Why Churches Should Euthanize Small Groups

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By Brian Jones

A few years ago I brought in a nationally recognized pastor to do some consulting for our church. One of the things I remember most about my time with him was a side conversation we had about small groups.

“I haven’t really figured out the small group thing,” I confessed to him.

“Well, Brian, that’s because they don’t work. Small groups are things that trick us into believing we’re serious about making disciples. The problem is 90 percent of small groups never produce one single disciple. Ever. They help Christians make shallow friendships, for sure. They’re great at helping Christians feel a tenuous connection to their local church, and they do a bang-up job of teaching Christians how to act like other Christians in the Evangelical Christian subculture. But when it comes to creating the kind of holistic disciples Jesus envisioned, the jury’s decision came back a long time ago—small groups just aren’t working.”

“Finally,” I said, “I’ve met someone who’s got the guts to euthanize this small group sacred cow.”

I have been leading, participating in, championing, and applauding the efforts of small groups for the last 20 years of my ministry.

But now I’m done. In my opinion, they just don’t work. Let me share why.

A Flawed Starting Point

Church-initiated “small groups” begin from a flawed starting point.

For reasons that still escape me, soon after becoming a Christian at age 18, Deron Brickey, Dave Polonia, Jeff Snyder, and I started hanging out with one another.

Soon that group grew to 10 to 12 friends. We laughed together, prayed together, studied the Bible together, ate together, evangelized together, and served the poor together. Even though we had no leader, no real set meeting time, no agenda, and no plan or focus, it was through these friends that I made incredible strides toward becoming a holistic disciple of Jesus.

And it all happened by accident.

In fact, looking back on my 25 years of following Christ, here’s what I’ve noticed: Every small group I’ve ever been in that helped me grow as a disciple started by what appeared to be an accident.

I wasn’t looking for it. I wasn’t interested in joining a small group in the least. And in many respects, I didn’t even feel a need to grow spiritually.

Most of all, I wasn’t participating in some superficial churchwide small group sign-up initiative the senior pastor dreamed up to jack up small group attendance because he heard church analysts say you should always maintain a certain ratio of worship attendees to small group participants.

It just happened, naturally and spontaneously.

Those experiences couldn’t have been planned, even if I tried. And for the most part, that’s exactly how it’s been happening in the Christian community for, say, I don’t know, the last 1,960 years. That is until we westerners, particularly Americans, started messing it up.

Well-intentioned Christians, armed with the latest insights in organizational theory, let their pragmatic and utilitarian hearts delude them into thinking they could organize, measure, and control the mystical working of the Holy Spirit in community in order to consistently reproduce disciples in other contexts.

Then these people started writing books and hosting seminars. And then church leaders like you and me bought into what they were saying because we didn’t recognize that the same faulty worldview that produced a mechanized approach to Christian community fostered a ready-made market in our hearts to consume their quick-fix solutions.

So we came home, armed with our “101 Sure-Fire Discussion Starter” books and binders full of slick recruitment techniques, and started small group ministries at our churches.

We preached powerful sermons. We cast vision. We contorted Acts 2 into saying what we needed it to say. We blathered on and on about all the “one anothers” in the Bible and about how, if we met one time a week for 1.5 hours and followed a well-conceived discussion regime, we could experience Acts 2 in all of its splendor and glory.

And what happened? You know what happened. They failed. Like big-time.

And meanwhile, while our people were constrained by their obligation to the church and their sense of loyalty to us as leaders, their hearts searched for real community and an opportunity to grow as disciples.

What would happen if we euthanized all of our small groups, taught the value of discipleship and community, and then simply let the Holy Spirit do his work?

Achilles’ Heel

When I attended my very first church growth conference in 1992, a nationally known small group “expert” stood up and said, “The way we say it at our church is, ‘If you can read, you can lead.’ If a Christian can read the questions in our study guide, he can lead a small group at our church.”

That’s easy, I thought. Too easy, in fact. And ridiculous.

“If you can read, you can lead” is a great slogan for people who organize a rugby team from your church, or your knitting circle, or the Saturday morning llama-riding group. But not for someone recognized by the community of faith as a mentor of new disciples.

The Achilles’ heel of the modern-day small group movement is simple: Small groups don’t create disciples; disciples create disciples. And modern-day small groups are led, for the most part, by people who have attended the church, had a conversion experience, led a reasonably moral life, and can read the study-guide questions, but are not disciples themselves.

American churches have lowered the bar of small group leadership to an absurd level. In fact, it’s so ridiculous most churches would be better off not even having small groups than to offer them with leaders who aren’t disciples.

The common argument against small groups is flawed. The problem with small groups isn’t that they pool the group’s collective ignorance; it’s that they pool the group’s collective disobedience. And it’s not the small group leader’s fault.

It’s the fault of the people who installed the leader and convinced him he could lead their group to a place where they themselves have not gone.

Jesus in Your Group?

Would Jesus join a small group in your church?

Think about that for a moment. Forget about your goals. Forget about your motivations for offering them. Forget about all the supposed benefits of participating in one. Do you honestly think Jesus would join, lead, or start a small group within the existing structure of your small group’s ministry at your church?

Of course not. Not a chance. Not in a million years.

Why?

Because while your people are stuck in the “hairball” of your church’s ministry (to steal Gordon MacKenzie’s great line), Jesus would be out rubbing shoulders with people in your community, helping them find their way back to God, and teaching them to obey his teachings.

Jesus would actually be doing what small groups say they want/should/need to be doing, but they can’t, because they’re too busy being a “small group” inside the confines of your small group’s ministry infrastructure.

It’s like a jogging class where the instructor, instead of taking his class jogging and commenting on technique while class members actually are jogging, stuffs everyone into a classroom and lectures to them three days a week and then gives them a final exam.

Disciples are created “out there.” Small groups, if not by their definition, definitely by their practice, all occur “in here.”

With few exceptions, modern-day small groups are great at producing:

• Christians who sit in circles and talk to one another inside a building

• people who read and comment on the Bible

• people who rant about how they long to “get out there” and do something that matters

• people who awkwardly end their time by praying for “prayer requests”

• people who go home unchallenged and unchanged.

