Should I Join a Church for its Small Groups?
Ask a pastor today what he plans to do to build community in his church and you’ll probably get a quick, confident reply: “small groups.” For many churches, small groups are central, even essential. This kind of prominence is novel, given that modern small group ministries only emerged in the United States in the 1970s.
But their emergence has caused many Christians to wonder: should I join a local church mainly for its small groups?
Well, for me at least, that’s an easy one: no. You shouldn’t join a church primarily because you like its small group ministry. That’s a bad idea. Next question.
Let me explain myself a bit. I love small groups. I spent a decade leading a weekly men’s small group in my church and would do it again. In fact, as one of the associate pastors at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, one of my pastoral duties is to oversee and encourage our church’s small group ministry—a task I perform gladly. Small groups can have a useful place in the life of a church. But would I join a church mainly for its small groups? Absolutely not. I would, however, join a church that didn’t have any organized small groups—so long as it had a healthy culture of care and discipling among the members.
WHAT CAN SMALL GROUPS DO?
After roughly twenty-five years of leading and overseeing small groups, I’ve seen firsthand what small groups can and can’t do. One of the most important things to remember is that small groups are a tool—a sometimes useful and always optional tool for culture building. And if small groups are just one tool among many in our pastoral toolkit, then we shouldn’t expect it to carry too much of the load in our ministry. It simply can’t be the only tool in our tool belt. Remember the old adage: when all you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail.
So let me suggest a number of biblical and prudential reasons why we shouldn’t put so much emphasis on small groups, even as we may happily use them for the good of our churches.
First, having small groups is not the same as having a culture of discipling.
Many pastors have a well-founded desire to see a culture of care and discipling in their churches. They want members involved in each other’s lives and intentionally helping one another follow Jesus. But too many, I think, assume this means that if they organize small groups, then they’ve successfully checked the “discipling culture” box.
Of course, small groups can help new members begin to build relationships. But without an effort to encourage relationships to expand beyond small groups, they’ll probably just become relational cul-de-sacs that may be emotionally satisfying to some folks, but won’t build a diverse and resilient culture of love and gospel care between all the members of the congregation. In fact, when poorly conceived, that sense of loyalty to a small group can actually work against a larger culture of care and discipling.
Second, small groups are not a church—they’re not even little cells of a church.
The church is an assembly of believers in covenant relationship with one another. As Hebrews 10:24–25 makes clear, a church is a gathered body, not merely a collection of small groups. And the goal of congregational assembly is, among other things, that a whole network of encouraging relationships would result— so that we can spur one another on to love and good deeds. Loving our church must be more than just loving a few people in it.
Regrettably, pastoral over-reliance on small groups often filters down to how church members think about their own ministry in the church. Some members begin to think that their commitment to a small group of people, a gathering that is not the church, somehow supersedes the importance of their commitment to the whole church—the bride for whom Christ died.
I’ve encountered this confusion among Christians in many ways. Prospective members ask if they can try out the small groups before they decide to join our church. Weaker members fall off attending the corporate gatherings but still make it to their small group. Occasionally, I even hear members say, “I only really know the eight people in my small group. That’s really the church to me.”
Third, small groups are seldom diverse in a biblical sense.
Yes, pastors may make every effort to diversify their small groups so that they involve single people, families, and people from a host of ethnic backgrounds. But by nature of the word “small,” such groupings are going to lack the ethnic, generational, educational, socio-economic, gender, and too-many-things-to-write diversity that usually makes up a healthy local church. If our network of relationships and care within a local church only extends as far as our small group, then we’ll impoverish ourselves spiritually and miss out on relationships that show off the world-confounding unity-amid-diversity that is brought about by the gospel.
SHOULD WE GET RID OF SMALL GROUPS?
What should we do, then, just get rid of small groups altogether? I don’t think so. But we do need to be wise with how we talk about and organize small groups.
First, encourage members to commit to the whole church based on what the congregation believes, not on personal affinity for a sub-group. Small groups have the luxury of being able to focus on specific practical or theological topics but they can’t define the doctrine of the church comprehensively. The whole congregation does that work. In fact, a local church normally presents itself to us through its statement of beliefs, even before we have any relational affinity with any of its members. So encourage potential members to join the church based on corporately shared theological conviction.
Second, use small groups to facilitate more involvement in the whole congregation. For some, this will mean taking a significantly different approach to small groups. For instance, I’ve heard some pastors talk about small groups as their “first line of pastoral care”—a buffer zone before problems rise to the attention of the elders. I’m not convinced, however, that using small groups as a buffer zone is necessarily a wise idea. Pastors and elders should not rely on a system that requires men and women who aren’t qualified to be elders to shoulder the burden of pastoral care.
Instead, encourage your people to view small groups like a climbing hold on a rock-wall—you’re meant to move from one rock to another up the wall, not hang on the same one forever. Similarly, use small groups to help people get more integrated into the entire congregation, rather than having it become their functional congregation.
Keeping small groups from becoming mini-churches often takes intentionality and pastoral effort. Pastors and church leaders may need to find ways to ensure that small groups don’t remain static, with same 12 people meeting for over a decade. In churches with a fairly transient membership (like mine), small group restructuring largely takes care of itself. But in a church with a stable membership you might need occasionally to stir the pot by dissolving and reforming small groups.
Ultimately, pastors need to help members and prospective members see small groups as a means to building relationships in the congregation, rather than as their relational destination. Remind church members that their most important commitment is to the whole church, not just a particular sub-group within it. We need and benefit from the diversity reflected in the entire body of Christ, which is why we would never want to join a church merely for a small, unrepresentative small group of it.
Jesus means for us to have the whole congregational pie, and we should encourage our members to enjoy all of what he’s given them.