Small Groups: Thoroughfares not Cul-De-Sacs
For those who don’t know, a cul-de-sac is a half-circular blip off a road that doesn’t go anywhere. As a kid, my family and I lived on one, and I loved it. Without through-traffic, my sister and I could skate in the street and never worry about getting hit. Our cul-de-sac may not have been helpful for going somewhere, but it was comfortable.
I think that describes what many folks want out of their church’s small groups—a small, manageable group of people that offers a refuge from the diversity and challenges of the larger church. Many churches want their small groups to be familiar and safe.
But do small groups have to be this way? Not necessarily. I believe we should treat small groups not as cul-de-sacs but as thoroughfares. You drive through them to get somewhere.
I realize folks like small groups for a variety of reasons. Some are evangelistic, while others function as seasonal Bible studies. Some focus on acute local needs, while others attend to specific sin issues. Yet sometimes groups are for fellowship and community, and that’s my interest here—when churches employ small groups as community builders.
Community building is a fruitful but risky strategy for a church. They can encourage members but also morph into cul-de-sacs of complacency.
How? The very things that make them comfortable can also prevent members from striking out into the diversity of relationship opportunities available in the whole church. That’s a significant danger.
As you think about the small group ministry in your church, pastor, your goal should be to avoid making them ends in themselves. Ask, how can you use the small groups to push people into the larger fellowship of the church? How can you use them as thoroughfares rather than as cul-de-sacs?
Cutting Up Food So You Don’t Choke
So why risk having these groups at all? Perhaps another analogy will help.
I love steak, especially with salt and a brush of butter. But if you drop a huge ribeye steak in front of me, I’m not going to swallow it in one bite. I’m going to cut it up, so I don’t choke.
Many people consider intentionally loving the whole church like trying to down a ribeye in one bite. How do you even start? Small groups can be a “one bite at a time” solution. They help people take the first bite by helping them to build relationships with half-a-dozen people.
But—and this is the key—you don’t want your members to stop there. I wouldn’t take one smokey bite of steak, lay down my cutlery, and lean back satisfied. I take another bite.
Similarly, members shouldn't be satisfied with just the relationships in their small groups. They should lead folk to pursue other relationships as well.
Theologically, a church and a small group aren’t the same thing. The former is more important than the latter; it’s prescribed in Scripture. Small groups are not. Therefore, they should be less central to our discipleship, even if we have great affection for them.
Jonathan Leeman has helpfully defined a local church as “a group of Christians who regularly gather in Christ's name to officially affirm and oversee one another's membership in Jesus Christ and his kingdom through gospel preaching and gospel ordinances.” A small group isn’t that, though it may exist to serve that central goal.
God means to be glorified in the diversity of his church, not the small group, especially when they’re homogeneous. Notice what Paul writes to the church in Ephesus regarding their maturity in Christ: “From him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building itself up in love by the proper working of each individual part” (Eph. 4:16).
That’s what we want, right? A church where every member is growing and helping others to grow so that the whole body—not just a small group—is built up in love.
Social and Structural Issues
Another issue to consider is the social dynamic that can turn small groups into cul-de-sacs rather than thoroughfares: we like to be with people who are like us.
No one wonders why groups of similarly-situated people—singles, college students, young parents, retirees, etc.—spend time together. No unbeliever observes groups like this and wonders how they could love each other. There’s no gospel mystery there.
But what happens when a women’s small group has a few single women, a young mom, a recent immigrant who speaks limited English, and an older widow? Maybe it meets weekly in a local coffee shop. They laugh, cry, hug, and pray. What will observers say then? They might wonder how such a group exists.
How do you get that kind of group? One way is to structure small groups according to church members’ differences instead of their similarities. No doubt, practical issues of availability may limit you. Single women may need to meet after work, while moms with small kids may need to meet midday at the park. Nonetheless, pastors should try to create groups marked by differences that confound the world and commend the gospel.
Another challenge is that members may prioritize their small groups over the whole church. You know this is happening when small groups schedule their meetings during regular church gatherings, like the church’s Sunday night prayer meeting. More commonly, it shows up when people don’t think twice about missing church but hate skipping out on small group.
Helping Small Groups Become Thoroughfares
What can you as a pastor do to help the church’s small groups act less like cul-de-sacs and more like thoroughfares?
For starters, regularly add new members to small groups. You might also reassort small groups from time to time. If a group resists adding new folks, or boasts, “We’ve been together for five years,” then you may have a cul-de-sac on your hands.
You also need to carefully select and train small group leaders. They don’t need to be super Christians, but their maturity should show itself in their love for the church at large. Their love for people outside the group will help to foster this kind of love inside the group.
Reoccurring training is valuable, but new leader training is essential. This is where you should set out your vision of small groups as thoroughfares into the wider church community, not cul-de-sacs where folks can hole up with a few close friends. In fact, small group leaders should consider it one of their main goals: helping members serve others outside the group.
Even the clearest theology and the best pastoral efforts won’t guarantee that groups resist the urge to become relational fortresses outfitted with a mote and a drawbridge. We all have to fight against the desire to keep life safe, familiar, and small.
Nevertheless, taking notice of the warnings above should help your small groups to become assets, especially to a larger or fast-growing congregation.
This is precisely why every small group meeting should afford some opportunity to focus on the Bible. Whether our groups center on a Bible study, a book about the Christian life, or a recent sermon, we’re reminded that sharing Jesus in common makes our most defined differences look small.
The Word reminds us that we’re united together because we’re united to Christ. Even if that’s all we have in common, it’s enough, and it’s glorious.