On Small Groups, Part 1

I get emails. This one is from an employee of one of our more conservative colleges –

Hi Jay,

I just recently encountered your blog and have enjoyed what I have read thus far.  Always like to be made to think!

I specifically read some of your entries regarding small groups.  I am trying to learn more about it from a Biblical standpoint…really, I am looking to read counter-arguments to the side opposed to having them.

Would love to hear your thoughts on that if you have the time.

Excuse me for a moment while I gather my thoughts. You see, it’s been a long time since I even thought in these terms. I mean, in my church we make decisions about small groups in missional terms — how can structure them to best serve God’s mission here in Tuscaloosa? I honestly don’t know the arguments being made against them, as they aren’t being made here.

Background

To begin: you can’t evaluate what you’ve not experienced. Those who criticize small groups inevitably have never been part of one — and certainly not groups such as we have. To test the scripturalness of small groups, well, you first have know what you’re testing.

When we first started, over 10 years ago, we had opposition, of course. Some wanted to keep Sunday night church. Some thought they’d be a failure, so why even try? But these weren’t doctrinal objections. 

And after 10 years of experience, our members would, I think, get angry if someone were to assert some sort of doctrinal objection. You see, wonderful things have happened through our groups. For example, we had one group where a member’s son, in college, tragically was in the hospital and quickly becoming brain dead. The small group kept watch with the family for over a week. They raised among themselves the money to rent a room in the hospital for the parents so they could be there 24/7. They cooked meals. They had prayer circles in the waiting room.

Of course, other church members were there and involved, but the small group was the core that strengthened and encouraged the family throughout this ordeal and afterwards.

In fact, while this was going on, others at the hospital suffering through their own tragedies noticed. They wanted to find a church that care this much. And we found ourselves praying not just with our family but with many other families at the hospital. You see, very few people in Tuscaloosa receive the kind of support this family did.

Another small group has adopted a struggling, minority church in an adjacent county. They visit, help lead the worship, help raise money to improve their facilities, and bring their own dishes to the covered dish meals.

Several of our small groups have adopted community social service agencies, helping them serve those with addictions or overcome abuse. I could go on …

And all of our groups have helped bind our church together with love. People who struggle to make friends in an assembly of hundreds find themselves surrounded by love in a group of 20.  

Many of our groups take on more projects than we ask. Many have participants who aren’t members of our church. We even have former members who still participate in our small groups — for example, a member sometimes marries a member of another congregation and worships with the other church but remains in our small group — even though we have excellent worship.

We have problems and struggles. Not all the groups work well. But on the whole, our groups are an amazing display of the power of Jesus to transform lives, to reshape people into his image. 

Scripture

That was background. Let’s talk scripture (although the background was scripture, too, of course).

We actually call our groups “Acts 2 Groups.” Here’s why –

(Acts 2:46-47)  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Notice that the first congregation met in two places — in the temple courts, which could accommodate crowds of thousands, and homes. A First Century home couldn’t hold more than 30, and that was for the relatively well off. Many homes were much smaller. 

The one thing we know they did at home was eat together. This was likely what came to be called the “love feast,” which was kind of a combination communion and covered dish meal. The sense of the meal comes into clearer focus when you realize that it was, in part, a means of providing food to the poorer members of the church. It was communion, community, and charity all in one.

Objections and answers

Now, the objections I’m aware of would be –

* If we meet on Sunday nights, where will visitors go? How will the providentially hindered take communion?

We have a group that meets in the building every Sunday night. They offer communion. They put up a sign pointing visitors their way. They sing and have a lesson. It’s a small version of church, which they enjoy and which has become a ministry for that group.

* How can we protect members from false teaching?

This was actually a big issue in the literature 10 years ago. Maybe it’s still a concern. We’ve not had that problem. We don’t send elders or preachers around to scout out hints of false teaching. And we don’t worry about it because we know our people.

Frankly, our folks are plenty smart, have internet access, buy books from the local Bible bookstore and Amazon, and there’s no way we can insulate them from the many false teachings that are out there.

But it’s not been a problem. You see, when you’re already teaching the truth, and you aren’t insisting on indefensible doctrines, well, it’s just not a problem. Our group leaders do a great job. We teach what the Bible says, use the Bible as a text, and stay on the same page.

And so I’m inclined to think that those churches that can’t keep people on the same page without strict control are likely not teaching the truth. When their members are freed to read the Bible for themselves, they find something the leaders can’t defend and problems arise. Therefore, if a church teaches something they can’t defend, well, yes, small groups may well come to disagree.

[If the Bible can really be understood by the common man, as we so often claim, and if our members reach different conclusions from the preacher, will maybe the common man is right and the preacher wrong. It's not certain, but it is a possibility that has to be considered.]

