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