Considering how small groups can be an appropriate way to structure church

by Mr. Sheehy

house to houseThrough the past few years I have come to believe that small groups are the best way for local churches to structure themselves for ministry in their communities, and my reading of Larry Kreider’s book, House to House, kicks off a bit of a formal study of how I might utilize the small group model with my own family and within my local church. I thought I’d share a few things regarding small groups I am increasingly convinced of, and Kreider’s book, while not perfect (particularly in his Biblical explication, which at times I found lacking), brought many of these things into sharper focus for me.

Small groups appear to be the church’s best bet for reaching out to unbelievers.

I have seen many evangelistic and outreach attempts and I admit to holding my breath and sighing inside for almost every one of them. The one I sigh at the most is Kirk Cameron’s Way of the Master, a strategy that guides believers to accost non-Christians in public places and corner them into admitting they are sinners in need of a savior. If the strategy has worked, then praise God, for ultimately I echo Paul’s conviction that as long as Christ is proclaimed, then so be it (Philippians 1.15-18), but I chafe at it because it seems to me a cheap rhetorical trap, not a way to guide a person into a forever-relationship with Jesus. It strikes me that what most people in today’s American culture want least is to be cornered by some “crazy Christian” and told they’re sinners. What they want, as far as I can see, is to see a faith that works before they consider it for themselves. In a world of scandals and hypocrisy, a world where people’s impressions of Christians are often defined by what Christians are against, politically, they need to see something different for themselves before they’ll come close.

Enter the small group, a place where people can enter and check out what these Christians are really like. If Christians are interacting with non-believers and loving them (which would mean, by extension, wanting them to know Christ), then the small group becomes a way to offer someone a closer look at what the Christian life is like. (As a side note, I appreciated Kreider’s firm comment about what a Christian should do if their circles of acquaintances are filled only with Christians: “When this is the case, steps need to be taken to develop new circles of relationships” (94).) Essentially, the small group gives a Christian a comfortable place to invite a non-Christian. A non-Christian might not want to go near a church—all that singing and preaching, all those memories of hating church as a kid or of not knowing what to do at the right time—but they might go to a small group gathering if someone they respect invited them over.

To my mind the small group is a better opportunity than some outreach event the church may conduct, like the classic Easter service where everyone tries to invite a non-believer. The small group’s consistent schedule allows a person to extend an invitation when it is natural and sensible, and it allows a guest to come and check it out on more than one occasion without having to feel pressure. The Christian, too, can relax and feel no pressure, as he doesn’t have the sense that this is his one chance to invite that buddy of his to an event.

When a guest does come, what she sees is not a room full of people listening to some guy talk about something she may or may not believe, but a group of Christians truly living the Christian life in connection, supporting and encouraging and praying for one another. That is what we believers wish people knew about when they judge us according to political debates, and the small group gives us a chance to show them.

Small groups are the best way to move people into living out their faith and holding them accountable for doing so.

Sitting in a church on Sunday morning for a service, attending Sunday school, helping at AWANA or youth group—these are a few traditional activities of church, but for most believers on this schedule, these activities never truly challenge us to live out the kind of faith that John and James describes as being full of clear, righteous fruit. Actually, that sentence doesn’t quite capture it: they challenge us to do so, but if attending those activities is all we do, the church is powerless to confirm whether we do so. When we attend a small group and within that group ask each other difficult questions and hold each other accountable for growing in obedience in our faith—then we are confirming whether each of us is living out the faith. But in the structure of church as we typically do it, this rarely occurs. We meet, we go out to lunch, and we listen a lot to teachers, but we have no vehicle to confirm response.

Further, when you read the New Testament, particularly the epistles of Paul, so you encounter a myriad of commands to encourage, love, care for, and submit to one another (and the actions go on and on). How many of these things can we actually accomplish by sitting in church singing and listening to a sermon? Very few. If we intentionally enter into committed relationships with one another (and in our culture this means we have to block out a slot in the week’s activity-filled agenda), we can actually live out the faith with each other in a way that resembles the commands of scripture.

Small groups can be done in many ways.

When you begin to think openly about small groups, you realize that the ways they are done are almost endless. Some can meet every week. Some can meet every other week, and on the off weeks the group can get together for something more informal, say to do yardwork for one family in the group. One week the women could go off by themselves and pray and talk in-depth while the men watch over the kids, and then next week it could be reversed. The group could have dinner together all the time, some times, or never. The group could watch a video series together and hold each other accountable to improving in such a way, or the group could simply discuss the week’s sermon in practical ways. Precisely what is done is flexible, as long as the group is focused on challenging one another to live out the Christian faith.

