Consistent throughout Scripture is the idea that the impossibility of perfection does not loosen its claim on us. God's vision of the bride of Christ, as of a people without spot or blemish, translates to an annoying shortage of loopholes. That means that when someone complains: "Shouldn't we be doing more in evangelism?" One cannot respond, no matter how many church profiles have been filled out, "I'm sorry, that's not in our target marketing zone." Everything is in your target zone. In a sense, every gospel believing church owes a debt to every person in the world, and to transform every facet of life to the glory of Christ.
If you think this is an exaggeration, listen to Paul's description of why God has given an assortment of gifted people among his churches. The point is: "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." (Eph 4:12-13)
Pretty simple, right? All your church needs to do is make sure everyone, everywhere attains the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. With such a lofty goal, one might fear that many churches would throw up their hands and say, 'Who is sufficient for such things?' and start praying for the grace of Christ and the power of His Spirit. Don't worry, it rarely comes to that. Rather, the answer lies in more programs, more committees, more ministries. Once you create a 'unity of the faith committee', a 'knowledge of the Son of God committee', and a 'mature manhood committee', you'll be well on your way.
After we've finished poking holes in our excuses of abdication, and our short-sighted self-sufficiency, where are we left? Church leaders and Christian believers must still wrestle with a calling to be all things to all people, combined with the inadequacy of a programmatic response, which leans toward an ingrown experience of meetings for the sake of meetings. How can the church avoid the freeze of indecisiveness and take meaningful steps toward an impossibly broad calling?
The answer lies, in part, in small groups. The universal actuality of small groups at every church, whatever name they go by, speaks to an inescapable awareness that this must be a vital part of what it means to be the church. Once a church affirms a need for small groups however, their implementation and execution spurs as much diversity as there are churches and denominations. Not only is that right and good, but it confirms the purpose of small group ministry, which is nothing more or less than being the church in at all times, or 'building up the body of Christ.'
Though most iterations of small groups offer some value, the best model comes in the form of same-sex groups of no more than six men or women, who meet weekly. Randy Pope terms this 'life-on-life discipleship'. Perhaps relieving the burden of the church's massive commission through small groups only kicks the can one step farther down the road. Yet it does provide a structure and context, and unleashes localized sovereignty in tackling the charge to all Christians: to make disciples of Christ.
Why small groups are hard
Small groups are the hardest things in the world. This is so for two reasons. First, because they are supposed to do everything. Secondly, they require relationships.
Not a single element of 'church'--with the possible exception of sacraments--drops out between Sunday morning gathered worship, and your Tuesday night small group. And yet it's hard to imagine two linked experiences, which share the same ultimate goal and values, feeling more different. That's why the complement of these two ministries, corporate worship and small groups, when healthy, compose virtually the entire body of church life. It's also why the ceiling for the small group's mission climbs to a spectacular, even unattainable height - the call is to do it all.
Take the three basic categories of a church's mission to see how small groups fulfill these in distinction to corporate worship:
- Exalt God's glory - Hearing God's Word unfolded and his grace extolled is one thing coming from the 'professional, polished Christian' at the pulpit, but it comes with quite a different force when it comes from the mouth of Sally, the swamped mother of three, who's been sick for the past month.
- Equip God's people - You may find it easier to ignore the prompting of the Holy Spirit when you can slip out the back after the sermon, and drown out the call to repentance and grace with brunch and a nap. That resistance proves harder when God speaks his knowledge and love for you through a friend who sees your habits, patterns, and dirty laundry, and offers counsel with compassion.
- Extend God's kingdom - "I hear there are human souls headed for judgment and damnation, and I want to care... but I can't be a missionary; after all, I dropped Spanish after two years." Small groups contextualize missions, service, and evangelism in such a way that members can see it as an opportunity, not a burden.
Small groups are the hardest thing in the world because, when done properly, they strip away the veneer of 'playing church', and press us to, as James says, to "not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves, do what it says." (James 1:22)
The evolution from hearing to doing comes on account of the second scourge of small groups: other people. Small groups, presume the presence--or at least the development of--real relationships. There's the rub. If the promise and potential of small groups sound too good to be true, that's because what has been glossed over is the actual messy spadework of building spiritual friendships, which will have to take up ninety percent of your time. As soon as someone can condense and systematize the process of spiritual friendship formation, we won't need anymore books, blogs, or conferences on discipleship.
