By Michael C. Mack
QUESTION: Our small group started strong, but now it’s dead. We launched around an eight-week churchwide campaign. The first meeting had all the signs of a successful group, but by week five couples who had been so excited about being in a group started making excuses why they couldn’t stick with their commitment. One by one they began to drop out. To make the group more convenient, we began meeting every other week. The group dwindled even more. People lost track of when we were meeting and didn’t come. Finally we just decided to pronounce the group dead. Where do you think we went wrong?
ANSWER: Your group didn’t die. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it never really lived.
Over the years, I’ve seen many groups die before they ever had a chance to live. One of the clues (of many) in your letter to why this happened is when you said you started meeting every other week to make the group more convenient. I see it all the time: group members think—illogically, I believe—that lessening the commitment will help them be more committed. It never works.
Where did your group go wrong? Let’s take a look at just a few principles for spiritually alive small groups.
Move from Information to Transformation
I wonder if some of our groups have become like the churches of Sardis and Laodicea (Revelation 3). They have the reputation of being alive, but they are dead. Their deeds are not complete in the sight of God because they are not fulfilling his mission. They are neither cold nor hot, but lukewarm in their comfy little gatherings. They believe they are rich because they study the Bible and pray together weekly (or biweekly), but do not realize they are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. These are not my words, but Jesus’ words.
Jesus stands at the door of many small groups and knocks. “Let me in!” he cries. He has empowered us with his Spirit to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, and yet some of us sit powerless in our cozy homes, not willing to carry the good news down the street, much less around the world. We are so busy “doing Bible study” we apparently do not have the time or interest to do what the Bible says.
Don’t misunderstand: our study and application of the Bible is vital. In the healthiest groups, members are in God’s Word all week, so when they show up at group meetings, they are ready to share what God has been teaching them. They are not dependent on the group for their understanding of God’s Word. They are growing up and becoming mature, feeding themselves rather than relying on others to feed them.
A healthy small group does not focus on mere knowledge. That only puffs up the members, but love builds them up. The point of studying the Bible in a group is transformation. Too many groups settle for information. They may even define how spiritual a person is by how much he or she knows. From that perspective, the Pharisees were the most spiritual people of Jesus’ day!
So, how much do the people in your group truly love one another and the people around them who do not yet know God? Your answer reveals how alive your group is (see Matthew 22:34-40). “This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. . . . Anyone who does not love remains in death”
(1 John 3:11, 14).
So what should we do? Jesus told us: “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent” (Revelation 3:2, 3). Jesus’ words are strong—he speaks the truth in love and desperately wants us to change so we will have life.
Move from Dead Faith to Missional Living
Some small groups do a great job of “circling the wagons,” gathering together with those just like them, but they completely overlook Jesus’ call upon their lives to “go.”
These groups are dead because they have faith without works. Many such groups died some time ago, yet no one realized it. There was never a funeral. No mourning. No burial. The people involved just kept meeting as if the group were still alive, but all that existed, in reality, was a cold, stiff corpse. Like the Dead Sea, there is no outflow of life from the group. There is no demonstration of God’s power through serving others and telling others about Jesus. Many groups drift for years in this lack of awareness or denial.
Some small groups were never alive in the first place. My friend Carl describes these groups as mannequins. They were not created with the intention of being living, growing organisms. They are “all dressed up with no place to go”! I’ve visited with these kinds of groups; their members say they cannot understand why they need to invite new people or do anything outside of their normal agenda. These groups were not founded with the expectation of being more than “Bible studies,” so they were, as Carl would put it, mannequins, which look good on the outside, but have no life inside.
Move from Weekly Meetings to Daily Friendships
Another big clue for why the group in the original question died is the lack of connecting between meetings. This is why I say this group never really lived. It merely met. But having meetings is not living. When I read the book of Acts and the New Testament letters, I see a church that lived. There was a sense of awe, joy, excitement, sharing, love for one another, taking care of the needs of one another, and growth. They didn’t have a meeting mentality. They had a life-together mentality. They called it koinonia, and I’m afraid our modern church in the Western world doesn’t have a clue about the richness and life-changing vibrancy of that word.
A healthy small group is much more than just a weekly meeting. Real life together happens in the dailiness of life. As I read through the New Testament, it’s hard to miss the day-to-day life together that the church experienced (see Acts 2:46, 47; 5:42; 16:5; 17:11; 1 Thessalonians 4:12; Hebrews 3:13).
Small groups have become a program of the church today. Programs have their uses, but they do not bear life. Programs are not the same as community life. In programs, we talk of participants and members. In community life, we talk about doing life together with friends. Friends are involved in one another’s lives more than just once a week. Real friends make commitments to one another. Friends look forward to being together.
Jesus modeled what a small group of friends looks like. He called the men in his group “friends” (John 15:15) and defined what that looks like: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (v. 13). Are you truly friends with the folks in your small group and are you surrendering your life for them?
Jesus modeled another vital principle of friendship, which gets to what I discussed earlier—he was the friend of tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 11:19). He and the friends in his group teamed up to reach beyond their own circle. Their friendships reached out to the world of hurting people around them.
The New Testament church lived according to what Jesus modeled. Because they were alive and healthy, because they lived life together for transformation and mission as friends, they grew and multiplied and changed the world. “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).
It can happen again. I believe it. But not with mere meetings. Let’s restore the life of the New Testament church.
Michael Mack is the author of 14 small group books and discussion guides, including I’m a Leader . . . Now What? (Standard Publishing, www.standardpub.com). He also leads church training events and consults with churches through his ministry, Small Group Leadership (www.smallgroupleadership.com).