Are small groups overated, unaccountable and ineffective and should we bother with them?

The other day, Jonathan Carswell put out the following tweet:

I have seen him say similar things before. I get the impression he really doesn’t like small groups (which is fair enough).

Of course, when somebody posts something like that, lots of people start offering their hot takes on it. More often than not, it’s people piling in to defend their own practice (which is understandable). But the discussion so frequently defaults to, this is what we do and therefore it must be best – and here are all the reasons it definitely is!

But I have been arguing for a long time on this blog for Christian freedom, which we are really loath to permit for others. We quickly create rules that we expect others to follow because we have decided whatever it is we do is best. And if what we do is best, minimally, why wouldn’t you want to do that? If we’ve decided it’s a valid outworking of a biblical principle, it very quickly becomes the outworking of a biblical principle in our mind, which is tantamount to a command of Christ, which in turn leads us to start binding the consciences of everyone else on the matter.

I think small groups are one such thing. An awful lot of churches even make them an essential part of their discipleship. Many – just like their gathering on Sunday – make non-attendance at the midweek home group a disciplinary matter. It should also be said that those who reject the small group model and have midweek Bible studies frequently do the same. But few seem to stop to consider, if they are demanding that from their members as an essential part of church life, they are demanding something that neither Jesus nor his Apostles do anywhere in the Bible. They might be valid and useful things to do, but to bind your members that way is to insist on something the scriptures don’t. Many of us have just assumed it to be vital and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that is, in part, just because everyone else does it.

Now, cards on the table, our church runs home groups. In fact, not only do we run them, but I was the one who instigated them. In our context, the main driver for doing so was to foster better fellowship between different groups within the church. The fact is, we could hold Bible studies together at church just as well as in a home. In many ways, getting people to the church building was easier than getting them into people homes. So, none of those things drove our desire to put them in place.

For us, the issue was simple. Factions had formed in the church and we thought it was important to do something specific to help different communities in the church mix more helpfully. Our experience was the bigger the group, the less the different factions mixed. Special interest groups – such as separate Farsi Bible studies – exacerbated the problem. Whole church prayer meetings meant that people could evade talking to groups of people they didn’t want to engage and the larger the prayer meeting the less likely anyone was to pray specifically for people with whom they weren’t already mixing.

As such, we decided to instigate home groups in which we purposefully mixed up everyone in the church. We intentionally put Iranian, Afghan, Iraqi, Caribbean and British into each group. The simple thought here was that it is easy to avoid people when there are 40 of you together in a large church hall, it is much harder to ignore people when there are 7 of you in a small lounge. We told each group to make sure that they built time in to specifically pray for each other. It is harder to ignore people, and take no interest in them, when you are hearing about their lives and actively praying for them. We made sure each group ate together at the start of their meeting – Jesus ate with people throughout the gospels and there is something about eating together that causes people to open up and engage. So, small groups were a simple and easy solution to an ingrained and thorny problem. And, by God’s grace, they have really helped to address those particular problems. We periodically jog the groups around to avoid them becoming hermetically sealed.

Given that we were running small groups, it made sense to use them for some Bible teaching, prayer and to encourage people into evangelism. So, we run a rolling programme. First Tuesday of the month, we have a whole church prayer meeting so we don’t neglect the whole congregation. Then the following three Tuesdays in the month, we do one week of Bible study, one week praying for the people in the group and one week of evangelism training. At each meeting, we make sure we eat a meal together in our respective small groups. These things have been useful for us in our context, but they really aren’t the main driver and we could achieve most of them apart from small groups if we were inclined.

But most of that is specific to our context. I wouldn’t want to assume that because small groups in homes helpfully address some particular issues in our context that they are right for everyone. I have seen plenty of examples of them heading south and being fraught with all sorts of problems. It may well be that in certain contexts they are detrimental rather than helpful. I imagine in more monocultural churches that do not have the kind of cliques that had formed in our church they may actually serve as a vehicle to create them when they were not previously there. But in a church where there are cliques and factions, certainly in our case, they helpfully served to break them up and foster a much better sense of community and fellowship.

I think Jonathan is largely right that small groups are often assumed to be good. Whilst I am sure some put a great deal of thought into their and lots of effort into making them effective, I am equally sure many don’t. I suspect some simply assume their goodness from the fact that everybody else seems to do them. That, it seems to me, is a mistake. I am convinced small groups are only as valuable as the thought that goes into them and the aims that they exist to achieve. Many have too many aims, that are quite desperate, and fail to achieve very much. That isn’t necessarily a failure of small groups per se, but of bad planning and doing nothing to make them more effective. But, as in our case, with careful planning and thought, I am sure they can be a helpful part of church life if we are clear why we are doing them and what they are there to do.

But overarching all of this, let’s at least acknowledge that small groups are not demanded by the Lord. They may well be a valid outworking of all sorts of biblical principles – such as fellowship, bible teaching, prayer, etc – but they are not an obligatory means of doing these things. They might well work for your church – and that’s great if they do – but we need to be careful about insisting that every church ought to be doing them. Likewise, we shouldn’t just be assuming their value. They may well work for us in one context and not in another. In the end, let each one be convinced in his own mind.