Small groups. Are you in one?

by K.W. Leslie, 01 November

If you’re not truly interacting with fellow Christians, you need to be.

Jesus feels it necessary for his followers to have a support system. That’s why he invented the church. That’s why we gotta go to church. We need family: Sisters and brothers in Christ with similar experiences, who’ve been through what we’re going through, who can aid and encourage us. We’re not meant to go it alone!

But many churches are so large, it’s really easy to be alone anyway.

Sunday morning services are where we’re meant to worship God together, as a group. But they’re seldom set up to be interactive. Interaction slows things down, y’know. And when a church is full of non-social or antisocial people, they kinda like things that way: They can go to church, talk to no one, never share, never get to know one another, never give a testimony. They’ll sing with the music, listen to the preacher, take holy communion, and that’s it: They didn’t interact with one another. Just with God… assuming they aren’t just going through the motions of dead religion.

You could have a church full of shouting Christians, exclaiming “Amen!” and “Preach it!” every two minutes. Yet they still don’t interact with one another.

How’re Christians gonna be a support system to one another when we won’t interact? Well, we won’t be.

Hence small groups.

Christians call our small groups by all sorts of names: Bible studies, cell groups, core groups, home church, study groups, ministry groups, prayer circles, love feasts, supper clubs, book groups, inreach groups, family groups, life groups, whatever. Regardless of the name, what they have in common is they’re relatively, purposefully small. Small enough to be interactive.

Their stated purpose might be to learn more about bible, pray together, minister together, watch a video series, study a book, or share a hobby. Their real purpose is fellowship. They’re so Christians get to know one another. The other stuff is secondary.

Well, supposed to be secondary.

Now, not every small-group leader realizes the primary purpose of a small group is fellowship. First several times I led a small group, I didn’t realize it: I was leading a bible study, and I only cared about the bible lessons. Not that I didn’t care about the people… although honestly it was more about their attendance than about them. Hey, if they skipped a week, I wasted preparing a lesson for them!

Likewise some of them weren’t primarily interested in the fellowship either. Some were there to learn stuff. Others were there to show off how much they already knew, and really wanted be heard. If I cut ’em off to get back to the lesson, they were annoyed.

Yeah, people always have their ulterior motives. That’ll happen. But really, the purpose of these groups is fellowship. Relationship. Being God’s family.

If people really wanna learn bible, great! Give ’em books and homework. People can study on their own. But in the group time, we need to concentrate on interactivity. Making friends with one another. Sharing needs. Sharing concerns. Knowing each other.

We also get to know which of the people of our churches are mature, and worth going to with our questions and problems… and which of ’em we really shouldn’t. There are always newbies—who know little, have lots of questions, and are looking for mentors—but I don’t mean them: I mean longtime Christians who are, nonetheless, full of bad fruit. They lack the Spirit’s fruit mandatory in every Christian leader. Not that it’ll stop ’em from trying to take charge or offer advice, ’cause they think they earned it over time. No they didn’t. Doesn’t work like that.

And we get to see how even the mature Christians struggle. Because we’re all wrong in one way or another. We still sin. We have our doubts. We have times of shaky faith, or struggles with temptation, or we lose heart, or we find it hard to listen to God. But these groups are the perfect places to encourage one another to keep fighting the good fight. Keep running the race. And all the usual platitudes.

We get to really know the people of our churches, instead of the superficial, all-too-brief, polite-but-opaque greetings during the two-minute meet-’n-greet between the worship music and the sermon. (“How’re you doing?” “Fine!”) We get to know ’em as people. We get to see how Christ Jesus works in and through them.

Ideally, diversity.

Churches have a bad habit of creating groups based on traits. There’s the youth group for the teens. The college-age group for the young 20somethings. The young-marrieds group. The middle-aged-marrieds group. The senior-marrieds group. Singles groups for each of these age brackets as well. A men’s group. A women’s group.

’Cause people feel comfortable when everyone is just like them. But the biggest handicap of such groups is this lack of diversity.

Fr’instance: In a men’s group, men tend to hear other advice on how to be better husbands. It’s a pretty common topic. (Sometimes the only topic, ’cause the men’s group leader figures that’s the group’s purpose.) Two problems though:

  • The unmarried men tire of this topic really fast.
  • Did anybody bother to ask women about how men could be better husbands? (Duh.)

(Of course in a sexist church, where women aren’t permitted to teach anyway, women are never gonna teach on the topic, and men are never gonna listen unless it’s filtered through another man. And so they perpetuate their sexism. But I digress.)

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be men’s groups. Or women’s, or youth groups, or senior groups, and so forth. It’s just they shouldn’t be the only groups your church has. ’Cause one of the most valuable things about Christ Jesus’s church, if not the most valuable, is it does away with social distinctions and barriers. It’s for all ethnicities, ages, genders, and economics. Ga 3.28, Cl 3.11 What’re we doing putting these barriers back up?

Well, to be blunt, we’re catering to a culture which wants ’em back up. Sometimes they think the way to reach more people is to target their demographics. Sometimes they want the kids, or the olds, or the marrieds, or the men, out of their small groups: They don’t want a small group, but a clique.

Which is fine if you want your church to look like the rest of the world, but it hardly equips its people to be God’s kingdom. We learn so much more from people who are less like us. Diversity is valuable. And vital.

So it’s why I won’t lead such groups. If I host a bible study, I want women and men, young and old, single and married, newbies and elders, anyone and everyone, to feel free to attend. Diversity is Christian. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

Join one! Or start one.

Your church likely has small groups already. Most churches do. Start looking into them. Start planning to join one.

Certain churches like to assign people to their groups. I’ve been to many groups which were based on geographic location: If you lived in a certain area, you went to that group. It actually helped keep our groups diverse, ’cause not everybody who lived near one another was like one another. (I live in California though. Other parts of the United States are still unofficially segregated, so this method won’t always work out so well.) Other groups are randomly assigned.

If your church doesn’t offer any small groups, you do realize you’re not the only Christians in town, right? Visit another church’s small group! I’ve done it many times; it’s great to get to know fellow believers of different backgrounds. It really reminds us we’re not in this alone.

Or, if you feel up to it, create a small group. It’s easily done: Pick an excuse to meet, like a book study. Invite people whom you’d like to see in your group. Some will be thrilled to join; others will have excuses why they can’t possibly. But start with the willing participants, and build up your group from there.

Make a point of letting your church’s leadership know you’ve started an informal group. Usually they’re fine with it. Sometimes they’re thrilled, and want you to make it a formal group, so everybody in the church knows it’s available. And every once in a while some of ’em get paranoid: “What’re they doing? Are they heretic? Are they trying to start their own church and siphon off members?” Stuff like that. Sometimes they have legitimate concerns (especially when you’re not as mature as you think you are!), ’cause they’ve been burned before. Other times they’re control freaks. Sort that out. But whatever the situation, don’t defy or dodge the leadership. You’re supporting one another, not competing! (Better not be competing.)

And remember: The stated reason you’re meeting—a study group, a craft group, a dinner group, whatever—is your secondary purpose. Your main purpose is relationship. Never forget that. Never make the activities so crazy-intensive, so necessary, you miss out on the people of your group. Get to know them.