There are some worrying trends in the small group movement within the church. You can detect the dangers in this kind of testimonial from small group members:
We had a great time in our small group last night. I was able to talk about my brother’s illness for the first time. There were lots of tears and hugs, and we prayed together for healing and faith. We really felt the presence of God. It was a little taste of heaven. Actually, I’m finding the whole small group experience is bringing me closer to Jesus as we get closer to each other. There is a real sense of community, not like at church on Sundays. It’s great being able to let others know what is really going on inside and then feel accepted for what we are. And as we experience God’s healing in us, we can reach out to others in need. There is a real sense of mission together.
The small group movement has developed its own buzzwords, words like ‘community’, ‘experience’ and ‘mission’. At first glance, these words and ideas seem to be fundamental to Christianity, and we are attracted to the kind of ministry reflected in the testimonial above. However, in small group ministry, such words are now loaded with meaning and connotations that need to be challenged. The buzzwords expose some of the dangers in Christian small groups—dangers which threaten the heart of the gospel.
Christians are bound together in a new society of those who belong to Christ, and we are being transformed by him. The distinguishing mark of Christian disciples is love, as we share in genuine community with honesty, unity, forgiveness and good deeds. We wait for heaven, the perfect community where all enemies of loving relationship are crushed under the feet of the risen Lord.
If relationships are fundamental to Christianity, what dangers can there be in stressing community in small groups?
The purpose of the group can easily focus on the development of human relationships. A successful group is seen to be characterized by intimacy, vulnerability, openness, forgiveness and so on. This emphasis on human relationship is often at the expense of knowing God and the salvation of Christ. JI Packer observes that there has been a shift in the purpose of small groups in the last 25 years: “It is not so much thought of as a way of seeking God as much as seeking Christian friends. The vertical axis is not emphasized as much as the horizontal axis.”
It is not that prayer and Bible study are absent, but they are seen as tools to create community.
- The distinctiveness of Christian groups can be lost. The activities are irrelevant because any group following the principles of small group theory will result in intimacy. Look at what happens in Weight Watchers, AA groups, special interest groups and social clubs. They all provide a sense of genuine community. The problem in many Christian small groups is that they are no longer distinctively Christian.
- The formation of community is often not rooted in the gospel of Jesus’ death for sinners. Small groups can draw together on a multitude of bases—personal needs, political agenda, stage of life, interests and so on. But groups of Christians are built on one distinct and unique foundation: being children of God through faith in his Son. If the gospel is not at the heart of the group, it may be a group of Christians, but it is not a Christian group.
Groups preoccupied with community tend to become problem-centred. They become highly introverted, focusing on their own needs. If community is the aim, the ideal group is open, accepting and affirming—a haven for broken, alienated lives. It is very attractive, because we all have times of hurt, grief and disappointment living in this sinful world. A group that will put its collective arm around us and give a reassuring hug is not a bad idea. But such a group becomes problem-centred. The energy of the group is directed toward those with problems, and we all have problems all the time!
Christian groups are not primarily about helping people with their problems. You probably can’t believe you just read that! It sounds positively unchristian. But it is true. The focus of Christian groups is growth, not problems.
- If community is the goal, the small group has become the end, rather than the means. Instead of meeting to hear and respond to God in his word, the functioning of the group is central. True Christian ministry will see small groups as a means to an end, in the best sense of the phrase. In relationship with each other, we teach the gospel and pray and spur each other on toward godliness of mind and action.
To summarize, our primary reason for joining a small group must not be to get closer to each other, but to grow in Christ.
- What principles distinguish a growth-centred group from a problem-centred group?
The enthusiastic testimony given for small groups above expresses a common sentiment: that the small group experience brings people closer to God. ‘Experience’ is another group buzzword because it is a profound experience to meet regularly in a small group. This is especially true in a society hell-bent on isolation and privacy. But for some who promote the small groups movement in the church, the experience of intimacy in the small group has become everything. They urge that the reality of God is found primarily in the experience of being close to others in a small group and finding ‘healing’ of emotions and hurts through this closeness. In this way, the group is said to bring us right into the presence of God.
There are several dangers with this view, which severely undermines the gospel.
- We create our own small group god. If we determine God’s character and will from the small group experience, we will create our own small group god. This imaginary god may have little resemblance to the one true God. Our small group god might be welcoming and affirming, but is unlikely to be the God who wiped out Pharaoh for his insolence or who killed Ananias and Sapphira for their lie to the Holy Spirit! Such a God would be too discomforting in a small group experience. We will have moved from Christian revelation to mysticism.
- Our faith can be in the small group experience, not in Jesus’ mediation. If the small group makes God real to us, and brings us closer to God, our salvation lies in the quality of that group experience. Presumably, in some groups, we would be deemed further from God because the experience is diminished. This has moved a long way from the absolute assurance of God’s favour for those who cling to the cross of Christ.
- Experience is the god of this age. We can create all kinds of small group experiences—from songs of praise to primal screaming. Who can tell what they mean? Of course we feel great in a warm affirming group, but to label this feeling as being ‘closer to God’ is an unwarranted leap in thinking.
- What can be the positive outcomes of the small groups ‘experience’?
- What can be the negative outcomes?
Small groups easily become small teams. Significant things can be achieved through a disciplined, committed team with common goals. This leads small group supporters to talk a lot about mission. The mission of the group will be defined by what the group perceives itself to be achieving. If it is aiming for community, it will want to draw others into that community. If it is working for experiences, it will seek to share those experiences with others.
The net effect of these goals can be to see mission in social terms, with evangelism as an optional extra. Mission becomes a ‘horizontal’ activity—between one another—rather than a ‘vertical’ activity—bringing others to God. The preaching of the death of Christ to a dying world is too often seen as a narrow understanding of mission—one that is out of touch with a holistic (another buzzword) view of meeting all human needs.
- Is your group in any danger of losing its gospel focus?
- Are any of the anti’s evident in your group?
- What changes do you need to make to avoid the pitfalls for small groups?
The ‘anti’s’ of small groups
There are some further implications of the small group focus on community, experience and mission. If these are misunderstood, small group ministry can become:
The value of proclaiming the word of God is diminished in favour of small group discussion and personal discovery. The experience of the group process in Bible reading is prized above the actual message. The sermon is seen as an inferior context for learning about God because the experience may be less than scintillating. This is not what we want. Small groups ought to generate a thirst for good preaching because they develop a hunger for God’s word.
Small group ministry has become a lay movement, responding to perceived deficiencies in the churches. It can be a way for the laity to take power for themselves, in competition with congregational pastors. Some parts of the small groups movement are avowedly ‘anticlerical’. It is right to see the limitations of only having the professionals do the work of ministry. Small groups are a superb way for every Christian to get involved in ministry. However, this must not be an expression of mutiny, rejecting the authority of recognized, trained, Bible-teaching pastors.
The closeness of community in small groups is prized above the total congregational life. In short, group members reduce commitment to church. This is a disastrous result, and creates isolated, unaccountable groups each doing what is right in their own eyes and not pulling together to make the whole church more fruitful.