You would think there’s a Small Groups Revised Version of the New Testament somewhere. And I quote: “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore stay where you are and make Christians of the people you already know, baptizing them in the name of American consumer Christianity, and teaching them to sit in rooms with one another, read the Bible, and pray for one another. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20, SGRV).

If the Small Groups Revised Version of Matthew 28:18-20 were the stated purpose, then most American small groups would be nailing it.

In my humble opinion, the Americanized small group is a remnant of an impotent religious institution that can’t transition effectively into a post-Christian, postmodern world.

Thank God small groups worked in some instances, and in some contexts!

But for every story of success about a small group creating an authentic disciple, my hunch is there are three times as many failures (and that just takes into account the 10 to 30 percent of church attendees who actually participate in them).

If we had time to waste, this wouldn’t be an urgent problem.

But we don’t.

Brian Jones is founding pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley in Royersford, Pennsylvania. He’s the author of Second Guessing God and Getting Rid of the Gorilla: Confessions on the Struggle to Forgive. See www.brianjones.com.

________

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244 Comments

  1. Some valid points made. Some churches have used small groups mostly for assimilation of attenders. However, others have had disciple-making at the heart of small groups, especially some cell-models and newer missional models such as 3DM.

  2. Ten years ago some friends invited us to a bible study group at their house. Care was always taken to make sure that the materials chosen were biblically sound, and because we had the freedom to choose them, we were able to grow from whatever point we were at. We had several couples from mixed church backgrounds and the dynamic and insight into our lives was terrific. Eventually everyone decided to attend a particular church because of solid teaching and freedom for the congregants to gather without interference. That didn’t last long. Before too long the church hijacked our group. Instead of a “bible study” we were now to use the term “Life Group”. All of our group time was now focused on digging deeper into the Sunday sermon. We had actually attended a church prior to our current one that was promoting its own small groups and when we told the pastor that we were already in an inter-church group he said that much of the communication regarding church affairs would be passed down through the small groups and that we would miss out if we didn’t get in one. We gave it an earnest try but found that the dynamic was that of obligation rather than growth and we left. We had hoped that when our current church attempted the same thing that the result might be somehow different, but it was not.

    Before the church took over, we regularly saw new couples join the study who were truly interested in exploring their faith. We still have a few people left in the group that make the most of what we’re given, but a lot of people sign up to fulfill the “requirement” and attend once or not at all. It’s not nearly what it had been. While I appreciate my fellow group members, it’s become another routine rather than something I truly look forward to. Many of our original study members left because they felt the same way. I don’t think that mandating groups and deciding their discussion topics is the answer.

  3. I have been in a variety of small groups over the decades.
    Where there is earnest prayer for the ‘church’ and or members of the goups with special needs, small groups can be a source of great encouragement. Some have given genuine insight to the Scriptures and have been helpful to a New Christian. Some have encouraged formation of genuine and lasting friendships which could have been missed in the mass meeting at the local church.
    Others have been a mixture of people where the noisy man was always right. Others have been a collection of unsubstantiated opinions based on various doctrinal backgrounds. Others have been the blind leading the blind as far as valid leading. Others have been led from a prepared study written by someone who asked such questions as “How did this make you feel?” and the like.
    In a smaller local assembly it creates a sense of unity. As a small group among many in a medium sized to large to mega sized collection of doctrinally similar people, it gets you to meet people who are otherwise swamped by hundreds round about on Sunday mornings but can encourage ‘cliques’ which can lead to splits and or propagation of erroneous teaching.
    The comment ‘If you can read, you can lead’ would seem a particularly useless starting point and lead to all the negative thoughts it have listed above.

  4. I have to agree with the premise behind the author’s words. While great in intent, in practice the small groups that I have been part of have typically focused on the group itself and the group’s own needs. If anyone mentioned the idea of possibly going out into the community, the idea was suppressed rather quickly. New members were typically not welcomed with open arms, after all, the group was….well, the group. Cozy, comfy, no risk or suggestion of venturing out of comfort zones beyond the programmed agenda.

    We have had greater success by not “defining” static small groups, but keeping a dynamic model of setting small teams to work together as needed to go into the community or to work internally to build relationships with and disciple new members.

  5. You ask would Jesus join a group…I think He would start them, that’s why He sent them out two by two so we could be stronger in faith. We had a group, and yes, it worked very well. But we moved. But they are still having it and serving God and going out to the projects and witnessing. The members of the small group would feed off each other, just like my favorite verse, Proverbs 27:17, iron sharpens iron so one man sharpens another. You could say the disciples were a small group; they would teach, pray, serve each other and other people. I’m not saying that all small groups work or not, but larger groups tend not to. In this day and time, with the falling away from Christ, we as Christians really need each other to be able to stand against the principalities of the world. If we do not, it will eat us alive. That’s why I think Jesus would form small groups so we could strengthen ourselves to not be alone. If you are a saved Christian we do have a leader. Jesus said he would send a teacher. . . . The Holy Spirit will guide us; we can do nothing without the Holy Spirit. When we go out to war against the enemy, we pray to God to be a light and a path to guide our feet as He did for Moses. So my answer to this is yes, they work. The one I’ve been in with my wife works; we just haven’t found one were we are now. But we still witness, and I contribute that to that one cell group.

  6. I won’t go in to all the reasons I disagree with this article, but I would like to make a quick point about why I support small church communities, and that has to do with my own personal, spiritual growth I have gotten from my current group.

    I was a Sunday recluse for many years. One day, the pastor of our church told me about the small church community groups they had going and asked if I would like to join. Being a recluse, my first impulse was to say “no thank you,” but here the pastor was inviting me to be a part of the community. I took it as a sign and agreed. It’s been over a year now, and I’ve gotten involved in numerous other ministries, thanks in no small part to the support and encouragement from the members in my small church community.

    Are these groups for everyone? No, there’s not a one-size-fits-all ministry that brings everyone equally closer to God. But I believe there are many people who do benefit from these groups–as in my case, it has been a starting point to getting involved in other ways.

