{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

Misleading Beliefs of Small Group Ministries

There’s a popular rumor going around The United Methodist Church these days. The word is that small group ministry is a driver of vital congregations. Essentially, it’s being argued that churches with small group ministries are much more likely to be growing, vibrant churches. I, for one, won’t argue with that. Every church I’ve seen with an emphasis on small groups seem to grow. It would seem that providing space for folks to interact and bond on a smaller level is indeed important for the ongoing health of a church. But here’s the question I want to ask those who advocate this theory: If small group ministry is vital for congregational development, is it also the best format to form disciples of Jesus Christ? 

You see, it’s my belief that we advocate a generalized “small group ministry” format not because we’ve seen tremendous discipleship development, but rather because we’ve seen churches grow in size when they employ this as a centerpiece of congregational life. Leaving the concept vague implies that the real emphasis is on growth in congregation size and not growth in our depth of discipleship. Think of how many church plants you see that use small groups as the counter-balance to the large-scale worship experience. Traditional mainliners have long employed this in the Sunday School model for years. Connecting people on a smaller, more intimate level, tends to enhance congregational life. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this method. It’s very important for the ongoing care and meeting of healthy social needs for members.

However, we should at least tell the truth that such a method is often more effective at connecting people within the life of the church, but not always effective at bridging the gap between those connections and discipleship as evidenced in lives being transformed.

Alan Roxburgh points this out in great detail in his book, Missional Map-Making: Skills for Leading in Times of Transition:

“Since the middle of the 20th Century, the small-group movement has shaped congregations. Such groups, by and large, have had little to do with forming people in practices of Christian life. In churches today, small groups usually exist for people to connect on a personal level to find spiritual forms of intimacy in a lonely world. The Bible serves as little more than a springboard for conversation about each other’s lives. These groups do little more than reflect how the metanarrative of modernity, with its focus on autonomy, intimacy, and personal needs, has taken over the imagination of the church. The current use of small groups in church serves to deepen the captivity of the church to expressive individualism and trivializes the biblical narrative by reducing it to a means of engaging personal experience and feelings.” (p. 146)

Roxburgh points out the great flaw of small group ministry is that it will eventually evolve into an exercise of engaging one another on a personal level with the ultimate goal of “being fed” or “having our needs met” or whatever other sort of cliché we like to use in the church. It’s become so much a part of the DNA of the church that we don’t even realize how much time and energy is spent focusing around meeting the needs of expressive individuals. Think about the so-called “worship wars” that have gripped our churches for the last 20 years or more. Or what about the massive growth of niche programs in our churches that have sprung up in an effort to “offer something for everyone”? All of these endeavors have an underlying purpose of giving people what they want–meeting preferences with product.

And this isn’t simply an error of strategy or management–it’s a theological error. Here’s Roxburgh again:

“Those who argue that meeting needs is a strategy to get people into the church miss the point. If we communicate a Gospel that says at the front door that Jesus is all about meeting my needs (remember, most of the time we’re talking about middle-class expressive individualists who are already the most pampered generation on earth), then at some point we’re going to have to tell them that in fact the opposite is the case. Jesus actually came to call them into a life that requires them to let go of their needs.” (p. 147)

The theological error here is that we assume the mission of the church is to grow in numbers and size. In order to grow, we should meet the tastes of our consumers so that they’ll tell others about our product. This growth-oriented mentality comes from the often mis-used Matthew 28:19-20 text. Too often we read “making disciples of all nations” as a numeric command. We too often forget all about the words that follow, “and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” When we do this, we sacrifice the obligation to teach in transformative ways that might form disciples.

Small group ministries cannot be treated as a means to grow a church by meeting the needs of spiritual consumers. Therefore it’s my belief that small group ministries, as widely practiced today, are insufficient in forming disciples of Jesus Christ.

A Harder Road, A Better Way

Written into our DNA as Methodists is a rich tradition of small group ministry that didn’t seek to “meet needs” as much as transform lives. You entered a class meeting and essentially joined a parallel community to that of the larger church–one that carried out the function of discipling in ways that corporate worship alone could not. These groups, known as class meetings, provided a format whereby would-be disciples could grow in their faith by way of communal support and accountability. They were the meat to the milk and honey of Sunday sermons and worship. One heard and sang the gospel in worship, but the class meetings were a method to ensure that you had to also apply the gospel to your life in loving and serving God and neighbor.

Today we have The General Rule of Discipleship:

To witness to Jesus Christ in the world, and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit

We can thank David Lowes Watson for this modern interpretation of Wesley’s emphasis on acts of mercy and piety.

I wonder how many of our churches lack the understanding of what it really means to be Methodist. We ascend to concepts like prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace but we fail to make those beliefs into tangible practices in the daily life of our congregations. We sing out of a Methodist hymnal and might even know a little Methodist history, but do we really get the main thrust of the early movement?

To be Methodist meant to carry out a method. And that’s not just a quant fact of history. There’s a methodical discipline to being a disciple of Jesus Christ and our Methodist roots offer us a roadmap of just how to do that. I suppose the great question we should be asking is: Will we remember and heed the challenge of discipleship offered to us by our Methodist ancestors?

Next Post: Covenant Discipleship as a Means of Forming Disciples