The term “small group” (or its many variations) carries almost as much baggage as the word “missional.” It means many different things to different people. Some envision small groups to be places of meals, sharing and service, while others see them as places of discipleship and spiritual growth. In his book, Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, Jack Miller explained that there are basically four small group models–the growth model, the healing model, the worker model and the missionary model. The growth model views a small group as a place that exist primarily for the spiritual growth of the members; the healing model as a place of transparency, support and care; the worker model as a place where service is encouraged and initiated; and the missionary model, as a place to fuel evangelism. Miller proceeded to point out some of the strengths and weaknesses of each of these models and then argued for something of a synthesizing of the various beneficial aspects of all four. Whatever else may be said, this much we can be sure of: There will always dividends and drawbacks to small groups.
During the first five years of church planting, we had one collective mid-week meeting at someone’s home. But as the church grew, the mid-week waxed and waned. One of the biggest mistakes I made was not moving to a small group structure when we were averaging 50-60 people in our worship services. Years ago, my pastoral assistant said to me, “For the church to get bigger it needs to get smaller.” Considering the fact that 75-80% of the people in a church will likely commit–to some degree or another–to a small group, we could have easily had 4-5 small groups over the first 5 years. We missed the boat, so to speak.
After brainstorming for months about the best way to reorganize and restructure our midweek meeting, we decided to implemented small groups in the following manner:
- We intentionally grouped families and individuals together by geographical location, yet gave people the freedom to go to whatever small group they wanted.
- We approached several people to see if they would be willing to open their homes in those regions.
- We asked some men in the church who we considered to be potential elders to be facilitators.
- We had a church plant meeting and told the members what we were doing. We asked them to sign up for one of the new small groups.
- We asked a couple if they would be willing to sit behind a display table every Sunday morning (for one month prior to launching the small groups) and set the table right outside of the worship room door so that we could get maximum sign up.
- We encouraged the facilitators to appoint one person in their group to be a contact person who would call or email each person who signed up for that group to remind them of monthly meetings and events.
- We encouraged each group to choose between going over the sermon with questions that I would write or to pick approved teaching material (such as the 22-24 minute Lionier teaching segments with study guides).
- We gave each group the freedom to pick a day that they wanted to meet and asked that each group meet at least twice a month.
- We gave each group the freedom to decide whether to eat a meal or dessert together–while strongly encouraging them to do one or the other.
- We offered to provide child care for all of the small groups.
In just a matter of months, it became apparent that the Lord was blessing this new structure. We are currently trying to figure out the best way to assimilate new families and individuals into these small groups. However, we are also currently working out a plan to reproduce some of the small groups that are growing numerically by breaking them up and starting new ones. Still, as we have already noted, we must be aware of the fact that there will always be dividends and drawbacks to a small group structure in a church. Here are five dividends and five drawbacks that we should always keep in mind:
- Small Groups should encourage greater commitment to the Lord’s Day gatherings in the life of a church. A small group should serve as a springboard to propel the members to be committed to Sunday school and morning and evening worship. Small group facilitators should be encouraging the group wisely, lovingly and regularly to fulfill their vows to regularly attend Lord’s Day services. If the small group is functioning as it should, the members should be willing to “exhort one another daily” not to forsake the assembling of themselves together. When members begin to slide away from regular worship, members of the small group should reach out and see how to best encourage restoration in a gentle and loving way.
- Small Groups should encourage close spiritual friendships among the members of the church. People only have so much time in a week and can only sustain so many close friendships in their lives. Small groups encourage people in the church to form close friendships with each other, to pray for one another, to serve one another in our daily needs and to build each other up on a week to week basis. A large church mid-week meeting doesn’t encourage this dynamic to the same degree. Having many people in a larger setting often breeds frenetic conversations and relationships. Small groups can serve as a good corrective to this problem.
- Small Groups should encourage prayer in the life of the church. Legion are the number of men who I hear bemoan the fact that the weekly prayer meeting is the least frequented meeting in the life of the church. If you build prayer into every small group, you will have a majority of the people in the church praying together on a weekly basis. Small group facilitators should be trained to lead a time of prayer where the members of a small group are encouraged to pray together. I have also found that people are more comfortable praying out loud in a small group setting in a way in which they are not in a larger corporate gathering. Small groups also encourage members of a church to share prayer requests that they might be more hesitant to share in a larger setting.
- Small Groups should encourage indiscriminate care for others in the church. In a church of over 100 members, care for others becomes increasingly difficult. The larger the church, the easier it becomes for cliques to form with people who are similar in age, cultural preferences and socio-economical status. Small groups that are arranged by geographical locations can help put members of a church together who might not otherwise get to know and deeply care for one another.
- Small Groups should encourage outreach and service in the church and the community. Because there are less voices in a small group, there can often be more unification and easier mobilization for outreach and service. Miller explained that “small groups are ideal for outreach. They form natural teams for evangelism if they are properly prepared and understand how to do this work.” Additionally, small groups can be good places to bring unbelievers–especially if there is a meal and Gospel-centered teaching. If you have one elder and one deacon in a small group, this can help the session and the deaconate of the church disseminate and implement ideas for outreach and service. Small groups can also help the members of the church keep each other informed as to the prayer needs and material needs of members of the church. It is far easier to keep up with the needs of the members of a church through small groups. Finally, small groups can encourage members of the church to bring their ideas for outreach and service.
- Small Groups can become a replacement for corporate worship. This is an all too common problem in churches. People can get excited about getting together with their small group, but not about coming together to worship the Lord with all His people on the Lord’s Day. We are commanded to worship together on the Lord’s Day, not to meet in mid-week small groups. I cannot count the number of times people have said to me, “Our small group is really our church.” This potential drawback needs to be proactively warned against by the facilitators and members of a small group see it beginning to occur.
- Small Groups can easily devolve into cliques. One very real danger of small groups is that they can become cliques that exist in the gathered assembly on the Lord’s Day. This is especially likely to happen if the members of the small group are of a similar age demographic or stage of life. Living in close community with one another on a week-in and week-out basis can hinder people from pressing outward to fellowship with the other members of the body on Sunday and on other days of the week. We must guard against allowing this to happen. Helping the members of a small group be self-aware of this danger is imperative.
- Small Groups can become arenas for schism and division. One of the great drawbacks of a small group is that it can become a place that fosters complaining, gossip, slander and even divisive factions. This is a heart issue, but it is heightened in smaller settings where a problematic individual thinks that he or she will be able to sway others to join them in their discontentment. If they succeed, the damage can be irreparable. Small group facilitators and members should be warned about such a danger. The Scriptures teach us that one of the seven things that the Lord hates is “one who sows discord among brethren” (Proverbs 6:19).
- Small Groups can be used as therapy sessions for self-focused individuals. If an individual longs to be part of a small group for “healing” purposes, this can easily become a negative thing for them and all involved. People can monopolize a small group by constantly venting their problems and complaints. There are many who take great comfort in continually talking about their problems but never pursuing real change. While small groups should be places of transparency and healing, they can also become counseling centers or a functional priesthood in an unhealthy and damaging way. The group facilitator should encourage the group not to offer advice in the group setting, and to offer to meet with an extremely needy individual to talk and prayer outside of the small group setting.
- Small Groups can become ingrown. If a small groups are not accomplishing the purposes for which they were established they will easily become ingrown. It they lose the “worker model” aspects and the “missionary model” aspects they will simply exist for self-serving purposes. This defeats the entire purpose of establishing small groups. The facilitators need to constantly keep the “growth,” “healing,” “worker” and “missionary” model aspects of the small group in sight. This takes great intentionality and effort on the part of elders, deacons and other facilitators.