When I mention the words small groups I wonder what comes to mind? Specifically, how do you feel about them? For some, they are wonderful life-giving weekly gatherings. For others, they instil a mixture of fear and loathing. Some think they are a vital part of church life while others think they’re little more than a 1970s experiment that got out of hand. They can certainly divide opinion. I have addressed the latter claim before here: Are small groups overated, unaccountable and ineffective and should we bother with them?
I am broadly of the view that home groups, like an awful lot of things churches do, are a more helpful than not means of achieving some specifically biblical aims. That is to say, I don’t think they’re a mandated part of church life nor are they vital for the church’s existence but I nevertheless think they are a legitimate way to achieve some specific biblical commands and one valid approach to applying some biblical principles. I don’t think they are free of their issues, I don’t think you have to do them, but our church does because it is more useful to do them than not. They serve a particular function for us, they are a legitimate thing to do and we ultimately think the benefits of them outweigh the drawbacks. That is where we’re at.
But I read an article yesterday that went an awful lot further. You can read it here if you are so minded. It made the case – such as you are interested – for home groups being pretty valuable. Of itself, a legitimate case to make. But what raised my eyebrows was the following claim: ‘There is simply no substitute for people to grow in Christ-likeness together than the trenches of a local church’s small groups‘ (emphasis original). I mean, really?
Don’t get me wrong, I think home groups can be helpful. It is why we have them at our church. I would gladly encourage anybody to be involved and I think they will be served well if they engage with them. I’m not knocking them at all and I think they’re a good thing. I mean, at a minimum, it is hardly a force for evil for people in your church to read the Bible in the week and to be praying together. It’s hard to have a major issue with that. More to the point, I think there are lots of specific and tangible benefits. So, I’m not exactly in the down-with-home-groups camp.
But is it really true ‘there is simple no substitute for people to grow in Christ-likeness together than the trenches of a local church’s small groups’? Not only is that statement far too strong, I think it is out and out wrong. And I think it for three key reasons.
First, and most significantly, home groups are not a biblically mandated medium. Once again, I think they are a legitimate way to build up your church. No question. But we have to acknowledge that they are not a specifically mandated way by Jesus. There are lots of things scripture calls all believers to do, and insists all churches must do, but run home groups simply is not one of them.
Now, if there really is no substitute for growth in Christ-likeness to them, it begs the question why Jesus has not commanded his church to do them? Indeed, is it not at least a little questionable that this 21st Century Western invention is the primary means of growing in Christ-likeness despite over 1900 years of Christianity not doing it and many modern nations similarly managing without? Are we really saying the church has been stunted in its growth internationally and historically because it didn’t think to start home groups? As a general rule of thumb, I find it helpful to ask whether all Christian in all places could do this thing. If not, chances are it is a) not mandated and b) not the primary means necessary for anything. I think home groups safely fall under this category.
The truth is, the Bible does give us specifically mandated means of growing in Christ-likeness. They involve the Word, the Spirit and, yes, the church. These are the things necessary for Christian growth. In fact, you can see four necessary things here. But honestly, home groups are not one of them, helpful as they may be. The Bible tells us the necessary means of growth and we shouldn’t go beyond what it says and insist that something we find helpful – even if it is effective and good – is necessary when Jesus simply hasn’t said it is so. Nor, if we aren’t quite saying that, should we insist it is the primary means of doing anything when Jesus hasn’t even stated it as a means at all.
This, I admit, I found more odd than anything else. Why on earth would you describe your home groups as trenches, with all the overtones of warfare? I’m pretty sure they’re meant to be a blessing to people in your church, not a battle. Indeed, given they aren’t mandated by Jesus for any of us, if they are like being in the trenches you probably want to stop running them!
We run our home groups because we think they’re more helpful than not. Two of the ways (among others) we hope they are helpful is in fellowship and bible teaching. We want to dig into the Word together and see what it has to say to us and we want to pray for one another. We hope it provides an easier vehicle for people to raise concerns or questions they have too. We are not aiming to make them a challenge to people in the sense that they are difficult to come to, we want it to be a place where people are free to ask questions, free to ask questions of the Bible as we study it, free to share about struggles and difficulties they face and ultimately get help and support from the church. In every conceivable way, they are not designed to be trenches and – if that is what they had become – I would be inclined not to have them in our context.
I don’t doubt two basic facts: (1) home groups can help us grow in Christ-likeness and (2) church conflict can help us grow (see here, for example). But that doesn’t mean our home groups should be a place where we are forced to work through conflict together. Conflict will arise in the church whatever we do, it doesn’t much need our help. It will certainly arise in the things that Jesus calls us to do and tells the church it must do. Quite why you would continue with home groups where conflict was rife, on the grounds we may grow through it, when Jesus doesn’t ask us to do them is beyond me.
The article quotes Tim Keller as reportedly saying, ‘Small groups don’t work at all, and we’re totally committed to them!’ I do think he is right there is an unnecessary commitment to them that Jesus neither asks nor expects of his church. I think small groups do “work”, I just don’t think they work to do what many expect them to do and I think we load far too much pressure on them when – once again(!) – Jesus never asks us to do them. They can be helpful, but we need to be clear what they can do, what they can’t do and recognise Jesus doesn’t make us do them if they don’t work for us. What they should not be is places described as trenches which we must endure for the sake of Christ-likeness.
Better means of growth
More subjectively, I just think there are better means of growth than your home group. I am convinced you will ultimately grow more through a diet of regular, consistent and systematic expository preaching than your home group. That stands to reason as – and hang onto your hats for this – preaching is a biblically mandated means of growth for the believer. Who knew what Jesus said would help us grow would actually lead to better growth than something he didn’t?
I think if you are going to have home groups you need to view them in their right place. That is, as a supplement to your teaching not a primary vehicle. For us, we use home groups to address questions people have from the sermon and to press more deeply into the applications for our particular situations. It is very much a supplementary bit of teaching to the preaching.
But beyond preaching, I think you can do worse than dwell on the Word (another mandated matter). Home groups do best – and help growth most – when they centre on the mandated means and trying to function as a vehicle to help achieve them. But it would be a mad Christian view to say home groups themselves are better at growth in Christ-likeness than dwelling on the Word, private prayer and other such things scripture encourages believers to do. I just don’t think the claim stands up to scrutiny.
Once again, I’m not knocking home groups. I think they’re helpful as far as they go. But is there really ‘no substitute for people to grow in Christ-likeness together than the trenches of a local church’s small groups’? I don’t think so. Go to your home group, benefit from it, but be realistic about it. It is a means that might help you grow, but it is always worth remembering Jesus doesn’t insist it will and doesn’t command you to go to them. If he doesn’t insist on them, it’s hard to see how they could possibly be your primary vehicle to growth in maturity.