The second recommended spiritual disciple of the DOC is personal commitment.  I am not writing an essay on that, because it has to do with the style of life that emphasizes the virtues set forth by Dr. Day in his “manual” for the DOC, Discipline and Discovery, and I covered those in the first nine essays in this series.  In my last essay I wrote about the discipline of private prayer; and in this essay I am taking up the third discipline, small group fellowship. 
            The phrase, small group fellowship, covers a large territory.  Christian small groups are quite varied.  Harold Freer (Field Representative and then Executive Director, of the DOC from 1961-67) and Francis Hall defined the “prayer group” (other designations are “sharing group,” “fellowship group,” and “prayer cell”) as “a small, intimate comradeship, united in a common commitment which through regular group discipline seeks spiritual power and direction” (Two Or Three Together, p. 23).  I would define it a bit differently, though certainly along the same lines.  A Christian small group consists of two to twelve persons who have committed themselves to meet with one another regularly to seek the fellowship and will of God in Christ. 
            The DOC has recommended small group fellowship since its beginnings, and for good reason.  Jesus himself commanded it (Matt. 18:19-20), and history has confirmed it.  Although there have been revivals of Christianity without a prominent preacher or song leader (or both), it seems clear that there have been none without an accompanying wave of prayer; and many times the prayer has been in small groups. 
I will cite only one of the best-known examples from history, namely, the Wesleyan revival of eighteenth-century England.  That revival began in a sense when John Wesley took leadership of a small group prayer meeting on the Oxford campus, which became known (in derision) as the “Holy Club.”  The young men in that group, including Charles Wesley and George Whitefield in addition to John, later became the leaders of the great revival. 
John Wesley’s famous “heart-warming” experience took place at a small group prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street; and John later made membership in small groups the keystone for follow-up and nurture of the converts of his ministry.  George Whitefield, who actually drew larger crowds and had more converts than Wesley, in retrospect said that his converts were “a rope of sand” in comparison to Wesley’s, because he did not nurture them in small groups. 
            As we return to the present, small groups still occasionally power larger movements, but every small group produces beneficial results locally.  First, and foremost, the groups benefit those persons and churches, etc. for whom the participants pray.  Prayer does make a difference.  If we didn’t believe that, we would not pray.  And multitudes of Christians can testify to the power of their small group’s prayers to bring change into the lives of people and churches for which their groups have prayed. 
Second, the group benefits the individual participants themselves; and that is what the next part of this essay will focus upon.  The first benefit to participants is the additional opportunity to fellowship with God and other Christians.  Of course we fellowship with God in public worship and in private prayer.  And we gain fellowship with other Christians in the context of public worship, church school, and service to others.  But the dynamics of small group fellowship are quite different.  The intimacy, confidentiality and small setting provide a place for deeper, richer fellowship and personal growth.  As friendships develop, or grow deeper, in the fellowship of the group, we enjoy one another more and begin to care for and support one another in more direct ways. 
            A second benefit for participants is personal strengthening.  All of us experience difficulties in our personal lives, some traumatic.  Once we are comfortable in a small group setting, we feel freer to share those needs; and when we do, that permits the group to minister to us.  Again many can, and will, testify to answered prayer in relation to the spiritual, physical, and relational issues of their lives. 
            A third benefit is shared knowledge and wisdom.  Many groups incorporate some kind of study into their regular (usually weekly) meetings.  The group’s study of the Bible or a good Christian book enables the participants to share their insights and wisdom with one another, which opens their minds and hearts not only to new light on the meaning of life, but also to the will of God for the group and the individuals involved. 
            If the members of the group grasp the benefits mentioned thus far, a fourth benefit will begin to manifest itself, namely, spiritual transformation.  As we grow in our love and knowledge of God and one another, we are changed.  As we receive the Holy Spirit in his fullness and seek his face in the group experience (along with our other public and private Christian experiences), we begin to grow in the likeness of Christ (or that growth is speeds up).  The very first small group that Tillie and I were part of came about because of the caring attention of a laywoman in our church.  It was 1963, and Tillie and I had just publicly made full commitments to Christ.  Ackey, the woman mentioned, came to us and volunteered to meet with us weekly to pray and study the Bible.  She not only prayed with us, but she mentored us in the faith by means of that weekly small group meeting; and that was instrumental in our rapid spiritual transformation. 