  7. I write this comment with disbelief and great sadness for a number of reasons.
    -about the writer’s lack of compassion and love for his flock which Jesus called him as a shepherd to disciple,
    -about his mean spirited sour attitude regarding small groups despite the fact that Jesus himself led a small group, and even casual observers would say that ‘worked’ pretty well!

    I’m shocked this article was accepted by your publication; it is so full of negativity and lack of vision that it serves only to show how difficult a time the author is having in his own spiritual walk. I pray that Godly men led by the Holy Spirit will come into his life and he will humble himself to recognize the error of his thinking.

    May we all humbly seek for the Lord to constantly renew our minds throughout each day, recognizing that it will not happen incidentally but must be cultivated intentionally- just as Jesus did with his small group of 12.

    See the book “Church is a Team Sport” by Jim Putman as a starting point to see how valuable small groups can be when they are based upon care for others in action. Then come to RealLife Ministries in the Post Falls area to have your mind blown- you will see how 800 vibrant home groups have been the foundation to build multiple church plants in the region!

  8. I seldom leave comments – but after reading this article, I feel like I should. I certainly don’t know Brian, but I’m saddened that his experiences have been so negative and even more saddened that he assumes his bad experiences are the norm. While there are plenty of ineffective groups around the country, however, there are many who are absolutely “Killing It!” Like big time?!?

    I have had many amazing experiences. Our groups have allowed people to grow in their connection to God and to grow connected to each other – and build life-long friendships. They have also proven the easiest vehicle to help people engage in serving within the walls of our church and outside the walls into our community and beyond. We have traveled to foreign countries together. We have done significant outreach locally. We are a family of families.

    I have experienced more Acts 2 reality in groups than anything else I have encountered. To watch people follow Christ together, care for one another, and live beyond themselves is about a Jesus-like as it gets. So Brian – with all respect due – I agree with your opening premise. “You really haven’t figured out the small group thing.”

    Thanks!

  9. Sad, that is what this article makes me feel. I don’t know what small groups you have been in but I think the real problem is not the group but YOU. You said you didn’t need to grow spiritually at the time, well everyone needs to grow and at all times. When you think you have arrived then you are far from where Christ wants you to be. The small groups I have been involved in have helped me grow, helped me to reach out for help and to then reach out to others. If you don’t want to be in a small group then don’t go, but don’t put and article out that might push others away. A new believer would get so much from a small group. You sir are not led by the Holy Spirit otherwise you would not write such discouraging words.

  10. So small groups aren’t good because they some/most fail at making disciples?

    Where does that leave the corporate church?

    I actually took a lot away from this article because I believe you are correct on a lot of fronts. The problem is you want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you have placed people in leadership roles when they clearly did not have the ability, knowledge or qualifications to be in a position of leadership, then that sir is your fault. Do not blame BIBLICAL small groups because you didn’t see the fruit they are supposed to create, when you didn’t bother following guidelines set forth by the Bible.

    And for all your negativity . . . you never once gave an alternate by which we can produce disciples.

  11. My husband and I serve as facilitators for our Couples Small Group at our church. We have been together for more than two years and are still going strong. We meet monthly, and as a result we have seen marriages strengthen within our group. We also come together for Operation Christmas Child shoebox ministry. Just like any other project or activity that involves people, there will be successes and failures alike. Jesus would enjoy our group because he liked to talk and eat and so do we. However, while the church is His bride, He did not have a spouse.

    We attend a large church with a diverse congregation. Without the small groups, members could get lost in the crowd if they are not assertive enough to become actively involved. I congratulate our pastor for his vision and leadership. From the looks of your article, the problem is not with small groups, but the leadership and encouragement you are not giving as the shepherd of your church. Sheep follow their shepherd. If they see that you are not committed to small groups, they have no incentive to be committed either. They can be content to be Sunday morning pew sitters and never know the beauty of fellowship, involvement, and intimate study of God’s Word.

  12. This is a very honest article. I am a Christian in burnout mode right now. I love JESUS, I pray, I read the Bible, help the poor and homeless, and for now, I left my church and am watching a church online while I get ready for a new church . . . quite frankly, it may not be for a while. I used to do the group meetings, midweek service, and Sundays — getting up early (too early on Sundays for me) — plus go-to groups. . . . Quite honestly, it often controlled my day where I had to be ready to go there and started to drive me nuts. Also went to midweek service. And yes, it burned me out after years of doing it and it became more chore than pleasure. It bored me and I felt exhausted after a while or said things like “Again?” I just went into a sort of cruise-control mentality where I would enjoy moments, while other moments I said to myself, “Gonna be late by the time I get home.” Stuff like that.

    The pastor was basically fine. Totally GOD-centered individual who perhaps had a bit of a controlling personality but the WORD was quite good. In the end, it just got too much. When I got home from it all, I just wanted to sleep and not read a Bible as time went on. The first, say, 2 plus years I was totally into it. Then slowly, it was just wearing on me. Then slowly I just drifted out of the whole thing. Stopped going to the meetings, then cut back on church, and then simply stopped. Started watching online services from a church in another state I happened to go to when I was in that state. I started to read the Bible again. Started working with, giving money to the homeless and trying to get these folks into going back to church at least as a concept to them. I feel much better now. I really do. It became too ritual feeling to me after a while having to go to weekly meetings or services all the time. Again, I understand an actual church would be good to go to again and I will. But really, what is better? Getting burnout mode doing what I was doing or doing what I am doing now? To me it is the latter. I do not think you have to be in a group setting all the time, or for sure, maybe meet less often. People are simply exhausted after work or have family. That is reality . . .

  13. Isn’t all this true of the regular church service too?

  14. Sometimes, the truth is hard to swallow. I can’t see where small groups promote biblical unity. Home and family Bible study, yes. Small splinter groups within local churches often result in competition and division.

  15. It seems like this article is against poorly run small groups and not small groups in general. There is nothing in here to argue against the concept of a small group in and of itself.

    By the way, Jesus started a small group. Remember the disciples? Jesus thought that to invest himself most in the life of 12 men (and 3 in the inner group) would be more profitable than only preaching to the masses. Moses also divided Israel into small groups in order to lead the nation more faithfully.

