So, Must We Have Small Groups Within the Church?
Admittedly, small group ministries are not necessarily unbiblical but I can’t see them being Biblically mandated either: it’s not a must. It’s more like a position that needed Biblical justification instead of grounding it in the gray haze of conscience and convictions. I understand that sometimes we like to have our personal convictions become law (obviously I’m speaking about non-moral issues instead of abject sin. more like: a cup of wine instead of drunkenness; smoking a pipe instead of addictively smoking; mowing the lawn on Sundays instead of forsaking the assembling of believers; dating instead of fornication) but that’s not really how God’s Word expects us to deal with things.
Repeatedly the New Testament approaches a lot of these issues as with adult sons who have the Gospel in hand and are now trying to figure out how to operate with it. That’s tremendously different from hunting and gathering some principle that justifies my conviction and then heaping it on others as if denying it is un-Christian at best and abject disobedience at worse.
At most, what could be gathered from some of these church-size arguments is that the local assembly should consist of a manageable group that is not necessarily tied to a church building and it grows outwards creating other manageable groups that are not tied to a church building.
Perhaps these eddies of the river which consists of the local church will each have leadership that meets together to discuss important situations (Acts 20) but not necessarily as part of the Main Assembly. In the past, I’ve pretty much argued that we’ve contrived broken systems that are still the Local Church but that doesn’t justify us doing this. Creating smaller entities within a church is merely creating a smaller meeting of the Church and most likely potentially creating an unnecessary division. In my mind, it is more likely to create homogenous cliques that have a veneer of niceness to those outside of the clique while going no deeper but that’s the vain imaginings of one who always sees the worst.
The assemblies I’ve been have either been (A) a small group where the entire assembly consisted of about twenty people or (B) a tremendously large group where everyone knew one another but tighter friendships would naturally happen in the process of people getting to know each other. These groups might not necessarily be cliques, but they’d operate within the larger group as a group of friends within friends. That seems pretty cool to me.
I’ve also known assemblies that employ (C) small groups that meet throughout the week but don’t have a full church assembling except on Sunday. And even then, some of the individuals may not feel beholden to the other groups there. That’s problematic. But that’s not always the case. I’ve known assemblies that are (D) really smaller churches within a larger church or (E) have smaller groups that the members interchange within other smaller groups or (F) are just one big group that has all group meetings successfully.
The meeting of the assembly is, apparently, organic while the actual Biblical principles (leadership, loving one another, evangelism, grounded in God’s Word) operate even if they’re very often besmirched by the sinfulness of people.
And we have to admit that due to the sinfulness of people, there are real potential practical problems with SGMs.
First it’s the homogenous nature of them. Barna did a study on Sunday School, Small Groups and House Churches back in 2010 and showed some interesting data. For example, these small groups are typically missing single people. I don’t think this is enough of a reason to stop having small group meetings but it might be enough to consider being less homogenous.
Second it’s an environment of unnecessary potential corporate discipline. Remember, these aren’t friends that are getting together on this or that evening for dinner or something; this is a program that is implemented within the assembly for the express purpose of emphasizing fellowship and discipleship. Anyone who disagrees with this model is actually acting outside of the desire of the Elders and the Assembly. That’s automatically a matter that needs addressing.
Third, it’s an environment conducive to division. Now, one might be quick to note that this is a matter of spiritual discipline of the leadership and the assembly and that is true. But I can’t see this situation actually occurring in a smaller church that meets as a whole without the smaller divisions. Yes it is true that unity doesn’t require constantly being in the same physical location but it is also true that the need for division is conceivably harder when you are in the same physical location. Of course, SGMPs would be quick to point our churches that are physically in the same location but lack unity. Fine, but the existence of that aberration doesn’t mean that we should create an environment where that sort of thing can more easily percolate. A doctor would be quick to point out that it is impossible to disinfect an air-filled environment of all possible contagions (germs, bacteria, etc.) but that doesn’t mean that one should then perform surgery in a sewer.
Fourth, it’s a program that potentially bolsters pride. I know too many people that are already proud that they’re doing church according to the model of the New Testament pattern. I can easily imagine folk thumbing their noses at other assemblies that don’t have a small group ministry. It’s an unfortunate thing. And yes, the same charge can be leveled at Big Churches, or churches that meet in homes, or churches where there’s a pulpit up front (or not). Like I said, the sinfulness of people knows no bounds and yet in this area, I can easily see this matter of pride not only against people outside the assembly (a common occurrence, no doubt) but against those within the assembly that don’t come out to the small group meetings. The single people. The widowed. Couples with young kids. People who disagree with the thing in general.
In conlcusion, I personally think that if the church is large, they should break into smaller assemblies (not group meetings) with their own elders in their own areas—not because its Biblically mandated but because I lean that way. In my mind, it’s better that these small groups are actually just churches that meet in houses (or schools, or parks, or whatever) and relate to each other as sister assemblies than it would be to be a group of thousands that then subdivides to get to know each other—but that’s me. I also think that if it’s a group of seventy five, or a hundred, or something that just doesn’t fit in a home that small group gatherings might happen naturally as friendships form but they shouldn’t be part of the bulletin or whatever. They’re merely gatherings of friends and leave it at that.
So Must Churches Have A Small Groups Ministry for Growth, Discipleship and Fellowship? No, I don’t think so. Should they have a small groups ministry for fellowship, discipleship and outreach? I guess they can while making sure to be careful with the potential problems, but it’s not necessarily The Biblically mandated model. Are they integral for fellowship, discipleship and outreach? I don’t think they’re integral though I think a smaller church is more helpful to individuals than larger ones.
Again, this is just me. It’s just an opinion.
And it’s best to leave it at that.