Our experience is that our small group leaders grow rapidly when they are given a small group to lead. They find themselves studying to lead a discussion, encouraging members in tough times, planning ministry to the community — it’s just a a great training ground for future elders! And as they study, pastor, and minister, they become much better, wiser students of the word. 

* What if some members refuse to participate?

Some will. Some will be the same people who presently don’t attend Sunday night services. However, over time, you’ll likely find that many who won’t attend a second sermon will attend a small group. 

*How will we deal with the children?

Most churches that offer a Sunday night worship don’t offer any help for the children except a cry room. The mothers just wrestle with kids being trained to be bored in church.

In small groups, the children can be in a home with toys. Some groups rotate babysitting among the families. Some hire a sitter. Some keep the kids with them. Some meet at church and use the playground we have. Each group finds its own path.

* Isn’t this just the social gospel?

Yes, I’ve actually heard that one. Really.

The “social gospel” is about social justice. Ignorant people have confused the use of “social” and the sermons against the social gospel to oppose social events at church — utterly perverting the scriptures. I mean, how many passages are about Jesus in a social setting — a wedding, a meal, a feast. We’re told that heaven will be a banquet. And as previously noted, the early church — with scriptural approval — celebrated a weekly love feast in its members’ homes.

Remember: when the church disfellowshipped someone, the penalty was that the members would no longer eat with the expelled member (1 Cor 5:11), and Paul charged Peter with sin for failing to eat with Gentile converts (Gal 2:12). Obviously, eating together was at the heart of their fellowship.

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15 Responses to On Small Groups, Part 1

  1. cordobatim says:

    In talking with a friend who is an elder, I heard about what his congregation is doing. They are forming "small groups," but going about it in what I consider a unique way. Before creating new groups, they are trying to identify those groups that already exist. They are trying to make sure that every member has a group with whom to fellowship, Christians who will be with them in times of illness or death, people who will notice if they aren't in the assembly. They recognize that these may be a softball team, a Sunday school class, a bridge group, etc. The first priority is to make sure that all of the members have a connection with other members, a spiritual connection.

    I find that a healthy place to start. Too many times churches try to artificially create groups, hindering healthy fellowship that is already taking place. The key is that everyone have a place to fit in, that everyone have other Christians who encourage them and are there for them.

    I won't ramble on, but I strongly believe that some sort of group connection is vital for every Christian. And in a large church, that rarely happens in the assembly.

  2. Nick Gill says:

    I love "Acts 2 Groups" — that is a great way to work our way past the "sleeping dragons" of tradition.

  3. Another way to see this topic:

    Every congregation has small groups. Whether they are organized or not. They exist. To organize them within the congregation allows some folks who've never connected, to connect with others in the congregation.

  4. Alan says:

    Excuse me for a moment while I gather my thoughts.

    Me too. What an odd thing to be against. It almost sounds like "If we're not already doing it, then it must be wrong."

    It is easy to demonstrate that Jesus used small groups, and that there were small groups in Acts. There were also small groups mentioned in the letters (for example, Rom 16). But I find it amazing that this even needs to be pointed out.

    We could have a constructive conversation about what should happen in a small group. (not "should" from a biblical authorization point of view, but pragmatically what would be constructive). Surely imprompteu discussions can be held regarding lessons heard in the large assembly. But I'm not sure the best use of time would be to hold regular, formalized weekly Bible study sessions aimed at the members. That's not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but my guess is that this is not the most urgent need in most small groups. Evangelistic Bible studies, yes. "Love feasts," fellowship, mutual encouragement and admonishment, service to the needs in the small group, and service to the needy in the community — of course.

  5. Matthew Robert says:

    My congregation is nowhere near having small groups yet, but I would definitely like to see it some day.

    One concern I have though is that the small groups would form into "cliquey" groups in the larger assembly—that people will sit with their small group, talk with their group, go to class with their group, and not develop any real relationships outside of their particular small group. Does this happen at all, and how can it be prevented from happening?

  6. Jay Guin says:

    From a reader's email, edited to protect church and personal names —

    Actually, I think there ought to be a bit more
    controversy/discussion about small groups. It can be done exceptionally well, or incredibly poorly. And some megachurches are totally perverting the idea and turning it into something I find quite offensive.

    No problem with what y’all do. I think it’s great, in fact. But a lot of churches do it differently – and poorly.

    My first experience with small groups was at Big Church of Christ in the late 1980s and is the example of how NOT to do it.

    We all met on Sun nights in place of central worship (except that one old class met on Sun nights at the church bldg and for communion, as you have described). The preacher circulated a video lesson for all groups, and then our group leaders led a discussion. Meetings were in homes, with hamburgers, etc.

    Elders were concerned about heresy, so closely controlled lessons and topics, and visited each group to check on us.

