Mailbag #72: Small Groups with Christians from Other Churches? . . . Which Churches Should We Pray for Publicly?
What do you think about small group Bible studies/prayer groups comprised of Christians from different churches?
I don’t think the New Testament establishes “small groups” as a formal structure of the church, which means I think there is freedom in what we do with them. Notice that in each verse there’s a both/and.
That said, I do think we see believers gathering together in their homes apart from the main gathering of the church:
- “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes” (Acts 2:46);
- “And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus” (5:42);
- “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house” (20:20).
Notice that in each verse there’s a both/and. The church in Jerusalem enjoyed teaching and fellowship both together and separately.
I don’t think the Jerusalem church’s example binds us to one set of small group “rules.” But I do think it offers a suggestive pattern: fellowship in the main gathering and fellowship in small groups work together. They mutually reinforce one another.
Here then are two principles based on biblical prudence, not on any biblical precepts. First, guidelines about who can attend a small group should depend on the goals of the group. If the goal is evangelism, obviously anyone can attend. If the goal is to gather all the Christians in a particular workplace for the purposes of mutual support or to spur one another on to evangelize (say, in a law firm, school, or hospital), then invite anyone in those place who belongs to a legitimately evangelical church (preaches the same gospel; affirms the necessity of conversion).
I can imagine a number of scenarios where an “open” attendance policy suits the purposes of a group: perhaps a one-off book study, a mid-week Bible study for women, a Friday night youth meeting.
Yet in all of these situations, notice what you give away with an open attendance policy: the safety that comes with knowing people affirm the same beliefs and belong to the same pastoral and membership accountability structures. For instance, imagine a book group on a sensitive topic like race or sexuality. Assuming your church possesses a “thick” culture of gospel fellowship and shared understanding, you will have better, more honest discussions if attendance is restricted to members only. People will feel free to be more personal, knowing that any “missteps” in the conversation will be covered over by love, trust, and forbearance.
But once you bring in outsiders, people will raise their guard, even if slightly. That said, other goods might be accomplished by welcoming outsiders, such as introducing perspectives from another demographic. So, again, your attendance policy should depend on what you’re trying to do in the group. But recognize there will always be trade-offs between open and closed policies.
Second, I’d encourage you to adopt a closed-policy (members only) for “church-sponsored” small groups.
Here I’m looking back to the example of the church in Jerusalem and thinking about the mutually reinforcing nature of the large and small gatherings. By “church-sponsored” I mean, pastors encourage members to join them. They give some level of oversight to them. They approve of who the leaders are, and they interact with those leaders occasionally to hear how the group is doing.
People attend these groups to build relationships and foster Christian discipleship, whether the focus is Bible study, sermon reflection, or sharing and accountability. Your church might call them fellowship groups, community groups, discipleship groups, or something else. But the point is that the church does some measure of its discipleship ministry here. When this is the case, I think it’s generally best to restrict attendance to members. A closed policy helps groups feel safe for meaningful, honest, and fruitful conversations. It facilitates unity in the group, and it allows for deliberate pastoral care. A closed policy encourages small groups to work like protected greenhouse where flowers can grow.
Often, churches use small groups not as greenhouses but as “doorways” into the church. The thinking is simple: let people participate in the closer and more intimate fellowship of a small group, and perhaps that will encourage them to join the church. The trouble is, this compromises the safety and unity of a group. Ironically, it dis-incentivizes some people from ever joining the church. After all, they think they’re getting the goods of intimacy and relationships without the accountability of membership. They don’t realize that accountability and fellowship actually aid one another.
From what I can tell, most American churches practice an open attendance policy for their small groups. Anyone can come. I’m fine with someone visiting once. But the fact that many churches let people do this indefinitely, I believe, probably contributes to the problems of individualism and nominalism in American Christianity. People hop around different fellowships and churches—a sample here, a sample there, never really investing themselves in a group of relationships where they’re required to forbear through thick and thin.
Cade, you asked a short question. I offered a long answer. Churches rely heavily on small groups to accomplish much of their work among members, and so I think we need to think more carefully about this topic. I pray all this is useful.
How do you determine which churches to pray for publicly? Right now, we limit our public prayers to those with whom we are in philosophical agreement, regardless of denomination.
Should we communicate that the local, attraction-based churches are our brothers and sister by praying for them? Some will have female pastors, most if not all of the mega churches don’t practice meaningful membership or churches discipline—though they’re clear on the exclusivity of Christ to save. What principles have you used to think through this?
I’m glad to hear you’re praying for other churches publicly. That’s wonderful. It reminds your members that gospel-preaching churches are all playing on the same team, and it works against our natural turfiness.
To be clear, you can pray for any church. What matters is how you pray for them, because that will impact how your members view those churches.
Think in terms of three tiers. First are what you call the gospel-affirming churches with broad philosophical agreement, regardless of denomination. Pray partnership prayers for these churches. “Lord, we thank you for your gospel work at Second Baptist and Third Presbyterian. Thank you for their pastors Stan and Tyrell. Sustain them and their work of preaching the Word. We pray you would give them the joy of seeing more conversions.”
Next are the gospel-affirming churches with philosophical differences like you described. You would not forbid your members from joining these churches, but you might discourage them from doing so. Your prayers for these churches should probably sound less like partnernship prayers and more like help-them-to-obey prayers: “Father, thank you for Fourth Lutheran and Community Springs Bible. We pray they would grow in their love for your Word, and that they would desire to conform themselves to it.” You might name them, like I just did, but, honestly, I generally wouldn’t. Instead, you might pray something like, “We pray for all the other churches in this city where the gospel is preached. Grow them in conformity to your Word.”
Finally, there are gospel-denying “churches”—and yes, you should pray for them, too. Your members drive by these buildings, and they work with their members. So you want to model and teach your members to pray evangelistic prayers for such churches. Like this: “Father, we pray for all the churches meeting in our city today, places that once preached the gospel but now deny it. We pray that, even as they celebrate the picture of Christ’s atoning in the Lord’s Supper, they would recall a childhood lesson of the gospel, repent, and begin to preach your gospel once more. Have mercy on them, we ask.” Or like this: “We pray for everyone walking into Roman Catholic churches today, that as your Bible is opened and read, priest and parishioner alike would be convicted of sin and put their trust in Christ alone through faith alone.”
In short, you can teach people how to view different kinds of churches in how you pray for them. Use partnership prayers, obedience prayers, and evangelistic prayers. That said, the more you’re in category two or three above, the wiser it probably is to refrain from naming those churches.
I pray this is useful.