life meant that these groups were not simply an adjunct to real church, but the deep bonds of spiritual kinship that were forged made these groups a profound manifestation of the church.

The Pietist small groups in particular witnessed to the power of reading Scripture with others, sharing insight mutually together, as something spiritually enlarging and “for the edification of all.” With the Moravians and Methodists, these groups were also harnessed for mission and service, looking outward and not just inward. And even though these groups were typically small in number, it seems that they almost always sang hymns together, incorporating worship and prayer into their common life. In sum, these groups were a realization of Luther’s ideal of the priesthood of all believers. We can minister God’s grace to one another.

“These groups were a realization of Luther’s ideal of the priesthood of all believers.”

Finally, it is good to remember that there may come a day when the small group is all we have. In the period between the beginning of Spener’s reform and Wesley’s, there is an important story about small groups sustaining the faith of a repressed people. Silesia is a region that today overlaps the Czech Republic and the area bordering it in Poland. This area was at one time ruled by Protestants, and the Pietists had a huge influence there. When their rulers were replaced by a harsh Catholic regime, the Protestants lost almost all their churches overnight.

All of a sudden, the small home groups that were meant to help keep church life vital were all you had. Your Bible study was your underground church. Itinerant leaders connected these home groups, and out of this hard-pressed community of beleaguered Protestants came a revival in 1718 that spread down the Oder River valley. It began with small groups of children of about middle-school age, gathering at intervals during the day to pray and sing. The parents would form a ring on the outside and watch on in tears as the children prayed. It was families and individuals connected to this revival who ultimately would end up on Zinzendorf’s estate as exiles. This was in fact one of the taproots of the evangelical revival across the whole North Atlantic. As in time past, small groups may yet prove to be more important than we ever imagined.

  1. Quoted in the introduction to Philip Jacob Spener, Pia Desideria, trans. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964), 13. 

  2. Spener, Pia Desideria, 87. 

  3. Spener, Pia Desideria, 89–90. 

  4. The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, vol. 18, Journals and Diaries 1 (1735–1738), ed. W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988), 345. 

  5. Rules and Orders of a Religious Society Meeting in Fetter Lane, ms. R13.A19.2, Unitätsarchiv, Herrnhut, Germany. 

  6. Scott Thomas Kisker, “Anthony Horneck (1641–1697) and the Rise of Anglican Pietism” (PhD diss., Drew University, 2003), 116. 

  7. Gilbert Burnet, Bishop Burnet’s History of His Own Time in Two Volumes, vol. 2 (London: W. Smith, 1840), 700. 

  8. Kisker, “Anthony Horneck,” 121. 

  9. Wesley, Journals and Diaries 1, 250. 

  10. Gordon Rupp, Religion in England, 1688–1791 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 330. 

  11. John Wesley, Advice to the People Call’d Methodists (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1745), 6. 

  12. I cite these examples in Hindmarsh, The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism: True Religion in a Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 54–55. 

  13. John Newton and William Cowper, Olney Hymns (London, 1779), 234. 

  14. Newton and Cowper, Olney Hymns, 234. 

  15. Quoted in Hindmarsh, John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 212.