Thinking about Small Groups

I’m not too acquainted with small groups, and I won’t pretend to know all there is about small groups. However, there seems to be a need for solid implementation of small groups in today’s churches, and I happen to be one of the guys responsible for the upkeeping and growth of the small group ministry at my church. Thus, it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a while and have studied in relative detail. By learning from others who have studied the topic more, experienced the idea in more depth, I have theoretically come up with some sort compilation of factors and thoughts into small groups ministry in the church. With time, I’m hoping these theories are fleshed out into experiences. Surely, there will be successes and failures, but theories will not always remain theories. Also, not every program or method is a shoe that fits all feet. Churches are, after all, filled with sinners with different needs and origins. A more careful and contextual application of small groups must be made for each respective ministry. Still, I hope to find this useful in fleshing out the thoughts in my head on paper. I’ve surely found it edifying and encouraging in picking off of others who have contributed much to the way I have come to find small groups as effective and needed and today’s church.

Before dipping into the promotion of small groups, my desire is to show that small groups are a subset of the bigger picture in the church. When looking at the centrality and importance of the local church, I believe small groups can be better emphasized as a necessity in today’s society.

In the midst of hardship and oppression, Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted the privilege of living amongst other Christians[1] and called physical presence of other Christians “a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”[2] Indeed, he wrote in a time when the things we take very much for granted were stripped from him. When facing opposition to the heralded truth, conveniences and comforts of the presence of likeminded servants of Christ became a rarity. I believe this to be a harsh reminder for us today who worship freely and neglect corporate worship all the more freely. Yet, Christ promises his presence in a community that proclaims the gospel message (Matt. 16:18), and it is him we proclaim to our community in an age of secularism. This kind of community is formed by the Word of God, as the church is the creation of the Word (creatura verbi) and not a separate entity apart from it.[3]

If the Word creates a community and Christ promises his allegiance to that community, it is through this kind of community that spiritual growth happens. Lord’s Day worship is not only mandated in Scripture, it is for the benefit of those involved in it. Luke 4:16 says that Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath Day “as was his custom.” Christ, as the second person of the Trinity, was present in the midst of sinful leadership and mistakes present in the congregation. Yet, he persisted on honoring the Lord’s Day by spending it with the community every week.[4] If the Son of God found it necessary to honor the Lord’s Day, should this not allow us to think of the importance of the day? Becoming a member of the body of Christ is a sacrificial act and process. Yet, think of the beauty of this process when numbers of sinners are thinking sacrificially for the sake of others when grounded in the sacrifice of the Son for their lives! Mark Dever promotes this kind of sacrifice in the body as he writes, “In becoming a member of the church, we are grasping hands with each other to know and be known by each other. We need individually to covenant together with others to follow Christ.”[5]

My argument for small groups as a necessity in churches (especially for those churches that are larger in number) is that it serves the purpose of the church. In addition, small group ministries help the church in the hurdles of culture’s effects on the mindsets of today’s Americans. One of the biggest hurdles today is the all too prevalent problem of narcissism. In American today, narcissism is found in 1 in 10 in their twenties and 1 in 16 of all ages in America today. Since the 1980’s narcissistic personality traits have risen just as rapidly as obesity.[6] While there are well-noted documentaries expressing concerns about the effects of weight gain in fast food and commercials advocating for healthy eating and lifestyles, the growing cancer of self-love seems to be left hidden underneath the rug. Yet, this mindset has infiltrated the church and has made ministers in masses become people pleasers before they are gospel lovers. Because narcissism is so much more prevalent in the young of today,[7] without intervention, these rates could escalate even higher for future generations. The gospel ministry cannot idly stand by and watch the Lord’s sheep become infected by some of the poisonous effects of culture. The church needs to counter this by advocating for love of others due to the love of Christ being far more sufficient than one’s self-love. With hearing of such love unaccompanied by deeds affected by this love in the community, hypocrisy and lukewarm corporate faith may prevail. Ultimately, the arena where such love can practically be manifested clearly are in small groups and person to person relationships.

In an age of celebrity pastors, ministers come and go but the church and the covenant community endures. The gospel ministry is depicted by the promised words of Scripture and the heralding community of believers. Then, it is the people of God that make the church, not the person of the pastor who makes the church, as gifted and effective as he may be.[8] Though important, one cannot merely be drawn exclusively to sermons. When this becomes an extreme, church becomes only about hearing and not actively participating. Without a desire to engage in the community while spending Sunday mornings at Bedside Baptist Church, one loses a key component in the faith without encountering different people with different problems and skill sets being brought together by a common message and common savior. It is the fellowship of the community of believers that serves the counterculture against the promotion of individualism.[9] With larger communities inevitably allowing unnoticed members to fall through the cracks, small groups would provide a smaller scale community where each individual can be adequately accounted for.