Small groups allow increased diversity in the local church body.

In a large church there are a plethora of opinions about how to do things, yet there is only one service each week, which means many people won’t have it their way or any way near it. That is fine—we must submit to one another—but when we separate for additional times together, it allows others a put their fingerprints on the ministry of the church in creative ways they otherwise couldn’t. Krieder, concerning the structure of the church, nicely points out the importance of this expression: “No matter what the structure, we believe the key is that the structure that is created must allow for the free expression of the creative abilities of God’s people within that structure. The most efficient and effective structures are those where the individual can be seen and utilized, rather than disenfranchised or ignored” (258).

Heck, I am even naive enough to hope that small group structure could be the way to move churches to become less racially segregated, as the small group settings could allow for understanding and respect regarding the vastly different ways we worship in our country.

Small groups must be held to the vision of the local church.

Kreider points out that, for him, (and I tend to agree with him), “The primary focus of each small group . . . should be outreach and discipleship, rather than fellowship. Fellowship, then, will be a healthy by-product of the small group that is constantly reaching out to others” (89). This is a particular view of small groups and can easily be ignored. Thus, if the church is attempting to use small groups as a tool of outreach and discipleship with a main aim at connecting with non-believers, then that vision has to be shared.

Only with that accountability can a goal of outreach be realistically held. Kreider is of the opinion that “to trust the Lord for at least two people or families to come to Christ through our small group or house church each year is certainly not setting a goal that is too high” (190). I am challenged by such a goal, and, to be honest, if I am not encouraged and reminded of such a vision, I too would stray away from it. Thus, my church would want to hold and remind me and my group of that vision, so we do not subvert our purpose. Without that vision being firmly agreed upon and enforced, the groups can easily turn into more entrenched cliques or groups of friends.

Small groups disable many of the structural restrictions to how we typically do church.

I have come to realize that one of the most important aspects of a small group is that it allows people to take on the real challenge of serving others. Too often we say there is work to be done in our church and we issue a call for volunteers, and the opportunities are things like constructing sets for vacation Bible school, attending budget meetings for committees and teams, serving sandwiches, and babysitting in the nursery. Even leaders are tapped for what might be called governing responsibilities rather than ministry tasks. These things need to be done, for sure, but it strikes me that spiritual gifts don’t exactly apply in many of the aforementioned activities. It’s like organizing a baseball team and then only having the players arrange helmets and set up the field—they never get to play. Why not extend a real challenge to people, a challenge of discipleship? A challenge of serving one another? Kreider makes a couple interesting points in this regard, and the first involves deacons. He observes that the responsibilities of a deacon, as conveyed in scripture, align quite closely with those of a small group leader. Thus he says with conviction, “We are fully convinced that literally thousands of deacons need to be released to prepare for the coming revival” (247). The deacons need to be released from governing and chores to minister, and leading small groups is something they can be released to.

A second point of Kreider’s regarding structure that I particularly appreciate is more general:

Karen Hurston, who has spent many years of her life studying churches, told me once that many mega-churches are more like teaching centers. This is a bold analysis, but in some cases she may be right. One of the difficulties that many mega-churches have is that many believers are bench warmers and never use the many gifts that the Lord has given to them because they get ‘lost in the crowd.’ (255)

I am not as restrained or soft as Kreider in my own thinking. When I think of a typical church—not just a mega-church—it strikes me that almost all of its activities consist of education. Education is important, to be sure, but when the church’s structured time consists only of education, it is an imbalanced picture of what the Christian life is.

In another era small groups likely weren’t necessary. A Puritan community apparently did not need formal small groups to encourage people to live out their Christian walks. But what one generation and community can take for granted, another has to intentionally create, and community is something our culture lacks. We put up fences around our yards and hide behind garage doors, and if we do not make an intentional effort to get behind these walls and invade these modern cocoons, we can’t encourage each other in the ways previous generations and other cultures of the church were able to.

I admit I am a bit daunted by the time and effort involved with small group ministry. I am intimidated by the idea of someone asking our group whether anyone has become a Christian in the previous year due to our loving ministry. Yet I am also excited by the idea of living out my faith along with other people, of working beside them instead of simply sitting beside them. I am excited to think that I could be involved in challenging, interesting, and important conversations about faith and not just chit-chat.

No matter what my hesitations, a small group structure is the best idea I’ve seen for a church to encourage believers to follow Jesus, and ultimately, that’s something I am excited about.

  • Kreider, Larry. House to House. Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image, 2008.
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