  16. “Brian” I guess is writing his opinion or experience, stoking a fire or looking for feedback. However in his opening premise he says he brought in a nationally recognized Pastor to consult with. No one man or even group of men have experience enough to refute the workings of small groups or large groups that do work or even see or understand how the Spirit of God is moving immediately. Be careful in the bring in “celebrity Christian” genre to improve worship or attendance or any other matter unless it is the same guidance that the Spirit has given local leaders who are seeking Him. I’ve found the same leading He gives national leaders who are genuine will match or coincide with local vision. It’s the same Spirit. Small groups work without a doubt. However you can seldom hit a target without an aim which can be the downfall of any group large or small. Any group must have leadership and be goal oriented or aimed by the Holy Spirit. The apostles were. They specifically talked about to where they were led to carry the Gospel. We have to be aware of the “Ego factor”, “Hero worship”, and “self glorification factor” that lead many groups. The thrust of any group should be the same as the apostles or the Great Commission. Some years ago while serving in the US military I became involved in a Church that had grown into the millions by small cell groups. These groups after gaining 10-12 members split and formed another group duplicating the process. It created a network where someone from every group knew someone else from another group through fellowship or associations. It actually helped meet needs in the Church no matter how wide it was spread. Aimed focused small groups work. Period. Fellowship is vital to Christian growth. That’s why we have to abide in the Vine. Without His Spirit we can’t get it done.

  17. Paul teaches no works required, what do you expect?

  18. Absolutely astounding Brian.

    You criticize small groups just after telling us how small groups helped you grow and mature as a Christian. It just so happened that Jesus’ small group turned the world around and the greatest New Testament missionary went from city to city establishing small groups.

    What you are against are church programs that artificially make cookie cutter small groups with little leadership. They will obviously fail as you have experienced, but not because they are a small groups, or because there was no “mystical working of the Holy Spirit” (a totally nonsensical new age idea) but because of the lack of trained leadership. Leaders learn in two ways, by example and on the job. They must be taught and equipped and let loose to experiment and fail multiple times.

    Exactly what do you propose to replace small group interaction with? Private study at home? (I’m for that but you will get few takers.) Or everyone gather to hear your uniquely wise subjective spirit led mystical counsel? (Sorry but I’m gonna pass on that one. I prefer Bible preachers.)

  19. I think the premise of this is right on. I started reading Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. If we are indeed living out the life God created us to live, disciplined to live as Christ did, then the idea of small groups can and will naturally compound around us.

    I migrated away from my small group for a myriad of reasons and found myself gravitating towards people I can do life with and my kids can do life with. As I grow in my own journey, I share it as a natural spirit led initiative to further God’s kingdom. I find my small group in the morning putting my son on the bus, and as I pick up my kids from school. The moms and dads I get to talk with and the occasional random coffee where fellowship is as deep as the richness of the coffee. I don’t fit in time for a small group…life becomes a small group.

    I am confused at the time and attention taken to placing people into small groups, and completely missing discipleship and discipline. It is perhaps that people would rather talk about being a Christian than bother to actually become one.

    The author does state and I believe it to be true, there are living breathing small groups that work and are growing up believers. In my experience, they happen to be pastors’ small groups, and they are doing life with those around them; doing the work of the church…I could only hope that disciples are made and grown in these groups.

    Great, thought provoking narrative. It gave life to the thoughts and doubts I’ve had around the idea of small groups. Thank you for writing it.

  20. Wow. Your small group ministry is a failure, so you condemn the concept. As others have mentioned, we did not create the small group concept, Jesus did. The Lord has blessed our church tremendously through our growing small group ministry. We lead an adult small group and host a college age small group in our home weekly. We also do service projects, lead international mission trips annually, provide support for a number of missionaries, all through our small groups. Christmas is a season to celebrate Gods humility. Coming to earth as a baby. Born in a stable. Making the grand announcement to the lowest of the lowest, the shepherds. Jesus made his entrance to this planet as spectacularly humble as possible. In that spirit of humility, could you possibly consider that maybe the concept of small groups may not be as awful as you represent? That in fact maybe you (gasp!) had a poorly implemented small groups program? And maybe a well run small group program with great vision and leadership could create amazing discipleship and service opportunities and grow the depth of your church?

    Praying for you guys.

    -Steve

  21. Hi Y’all,

    The author should perhaps not get tarred or feathered, even in a nice Christian “I’ll pray for you” way. At least not immediately… (-:

    Of course he’s not discouraging any or every small group, but he shows that small groups can be a sacred cow which we are (wrongly) reluctant to question. They are not necessarily a force for good, or for a purpose that advances the kingdom in our life or otherwise, but must be made that way or otherwise shut down/left. Just like any other sphere of life.

    Mike. My sympathy. Stop floating, start swimming, ask God what direction and help (beware, He does answer in unexpected, sometimes tough ways), and definitely now stop doing anything that drains you of life.

    Peter

  22. OK, so we kill small groups. Then we assimilate people by plugging them into a ministry team. There they serve and grow and build relationships. They function best by partnering up with somewhere between 2 and 18 people. If they don’t, we lose them out the back door! Oh, I think that they just joined an accidental small group! Maybe we should jettison groups that are merely self-serving “God bless me” clubs and re-focus on making disciples that make disciples who plant churches by walking with people through life circumstances (sometimes in groups)!

  23. This came to me for some reason as I was praying for truth and understanding this morning. I was not even praying about small groups.

    Churches are moving to shorter services and encouraging small groups. Those in the church that are desiring meat will tend toward the small groups and those desiring nothing will be content with the services. The churches are more about building and organization than the body of Christ. The push towards small groups attached to large churches (which is the only place they make sense) is a purposeful attack on the church by Satan. Their resources are spent building ministries, buildings, salaries, and programs rather than feeding the poor and missions efforts. It has created the concept of the churched vs unchurched. The churched are led to feel better about spending their money and time for their comforts.

    In other words, the church leadership is not feeding the sheep and instead encouraging small groups. They encourage small groups for getting fed and chain them to the large church.

    Take this to the Lord in prayer.

