Small Groups. Good or Bad?
In my last post I brought up an ad from a church that was looking to cancel their church service and become a church of small groups. Now, honestly, this kind of thing just doesn’t sit right with me. I also asked a few questions and was very happy to see some of the responses you shared. I think many of you are on to what I am getting at here but let me share my opinion with you (since you shared yours, I guess it is only fair that I share mine).
1. Small groups aren’t bad, just over-promoted as the answer to spiritual growth. The issue is when people imply that this is where “true spiritual growth” happens. Spiritual growth and change does happen in a small group. OF course it does. I’d be a fool to claim that it didn’t. But, to propose that this is the “best” place for it to happen is fairly near sighted. First of all, when a church uses the phrase “best” the congregation interprets those words as “only.” As many of you pointed out, God has used many different venues for “true spiritual change” in your life. You mentioned missions, individual friendships, large gatherings of believers, times of crisis, moments of solitude and other things that God has used to bring about change in your life. When we build a church of small groups, we inadvertently minimize the importance of these life events.
3. God uses different relational venues to bring about change in our lives. Author Joe Myers talks about how we naturally connect to others in four different ways. Public. Social. Personal. Intimate. He talks about how each grouping is just as important as the other for being a healthy person. We all know people who don’t relate well socially, or publicly. Or we know people who are afraid of intimacy. We cannot minimize the value of public and social belonging, especially in the church. I need friendships that are public, social, personal and intimate in order to be balanced in my life and faith. When we just promote small groups, we miss out on some very, very important parts of our spiritual formation.
2. Church sanctioned small group are over rated. Don’t get me wrong here. They are not bad. Just over promoted. Maybe a story will help. When my wife and I graduated from college we were going to church that we went to while we were in college. About that time the church was starting a few more small groups and since I wanted to go into the ministry some day I was a natural selection for leading one of these small groups. When the pastor approached me about leading one I declined. Not because I didn’t believe in small groups, but because my wife and I were part of an unsanctioned small group already. You see, we had four couples from college who were still in the area. They were our closest friends and we hung out all the time. This group was mostly social in nature. We didn’t do any official bible studies, but we did often end up in very intense conversations about our faith and marriage and life. They were our support system for a few years after college. Again, to us, this was our small group. When i shared this situation with my pastor, he didn’t seem so excited. He didn’t say this, but I got the impression that this was not a “real” small group and that we should really join one from church. I felt like I let him down. But, it didn’t make much sense to me to partially remove my wife and I from our deep friendships where God was working and throw ourselves into a small group of people we didn’t know and didn’t trust. See, we connected at this church in public and social way. We were happy with that and this belonging was important for us. We found our personal and intimate faith relationships in the extended Church. Since we experientially learned that we either need to be all in or nothing, we eventually found ourselves a new place to belong publicly and socially.
What is the alternative? Well, as a pastor I do think we should be offering small groups to our people. In fact, I lead one every Wednesday night. But, to say that everyone needs to join a small group assumes that we don’t have significant personal and intimate groupings already. This is just a plain wrong assumption.
Now, I’ll be first to admit that some of our significant personal and intimate relationships that we are existing in now could use some intentionality when it comes to their impact on our faith. So, as a pastor, my goal is not to get everyone in my church in a small group. My goal is to get those who need one into one. But, for those who are already in an unofficial relational small group (like my wife and I were) my goal is to help them think intentionally about that group and help them to grow that group forward in helping them live as followers of Jesus together.
This approach helps those of us in leadership to not say, “Todd (your pastor) loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. Now join a small group. Because our small groups are more important that your already held friendships.”
We can instead say to the people in our communities, “you need to have significant relationships publicly, socially, personally and intimately. How can I help you a) live a relationally balanced life where you are imbalanced and b) be more intentional about having the groupings you already have be a significant and positive part of your spiritual formation?” When we take this approach, we are no longer master planning our people’s lives but helping them cultivate healthy relationships and faith in the places God has them already. This moves us from community being a science and community being something that is alive and organic, and in fact, a bit more messy.
The obvious drawback of this that we can’t control it. Of course, when we launch a church of small groups and only 30% (thats the usual average) of people join them we’re not controlling much. (And, I’m wondering about those who boast 100% small group attendance. Is that just because all those who don’t need one at their phase in life have left the church?)
So, in the end, I am all for small groups. But only as long as we don’t make make official, church sanctioned small groups as more important and effective than the groupings that are already serving the same role in our lives. And, I am all for them as long as we still show that the other relational groupings (public, social and intimate) are also important. (By the way, I don’t think of small groups – usually 8-10 people – as intimate. For me, intimacy is reserved for my wife and one or two close friends – but that is a whole other blog post).
Wow, that’s a lot of writing. I didn’t expect it to be this long. I am not sure if its coherent. But hey, thats the great thing about blog posts, they don’t really have to be… Feel free to push back at me if you think I am off…