Small group ministries function to aid the pastoral ministry. From my perspective, the preaching of the Word takes precedence over all other aspects of life in the church. Yet, I do believe that small group ministries help the pastoral ministry. The pastor can only extend personal relationships to so many people, and if his knowledge of the congregation is general, his sermons will be very general. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a general sermon, but when a pastor is completely oblivious to some of the sensitive issues in the congregation, he can both miss an opportunity to speak truth into lives that need it and unnecessarily offend some of those hearing. The ideal situation would be if there is a group of leaders who are willing to follow the lead of the shepherds in the church, resulting in a united effort with a common goal. Hopefully, such a united effort results in fluidity from the Word that is preached to the deeds that are enacted in the body of Christ. Of this collective team effort, Francis Chan writes of the early church’s mindset: “The members of the early church took their responsibility to make disciples very seriously. To them, the church wasn’t a corporation run by a CEO. Rather, they compared the church to a body that functions properly only when every member is doing its part.”[10] It is when the body functions and works together that more gears are turned, better ideas are brought out, and more lives are touched. There definitely needs to be biblical guidance as to how leadership ought to function in the church.
Small group ministries function in ways more specific to the lives of individuals. One of the great burdens and joys of life in the church is coping with one another’s hardships. Especially in small group settings, these kinds of conversations must be active. When the promotion of openness to one’s sinful habits occurs, the gospel can be ministered into the lives of those who need healing. You’re not alone in bringing problems into the church, because any church already is filled with sinful problems.[19] John Piper, in his sermon on Hebrews 13:1-6, notes that small group settings is the engagement together against sin that is so prevalent in our culture. It is not “isolated heroism” but “small groupings of believers caring for each other’s souls” that fights off the pressures of this world.[12]

In this light of this, small group ministries can aid faithfully to church discipline. The marks of the true church are the following: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults (BC 29). Though it is proper for the first two marks to be stressed within corporate worship and readily performed by the pastor leading worship, the third mark of church discipline is a difficult one for the pastor to hold to faithfully on his own. If church discipline is a mark of the true church, the church ought to be active in bringing to light those who need the parental and loving discipline of the church in grace. In an ideal world, the elders of the church would have full awareness of the severe sin issues within the congregation, and members would have the courage to confess their sins to seek correction in their actions. However, I know how hard it is for me to confess my sins to others unless I’m brought to a level of comfort and trust with the people I confess to. I can’t imagine how hard it would be for a young believer overcoming legalism to confess the wrongdoings of his or her heart. The hope for small groups is that such spiritual conversations would take place over long periods of meetings and building relationships. When the time of serious confession of sin happens, the hope is that for small group leaders to have the wisdom and honesty to help carry out the situation in the most God-honoring way possible.

Small group ministries can lead to church growth. In a recent blog on the small groups, Nicholas Batzig noted an assistant pastor of his who said, “For the church to get bigger it needs to get smaller.”[13] Though numbers are not necessarily the measuring factor of health in a church, there is a sense of attractiveness to a smaller community where one is able to open up and discuss life matters with others. Bonhoeffer writes this: “In a Christian community everything depends upon whether each individual is an indispensable link in a chain. Only when even the smallest link is securely interlocked is the chain unbreakable. Every Christian community must realize that not only do the weak need the strong, but also that the strong cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is the death of fellowship.”[14] This kind of attitude that every member matters ensures the promise to the members of the church that the church will do all it can to make sure none fall through the cracks. Of course, failure to keep this is sometimes an inevitable result of busyness in the church and sinful favoritism. However, small groups can promote the togetherness of a church with closer knit units and tend to the often neglected members so that they remain a piece of the puzzle in the church.
There are obvious dangers to small group ministries as well. Without correct ecclesiology, implementing small groups in local churches can result in the destruction of sound doctrine and unity within the body of Christ. Create fluid conversation amongst the leadership of small group ministries. This might be through regular meetings, e-mails, or other means of communication. Whatever the method, without proper upkeeping of the successes and failures of the small groups as a whole, small groups can easily turn into a micro-church that teaches and functions in their own respective ways. As noted before, for small groups to be an effective subset of the church, the local church as a whole needs to be emphasized above group identity and meetings.

This is by no means a manual for small group ministries. The content mentioned above are ideas I’ve been wrestling with and seek to put together into practical use in the coming days of small group ministries at Jubilee. The hope is for more transparency and spiritual growth through small groups at our church. I pray that our endeavors would be fruitful and would bring souls closer to the God of love.
——————–
[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: HarperOne, 1954), 17.

[2] Bonhoeffer, 19.

[3] Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 751.

[4] Brian Habig & Les Newsom, The Enduring Community: Embracing the Priority of the Church (Jackson: Reformed University Press, 2001), 47.

[5] Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), 152.

[6] Jean M. Twenge & W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (New York: Atria, 2009), 2.

[7] 1 in 10 for those in their twenties, 1 in 30 for those over 65. See Twenge & Campbell, 36.

[8] Michael S. Horton, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 114.

[9] Timothy J. Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 311.

[10] Francis Chan, Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples (Paris: David C. Cook, 2012), 35.

[11] Dever, 156.

[12]  John Piper, “Small Group Life in the Power of God’s Promises,” Desiring God, September 14, 1997, http://www.desiringgod.org/sermons/small-group-life-in-the-power-of-gods-promises.

[13] Nicholas T. Batzig, “Dividends and Drawbacks of Small Groups,”Feeding on Christ, May 1, 2015, http://feedingonchrist.com/dividends-and-drawbacks-of-small-groups.

[14] Bonhoeffer, 94.

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Thinking about Small Groups

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