    Idea was to provide entry point to invite neighbors. Didn’t happen. Lessons were dull – preacher in a Mr. Rogers sweater talking. No graphics; overly simplistic lesson materials. No depth, and “family group” members were assigned by Elders. Apparently divvied out by age.

    We had mix of young families and newly marrieds. Wide geographic range, so why would I invite neighbor to cookout/Bible study (boring) 20 miles across town?

    And singles felt out of place amongst families with kids. Liked doing away with Sun night service, but the overly planned/controlled “family groups” were a flop.

    In contrast, Community Church is one of the top 10 fastest growing churches in America. They have no Sun night, or Sunday morning SS. All replaced with small group ministry.

    They operate a combination of neighborhood-based Bible studies and affinity-related evangelistic small groups. Neighborhood/Bible study groups may occur any time during the week, so may be a group of men meeting for breakfast, or business women meeting at lunch downtown, or a Tues night neighborhood supper club and Bible study.

    Some are topic-driven, if, e.g., someone wants to study Romans for a quarter. They rotate a lot.

    Leaders are highly trained. No bait and switch – i.e., no inviting neighbors to a hamburger cookout and springing a Bible study on them with the preacher’s video. Just men inviting a friend to a breakfast Bible study, or to watch ballgame with “the guys I meet for Bible study on Fri mornings.”

    The affinity groups may be a golfing group that is evangelistically motivated. So, e.g., golf groups are limited to 3 at a time, so there’s always room to invite a fourth or – if encouraged to play at public courses – the starter will arbitrarily match a group of 3 with a single. And they just play golf, but get to know someone with a shared interest. This is a great example of how small groups can/should work.

    But there also is perversion of the concept. A recently popular concept that sounds innocuous but in reality is odious is “Adult Bible Fellowships” or “ABF Groups. Particularly popular in megachurches and in Texas Baptist churches.

    A creator of the concept spoke to our church (former pastor loved the idea; the rest of us were skeptical).

    This ABF model is called mid-sized groups. It is an alternative to SS. Idea is to have a mix of ages in a group of about 50, which then breaks up into small, affinity-based Bible study groups. Meetings are Sun mornings, but small groups are encouraged to socialize.

    However, they follow the motto of “like attracts like”. So the idea is to group small groups of like minded, like looking, like-everything people in the hopes that their like-minded friends will want to join them.

    Small groups are “closed.” They have a predetermined max number of people. If they reach their target, and they are encouraged to do so lest the leader lose his/her position, then they split into new groups.

    As presented to us, this approach is actually intended to institutionalize our own biases, etc. Small groups are discouraged from cross-pollinating with people who are different from them.

    In contrast to Community Church – where a men’s morning study may have men from ages 22-82, black and white; the ABF small group should be only wealthy couples with children below age 4, and so forth.

    Overly controlled. Guy that presented to us is from Baptist megachurch in Texas. It’s all about self-interested small, closed social groups.

    Yes – it may lead to growth, since nothing is asked of members other than that they eat out with their group once a month and meet in a home once a month. Sickening. Yes – a new form of the “social gospel” you describe.

    So although your church has not experienced the sorts of problems some raise, I would not discount the concerns. But the concern is not with small groups, but how some would pervert them to achieve growth at the cost of discipleship.

  7. Jay Guin says:

    Tim,

    That's an interesting concept — but surely not a very big church. I can't imagine trying to chart the friendships of 700 people!

    These are sometimes called assimilation groups or shepherding groups. They serve to provide the famously required 7 friendships new members need to have and for the purposes you stated.

    In my view, these are good and needed, but over time, they should be encouraged to be more. They need to become ministry groups or — better yet — missional groups, taking on some part of God's mission. After all, you make your closest friends by taking on a task together. If your only purpose is for mutual support, after a while, these groups become self-indulgent.

  8. Jay Guin says:

    I entirely agree, subject to the note I wrote to Tim.

    I should add that for the church to be evangelistic, some groups have to be "open" groups, that is, intentionally looking to add new members. Many small groups become very close. After all, they serve each other in time of death, illness, divorce, etc. Groups that are this close will often not be open to new members, as they share one another's confidences and can't do so in the presence of someone new to the group.

    Therefore, it's important that some groups be formed new on a regular basis, with specific coaching to be open to new members. They'll be less effective in terms of mutual shepherding, but you can't accomplish everything in one group.

  9. Jay Guin says:

    Matthew,

    You're right. It happens. But then, we're bad to form cliques even without small groups.

    I think we actually need two kinds of groups. We need one group of long-time, close friends with whom we can share anything. These may be very small groups — 3 or 4. They may be four guys meeting for breakfast and mutual support. These kinds of groups aren't naturally evangelistic. Group experts call them "closed" groups.

    And then we need intentionally evangelistic groups — where we aren't telling our deepest secrets and confessing sins. Rather, these are about making friends with the unconverted and showing them the love of Jesus found in God's church.

