Small groups, community groups, friendship groups. You will hear the gatherings of a dozen or so people called many things in churches, but the meaning is much the same. These groups are formed and maintained to help people get closer to each other and to God.

At Visalia UMC in Visalia, Calif., though, they take the ministry aspect a step further. They call their groups Grace groups, and grace is what they show.

It’s a requirement for people who belong to one of our Grace groups do an act of grace first thing.

Rev. Steve Creel
Rev. Steve Creel

“It’s a requirement for people who belong to one of our Grace groups do an act of grace first thing,” said the Rev. Steve Creel, pastor of the church. “We ask them as their first act when they join a group is to go out and give money and a ‘God bless you’ to a homeless person.”

A few people have objected to this, Creel said, saying they feel like giving money could enable a homeless person to buy alcohol or drugs.

“I tell them that when you do an act of grace, it’s just that – grace,” he said. “Grace is an undeserved act, unmerited giving. Our people make the connection that when Christ died for us, it was an act of grace. We didn’t deserve it. Christ did it knowing that some would accept his grace and others would not, but he did it anyway.”

Following that, each group member is asked to perform one act of unmerited grace between meetings and give a report.

The church has about 20 groups, with about 100 people involved. Within the next two years, they hope to have about 70 percent of the congregation involved in a group. The makeup of the groups varies.

One group’s members are all more than 80 years old. They focus on and deal with relationships.

Another group has decided to focus on spending habits and how Christ would want them to deal with their money.

I even have an avowed Atheist and a practicing Jewish woman in my group. They are some of the greatest walking advertisements I have for the groups.

“This one has just floored me,” Creel said. “Long ago, John Wesley asked people to pray about how they spent their money. Our people responded to that. In our group there was one woman who confessed that she was almost medicated by money. Two other women decided they would tithe on what they spend. It has transformed their lives.”

Visalia’s membership is made up of about a 60-40 split of Anglos and Hispanics. Creel said the Grace groups work in the Latino culture as well.

“I can’t imagine any culture in which Grace groups wouldn’t work,” Creel said. “I even have an avowed Atheist and a practicing Jewish woman in my group. They are some of the greatest walking advertisements I have for the groups. Even the Atheist tells people that his life has been changed since he joined the group.”

There is an entire Discipleship Ministries site devoted to Wesleyan small groups. Take a look at the page and learn more about what Wesley requested of church members.

I believe when churches get their people involved in intimate small groups with members who hold each other accountable great things can happen. Disciples are made. Discipleship is taught and modeled.