How Small Groups Can Foster Church Unity . . . Or Destroy It
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, churches built their discipleship around Sunday School, evening services, and midweek Bible studies and prayer groups. But in these last days, it is more common to find small groups at the center of a church’s ministry philosophy.
Local churches are free to organize additional assemblies outside of the main Lord’s Day gathering, but it’s important to consider how they can either foster church unity or fracture it. The apostle Paul exhorted the Ephesians to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). Small groups have the potential to be a tool for maintaining church unity—when they are led wisely.
HOW SMALL GROUPS CAN FOSTER CHURCH UNITY
1. When they offer another context to spend time in the Word and prayer.
At their best, small groups help members to live out the principles of your church covenant. My local church’s small group ministry aims at building up members through studying the Bible, discussing the sermon, or reading a Christian book.
Furthermore, the gatherings allow members to pray with one another about personal needs and the ministry of the church. Unity is strengthened as members pray for the regular preaching of God’s Word, the elders, and needs in the congregation. Each member of a small group will have 2-3 times a month protected in their calendar to spend with others in the Word and prayer. For members juggling busy schedules, this type of structure is useful for getting them into true fellowship consistently.
2. Small groups help members care for one another.
Small groups provide a context for members to build deeper relationships. And the deeper the relationships, the more members will encourage one another, confess sin, and seek spiritual help.
Practical needs often come up easily in small groups (birth of a child, sickness, financial hardship, etc.). When groups become aware of opportunities to care for members, that information can be passed on to elders for spiritual care or to deacons for practical needs. In this way, small groups are a tool that better connects members to one another and to church leaders.
3. Small groups help members form discipling relationships.
Small groups are a great place for discipling relationships to form. While discipling should happen outside of small groups, it naturally follows that discipling relationships will form where there is regularly scheduled investment in the spiritual lives of others.
Finding discipling relationships is often challenging for members, and small groups provide a context where those relationships form and grow organically. Then those connections create momentum for building relationships among the whole local church.
HOW SMALL GROUPS CAN FRACTURE UNITY
1. When They Take Away from the Main Gathering
At our church, we prioritize the gathering of the whole church. Small groups should never become a substitute for church attendance. If members begin to treat their small groups as the main place for teaching and transformation, the group ends up working against the teaching of the church rather than complementing it.
The ministry of a local church begins with the main gathering on the Lord’s Day and works out from there to opportunities like Sunday evening services, education classes, and small groups. Each local church must decide what they prioritize outside of the main gathering, but those additional contexts should not leave the pews emptier on Sunday morning.
2. When They Are Viewed as the Primary Context for Relationships
Every member of a local church has covenanted with every other member of their church to live in fellowship together. Small groups may allow relationships to form quickly, but members must commit to building relationships broadly.
Our church doesn’t want small groups to become insular. If members view their relationships in the church as being primarily contained in their small group, they fail to care for other covenant members. Small groups should be viewed as a context for relationships, not the context.
3. When They Divide Age and Life Stage
Members of the same age and life stage will naturally connect with one another. Church leaders don’t need to spend as much time facilitating these types of relationships.
Small groups should do more than gather friends who already share common interests. By gathering older members with younger members, married members with single members, small groups become a tool to encourage discipling relationships among different demographics.