Friday, November 18, 2005

Major Problems With "Small Groups" in Churches

More and more churches are seeing a need to become more personal. They are recognizing the overwhelming failure to connect with people in intimate relationships. So, they try to solve the problem by starting “cell groups” or “small groups” or “discipleship groups”…or some other program with a different name. Although some relationships can form a little better in a “small group” than in a 1000 seat auditorium, the quality of the relationships is much less than the quality that we read of in Acts chapter 2:
“All the believers were TOGETHER and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. EVERY DAY they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate TOGETHER with glad and sincere hearts…” (Acts 2:44-46).
No matter how nice the “cell group” structure is in a church, I have not seen such a programmed existence lead to a description like that in Acts 2. Think about your church for a minute… If someone wrote a one paragraph description of your church, what would it include? How often would the word “together” appear? How often would it describe that people were actively engaged in building each other up in the faith? Or would the primary interactions occur only during a pre-arranged, church programmed event such as a "service" or "cell group"?

Let’s take a closer look at these “groups” and examine some of the things that make them not work very well. I’ll use the term “discipleship groups” to refer in general to “small group” program thing…

One of the problems with discipleship programs is that they are very mechanical and artificially removed from everyday life. Most discipleship programs include some instruction at some regular intervals, maybe once a week or once a month. Perhaps the instruction consists of a book to read, followed up by a discussion. Perhaps the instruction consists of a list of Bible verses to read and a follow-up discussion later. This is quite different from what Jesus did with his “small group” of disciples. To illustrate what I mean, let's look at how Jesus "discipled" the disciples. What did he do to teach those who wanted to learn from him. Obviously, he opened his mouth and taught them many things. This is an important part of discipleship and this is the most common element of a discipleship program at a church. But now let's consider what else, besides direct instruction, that Jesus did to "disciple" the disciples.

  • "I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you" (John 13:15).
  • "…he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves… I am AMONG YOU as the One who serves. But you are those who have continued WITH ME in My trials." (Luke 22:26-28).
  • "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls" (Matt 11:29).
  • "Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did" (1 John 2:6).

It is strikingly clear from the above Scriptures how important it is to frequently BE WITH whoever you are learning from. The disciples did not meet with Jesus once a week to receive their "discipleship discussion". No, Jesus lived among them and showed them what he meant by his life. He said, “love one another as you have seen me loving you.” Jesus spoke that the greatest man would be like a servant and then he, their Lord and Master, lived a servant's life right in front of them! The Apostle Paul believed that it was very important that people he was teaching also knew his lifestyle. Consider the following Scriptures:

  • "For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church" (1 Cor 4:17)
  • "You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance…" (2 Tim 3:10)
  • "Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith" (Heb 13:7)
  • "You know how we lived among you for your sake" (1 Thess 1:5)
  • "For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow" (2 Thess 3:7-9)

Please consider how shallow the following scenario is. In this hypothetical example, let's say that Doug is a teacher in a church and John is being "discipled" by Doug. Let's say that Doug and John are meeting for their regular Tuesday night discipleship time…

Doug: Last week you mentioned that you were struggling with impatience toward your wife and children. How is that going this week? (notice that Doug was not present in John's life to provide guidance as he saw real-life situations occur.)
John: Well, I think it is going a little better. (Notice that John is left to evaluate his progress all by himself.)
Doug: Is there any other thing that you are having difficult with this week? (notice that Doug wasn't involved in John's life so Doug cannot say something like, "John, I noticed you did such and such this week; it might be more helpful for you to do this instead…")

I hope from the above hypothetical conversation that you can realize that there is something sorely missing if people are not involved in one another's lives. “Small groups” and “discipleship groups” are not going deep enough. Let's go deeper. Let's get real. Don't settle for a "program" of discipleship. Rather, let discipleship be a way of life. Discipleship should happen almost automatically if there are people spending time together who live for the purpose of conforming to Christ and helping others conform to Christ. Let us examine ourselves: if we need a program for "discipleship" to happen, maybe our everyday lives are not what we think they are. Maybe we are not as serious about helping others grow in their faith as we think we are. Maybe we are not desiring to grow in our faith as much as we think we are. Let us examine ourselves. A tree is known, not by what it thinks or says, but by its fruit.

Maybe we are not committed to Christ whole-heartedly after all.


Jeff said...

While I agree that churches typically fall short of executing discipleship to the degree Christ intended, I'm always wary of calls to embrace the Acts/first-century church model. I certainly advocate unity and deeper togetherness in the Body, but people generally either claim that the first-century church is our absolute model (without regard to the historical context and identity) or claim that the first-century church could not exist in any context but that of the first-century and thus write it off as being largely irrelevant.

I'm not claiming you're in the first categeory by any means (what a horrible assumption that would be from reading a few paragraphs!). I think the strength of your argument rests best in the words of Christ rather than in the actions of a church that looked the way it did for a great variety of contextual reasons (persecution, social standing, etc.) AND obviously their attempts to be true to Christ.

I suppose I see the unity of the early church in many ways as being part of the cult (new religious movement) to church growth. Perhaps that level of togetherness and unity was what the first-century church needed to survive persecution and grow into a formal religion. Then, perhaps that same level is what we need to restore the church today.

It seems I'm just rambling more than anything, so I'll bring this to an end. I suppose my question is simply: how much of the identity of the first-century church is in the "first-century" part and how much is in the "church" part? Afterall, there's a reason we don't run church in America like they do in Muslim countries where Christianity is punishable by death...

In regards to the previous entries, though, togetherness would certainly help maintain purity and (the right people) spending time with the pastor outside of church would perhaps give accountability and prevent sex-scandals, etc.

Just some thoughts. I enjoy your blog.

-Jeff, youth pastor, alabama
(please forgive any typos, my toddler is climbing all over me)

WebServant said...

Jeff, thanks so much for your comments!
I'm certainly not advocating blindly following "acts" as THE one way. "We should pray because they prayed in Acts" would be a terrible reason to pray. :-) Right? We should pray because we love God and want to talk to him.
The very first thing you said is so true: "churches typically fall short of executing discipleship to the degree Christ intended". Jesus said to love each other just as he loved us--this is a command. His desire is that we be ONE even as he and the Father are one (John 17). Heb. 3:13 advocates "daily" exhorting of one another. Paul often says to speak the same thing, be of one mind, etc. Eph. 4 speaks of a church in which EACH PART is joined and knit together.
At best, the typical church in American is worst, outright to put it too harshly.
Again, thanks, and I hope to hear more from you. :-)

Wind said...

"I suppose my question is simply: how much of the identity of the first-century church is in the "first-century" part and how much is in the "church" part? Afterall, there's a reason we don't run church in America like they do in Muslim countries where Christianity is punishable by death..."

I don't want to be at all flippant about what the saints in those nations that are persecuting christian are enduring. However, I do think it noteworthy that persectution of those in other nations is normally easier for satan to achieve due to buiding in a wrong way (i.e. one man show pastor boss thing rather than from the least to the greatest). I read an article recently that discussed some saints in Vietnam that were being persectuted pretty hardcore. The police rounded up all their pastors and put them in jail. Then they arrested some of the "lay people" and told them that if they continued to "meet" they would face the same punishment as their leaders. The saints replied that the police had nothing to worry about because they couldn't meet. They had no one to teach them. This is remarkebly sad. Both that they are facing such extremes and that they have been taught to limit Jesus in such a way.

What I am getting at is this: If Jesus is building the Church that we are part of then the world will have no dominion over it. However, if we are building it, there is a good chance the world will recognize it and destroy it.