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Congregation focuses on small groups as way to build relationships

FAIRFAX, VA. — Folks start trickling into the small-group meeting at Bill and Nancy McKelvey’s town home about 4:45 p.m. each Sunday.
Before Bill McKelvey passes out the songbooks — and before the group digs into pasta, salad and homemade chocolate cake — the fellow Christians and a few visitors talk about their weeks.
Some share medical updates or news about relatives. Others chat about trips they’ve taken or happenings at work.

By Bobby Ross Jr.
Tamie Ross
The Christian Chronicle

December 1, 2005

Folks start tricklinginto the small-group meeting at Bill and Nancy McKelvey’s town home about 4:45p.m. each Sunday.

Before Bill McKelveypasses out the songbooks — and before the group digs into pasta, salad andhomemade chocolate cake — the fellow Christians and a few visitors talk abouttheir weeks.

Some share medicalupdates or news about relatives. Others chat about trips they’ve taken orhappenings at work.

There’s ElaineReeder, a technical writer in her late 30s who first came to the McKelveys’house two years ago, her hair still dripping wet from her baptism.

“Hi, my name isElaine, and today is my birthday!” she declared to the group that first day.

There’s the Lawrencefamily — a dad, mom, son and two daughters who transferred to the nearbyBolling Air Force Base from San Antonio two years ago.

There are Paul andSusie Elmore, one of the few retired couples at the Fairfax church; Tom andAnita Vajentic, both in the Army; and the McKelveys’ next-door neighbors, whobring their two young children to the meeting even though they’re not Fairfaxmembers.


In all, more than 20people crowd into the McKelveys’ livingroom.

They sing for awhile, then share prayer concerns.

Dan Owen justreturned to the Fairfaxarea with his wife, Shannon, and their three children — their 12th move in 14years with the Air Force and a government contractor.

Owen asks the groupto pray for his family. After the prayer, twowomen take the children to the basement for a special study. Upstairs, BillMcKelvey reads the Parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10, as he expoundson Fairfaxminister Bruce Black’s sermon that morning on Christian service.

Describing how thevictim was beaten and left for dead, McKelvey reminds the group that he’squoting Scripture, not a news report from the D.C. area.

The group laughseasily, even as they discuss their own weaknesses and modern-day applicationsof the parable. Finally, Susie Elmore breaks up the discussion by declaringthat dinner is ready.

Reeder is in no hurryto eat, and she lingers on the couch talking while others head to the kitchen.

The Saturday before,McKelvey’s group traveled to an orchard and picked apples. That Sunday,everyone brought an apple dish to the small-group meeting, and Neal Milligan, Fairfax’s small-groupsminister, judged them.

The main-dish winner:Reeder’s pork chops with apple mustard sauce.

“This church, andespecially this small group, they complete me,” Reeder said. “I’m an almost40-year-old divorced woman, and I’m whole here.”


Multiply the scene atthe McKelveys’ house times 50, and you get an idea of the importance of smallgroups to the Fairfaxchurch.

The church gave upSunday night congregational worship nine years ago in favor of small groups — adecision that, while difficult, was seen as crucial in developing relationshipsin the mobile, ever-changing congregation, elders said.

“We hit one of ourgrowth obstacles, and we were trying to decide what would we do to make peoplefeel a part of a family when we’re rushing in and out of services,” said BillMcKelvey, an elder.

He added: “We’ve hadsome high points and some low points with our small-group ministry … but Iwould say that that remains a critical element to this congregation’sviability.”

About half of thenearly 1,000 people who worship at Fairfaxeach Sunday morning participate in small groups. McKelvey said the elders wishthat number were closer to 75 percent.

“Our people are dyingto have a place to plug in, with people who are like them,” said Black, who haspreached at Fairfaxsince 1991. “Small groups are a tremendous success here because of that.”


Janet Hernandez,whose husband, Marty, is an Interior Department agent, said her family visiteda couple of Baptist churches and a non-denominational church after moving tothe D.C. area from South Dakota.

Then a supermarketclerk introduced her to the Fairfaxchurch.

“I asked him how hewas,” Hernandez said of the young man who checked her groceries. “He said, ‘I’mjust living for Jesus.’ I said, ‘Oh, where do you go to church?’”

The mother of threesaid Fairfax’schildren’s and youth ministries impressed her, as did Black’s messages, whichshe said have helped her grow in her faith. She said she also enjoyed thepraise and worship time, despite Fairfax’slack of instrumental music.

But it was a smallgroup that really made her feel like a part of the family, she said.

“They’re very goodabout encouraging you to get into a small group,” Hernandez said. “Peopleintroduce themselves and one of the first things they say is, ‘Are you in asmall group? Do you want to come to ours?’”

Defense Departmentphysicist Will Williamson, his wife, Alona, and their three children wereattending a Nazarene church before visiting Fairfax about a year ago.

“It’s big enough thatit offers something for everybody,” said Williamson, 44, a former atheist from Minnesota who wasbaptized in his 30s. “There is a young adult group for my kids to plug into. …They’ve got the marriage classes, finance classes, men’s ministries, women’sministries, all sorts of stuff. So, there’s always something to meet yourneeds.

“At the same time,”he added, “the church has a real good, strong small-group program, so that witha little initiative, you can get yourself plugged into a small group.”

Filed under: Churches That Work Staff Reports

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