A Thought on Small Groups

Small groups in evangelical churches today seem as ubiquitous as children’s ministries or even worship services. They are usually “strongly encouraged” by church leaders–so strongly, in fact, that one is often made to feel guilty of serious failures in love if he neglects to join one. “Community” is the catchword; one cannot truly grow as a Christian, it is said, without being in community, which is where (it is claimed) discipleship truly happens; hence the necessity for small groups.

I want to offer a brief and humble note of caution. The first thing to point out is obvious; it is surely a given that we should try as much as possible to conform our church practices to the Word of God. While debate has raged regarding the extent to which our churches should be modeled on the church as we see it in the book of Acts, surely our standard for church practice is the writings of Paul and the other apostles. So here’s the deal: There is no mention of small groups in the New Testament. Apparently they simply didn’t exist. There are no doubt reasons for this; one reason might be that most churches in the New Testament period were small enough to be “small groups” themselves; there was no need to break up into smaller community groups. Of course, this was not always true; the church in the early chapters of Acts, for example, was quite large, and there is no mention of small groups there. But the point here is that small groups are a post-biblical invention.

Does this mean that small groups are therefore wrong or inappropriate? Surely not; most churches and pastors who endorse them honestly believe they fill a need, especially in larger churches. It is true that in large churches it is easy for members to avoid social interaction (which seems to be the goal of many on Sunday mornings!) And church leaders have correctly noted that having no serious interaction with other fellow believers is not only dangerous, it does indeed run the risk of causing us to sinfully neglect our fellow believers. Small groups have done wonders for some; I even recently heard a fellow church member say that it is the single most important influence on his Christian walk, and that without it he would be lost.

So what then is the problem? The problem comes in when we try to make small groups into something they are not, nor ever could be: little churches. How so? Because the church is to be run by God-appointed, Spirit-anointed, church-approved pastors. These men, if they have been truly placed by the Spirit, are God’s shepherds over his church. It is their sole responsibility to care for the flock of God. They are to do this by teaching, by prayer, and by ongoing private counsel and input. My father was a pastor for 20 years before “retiring” to the mission field, and I watched him do this tirelessly and faithfully. Done right, it’s a beautiful thing to see.

In small groups, however, this job is often left to the small group leader–who could be literally anyone. In the church I attend, small groups may be led by anyone who attends another small group first for six months. That’s the only apparent qualification. I have been to small groups where actual heresy was taught by the small group leader. I have known small group leaders who were found out to be serial adulterers in the midst of adultery while leading small groups. And I have seen small group leaders get appointed to lead groups when in fact the leadership of the church barely knows who they are. In many churches small group leadership is a disaster.

Does this mean small groups should be abandoned? No, but it does underscore a vital issue: Small groups and small group leaders are not the people who are supposed to be shepherding the flock. Pastors are. And this takes us to a deeper problem: most churches insist on small groups precisely because they cannot shepherd the masses of people that have gathered in their churches.

Now we are onto something truly unbiblical. Though all Christians should grow to the point where they are to be able to “instruct each other” (Romans 15:14), the obvious fact is that not every Christian is at that point. Furthermore, even mature Christians are not pastors, unless they have gone through the process that we mentioned above–the process that is initiated and carried out by God himself, which leads to one being set aside for pastoral ministry. The incredibly serious calling and responsibility of pastoral work is not to be passed off to those uncalled and ungifted by the Spirit for that work.

A few practical suggestions come to mind. First, we need to stop calling small group leaders “little pastors” or other such titles (as is often the case). At best, they should be facilitators; those who start the meetings and get the conversation going. Second, perhaps the teaching element in small groups should be more carefully controlled; small group leaders should be encouraged to stay on script as much as possible, provided there is a teaching element to the small group meeting (and a script). Third, as an alternative to the previous suggestion, perhaps the current small-group model in many churches, which often does include a Bible-study or teaching time, should be amended in favor of more reflection and discussion (personal application of the sermon instead of additional teaching), more fellowship, and always, more prayer for each other’s specific needs–the latter element being the one that always seems to go missing.

As a side note here, I used to laugh quite a bit at our church in our previous city when small groups created names such as “Men’s Basketball Group,” Ladies’ Coffee Group,” “Bowling Group,” “Knitting Group,” etc. I bemoaned the fact that such “fellowship groups” seemed to omit things like Bible teaching. I now realize that such groups might have been a bit more on track than current small groups, as long as spiritual things and personal issues were discussed, and as long as prayer was prioritized in some way. The key point in this whole thing is not to get more teaching, but to get involved in each other’s lives and provide loving friendship and accountability. Another positive from the “fellowship group” model is that I think it unlikely for serious community and discipleship to occur when groups are composed of largely heterogeneous mixtures: male and female, old and young, married and single, etc. Much more honest conversation can occur if groups are founded on similar life experiences and stages.

Nevertheless, perhaps it’s time for large churches to realize they may have a serious problem. There are theologians who believe churches should never grow so large that pastors cannot adequately care for the flock; this seems to me to be biblically-sound reasoning. Churches cannot simply be preaching stations where people gather around a preferred preacher or personality. Perhaps pastors in such situations should even consider capping growth if their members cannot be adequately cared for. As always here, the relevant issues are not merely “technical” (doctrinal), but practical (spiritual). What is at stake is the growth of God’s people; that every Christian be presented “mature in Christ,” the great enterprise of which the Apostle Paul said, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col. 1:28-29). This goal, the full-orbed holiness of God’s people, is the great and central task of pastors, and it requires specific and genuine spiritual giftedness that non-pastors simply do not have, and which no small group can make up for when absent.

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