As a pastor, I have oversight of the small groups and small group structures at our church. One day I decided to ask our friend 'Google' what people think about them. I stumbled over a few blogs and short articles. One person reckoned they'd discerned the eights habits of effective small groups. Another article was titled, 'Fix my Small Groups! 6 Church-Tested Solutions.' Still another person had figured out eleven reasons why small groups usually fail. And then finally, one author leads to the dramatic conclusion declaring it was now time to 'euthanize this small group sacred cow' claiming they simply don't work.
Clearly, there is some feeling around the topic. I've talked to a number of church leaders from a range of denominations. Most of them believe that small groups in theory are a good thing but on the ground they're notoriously difficult. There's a range of reasons given for this. People aren't committed enough (or are too busy). There's that annoying person who always dominates the conversation (and if you can't think of anyone in your group who does then it's probably you). Groups always talk about doing something good 'out there' but hardly ever do. There's that other annoying person who always wants to talk about their foot because they think something's wrong with it and want sympathy all the time.
Small groups are messy. They involve people and so are frustrating, uncontrollable and ultimately are hard work. But then again, there is always the 5% of groups that give you hope. Everyone gets on, they talk about deep issues and have great Bible studies. And we ask ourselves why can't every group be like 'that' group (or worse, we ask how can we make every group like that one).
The question we often ask is: 'Are our small groups effective?' This question, though, misses the bigger point. I don't want small groups that are 'effective'. The question we should be asking is, 'do small groups grow good disciples of Jesus?'
A cursory look at the New Testament shows that small groups can be effective in creating and growing good disciples. Jesus had 12 committed guys who followed and learnt from him all the time. Times have since moved on. We don't see religious gurus roaming the countryside followed by their most devoted disciples. We can't simply pull the New Testament stories into our own context.
Still, small groups are important in church. David Ford in his book The Shape of Living says:
'Small groups that seek God and God's desires together have been at the heart of most of the major developments in the church over the centuries. They have also been fundamental to its ordinary flourishing, and they continue to be the most important single level of church life...Whenever such a group breaks out of routine and has an intensive time together or with others, transformations tend to happen.'
The problem with many small group structures is they become too mechanised and packaged for easy unpacking in another place with another set of people. The issues, the questions and the style of operation lack imagination and contextual significance. The hard work of figuring out what it means to 'do life together' to study the Bible and become disciples of Jesus is taken away from us, and we end up getting thrown together with a manual on how to do small groups according to the church's wishes and then left to it.
Obviously I'm being facetious and cynical, but the main point still stands. We relinquish the imaginative responsibility of being discipled and discipling others for a quick and easy pull-something-out-of-the-box approach.
So on the one hand, we see in Scripture and through church history that small groups are good things. But on the other hand, small groups are far too often routinised and dictated for them to be of any particular meaning.
So how can we redeem small groups? I would love to hear your feedback and ideas, but I have three of my own to get the conversation started.
1) Scripture needs to be wrestled with in a meaningful way
I found myself in the uncomfortable situation of realising a few days ago that a non-scripturally based 'small group' (like the 'Huddle' groups that are promoted by 3dm) could possibly do a better job of discipling Christians than the myriad of small groups where attendees supposedly gather to discuss the Bible.
Someone once said to me that in our small groups it's like we ascend Mt. Sinai, we meet with God and he gives us the glorious ten commandments, but instead of bringing them down and giving them a home in our lives, we leave them on top of the mountain and walk back down. Instead of finding ways to be shaped by Scripture as we discern it in our small groups, we tend to move on in our lives and give it no further thought.
During the course of his Master's thesis, a friend of mine asks what would it look like if small groups wrestled with Scripture together and then spent time figuring out what that would mean in their lives. Instead of going off individually to 'apply' it to our lives, what if we worked together to make Scripture meaningful in our lives, to allow it to shape us and form us in our small group.
2) The need for groups to be 'organic'
The word organic is overused and misunderstood. We assume that for something to be organic it must come about naturally and free from outside constraint and control. Unfortunately for all of us, the Christian life isn't 'organic' in that sense. The Christian life-like anything we want to achieve-has to be worked at. It requires patience, discipline and faithfulness.
In much the same way, small groups don't come about naturally. But I do think they need to be 'organic' in the sense that they reflect the individuals in a specific group. Maybe early on a group needs more guidance, but as they grow together and find their ways of relating and learning, the group itself needs to take on a life of its own that reflects the imagination, creativity and ways of being of those that take part in it.
This means there is no 'one-size-fits' all style of group. It's up to each group to work hard at figuring out what works for them, how they want to operate and what's meaningful for them. But to get to that place requires patience, grace and discipline, and even then, it won't always remain the same. As people come and go, the group will shift and change.
I don't know anybody who likes the feeling of someone looking over their shoulder-especially when it comes to my Christian walk. After all, isn't the Christian walk simply about me and Jesus? Well, maybe for a select few like St. Anthony who was able to remain focussed by himself. But for the rest of us less holy folks, we need each other. Christianity isn't about me and Jesus. It's about me, Jesus and all those others who are on the same journey.
Small groups can be a great place to help keep us accountable. And I'm not talking about confessing all our sins and darkest, deepest secrets. But I'm thinking about things like, 'Last week in response to our study, you said you wanted to be more patient with your kids, and you came up with a plan. How is that going for you?'
Obviously there is always room for judging people to come in and use it as a measuring stick, but hopefully most people are generous and simply want to be supportive.
Overall, small groups aren't about ticking the 'good Christian' box. They are about growing disciples of Jesus. The question isn't, 'how can I make my small group effective'. The question is, 'how are we growing great disciples of Jesus?' Maybe some would argue they are the same question, but I think the emphases are miles apart.