In the meantime, however, these rare monuments of spiritual friendship are built, rather than discovered. Brick by brick: through transparency, weakness, repentance, grace, dependency on Christ, and refreshment in the gospel. Small group members cannot feel content to function as a shared interest group, a mutual admiration society, a social club, a learning lab, or merely a refuge to unburden. That's the challenge. All of those are good pieces, or fringe benefits, but each by itself falls short of the best: to grow collectively more and more into the image of Christ. Or to put it in C.S. Lewis terms, when it comes to small groups: 'We are too easily satisfied.'
A good small group requires people you're comfortable with getting uncomfortable with one another. We all have to grow in giving ourselves freely and without defensiveness, and also receiving feedback with humility, grace, and compassion. That's why small groups are the hardest thing in the world: we have to want the good that comes through the hard.
Why small groups are easy
Imagine your church published one of those handy little instructional pamphlets titled: "So you want to be a small group leader?" The packet sits with its topical comrades of vocational advice and hobby-building, such as: 'Mastering the art of real-estate' and 'Maintaining mindfulness through Chinese Checkers'. When you open the pamphlet, you are greeted by images of the small group leader amidst his daily tasks: saving souls, visiting the sick, caring for orphans, revealing fresh Biblical insights, leaping tall buildings, rebuking the Scribes and Pharisees, restoring a broken marriage, throwing a killer party, mentoring each member one on one, and then praying for them all throughout the day.
You may begin to wonder, not only if you're cut out for small group leadership, but whether or not Jack and Diane's Tuesday evening prayer and fellowship with ice cream and decaf coffee is meeting as many of your needs as it should. Such is the dual blessing-curse of leadership idolatry, which we might claim as the unique property of 21st century American evangelicalism. Of course that's not the case:
Isaiah 30:1-3 "Ah, stubborn children...who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my direction, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt! Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation."
We are always prone to set up leaders, whether in the church or in the world, as demi-gods, as Jesus-icons. Such misplaced hopes always end in disillusionment and frustration, for both leader and follower. The more we cling to human power instead of the God who saves, the more we set ourselves up for humiliation when he/she fails.
We set up a glass ceiling of leadership which seems impossibly high from underneath, and then when someone magically pops up on the other side, the temptation is for them to hoist themselves up by raising the ceiling still higher. We want more small group or ministry leaders, but then we wonder when no one signs up for a job description that sounds like bench pressing small vehicles.
In reality, small groups are easy. At least, they should be easy. John Butler describes the work of a small group as: 'representing the practical application of a church's beliefs.' Acts 2:42 describes what was happening in early small groups or house churches in similar terms: "And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." Turns out that the small group formula of: Bible, prayer, and snacks may not need quite as much reconstructive surgery as we think.
As referred to earlier, in examining the challenges of small groups, it takes effort to elevate a small group meeting from mere Bible study or hang out time to genuine fellowship-koinonia. However, that challenge mainly takes the shape of developing a culture of authenticity, not how many commentaries the leader consults each week. Our reformed culture tends to make the error of equating leadership fitness with one's ability to recite creeds and catechisms.
In synopsis, a small group has one chief objective each time it meets: take a living faith in Jesus, and apply that to life. Or if that's too long, you can simplify it to one word: apply. Apply. And then apply some more. The Holy Spirit bears the ultimate responsibility for doing this work in a believer's life, which happens through Sunday morning worship, as well as in all the other individually received means of grace. However, small groups can offer a context to receive this grace of transforming application in a more direct and wholistic manner than anywhere else, as members open up their lives, complete with sorrows, joys, struggles, and hopes. We grow in giving and receiving the trust, love, and Biblical counsel which incarnates how we receive Christ himself.
If we comprehend this objective of applying faith to life, the whole dynamic of a small group changes. No longer is the goal to extract an obscure nugget of Biblical truth or to make a new friend. The dominant question during preparation or discussion time should be: how does 'x truth' about Jesus and his grace meet me where I am today? How does God's word reshape my actions and perspective within this particular desire, success, or failure? Though it's far more desirable to shape our needs to God's Word, rather than searching to find God's prescription for our needs, the latter approach, if executed faithfully will still lead us to Christ and His grace. In fact, if your group accomplishes nothing except to read a psalm, openly share meaningful prayer requests, and then pray, you'll still be ahead of ninety percent of the pack. None of these exercises requires anything but a willingness to open our lives to God and other believers.