  24. Hello Brian,

    i liked your article. I currently belong to a church that was once small and also had small groups. My family had just left a covenant church in Florida and moved to Maine. We found this small church and loved the small fellowships. Although they had leaders at the time, it was an incredible place to be fed and to establish relationships beyond your traditional “hi, how are you” Sunday service relationships. it was a chance to forge relationships of love and service to one another.

    I’m constantly saddened and amazed when I talk to people in the now very big church, at how many of our brothers and sisters are still suffering and carrying burdens. It seems to me we are so wrapped up in a lot of these canned ministries and church growth, that the very people who we’ve attracted and who left the world of suffering are being lost in our very midst. Our church now is big and they’re mucked with the small groups in such a way to make them frivolous and shallow. I think the idea is to attract non-Christians. Yes, this is where it fails. This is why, in my opinion, the church has lost the purpose of small groups.

    I liked your comments about how pastors are introducing methods and studies and programs to manage the church. That’s disgusting and the very reason I’ve come to hate the church. My church in particular has become shallow, dumbed down in order not to offend newcomers. The teachings only touch the surface and rarely have much depth to them. This is all a result of the mega church movement which in my opinion has poisoned the well.

    Small group should be for cultivating relationships, to make sure the needs of the saints are taken care of, to establish a place of openness where we can dump our burdens and be refreshed after worship and fellowship to love others and be able to share the good news of the Gospel. The kingdom of God is not food or drink but righteousness, peace and joy. When? After we die? I think it should be now, in our relationship with Christ and one another.

  25. I have to disagree with this article. Just because it didn’t work for a few doesn’t mean it doesn’t work at all (if they are done right). We started Care Groups in Morris, OK (A very small church around 50 and grew to 125) and we had a huge success.

    There we’re visitors who would come to a Care Group before they came to church, and once they realized we were sincere in our walk with God, they eventually came to church. 13 years later, we’ve had assistant pastors, preachers, and Sunday school teachers come out of our Care Groups.

    If I read my Bible right, didn’t Jesus do most of his ministry in Small Group settings
    Zacchaeus the tax collector, the woman who washed his feet, ministered to a small group of 12 that grew into many….just a few examples.

    But again, I respect the opinion of this article and it did challenge me to respond

  26. A few problems can arise from some small groups:
    – Does the leader have a good handle on God’s Word, and some Thelogy 101?
    – How would a new small group leader help his group if the pastor was proceeding through Romans. I see a trainwreck with potential confusion. Small group leaders must be carefully trained.
    – I wonder if small groups should just be focused upon fellowship and meeting needs.
    – Are many pastors exerting much energy on small groups, and too little time in sermon prep. The pastor must be the primary teacher.
    – congregations can grow numerically while literally starving Biblically.

  27. I seriously cannot believe this article actually made the Standard. Small group failure? How does one define that? Small group success? What’s the definition?

    Criticizing churches for trying to create synergistic groups that help people do Christian life together, or bashing any attempt to create environments where people can grow together? Who does that?

    And who in their right mind, claims to have the formula for successful groups of any kind – small, large, green, yellow…? The author debunks his own logic when he first begins the article with his “by accident” small group example.

    Who died and made anyone judge over what it means to have a small group as a part of an overall discipleship strategy?

    Duh…small groups didn’t “work” in our church, so they just don’t “work.” Seriously? Says who? Even a small group started, that didn’t stay together isn’t necessarily a small group that didn’t “work.”

    Every church in the world started as a small group – some organically, and some that were organized. And some of each have “failed” too (if that can actually be defined). It is simply idiotic to criticize human beings for “organizing” groups, systems, bodies of believers with a plan and give them a chance to grow and share together. And that actually makes more sense than just sticking your finger into the “wind of the Spirit” and allowing things to happen “by accident.” What are we, hippies living on love and flower power?

    How can one be critical of churches wanting to create incubators for spiritual growth? How can anyone second guess another for trying to get people in the way of the Holy Spirit, “where two or three are gathered?”

    This article drips with arrogance, and self-righteousness – and even a touch of judgmental legalism.

    My advice to the author – get over yourself. No one has the corner on the market of how, when, and where the Holy Spirit decides to work. Not even a small group “expert…”

  28. Two comments I have reading the article and the comments that followed……

    1. I strongly dislike small groups and avoid them. I think the author made some very valid points. A serious home Bible study…..sure. I’m all for it. A small group? Count me out! My experience has been that a “small group” is more a social event than anything else. And I am really not a fan of the churches who divide their small groups based on age and circumstance….i.e. age 20-30 couples with young kids, 35-50 singles, 50+ adults with grown kids…..etc…..you get my point. I have only been in one successful small group….and the ages and marital status and if you had small kids or grown kids or no kids was irrelevant. Studying the Word of God and growing in our walk with Christ was the focus.

    2. There are truly some mean comments made about the author and/or his article. Telling the author to “get over himself”? Is that really how Christians are supposed to talk to one another? Instead of speaking one’s mind in gentleness and love, some of the comments left are laden with sarcasm and judgment. You don’t have to agree with the author’s point, but nor do you have to tar and feather him in your evaluation.

  29. My 1400 “attendee” church is going through this “small group” track right now–using what is called “The Growth Track” (google it and you’ll find tons of other churches using it too). I have been very uncomfortable about it since it was brought to our (existing servant/leaders, as they say, in the church) attention a couple of months ago–that our church is going in a “new direction.” My concerns have been very much like you mention here, but in particular, that the church appears to be willing to let almost anyone, who has signed the “leadership contract” regarding a statement of belief and being willing to live a godly life, etc., to become the leader of a small group–even one focused around people whose common interest is golf, running, etc. They too have used Acts 2 as their proof text and are intentionally focusing on Millennials now, as who they are aiming our main Sunday services at–with new lighting, new music, new ways of doing communion (getting up and going to a small table and serving ourselves, whenever we feel moved to do so, during an allotted 8 minute timeframe, and then immediately baptizing anyone who professes Christ and comes forward during that 8 minutes).

