Monday, September 15, 2008

Small Groups - What are they good for?

What is the purpose of small groups? How good are they at actually building disciples? If not, what is? Are they best suited for connecting people to God, to each other, or both?

This week I read an extremely thought provoking post by Bill Reichart called "Should you put small groups out of their misery?" Bill was discussing a post by Brian Jones with an even stronger title: "Why churches should euthanize their small groups". The original post by Brian doesn't seem to be online any more, although you can find on other blogs discussion of that post and related posts. Brian Jones is a big proponent of discipleship, of the mission of the church to make disciples, and is respectful of those who have tried hard to make small groups work. He just thinks that small groups are terrible at making disciples and don't work.
Small groups are things that trick us into believing we’re serious about making disciples. The problem is 90% of small groups never produce one single disciple, ever. They help Christians make shallow friendships for sure. They’re great at helping Christians feel a tenuous connection to their local church. And they do a bang-up job of teaching Christians how to act like other Christians in the evangelical Christian subculture. But when it comes to creating the kind of holistic disciples Jesus envisioned, the jury’s decision came back a long time ago – small groups just aren't working.
Bill Reichart of Vine Community Church finds some points in common, agreeing that they don't do a very good job of developing disciples. Indeed they are still committed to small groups but have altered their expectations. He thinks they are a doorway into connection and relationship within the church, a catalyst for service into the community, and an excellent fishing pond from which discipleship can be birthed. What instead? "Intentional and relational driven discipleship must be happening throughout the DNA of the church in order for people to grow."

Wow... food for thought! Let me be clear - I'm a huge proponent of small groups. They have been such a huge blessing for me and I've seen tremendous life-change and discipleship occur that I can't imagine not being in a small group. I'm also a (new) small groups coach and am trying to help other small group leaders get a handle on helping others become fully devoted followers of Christ. These two articles raise a number of great questions, more than I can address in this post. (Though I will come back to the question of discipleship soon.)  I asked my small group for their reaction to Jones' article. Here's what came up...
  • Small groups are definitely of great value to us
  • The fellowship and relationships formed in small groups are a big factor
  • Discussions among those serious about their faith are challenging and helpful
  • They help new people in a church connect in a powerful way
  • We really enjoy serving together as a group, within both church and community
  • Each of us have had rough spots in our lives where a small group was there for us
  • What do people think work better for building disciples if not small groups? 
Some questions to think about:  How to best build disciples? What does it actually mean to be a disciple? Are people referring to discipleship as a purpose (spiritual growth, becoming Christ-like) or as a journey for the whole person encompassing mission, ministry and all that God has called us to be? Is the immediate goal of a small group connection, friendship, intimacy, or discipleship?
Any thoughts? Small groups - what are they good for?


GmaMcQuilter said...


I think the proponent of getting rid of small groups is ignoring one key thing. The calling, skill and dedication of the small group leader have everything to do with how the group grows, matures, transforms and serves. If the leader is inadequate (lack of training, lack of preparation, lack of Christ centered spiritual growth disciplines), the program will be inadequate to the needs and challenges of the members of the group.

Not having read the book, but based on your review of it, his argument could be used to close half the churches in America because the pastors are not challenging the people to grow in discipleship and the fruits.

A good small group should be balanced between Bible teaching (and application steps of growing into fully devoted followers of Christ) and practicing Christian community (developing relationships within the Body of Christ).

Done in the right mix would enhance the other disciple-growing activities within the local church and create a powerful Christ-driven church of believers whose enthusiasm would impact the community and workplaces of each member.

The entire scenario though must start with the pastor's view of Christ, his mission and how that relates to the pastor's responsibility to build disciples through the church he shepherds. If the pastor fails to realize his crucial role in this scenario, even the best small group leaders will be handicapped in their efforts. The pastor must build and maintain a "disciple growing" focus so the members of the church know his expectations and are asking the question, "Okay, so how do I become a disciple?" This allows the small group leader to focus and support in a team minded approach.

Larry Baxter said...

Linda - excellent comments! You're right in that the SHAPE of the small group leader, the expectations put on them, and the support and direction they get has a huge impact on the direction and effectiveness of the group. And that in turn depends a lot on the pastor and the church's view on discipleship, ministry and mission.

Thanks for your feedback! -- Larry