I am convinced that the amount of energy and resources we are devoting to the modern small group movement is actually working against our efforts to make disciples. Let me explain.
Yesterday I started this conversation looking at my own experience with small groups and some of the short comings that many of us experience within them. I didn’t fully flesh out, however, why many of our small groups are working against our efforts to make disciples. Here are the issues with most of our small group ministries.
1) They have just enough of what we need to make us think we are doing better than we are. Over the past 15+ years I have experienced numerous blessings. I have grown in my knowledge of scripture, I have experienced great moments of prayer, I have enjoyed fellowship, and I have grown spiritually. Most people who have participated in small groups have probably experienced all of or some of these elements on different levels. But, even with these good things happening there has been something better and more important that has been missing. I have encountered few small groups that have experienced consistent and reproducible life change. I am not talking about growing a bit in our faith, I am talking about sanctifying moments of radical path altering transformation. That is what Jesus’ disciples experienced and what he empowers us to help others experience in this world.
2) They lack accountability. Small groups come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Most groups, however, lack true accountability. I don’t mean bring a list of that week’s sins kind of accountability. Instead I am talking about, “Are you actually applying this to your life and following through on your commitments” kind of accountability.
3) They need more community. The one thing I have experienced consistently in small groups is some level of community. Helping that community move from simply enjoying time together before and after a Bible Study to engaging in one another’s lives on a consistent basis is a difficult task. It rarely happens without intentionality.
4) They need more mission. This is one area where I in particular have struggle as a small group leader. I will own up to it fully. I am great about inspiring the need for missional living and really bad at providing the catalyst necessary to get people engaged in it. I have led many a small group to a deeper understanding of our need to serve others without taking them the final step to going out and serving together. I am guessing that I am not alone in that boat of regret.
5) They are too convenient. One of the first conversation I have always had with the small group leaders is about when they are meeting. Everything is about finding a convenient time when people can fit them into their schedules. When has life changed ever occurred by fitting something into our schedules? If it is convenient, if it doesn’t require us to sacrifice anything then what is the point. Everything about our American brand of Christianity is convenient and easy. We aren’t going to experience change until we do something that is hard and takes sacrifice.
6) They are marketed to the masses. One of the big questions with a small group ministry is “Do we have enough different types of groups to reach everyone?” This buffet approach to small groups fits perfectly with our consumer models of ministry, but doesn’t suport life change all that well. Jesus constantly left the crowds behind to focus on the 12. He knew what the masses wanted and he didn’t give it to them because it wasn’t what they needed. Our discipleship efforts have to begin smaller and work their way out. We can’t begin by trying to reach the masses.
So what is the alternative to the modern small group movement? Well, I strongly believe that life change happens best within the context of community. I believe in small gatherings of Christians who are committed to investing into each other’s lives long enough and intentionally enough to help one another grow and change. I believe in the need for accountability in our lives. I believe in the power of scripture and God’s ability to work through the voices of a community to reveal his will to us. I believe that Jesus showed us exactly what discipleship is supposed to look like.
So if not small groups then what? Well the answer to our problems with small groups is simply to reimagine small groups and do them better. We should use the filter of Jesus’ own discipleship methods to evaluate our small groups. Jesus gave us the model. He called a group of individuals out of their lives, he called them to sacrifice, he opened his life up to them fully so they could learn to imitate him, he challenged them and held them accountable, and he led them in mission. When our small groups begin to look like this, then we will see real discipleship take place. So long as they more closely resemble a book of the month club, a sewing circle, a coffee group, a study group, or something else, they will continue to be part of the problem not the solution.