    All that aside, a small group led by someone who is a very mature believer, and is gifted with teaching, is a wonderful thing, and may very well be a group God blesses by multiplying disciples who will then go forward into “the world,” witness and make even more disciples! But, if a church is basically trying to hit a mark (a certain % of “attendees” being in small groups by a given date–as mine is), then it is asking for trouble, because it will achieve a wide field of shallow teaching with friendships made along the way. And the ONLY time almost all of the “attendees” (I believe they are moving away from using the terms congregation or members, though that’s not been blatantly stated yet) are present IS during the Sunday services, and that is when the pastor should be teaching the whole counsel of God, the good and the bad, so that anyone being called by God WILL hear the Word and be drawn to Him.

  30. My reaction to this article is very much appropriate given its tone. The author’s attitude, beginning with the title, is judgmental and mean-spirited. For example:

    1. “Finally,” I said, “I’ve met someone who’s got the guts to euthanize this small group sacred cow.”

    My response:
    Mean-spirited comment by the author, don’t you think? Euthanize the “sacred cow.” Offensive to the numerous churches and believers who are either incorporating small groups into their churches, or are a part of a small group.

    2. “Most of all, I wasn’t participating in some superficial churchwide small group sign-up initiative the senior pastor dreamed up to jack up small group attendance because he heard church analysts say you should always maintain a certain ratio of worship attendees to small group participants.”

    My response:
    Superficial church-wide sign up initiative…? This statement is judgmental to it’s core. Why does the author claim to know men’s hearts?

    3. “When I attended my very first church growth conference in 1992, a nationally known small group “expert” stood up and said, “The way we say it at our church is, ‘If you can read, you can lead.’ If a Christian can read the questions in our study guide, he can lead a small group at our church.”

    That’s easy, I thought. Too easy, in fact. And ridiculous.”

    My response:
    The author called those willing to lead others, with the noble intention of teaching, growing, and discipling, “ridiculous.” Now I’m not one for name calling, but on a deeper level is there really anything wrong with jumping into service with the guidance of church leaders, and, or a structured and written guide? Who’s to say that Christians can’t grow through this kind of mechanism? Who’s to say the Holy Spirit can’t “do His work” this way?

    And why does the author presume that there isn’t some kind of training for these servant minded small group leaders. Why would you discount the impact that a small group could have on evangelism? The author is simply throwing the baby out with the bathwater with his idea of “euthanizing” small groups. Not only is that presumptuous at best, but it is legalistic and judgmental at worst.

    4. “What would happen if we euthanized all of our small groups, taught the value of discipleship and community, and then simply let the Holy Spirit do his work?”

    My response:
    Again, I am not sure why the author thinks he KNOWS better than others, how, when, and why the Holy Spirit does His work? But to presume that he does, is, again, judgmental, and even divisive.

    5. “And modern-day small groups are led, for the most part, by people who have attended the church, had a conversion experience, led a reasonably moral life, and can read the study-guide questions, but are not disciples themselves.”

    My response:
    Not disciples themselves? Says who? I have been a small group leader, and am currently working as a coach to small group leaders in our church. Again, this comment mean-spirited at best…you figure out what it is at worst.

    6. “The common argument against small groups is flawed. The problem with small groups isn’t that they pool the group’s collective ignorance; it’s that they pool the group’s collective disobedience.”

    My response: Wow…Absolutely offensive.

    7. “Would Jesus join a small group in your church?

    Think about that for a moment. Forget about your goals. Forget about your motivations for offering them. Forget about all the supposed benefits of participating in one. Do you honestly think Jesus would join, lead, or start a small group within the existing structure of your small group’s ministry at your church?

    Of course not. Not a chance. Not in a million years.”

    My response:
    Jesus wouldn’t? My advice – read the New Testament… SMH.

    8. “With few exceptions, modern-day small groups are great at producing:

    • Christians who sit in circles and talk to one another inside a building

    • people who read and comment on the Bible

    • people who rant about how they long to “get out there” and do something that matters

    • people who awkwardly end their time by praying for “prayer requests”

    • people who go home unchallenged and unchanged.

    You would think there’s a Small Groups Revised Version of the New Testament somewhere. And I quote: “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore stay where you are and make Christians of the people you already know, baptizing them in the name of American consumer Christianity, and teaching them to sit in rooms with one another, read the Bible, and pray for one another. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20, SGRV).”

    My response:
    Now, if you can read this without feeling the author’s angry sarcasm, then you just aren’t paying attention.

    This entire article drips with discontent, sarcasm, and judgment all the way through.

    So, for anyone who would say that I am being “mean” about my earlier response, I would suggest you re-read the article. It is one thing to have a different position about the effectiveness of a small group, or any method of ministry; it is quite another to tear down those who would choose to apply those strategies with the noble intentions of growing the body, discipleship, and evangelism. Just because a method of ministry doesn’t work in your church, doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit can’t “work” through that method elsewhere.

    Our experience with small groups has been quite different than the author describes. Our body of believers has exploded with growth over the past several years that we have been intentional about growing our small group ministry…and yes, that includes our impact on the city at large, and drawing men and women to Jesus.

    I would agree with the author’s position that small groups don’t always “work.” (If that can actually be defined.) But, I vehemently disagree with his position that they almost never do, and those who make an effort to implement this strategy are somehow NOT disciples, are superficial Christians, and are offending Jesus.

    It is to those points that I am encouraging the author to “get over himself.”

  31. This is your answer, Brian Jones,
    to Christ’s work in his elect people’s lives: “…euthanize the small group sacred cow”?

    Good thing you weren’t around and in authority when Jesus gathered his non-authorized, small group of disciples, eh?
    Jesus Led *a small group.* 12 men.
    Good thing you weren’t around to euthanize the *small group* called the Apostles, eh?
    Did you even think when you put finger to keyboard you just called that small group’s method a “sacred cow?”
    Worshiping a sacred cow is idolatry.
    But That *small group activity* was God’s Method. Not Brian Jones’, No. But God’s.
    Calling God’s method a “sacred cow” is called what, in Scripture? Got the word yet?
    Calling the Holy Spirit’s work such, is…. Much Worse. (Mark 3:29-30)
    And Good thing you weren’t in Ephesus when twelve men gathered to hear a once-persecuting Apostle Paul, by whose hands he baptized with the Spirit, and thus was born the church at Ephesus. 12 men, again.
    But then, the Pharisees always thought their opinion was the standard for all others, including over our LORD. One reason they crucified him. They Didn’t think of “euthanasia” at that point.
    Aren’t you special.

