Small groups are the hardest thing in the world. You know why? Two reasons. First, because they are supposed to do everything. Secondly, relationships.
Not a single element of ‘doing church’, with the possible exception of sacraments, drops out between Sunday morning 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 – Excuses frequently come in the form of: “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, or ‘house churches’, 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 getting uncomfortable with. We all have to grow in giving of 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.
This article was first posted on Reformation21.