The Small Group Curse

Pastor Brian Jones hooked me with the title of his re-posted blog entry: Why Churches Should Euthanize Their Small Groups.  As a pastor and member of small church groups myself, my immediate reaction was to laugh.  Nope.  Can’t be done.  Small groups are where fellowship happens.  If you take them away, you end up with a congregation of people who don’t really get to know each other.

As I thought more about it, however, I realized that there might be some truth to what he’s saying.  There may also be a few related truths not mentioned in Jones’ article.  Here’s the part of his article that really hit home:

With few exceptions, modern-day small groups are great at producing:

  • Christians sitting in circles, talking to one another inside a building
  • Reading and commenting on the Bible
  • Ranting about how they long to “get out there” and do something that matters
  • Awkwardly ending their time by praying for “prayer requests”
  • Going home unchallenged and unchanged

You would think that there’s a Small Groups Revised Version of the New Testament somewhere. In it Matthew 28:18-20 reads,

(18) Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. (19) Therefore stay where you are and make Christians of the people you already know, baptizing them in the name of American consumer Christianity, (20) and teaching them to sit in rooms with one another, read the Bible and pray for one another. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

Ouch.  Yeah, I admit that I resemble that description at times.  I’ve seen the fellowship that happens in small groups and I know that it’s good.  But I also think that we fall short when we see that fellowship as the end rather than the means for ministry.  We all know that Jesus called us to make disciples.  Do small groups (as they are traditionally done) really do that?  I’m not so sure.

I’ve seen in the past the tendency for small groups within the church to become fortresses, and while people within each small group certainly know each other and support each other, cross-pollenation with other small groups rarely happens.  The far more dangerous possibility – and this is what Jones’ article doesn’t get into – is that small groups take the place of wider church fellowship, and the congregation becomes a collection of enclaves rather than a cohesive whole.  That’s the potential curse of small groups.  For all their benefits, including pastoral care, support, fellowship, and a sense of “belonging”, there is the very real possibility that they will undermine broader congregational relationship.

So what’s the alternative?  At the very least, churches need to provide opportunities for cross-pollenation between small groups (particularly considering that so many small groups seem to be age-specific).  Fellowship opportunities should be developed with the larger congregation in mind rather than just relying on small groups.

I would also think that churches can still utilize small groups primarily for mission and connection with the community.  Is the small group simply meeting at the church?  Send them out to the local coffee shop instead.  Is the purpose of the small group to gossip or simply spend time together?  Invite them to walk the sidewalks and pray for the people and institutions of the city.  Is the small group just another thing that happens inside the walls of the church to people inside the congregation?  Take it out into the community to develop relationships with people outside the church.  Scripture can still be read.  Prayers can still be prayed.  But when the focus of the small group becomes mission rather than fellowship, I think we might be onto something more closely resembling Jesus’ great commission.

Note: You can read the follow-up to Brian Jones’ article here.



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