    You have pointed out no differences between your opinion and the Pharisees, who always “seek the pre-eminence.”
    BTW, Not all small groups have No Leader, No Pre-Set Times, No Plan, or Purpose, or Focus.
    We did.
    And, we made disciples.
    Just as the Gospel preached was to be, we did so, “According to the Scriptures.” (X2 in 1 Cor~ 15:3-4)
    These people followed on to know the Lord.
    YOUR experience is NOT anyone’s standard. Not ours, not others, not even yours.
    Experience is Never the standard.
    Want an example? Scientists assert “laws” from experimental data based on theories they change more often than their underwear.
    The Standard will always be the written Holy Bible, like it or not.
    Revelation, not experimentation, truly Rules.
    Propositional revelation beats opinion by churchmen every day of the week, not just on Sundays. (Mark 7:6-13)
    Writing atrocious articles or not.
    Accepted by Media outlets or not. (2 Peter 2:3… !)

    When mainstream Christendom forsakes the word of God and the words of God, in favor of men and their teachings, and heads back to Rome, Apostasy has come.
    Then where will true believers gather?
    >> In *small groups,* of course. <> We Will All Be There. <<

    Robed in Jesus Christ's Imputed Righteousness Alone,
    Clif

  32. Just like in the times before the Protestant Reformation. And those *small groups* grew into the largest movement of God this world has ever seen, with Popes and *Kings among men* sitting up and taking notice…
    But clearly, you wouldn’t know about that, Brian Jones.
    At the Day of Judgment, where Everyone will give account of his words, and especially of One’s Teaching:
    False Teachers are clearly standing on differing ground than the Lord’s sheep. (Mt 7:21-23 + Mt 25)
    Is this “harsh?” (as at least one has opined here… )
    “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” Jesus said. (i.e., Is Jesus harsh for “Christians” to hear?)
    The fruits of False Teachers are their false doctrines.
    Yet how many will Repent of their false teaching in the time between now and then, even when pointed out?
    Writing articles IS teaching. What you write for others IS doctrine.
    Metanoia; Repent.
    >> We Will All Be There. <<
    Robed in Jesus Christ's Imputed Righteousness Alone,
    Clif

  33. The author has the opinion that small groups are poor places to make disciples. Now, most churches don’t meet in small groups but the overwhelming majority of pastors who have been surveyed admit the thing lacking most in their churches is disciple making. Clearly large groups are not the answer and the author has no alternative.

    He was the benefactor to an accidental organic small group of friends who helped him to grow. He didn’t get fellowship from looking at the back of heads on Sunday mornings. Does he expect new believers to all find similar groups? Waiting for that to happen would be catastrophic as most people coming into the church see a back door wide open. Having intentional small group for relationships to develop has been an effect way of connecting people to the church. It provides the much needed oikos.

    Perhaps the answer is to allow small groups the latitude to do what they need to do in order to grow the members. When groups can follow the leading of God’s Spirit they will become like the group the author grew in as a new believer.

  34. I’m sad that such a negative article passed muster. The author is tragically blind to the good that can come of small groups. As many have pointed out, Jesus called to Himself 12 men whom he trained in love and patience (much patience). If you take a slice out the Gospels in any place, you’d think our Lord failed. He often called them up on their inability to believe. And yet, through the Holy Spirit, these men set the world on fire by going out and making disciples.

    While the author spends much effort tearing down the idea of small groups, he seems to have no real idea about what to do instead. He seems to think that the pastor simply needs to preach discipleship from the pulpit and all will be well. But, small groups have been instrumental in creating more intimate environments for building disciples. You can get that kind of sharing and intimacy sitting in a pew or preaching from a pulpit. Face to face, heart to heart, is always the best way. That can only happen in small groups.

    If we follow Jesus’ model, we should start our small groups by training leaders who are disciples, have them branch out to lead more small groups that will make disciples, and so on…

    Are there bad models for small groups? Yes. But that doesn’t mean that there are no good models. The first job for a disciple, is to make more disciples. The best place to do that is in the intimate setting of a small group.

  35. Small groups are a failure because they cheapen the holy, sacred experience that is communal worship. Pastors say: “Community is found in our care groups.” This gives the congregants a free pass on the Sunday morning not to take an active interest in newcomers. If the Sunday morning service is cold and shallow, who would actually want to join a Care Group? (Life Group, whatever) if you even apply a business model to this you can see how it is doomed to fail. “Uh, hi, ‘community’ is found in our Care Groups. Uhm, yeah, this Sunday morning thing, well, yeah, it’s kind of cold and sterile, but really, you will find that warmth and community and Christianity in that Care Group.” Why would anyone want to give up a second day of the week for that? Also, most Churches don’t have the resources to really develop effective leaders for Small Groups, and the random nature of leadership is a recipe for disaster. Will you be cared for you in your care group? Maybe, maybe not. Roll the dice. At the end of the day the starting point for most people is that Sunday morning service. You cannot escape that. And the congregation needs to be totally invested and treat the entire “Church” as holy. Also, the small group mentality is, simply put, “small.” Maybe you know 10 – 20 people in your Church? You feel safe, no need to reach out to anyone else. Also, are Care Groups just reflections of ourselves? Are newcomers who are different welcomed in? I’m not so sure.

  36. I have gone to small groups in the past that were good, one went through a discipleship book and the second was Bible only. They have just started them at the church I attend but I miss regular Bible Study. I like hearing the Word taught by a learned pastor and not going through a commentary in a group led by whoever…i will read by myself instead.

  37. Good read. I have been, or tried to be a part of several small groups and somehow it never seemed right. We would just get going and then one would be canceled for some reason or other and then the Pastor, who had to micromanage everything, would step in and change locations or leaders. It ended up being a mess. Right now I am a part of a ladies bible study that is not affiliated with any of the churches that any of us attend, if we get there we get there. We all pray for each other and we are in contact throughout the week, so it’s not just a once a week deal and we are not managed by anyone except the word of God. We’ve done outreach in the community and we are always asking people to join us. I don’t think the Acts 2 is a description of any small group that i have ever seen.

