Ever since the church growth movement highlighted that we need Celebrations, Congregations and Cells, and the historians pointed out that revivals in the church frequently accompany the rediscovery of small groups, churches have become used to having small group bible studies as part of their life.
Here’s a secret: put pastors on a platform, and they will talk about the importance of small groups; get them on their own, confidentially, and they will wonder whether any church on the planet has functioning small groups.
There are nearly forty New Testament verses that tell us to do something for each other, or one another, and small groups are ideal places to do that. We teach, encourage, support and pray for each other. We can discuss, question and challenge each other. They are safe places to start out as a Bible teacher, because other, older Christians can gently encourage and correct us. They walk with us through the bad times. It’s hard to think where those kinds of things could happen without small groups.
But they can so easily go off the rails. They can wander, dominated by a dominating personality, lacking mature leadership, sharing ignorance, becoming stale with the same old discussion topics. And therefore we lose spiritual ground when are groups are dysfunctional.
They can also become substitutes for another sermon, this time in someone’s living room. The signs of this are when the study leader has such a tight grip on what goes on that there is not a discussion, but a quiz. This is bible study by telepathy, as the members try to guess the right answers on the leader’s notes, so they can move on to the next question. No discussion, and certainly no idea that a brand new Christian might have something valid to contribute that the leader hasn’t seen first.
- Small groups are essential for integrating people in a church; they are where we stop becoming passengers and become active participants.
- Small groups are therefore a spiritual battleground and we need to pray for them as well as expecting them to pray together.
- Small groups are complex, and hosting one, and leading a bible study, need considerable skill.
- Churches therefore need to pay constant attention to the training of existing and future group leaders. They do not grow by accident. Pastors, this is our job.
- Groups harden over time. In order to integrate new folk, we either need a constant supply of new groups and leaders, or periodically to shake up every group and reassemble them. I think that’s the nuclear option, and I’d rather grow more on the principle that new members need new groups.
- Church leaders need to decide how to handle a growing group. Chopping them into two in the hope that both ends will grow is, rather like doing it with an earthworm, an urban myth.
- Church leaders need to decide how to handle a stagnating group. New life, life support or putting it to sleep? Remember, bad bible studies do spiritual damage.
Have you (re)read Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life? Put it on your reading list.