After many years of diverse career experience, I was excitedly counting down the days until my retirement. I eagerly anticipated being in control of my schedule and time while enjoying a slower pace of life. I envisioned more days devoted to serving in ministry at my church and deepening relationships...
Thursday night. Bibles open. Six men from the local church pray together. One of them reads Psalm 31 and applies it to his brother. A strong sense of God-dependence fills the room.
Sunday post-lunch. The church is quiet after a busy morning. Kids play in the next room, while five couples gather to discuss the sermon. They hunger and thirst together for God’s truth.
Small group. Missional community. Home group. Life group. Whatever you call the gathering of an intimate number of believers outside of worship services, the goal is the same: fellowship and encouragement around God’s Word.
Nine Ways to Miss the Point of Small Group
Yet we can easily miss this. Despite our best intentions, we get sidetracked and forget the goal. Sometimes, despite this goal, we’d rather pursue what’s easier and more comfortable for people—but this lacks transforming power to draw us nearer to God and each other.
Small group has a point, and we’d do well not to miss it. Here are nine ways this can happen:
1. Make the Bible optional.
Consider the Bible an accessory to small group, but not the focus; as one way to get help and feel better about life, but not as life itself. Instead of treasuring the Bible as God speaking, reduce it to some helpful sayings and instructions. Rather than revering it as the core of your gathering, only reference it if there’s extra time or if someone has a question about it.
2. Turn it into a social club.
If worship services are for reading the Bible and hearing it preached, then shouldn’t small group be used for something else, like deepening relationships and cultivating common interests? Focus your group solely on authentic fellowship and building community, rather than fostering both from a focus on the living, active Word of God.
3. Exclude people.
Don’t open the group to new or difficult people. New people can start another group if they want, but yours has already established trust and is comfortable the way it is. Don’t acknowledge the benefits of multiplication, but only the negatives of “splitting” if the group gets too big. Also, be sure to exclude difficult people with many well-known needs, which can feel too burdensome.
4. Don’t invite unbelievers.
Rather than viewing small group as an opportunity for unbelievers to read God’s Word and experience the church’s trust in him, protect your group from outsiders. Create a safe place where believers don’t have to worry about the awkwardness of an unbeliever’s presence, doubts, and questions. Demote evangelism for the sake of environment.
5. Prioritize it over church.
Don’t regularly attend church on Sundays; just go to small group. After all, isn’t the church wherever Christians are gathered? Rather than sitting under the God-given preaching of pastors and undershepherds, singing with a congregation, participating in baptism and communion, and serving the body through your gifts, prioritize small group. Make it an end in itself—not a means to a greater, eternal end.
6. Don’t pray.
As a group, talk about prayer, or wanting to pray, but don’t actually pray. Spend time chatting and catching up, even sharing prayer requests. But don’t get to the praying part. If you do, rush through it at the end of group time—but don’t learn from this. Keep the same pattern every week.
7. Don’t share honestly.
Update each other about life, but don’t let the sharing get too messy. Avoid talk of doubts and struggles—especially confession of sin or anything that could make someone look weak in front of the group. Share…but don’t share too much. Not at the expense of reputation or people’s comfort.
8. Don’t see each other outside group time.
Small group is great for a midweek relational pick-me-up. But spending time together outside of this? People are too busy. Work, sports, family, friends, and other commitments snatch all the extra. Besides, isn’t “doing life together” easier said than done?…what does that even mean? Better to avoid it; it’s easier to stick to our schedules.
9. Leave when it gets hard.
When your small group encounters the weight of people’s sin, the disappointment of missed expectations, and the challenge of growth, rather than bearing with one another in love, leave. Find a new group, or decide that small group just isn’t for you.
Life in Christ Together
I confess—the above statements are slightly tongue-in-cheek. But they’re all ways I’ve heard believers talk about small group, its purpose and practice. If any of them resonate with your philosophy or experience, take heart; I’ve also missed the point, as have many other brothers and sisters.
Praise God, there is more to small group than meets the eye. As extensions and microcosms of the church, our intimate gatherings outside worship services enable us to work out the gospel together. We root ourselves in God’s Word as a congregation during worship; then we see that Word go to work in people’s hearts and circumstances through life together in small group settings (Colossians 3:16).
While the Bible never uses the phrase “small group,” it elevates life-together and commands a slew of ways we can help, stir up, and consider “one another” in our pursuit of knowing Christ.¹ We live in a me-centric, pagan, prosperity-driven, biblically-illiterate consumer culture; but the body of Christ stands apart for Christ and is about the “we” rather than “me.”²
Grace for Small Groups
The good news for us: God gives more grace! He intends our small groups to increasingly rely on his Spirit and point us to his Son, through immersion in his Word. He intends to mold and shape us according to this Word and finish the work he started in Christ Jesus.
And at the end of the day, small groups do not save; Jesus does. This great salvation frees us to pursue him together, with thanksgiving for what he’s done; and it frees us from the misunderstanding that small group is ultimately about us.
Praise God that if we miss the point, we don’t miss grace. Rather, our salvation motivates us to stay on point and pursue Christ—because that’s what we’ll be doing forever, together.