            I already have mentioned some of the characteristics.  Obviously such groups are small.  In my definition I suggested that they vary in size from two to twelve people.  However, I believe three to eight is the optimum number.  Once the group moves beyond eight some of the small group dynamics begin to change. 
Intimacy is another positive characteristic that I mentioned earlier.  The intimacy level is one of those group dynamics that changes when the group grows above eight.  Unfaltering trust among the participants is necessary for a small group to reach its potential, and it is difficult (thought not impossible) for people to entrust themselves to a larger group. 
            A third characteristic is a common goal or goals.  The group needs to decide what it wants to accomplish, with every member committed to that goal or goals.  Growth in Christ often is an overarching goal of small groups.  And prayer for one another and others, study of devotional classics or the Bible, and personal sharing all are common means of attaining the larger goal.  A group may choose to focus rather heavily on one of these.  Or they may decide to work together at all three.  But it must be a group decision in order for the members to commit themselves to it fully. 
            Anyone can start a prayer and sharing group.  The qualifications are twofold.  First, one needs to desire a deeper walk with God; and two, one needs to desire to share the journey with others.  The first step in the process is to pray.  Pray that6 God will lead you to another seeker who may become a prayer partner.  Then the second step is to follow the guidance given.  Do not quench the Spirit’s leadership by self-consciousness.  Share your interest with others to whom you feel led to do so.  A positive result may not be immediate, but God will provide. 
            To draw on my own experience once again, Tillie and I once started a couples group by the praying and inviting process just outlined.  After prayer, we invited another couple that seemed to have a compatible interest and shared the basic vision with them, though we made it clear that we welcomed their input into the kind of group it should be.  When we had secured their commitment, the four of us decided on making an invitation to a third couple that we agreed upon.  Because of the intimacy factor mentioned above, and the busy schedules of the six people involved, we limited the group to the three couples.  We decided to focus on a biblically related study and prayer, though our fellowship and friendship was an extremely important part of the group’s growth dynamic.  When one of the couples moved away from the area, we invited another to take their place; and in this particular case, the change worked.  The group continued as successful as before. 
            Most groups meet in the homes of its member.  Sometimes the members of the group will take turns hosting it in their homes.  In other cases, one of the members will offer his or her home as the regular meeting place.  Some groups meet in churches.  Others meet in a private dining room at a restaurant.  The place of meeting is not overly important as long as it is comfortable and private enough not to distract from the purpose of the group.
            It is critical that members of a group at least commit themselves to regular attendance at group meetings and daily prayer (some groups set a time period of fifteen or thirty minutes). 
            Mature groups can function without a leader; but most groups, even mature ones, benefit from having someone to guide the sessions.  It is easy for a group to get off track and waste time, or to be dominated by a particular participant, unless someone can gently nudge things along and encourage shy members to share their opinions. 
            If groups are vital and members talk about it, others may want to participate.  That is fine, if the group is open to growth.  Indeed some groups encourage growth.  But it is an issue that ought to be discussed during the formation period.  If a group grows to more than twelve, it will need to consider splitting into two groups, or the small group dynamic will be lost.  In addition, the group should not retrace ground already covered to bring a new member “up to speed.”  That can be done privately, or by recommending a book, etc.
            Unfortunately, most small groups do eventually stagnate.  It is important for the members to recognize it when it happens, and they need to be open to discussing the problem.  When the reason for forming the group is accomplished: the study is finished, the sharing has worn itself out, or the prayers are the same every week, one of two things must be done.  Either the group must admit that it has accomplished its purpose and the time to disband has come; or it must reinvent itself: plan a new study, become an intercessory group instead of a sharing group, etc.