Brian Baker* was firmly skeptical. How could anyone believe that God—if there really were one—would descend to earth, live a perfect life, die on a cross then rise from the dead? It was the most improbable string of events his analytical mind had ever considered.
But Baker was curious too, curious enough to befriend several fellow university students who didn't share his skepticism. In fact, they'd committed their lives wholeheartedly to the claims of Christ.
"I remember Brian hanging around our Baptist student group and getting into theological conversations with different people," said Freddy T. Wyatt, now a pastor and church planter in New York City, recalling those days a decade ago when he and Baker first met. "You could tell he was looking for answers, either to prove or disprove Christianity."
Baker got answers, a lot of them, when Wyatt and several friends invited him to join their weekly small group Bible study led by a local pastor. The group was a perfect fit for someone seeking intellectual answers to spiritual questions.
"I remember we were going through a pretty intense study on apologetics," said Nathan Washburn, now pastor of First Baptist Church, Greenbrier, Tennessee. "Brian didn't hold back. He asked a lot of tough questions. It was great for the rest of us as well because we'd grown up in church and never really looked at [theological questions] like he did. It tested us. It was refreshing."
Those conversations spilled beyond the small group, said Brett Vaden, another participant in the group with Baker and now a school administrator in Louisville, Kentucky, and PhD candidate at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He said the pastor encouraged them to pray specifically both for individuals who did not have a relationship with Jesus and for evangelistic opportunities to share the Gospel with them.
"I never felt pressured to make evangelism something" that had to be done at a set time each week "but to make it a part of my life," Vaden said. "In the course of your day you might have a number of conversations that with a heightened sense of spiritual awareness can naturally be directed to share the Gospel. That's what I think we all did with Brian. . . . [W]e individually became friends with him and hung out together outside of the Tuesday night Bible study."
Eventually, Baker's unbelief turned to belief. Wyatt remembers the night Baker stood indicating he wanted to respond to an invitation to give his life to Christ.
"I couldn't believe it," he said. "It was like at the moment of his greatest belief I became the skeptic. It was a shock for me then to see how God had taken this intellectual guy from unbelief that God existed to salvation. It was an amazing journey for us all."
Ten years down life's road, many from that group have transitioned from professional careers to vocational ministry, or remain active as lay ministers within their respective churches. Many have stayed connected despite their dispersion across the United States. As the three men reflected on Baker's journey to faith and their small group, they offered a number of observations about the importance of small group Bible studies.
• Small groups enable individual friendships beyond the small group, allowing relationships to grow to a deeper level.
• Small groups allow non-Christians the opportunity to observe the Christian life up close and personal by seeing the truths of the Bible "lived out" in the lives of believers.
• Small groups create a safe environment in which non-Christians can ask probing theological questions—and receive genuine answers offered by friends who have their best interests at heart without feeling pressured to "convert."
• Small groups strengthen Christians in their understanding of the Bible, helping them grow to a deeper level of faith.
• Small groups can be effective evangelistic tools when they seek to bring in non-Christians with the hope and expectation that God saves sinners.
"People aren't projects and we shouldn't look at them that way," Washburn said. "Brian was our friend and we deeply wanted to see Jesus change his life. It was a privilege to have a small part of it when it happened, but it really was a group of guys living life with him. That to me is the importance of small groups."
*Name changed to protect the person's identity due to the sensitivity of his current position of employment.
Chris Turner is a freelance journalist living in Brentwood, Tennessee, and a member of Grace Community Church in Nashville, Tennessee.