What’s Wrong with Small Group Ministry?

28 Jan, 2011

Pastor Brian Jones has been a cheerleader for small group ministry for 20+ years. Now he’d like to see this Christian, sacred cow barbequed. He started the slow roasting process himself in an article on the Christian Standard website titled, Why Churches Should Euthanize Small Groups.

Small groups are things that trick us into believing we’re serious about making disciples. The problem is 90 percent 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.

Why does he think this ministry of the church isn’t working?

Well-intentioned Christians, armed with the latest insights in organizational theory, let their pragmatic and utilitarian hearts delude them into thinking they could organize, measure, and control the mystical working of the Holy Spirit in community in order to consistently reproduce disciples in other contexts… And what happened? You know what happened. They failed. Like big-time.

Now I don’t agree with all of Brian’s observations, interpretations and application in his article, but I do understand where he’s coming from. I sat through courses on small group ministry in Bible college, read all the books, attended several of the seminars, and led the small group ministry in two good-sized churches in my town. From experience I can say my heart’s desire (and that of the supporting church staff) was always to create something in form and function that supported, encouraged and directed discipleship.

There were times we were very successful and a great group would have testimonies of love, care, commitment, and Christian outreach. We’d try to seize on what worked well and have the other groups follow suit. I’ve tried multiplying leaders, changing methods, switching locations, altering curriculum, recasting the vision, and preparing the message. And though I’d see spurts of adrenaline, as if we’d forced the group members to drink a case of Red Bull, success, as we were defining it, never was delivered in a bottle.

I’ve been in some fantastic groups myself. I’ve led a few of them. I’ve also been in groups I dreaded attending. I led some of those too. If I stared a structured group tomorrow I have no way of knowing whether or not it would work.

My best guess is that we trip ourselves up when we try to control discipleship. Sure there are things we can do to foster spiritual growth, but often our efforts look more like Dr. Frankenstein’s creations than they do the work of a gardener. “Look! It’s alive!” we exclaim, but those who can observe our creation objectively know that it is a short-lived monster at best.

At least for me, what I can receive from the structured processes is limited. Real growth happens in life, not in small group. It’s nurtured both with living water and a bed of manure. We can’t control the first, and we’re reluctant to dump the second on our ministries. Who’d come?

And then there is the pressure to perform—How many groups does the church have? How many people are in them? What percentage is that of the congregation? Who has multiplied? What is being studied? Are they growing or ingrown? Are they maturing? Are they reaching out? Are they covering all of our bases, values and teaching our principles? How do we know? What is our method of feedback? Are we training them sufficiently? Are we giving them enough freedom? Are we asking these questions for our sake or because Jesus is holding us accountable? Is anybody else out there exhausted?

I love small groups. I love the small group of my family. I gather with them each day. I love the small group of my neighbors, but it isn’t yet the community I desire it to be. (My last, greatest step of outreach was sending one of my boys and his friend over to an elderly neighbor’s home to take the Christmas lights off her roof and stack them neatly on her back porch while she was at work at the liquor store.) I love the small groups of teenagers that showed up on my doorstep for a quick lunch today and helped themselves to sandwiches. God knows I sure am not in control of that group. All I can do is keep feeding them when they open their mouth. And listen. They need that too. I love the small groups on Facebook, and my parents, my new friends, and the old ones that have never, ever left my side. I love the single parent small group that shows up about once a week for dinner. I love the Wag More small group that meets for a whole day at least once a month and then any other hour they can squeeze in together here and there. These are all a part of my life’s small groups, but I’d be terrified if you put them all under my roof weekly, at the same time, and tried to direct them with a lesson plan.

Discipleship is divine. Relationships are magical. Community is sacred. If these are genuine, they can’t be manufactured or controlled and they simply refuse to be contained. And that is where the hope and the momentum of the Gospel reside.

Should churches euthanize their small group, “ministry?”

It depends on why you ask.

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