  10. Jay Guin says:

    Dear reader who wrote to me,

    I have no experience with ADF groups but agree that groups that are based too much on affinity are built on an anti-Christian premise. We need to be better than that.

    The three-man golf teams and such is a great idea. It's a variation on Josh Hunt's class doubling idea or the so-called Matthew party. I think there's a lot to be said for inviting the unconverted to a social event, rather than a Bible study. Obviously, some people are looking for a Bible study, but I imagine most of the unconverted are not.

    And so, if you have a party, hunting event, golf outing, or bridge game where you invite the unconverted, with no Bible study, you'll hopefully become friends. They'll notice you don't cuss or get drunk. Hopefully they'll see how well your kids behave. And you'll talk about church and God because they are central parts of your lives — but without being obnoxiously churchy ("Have a blessed day!") In time, you can share your story, invite them to church or to a Bible study or just to a church event — a fall festival, Christmas show, or other "low threshold" event. And you go from there.

    It's called "friendship evangelism" but with the twist that you invite people into a circle of friends at non-threatening events. I know people who can convert someone during an elevator ride. Most of us, however, struggle in this area. But we know how to throw a party or go golfing. It's a great idea.

  11. mattdabbs says:

    I would recommend them read John Ellas' book on building small groups in an existing congregation. It is a lot easier to do these in a church plant. We cannot worry about cliques and what if's. If we believe it is biblical and can accomplish God's call on His people in ways that cannot be accomplished on a Sunday night staring at the back of the head in front of you then I think we need to be willing to go for it. I know that is very simplified but to me that is the bottom line.

  12. Alan says:

    I can confirm from experience that it is not a good idea to separate the groups by life status (ie. separate group for teens, singles, young parents, older parents…) Real families aren't like that. Instead the young are together with older family members who can help them navigate their various stages of life. Young parents can learn from older parents. College students have ready access to older adults to help them with everything from roommate problems to dating and marriage, launching a career, and financial management. Parents of teens have access to others who have already navigated through that stage. Etc…

  13. Jay Guin says:

    Alan,

    We do something of a blend. Our teen program has small groups with parents in with a group of kids. Teens need adults, but they also need to be with other teens. So we have maybe 3 couples to 12 or more teens.

    In college groups, sometimes the college students lead them — builds leadership. Sometimes older adults lead. Sometimes they are in with older adults who have adopted them. But they've had — by far — the greatest evangelistic success when it was just college students.

    Among the adults, we're pretty flexible.

    My experience is that when it comes to small groups, it's hard to generalize. People just don't fit very well into any scheme.

    The best approach, I think, is to be flexible, encourage different kinds of groups, and work like crazy to raise up good leaders.

  14. Alan says:

    When our daughters went to college, my wife and I realized that the campus ministry was isolated from adults — basically a room full of 100+ college students with a 20-something-year-old campus minister. All their services — Sunday, midweek, devotionals — were separate from the adult ministries. So we spent the next few years as "mom and dad" to the campus ministry. We attended all their events, had them into our home, taught them the Bible, and did lots of counseling. We brought in other adult couples to help with that. We organized career planning workshops for them. We had financial workshops for engaged couples. etc… It made a huge difference, although we could have used more adult couples to help.

    The students *really* appreciated it. Years later, I still get entusiastic comments about those times from those former students when I see them. Perhaps surprisingly, these college students appreciated the guidance from older adults. There was nothing *uncool* about it. We didn't try to act like college students!

    College students are at a critical point in their lives, where they need guidance in many crucial areas. They are living away from their parents for the first time. They have roommates for the first time. They are managing their own finances for the first time. They are dating, getting engaged, getting married, choosing careers, interviewing for jobs… Essentially they are defining who they will be for the rest of their lives. They need guidance from someone who has done all those things and has demonstrated good outcomes from their decisions.

  15. Bob Brandon says:

    My experience with small groups was nearly 20 years ago when I attempted graduate school at Tulane before deciding that law school at Tennessee was a better way to go.

    I attended Carrollton Avenue with a handful (and I mean handful) of fellow college students, and we all became active in IVCF. It was a good opportunity to be non-denominational, and those of us who were interested received excellent small groups training. Small groups in InterVarsity is not so much about a teacher and students as it is about students with a fellow student as a moderator. IVCF small group materials are not so much about doctrinal abstracts as they are about getting people to engage with the text responsibly, find underlying principles to bring forward to the present, and leaving room for each person to find the appropriate application.

    In that setting and under those conditions, the stress level of small groups among all participants drops dramatically. No one has to be put on the spot, and hopefully everyone leaves with something that is helpful in each one's Christian walk. We leave edified and thoughtful.

    It was simply great and did much to undo a great deal of inappropriate sectarian baggage. I look back on those days with a great deal of appreciation.

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