3 Keys to a More Successful Small Group Ministry

Henrietta Mears: Small Group Pioneer

You have probably never heard her name: Henrietta Mears. But evangelist Billy Graham has written that, among women, only his mother and his wife, Ruth, have had more influence on his life and work than Henrietta Mears. Who was this influential woman and what can she still teach us about small groups?

Henrietta Mears (1890-1963) was a Christian educator. She was born to godly parents and grandparents who greatly influenced her in her walk with the Lord. She became a follower of Jesus at age seven. She suffered greatly with health issues: a painful muscular rheumatism as a young teen and poor eyesight what doctors said would lead to blindness. But, after two years of pain with the rheumatism and friends who prayed for her, she was miraculously healed of this condition. She carried her eyesight problems for the rest of her life but the condition stabilized and she kept her eyesight throughout her life. As an older teen, she thought God was calling her to missions in China but struggles and circumstances led her to college for a degree in chemistry. Beginning in her freshman college year, she led Bible studies for younger girls. Soon after college she taught high school chemistry in Minneapolis and served as a girls Bible study leader at First Baptist Church. In only ten years her little girls’ Bible study class became a ministry to three thousand girls. How did she succeed in such a ministry? She based this ministry on groups of five. When a group of girls reached an enrollment of ten, one of the girls would branch off and start another group. She sensed that instead of missions in China, God had called her to teach and nurture others in the Gospel all over the world.

In 1926, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood, California, persuaded Mears to join his church staff and lead the educational ministry. She took up that call in 1928. The church had a Sunday School with 450 in attendance. In only a few years, Mears led the Sunday School work to an attendance of over 6000 people, making that Sunday School the largest Presbyterian Sunday School in the world at that time.

Mears was always strategic. She never taught evangelism, instead she modeled it. She took hundreds of college students with her witnessing where she personally won thousands to the Lord. She focused most of her teaching skills on college students, feeling that discipling college students would have the greatest potential for influencing the world. Her students did not refer to her as Dr. Mears or even Miss Mears. They simply called her, “Teacher.” Her work produced many pastors, missionaries and other Christian leaders including Bill Bright (founder of Campus Crusade for Christ), Jim Rayburn (founder of Young Life), and Billy Graham. She founded or helped found Forest Home Christian Conference Center, The National Sunday School Association, Gospel Light Publishers and GLINT (Gospel Literature International). Through her strategic work, literally millions upon millions of people have been influenced for Christ around the world.

We will learn more about this exceptional Christian leader in the next few posts. For now, let’s see the lessons we can gain from Mears’ life:

  1. Henrietta Mears was strategic. She thought about which actions had the most return for the Kingdom. How are we to be strategic today? What actions can you take that will likely yield the greatest impact for the kingdom?
  2. Mears understood how God can use small groups for spiritual transformation. Has your small group made plans to start new groups so more people can be reached?
  3. Mears understood the power of influence. She led from influence, not position. Of the two, influence is the more powerful. How are you leading from influence?

Henrietta Mears’ life teaches us what a life, fully devoted to God, can achieve. The influence of such a life last into eternity.

Scripture: Proverbs 31:29-31 is often used to give tribute to outstanding, faithful women. Henrietta Mears in easily among that company.

Dig Deeper: Read more about Henrietta Mears at the “Christian Educators of the 20th Century Project,” hosted by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University.

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