  38. I am not sure the exact point of this article because it seems to cast all small groups at all churches as identical. I also find it rather humorous that the writer offers no alternative ideas or most importantly ways to make small groups a place where disciples are grown. Disciples make disciples. Small groups are just a model. If there are disciples in the group they make disciples. I am a product of small groups at our church (going from not believer to an imperfect follower today) and I have seen many people come to faith through small groups that I now have led. I have had no greater joy in my life than baptizing one of my group members as they decided to take steps in there lives. Maybe the problem is lack of disciples making disciples.

  39. I find this article odd as the Sunday morning service is a cultural construct often defined as “church.” However, I can understand the author’s frustration with small groups. I moved back to my home state, an area of mostly small towns, from Boston, and when it comes to small groups here, I find myself asking, with Casey Stengel, “Does anyone here play this game?” Strangely the high school youth group and my college Inter Varsity small groups in my home state were excellent, but something happened when I was gone!

    Jesus chose who to disciple, and taught in various settings. One cannot deny he was exceptionally intentional about discipleship. Furthermore, the study of small group dynamics tells us that people in small groups reinforce each other’s beliefs. If most people in a group are not growing as disciples, then the group will not be effective. If most are, or there is strong leadership and staunch support of that leader by group members or church leadership, then the members will become stronger disciples. It’s important that group leaders have the gift or skills of teaching / facilitation / listening and also receive training, support and encouragement. If you can read you can lead is well, just stupid.

  40. We received this comment via e-mail and decided to post it here.

    ___________________

    I read the article on the recommendation to “euthanize church small groups”, and find myself agreeing wholeheartedly.

    Over the 30+ years of my walk with Christ I’ve been in many small groups. In the beginning I was convinced that they offered a much needed focus, opportunities for closeness and the ever popular “transparency”. After many years I noticed a flaw in the design that no one but me seemed to notice. There’s a conundrum here involving friendship and trust and accountability that bears discussion.

    On the one hand, small groups aren’t good at creating, fostering or developing real friendships. I met with one men’s group for several years. At one point we were discussing friendship between men, referring to David and Jonathan. I listened to the others make their points and gradually realized that there was an unspoken consensus that we (the group) were all friends. I remained quiet as long as I could but finally felt compelled to say that since no one in the group ever called anyone else or spent any time together outside of the group this did not qualify as friendship in any sense to me. My point was that we were all genuinely friendly, but not friends. I said that it takes more than a common love of Christ to generate real friendship and that being brothers in Christ was a very good thing that nonetheless did not equal real friendship. The others were taken aback and even a little offended by my statements, leaving me wondering if they understood what friendship was in the first place. Another discussion perhaps.

    On the other hand, the seeds of it’s own destruction lie in the very friendliness that is generated in the group. The more a group meets, the more informal and accepting they become. Accountability is trumped by the effort to be “friendly” and encouraging and open to all.

    I’m a musician and spend a fair amount of time practicing. But I find that my private practice time often involves meandering over the same phrases and riffs repeatedly. Those riffs that I’m most comfortable with just keep bobbing up to the surface. Having a teacher who is not my friend is a great help in keeping me honest about practice. Someone who has enough authority to hold me to account is invaluable for my growth on my instrument. If I become friends with my instructor I will inevitably rely on the friendship to let me off any penalty for neglecting practice. This is what I’ve noticed about small groups. Once the initial personal distance is spanned by well-intentioned efforts to be open and encouraging most of us relax into a casual attitude that promotes sloppy study, more jokes than discussion, long digressions, and very little (if any) accountability. No one wants to be the heavy, so accountability goes out the window. That’s if anything deep enough to require accountability is even broached. I used to go home after small group wondering why I felt so unchanged, unchallenged and bored. I believe now that I was being affected by the conflict between (everyone’s) earnest desire to learn about God and the shallow and permissive dynamic of the group. It was the elephant in the room that no one wanted to deal with. It would seem…unfriendly.

    So I agree that unintended, natural groups are best, but rare. If the Church gets into the act it will create a new program for SGF – Serendipitous Group Formation. In it’s genuine desire to create and promote real community, the Church seems always to miss the point – that our culture is beyond the real community which used to occur in towns where everyone had the same grocer, barber, librarian and teachers, where they met at church and in the streets and on front porches and spent casual, unplanned time shooting the breeze. In a Christian community of that kind a certain amount of iron sharpening iron might have occurred. Today if you look down a street in your town at night you’ll see an endless line of flickering blue-lighted windows, each in it’s own virtual world. How to change this is a great question. I have no answer but I suspect it’s not going to involve pot luck dinners or SGF.

    John Greenland

  41. Interesting! I’ve been attending Christian churches for over 82 years – 74 as a baptized Christian. ‘Way back when, there were “small groups”. We called them Bible School classes! They met before the Sunday morning worship service, usually at the 9:30 Bible School hour. Many of them had monthly fellowship meetings; pot-lucks, picnics, parties, etc. when they enjoyed each other’s fellowship. The were indeed friends – would help each other in times of need, sickness, deaths, weddings, births. They did develop closeness. I have wondered for years why it seems an improvement to have “small group” meetings, and totally abolish the Bible School hour. Is it really new? Or just something old that has been reworked?

  42. I can relate to the downsides of small groups. A lot of times, they don’t end up being the discipleship and evangelism tool that most leaders hope they will be.

    However, Brian fails to offer any solutions or alternatives, which is frustrating. The church that Brian Jones is the lead pastor at still has small groups, perhaps he has backtracked a bit on his views since 2011?

  43. Some small groups are better than others, right? For large churches, they may be just the thing, if led by another disciple, and provide the intimacy needed for folks to grow in their faith. However, it’s not a small group community that grows us, but God’s Word working in tandem with the Holy Spirit. So, if it’s not going well, leadership should not be afraid to abandon the concept. It’s God that grows our faith, not a church organization. Why all the anger and bitterness against the author?

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