Nov. 13th, 2016 | The 23rd Times

Faith & Wine/Ale & Why Small Groups are Vital to Your Faith

By Damian Hanley

Small groups are the backbone of a healthy and thriving Church. At St. John XXIII, we like to think of ourselves that way. On more than one occasion from the pulpit, Father Bob describes the Church as the “triage hospital on the battlefield of life.” The small group is not just a pleasant addition to our Church, but a necessity for the spiritual health of its members. Without small groups, any ministry will be limited to what just a handful of leaders can accomplish by themselves.

In Exodus 18:21 (NASB), we read “Furthermore, you shall select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens.”

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There is great wisdom in the people of our small groups. We can’t (and shouldn’t) depend solely on our priests for the love and direction we need. Small groups can help prevent what has been called the “Sunday-Only” culture of our faith. We can’t simply sit and listen only on Sunday – faith is an active, all-week way of life. The opportunities to grow closer to God happen daily, and we need other people to help us see them. Faith & Ale and Faith & Wine Lee County are two such small groups that are growing rapidly in our diocese.

“We kicked off our third season on October 27th, and we’re really excited for this year’s events,” shares Sue Ammon, president of Faith & Wine. “In the beginning, three years ago, we got together month after month and planned it, hoping all along that people would actually want to come! On opening night we had almost 300 women. We were floored! We were so excited.”

“Faith and Ale originated from the Men’s Gospel Forum back in 2008 when we were still Blessed John the 23rd. We actually still meet every Monday morning at 7:00am to discuss this week’s upcoming Gospel,” Mike Lancellot shares.

Even if you don’t know a single person going into a monthly meeting, you’ll at least be inspired and entertained by their slated cast of speakers. Just this past November 10th, Faith and Ale hosted Major Ed Pulido, the Sr. VP of the Folds of Honor Foundation a Veteran’s charity which provides the spouses and children of the fallen and wounded educational scholarships. He’s also a Founding member of Warriors for Freedom Foundation – a leadership institute focused on the mental, physical and wellness support of our wounded Veterans and their families.

In August of 2004, Major Pulido hit an I.E.D, or roadside bomb, while serving with the Coalition Military Assistance Training Team under the command of General David Petraeus. Due to the extensive injuries to his left knee, doctors had to amputate his left leg. During his recovery, he experienced depression, PTSD and suicidal ideation, as part of what he describes as a “deep wounding of a soldier’s spirit.”

He then realized that recovery would become a lifelong process, a process dependent upon God, his country, and his close family and friends. He could not do it alone. This further reinforces the importance of small groups within a larger church. Small groups can provide a sense of family for many whose biological family lives far away. Unlike generations past, it is increasingly more common for adults to find themselves living far away from their biological family. Add the growing number of broken homes and dysfunctional families and you have a snapshot of the 21st century. The right kind of small group can play a vital role in providing a sense of family.

“After every single event, people come up to us as they’re leaving and tell us how much the speaker touched them. They were either struggling with an issue, or – and this is very common – people explain that they were thinking of leaving the Church, but something about the speaker convinced them to stay,” Sue shares. “These are the real reasons we started this ministry and we just get so excited when we hear them.”

Something unique happens in a small group setting, and it’s important we recognize it and explain why it matters. It’s cliché to say that we’re less connected in a world that is more connected than ever, but even if things hadn’t changed, it’s still hard to make friends as an adult! We’re set in our ways. We have a backlog of unconscious prejudice we’ve developed as a natural byproduct of living in our culture. We’re lazy and being social takes emotional energy, which we don’t have.

But small groups are the best place to meet new people, care for others and be cared for yourself. The idea that we can grow spiritually while isolating ourselves is insanity. Getting and giving direction based on spiritual principles must be done in dialogue with our fellows. In our childish minds, the myth of the ascetic visiting a mountaintop to absorb divine wisdom must be dispelled. That’s not you. We belong in community with others.

Dialogue is one of the key ingredients of spiritual growth. If every spiritual experience we have is about listening, if it’s all about one-way communication, then we’re going to miss one of the most important developmental aspects of a growing faith.

“We’ve been really excited about what happens at our events,” says Sue. “The women come in and they’re very enthusiastic. They like their glass of wine and connecting with each other, while eating together. And then after the speaker, we again connect in what we call Table Talk, where we usually share how the speaker has touched us.”

“We have a similar format,” Mike explains. “The men have their name tags with their Parish on them, and we definitely do form friendships with men of other Parishes. From 6:00 to 6:45 we have social time and after the speaker, there’s open Q&A. And the guys love it. We’ve really grown through word of mouth. This past season we averaged 216 men per event. Prior to that it was 174 per event and three seasons ago we were at 145 men on average. That kind of growth year after year means we’re doing something right.”

Despite the large number of people at each event, the social time is constrained to smaller round tables of 5-7 people, so that real conversation can take place. So, if you’re not already a part of a small group at St. John XXIII, Faith & Wine/Ale is a great place to start.

Small groups aren’t just a gimmicky church growth strategy. They’re not just the latest innovation. They’re not just something fun to do, nor are they just something to fill up people’s time.

Small groups are the heart of the Church, because without relational connections, the church isn’t The Church. At best, without relationships with Christ and our fellow Parishioners, we are putting on a show. At worst, we’re wasting people’s time, energy, and resources. Relationships with people who want what’s best for us and who are headed in the direction we want to head, and who aspire to a closer connection with Christ – these are what fuel our faith.

For more information on event dates, speakers and the mission of each organization, visit faithandale.com and faithandwineleecounty.com.

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