Small Groups . . . Foundation for a Healthy Church
For most of our adult lives my wife and I have been in a small group—not because my job requires it but because our souls do. Our small groups have laughed, cried, prayed, encouraged, and studied the Bible with us, and helped us keep our bearings through troubled times. They have been “church” to us.
Usually when there’s conversation about the value of small groups in the church, it’s done on a pragmatic basis—they keep people connected, they’re important for assimilation, etc. But the main reason for small groups is this: they are foundational for a larger church because they are biblical.
If a church is small enough that it’s a single cell (20-40 people), people can connect in the ways described in Scripture. But if it’s much larger, there must be some kind of meaningful pathway for building relationships that touch the soul.
Essential to the Church
While no passage of Scripture uses the term “small groups,” it’s inherent in the New Testament description of living as a Christian. Put most boldly, weekend large group worship services are optional, but small groups are essential to fulfill the biblical description of a church.
The essence of the relational life of the church is in the list of “one anothers” in the New Testament. This began with Jesus’ teaching shortly before his death when he said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34, 35, author emphasis). Repeating three times his command to love made clear its priority. But those in a worship service of 500 cannot “love” one another—they cannot even know one another.
To the church at Colosse Paul wrote, “Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives” (Colossians 3:16, New Living Translation, author emphasis). Fulfilling that command implies an intimate enough knowledge of each other that meaningful advice can be given. You have wisdom; your friend has wisdom. Together your lives are better. But if your complete church experience is sitting shoulder to shoulder for an hour on Sunday, no wisdom is transferred between you.
A fundamental aspect of Christian community is seen in Galatians 6:2, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” I can’t carry your burden if I don’t know it, and there isn’t time to know each other’s burdens when hundreds assemble on the weekend.
More than 24 commands speak of the relationship of believers, for instance:
• Be devoted to one another (Romans 12:10).
• Live in harmony with one another (Romans 12:16).
• Do not sue one another (1 Corinthians 6:7).
• Serve one another (Galatians 5:13).
• Do not be jealous of one another (Galatians 5:26).
• Forgive each other (Ephesians 4:32).
• Submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21).
• Do nothing from selfishness. Regard one another as more important than yourselves (Philippians 2:3).
• Do not lie to one another (Colossians 3:9).
• Encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
A large group worship service by its nature cannot live the “one anothers,” expressing the full nature of Christian community. The question here is not whether large worship services are valuable. They can be filled with great power, both for believers and those on the journey toward God. Throughout history, whenever there has been freedom to assemble, Christians have chosen to meet in large groups. Such meetings fulfill a human longing and preview the multitude before the throne in Heaven. Large group worship can be wonderful, but it’s not required in order to be a biblical church.
A small group with the Lord’s Supper and giving of offerings could be everything a church is supposed to be. Total small group attendance each week is a far better measure of the life of the church than worship attendance.
James 5:16 says, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” Baring one’s soul necessitates a level of trust that can come only with a few close friends.
Romans 12:10 says, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.”
When Ken was having knee surgery, I went to the hospital to pray for him. The hour was early—still dark when I arrived at the hospital—but his small group leader was already there. (To be there at that time, he was devoted.) Two other members of the group arrived a few minutes after me. By their conversation, it was evident their group had met the night before and that Ken was already “prayed up” for the surgery.
Their conversation shifted to one of their group members who had stopped by the pre-op area to see the patient on her way to work. The others, including the patient awaiting surgery, urged her to go ahead that day and confront her boss, as they had discussed with her the previous night at their group. They were doing life together.
As the conversation continued, I stood quietly in the corner, my presence completely unnecessary. Out of courtesy, the small group leader eventually asked if I would have prayer for the surgery, but the needed ministry was already done.
In a sense, as the senior minister or lead pastor of a church, my role is optional. Small group leaders are necessary, because they are the frontline “pastors” of the church. Real pastoral care takes place naturally in small groups. I am not necessary for the church to be the church—small group leaders are.
Our message to people who want to be part of the church is “get in a group.” People who aren’t in a group get third-rate pastoral care. If they are sick, all they are likely to get is a hospital visit from a staff member. But the staff person won’t cook the meals, care for the kids, do the laundry, and clean the house.
Friends shepherd friends. When times get hard, friends are the ones who learn about it and respond first—not church staff. If a church is too large for everybody to be naturally closely connected, a church can build elaborate organizational structures to try to look after the folks, or it can facilitate small groups that cultivate biblical community where genuine caring takes place.
In a small group, nobody has to take roll to see who’s missing. You just look around the room, and if Alicia isn’t in her usual seat, it’s obvious. And if group members don’t already know why she’s absent, somebody finds out within the next day. Small groups are where the church becomes personal. It’s a place to love and be loved, to know and be known.
Real spiritual growth is more likely to happen in small groups than in the excellent, passionate, well-crafted message the minister brings on Sundays. How many people sit through a challenging sermon thinking they’re glad the pastor preached that because those folks really need it?
Hebrews 10:24 commands, “Motivate one another to acts of love and good works” (New Living Translation).
Mike was one of those guys who talked a better game than he produced. He complained about flaky Christians who aren’t really committed. But he had no personal ministry and always seemed to have an excuse when asked to step up to the plate. One night in small group Jamal called him out—tactfully to be sure—but directly. Mike could have gone for years thinking the commitment sermons were for them, but in the context of a three-year friendship in small group the application was brought home and made personal.
Good small groups bring out the best in their members. They maintain a gentle accountability. They mirror back a person’s life, and encourage steps forward. I need that accountability. I’m too dangerous to myself to attempt to live in a vacuum. I need people close enough to see when I’m running on fumes and say so.
We live in a culture that is increasingly nonrelational—even antirelational. Time pressures are enormous and growing, and relationships—the relationships Scripture commands for Christ followers—get pushed to the margins. Apart from being intentional and putting in structures (like a regular small group meeting), life will be increasingly isolated.
Small groups are biblical and practical, can be richly satisfying, are an avenue of discipleship and pastoral care—and besides that, they’re fun! Along with elder training, the work a church puts in to nurture small group leaders may be its highest-value leadership investment.
Dick Alexander is senior minister with LifeSpring Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.