Having pastored a church without small groups, and now having pastored a church where always at least half of the congregation is in a small group, I can tell you the latter is preferable. People need to know each other. People need to interact with healthy Christians. People need community.
But many churches have a hard time establishing a thriving small group ministry. I know this through observation, but also through many conversations I've had with pastors and leaders who ask me for advice about small groups in their setting. And it has been a joy, over the years, to help a handful of churches lead and launch fruitful small group ministries.
What follows is some of the advice, along with some observations, I give to churches.
1. My Bible teachings aren't the only things needed for transformation to occur.
I love the Bible. I dedicate roughly half my work week to studying, writing and teaching the Bible. When I was 18, I heard the voice of the Lord say, "I've called you to teach my Word." I haven't looked back. This task has consumed my life. I love the Bible.
But I know people need to live out the Bible with other Christians. Someone can hear about purity from the pulpit for 20 years, yet remain in secret sin. However, when they get into a small group, the impurity manifests itself. Someone can hear about wise financial management, but never do anything with the word they've heard. But in a small group, they'll interact with Christians who have handled their finances well. Their lives will back up the message. From the pulpit, they will hear about the cross of Christ. I try to teach everyone about the importance of their newfound identity in Him. I urge them on toward sanctification. And I apply the great doctrines of Christ to their personal holiness, relationships, workplaces and family life. But I've seen how someone can hear those messages for years, yet never evidence any real change, and then, through interaction with other believers, watch it all come together.
You see, I can talk about confession, but where will they confess to others? I can talk about loving others, but where will they have an outlet to do so? I can talk about the importance of Christian fellowship, but where will it occur? I can talk about parenting your children in Christ, but where will they see it exemplified? So often, it's been in the context of the smaller group.
If my pulpit work alone is responsible for transformation in people's lives, I've put too much weight on the pulpit.
2. I shouldn't overemphasize the personal aspects of the Christian life while neglecting the communal life of the church.
The early church expected to go through life together. They were instinctively tuned toward a "together" life. But our modern age and western thought often highlight the individual rather than the community. We think a lot about ourselves, focus on ourselves and prefer ourselves.
But the Christian life cannot be lived alone. Yes, our faith is personal. Each individual must submit to Christ and follow His lead personally. A Christian's devotional life, consecration and service to God are personal in nature.
Still, we shouldn't only emphasize the personal aspects of the faith. We are a community, one which reinforces the doctrines and practices we want to employ as individuals. In other words, the group helps each person become what they should. The "one-another" of the New Testament helps the church live life together, and this leads to greater spiritual health in each individual.
3. I don't need to develop small replicas of a church service.
As I said, I love the Bible and have received a strong tradition in the Scripture from those who came before me. I love Bible study. I like teaching it. I like listening to others teach. It's one of my favorite things to do, just not in a living room.
In a small group, I want to know people, not hear another sermon. I want to hear how the Word of Christ has affected the people I'm in regular interaction with. I want to know what the Lord is saying to them.
Honestly, hearing people talk about how the previous Sunday's text and teaching ministered to their hearts is so encouraging. Then, over the years, watching people grow and develop as the Word messes with them is one of my greatest joys.
But, often, because we love the Word so much, churches will let small groups be a little replica of a Sunday or midweek church service. First, the small group sings. Then, announcements. Finally, a teaching.
All this can be fine, but we need places to apply the Word, pray for others and be known. We need a place to talk about the apostles' doctrine, fellowship, break bread and pray together (Acts 2:42).
4. I have to get out of my comfort zone.
Many pastors are more comfortable behind a pulpit than in a living room. They like communicating to, but not with, others. Get them sitting on a couch in someone else's living room, without any other assignment, to listen to and love the people they're with, and their palms get sweaty. Can't we just have a church service? They might think.
But the Lord wants us to spend time with people. Many people claim to be introverted, but I assure you, I am. I try to let God use it for His glory. It's part of what makes me comfortable with extended hours in private study, writing or prayer. But I also know it would be unhealthy for me only to be alone with God; I must also be with God's people. And though I can't spend personal time with every member of the church, I certainly can with my small group.
If a pastor doesn't like being in a small group, he won't emphasize them. If he doesn't value Christian community, he won't prioritize it for the church.
5. I must recognize the need for a holistic approach to spiritual development.
Since the Word of God is perfect and pure, our teaching of His Scriptures helps shape the mind, heart and soul of the people we serve. But people need other venues to become balanced and whole believers. While the development of the mind and intellect are important, so is the maturation of the emotions or the body. Feelings and habits are often shaped in the context of a Christian community.
I've found many pastors have been so powerfully shaped over the years by the teaching ministry of others, that they forget this isn't the normal experience. I spent my first decade in Christ, consuming massive amounts of teaching and preaching from others. I am still an avid listener and reader of Bible teaching. And I feel all of it has shaped me into a more Christlike version of Nate Holdridge. But, if I'm not careful, I will think my experience normative. Many folks, though, will need more of their breakthroughs to take place in the context of community.
Let me give an example. When I was younger, I went through a phase where I wasn't taking care of my physical health at all. It was a what-really-matters-is-the-kingdom-not-my-weight kind of attitude. Now, obviously, people obsess and worship their health quite often in our modern world. But I kind of let myself go. All the while, I received teaching about stewardship, even stewardship of the body. But I did nothing about the message.
One day, some friends and I got to talking. We determined we weren't taking care of the bodies God gave us, so we challenged each other to start taking our physical health seriously. And that short season changed my life, setting me on a trajectory of physical fitness. Now, I try to steward my body well so I can, with strength and stamina, serve Jesus for many years. But it took Christian community for the lesson to sink in. The Word had shaped my mind, but I needed a community to live it out in.
And in small groups, the Scriptures are discussed, but we also talk about our feelings. When we vocalize our feelings, doubts and insecurities, the Spirit receives some room to operate. When we commit to various habits and disciplines, the community helps us recognize whether we are staying the course.
6. Our small groups don't have to threaten the unity of the church.
I don't think you can be a church with small groups if the secondary and tertiary doctrines of Scripture are treated like primary ones in your church. For example, if a pastor can't talk about eschatology without humility, and instead insults Christians with views other than his, then the small group experience will suffer. People won't know how to handle Christians who, though being solid on the primary doctrines of Scripture, aren't exactly like them in the others.
But if a church is able to give treatment to the secondary and tertiary doctrines with conviction and charity, then they will become a place that can more easily handle small groups. A pastor's tone in the pulpit will help set the atmosphere of the small group.
And, yes, small groups can unearth all kinds of things: not just doctrinal differences, but interpersonal conflict. The thing is, these often already exist. Why pretend they don't? Instead, face them head-on. And, though life gets real inside small groups, I have found our church much more unified than before. Every awkward moment, disappointment, or conflict, in my estimation, has served as an opportunity for sanctification to take hold.
Our fellowship has enjoyed a prioritized and vibrant small group ministry for the past eight years. We were a collection of people before, but now, after years of meeting together in smaller settings, thousands of quality relationships have formed. We know and love one another.
It has been a joy for me, as a pastor, to watch this development. It has been messy. People have gotten hurt. Complaints have come. But sin is going to be part of the church until Christ returns, so it's inevitable, especially when you put people in the same room with each other, that offense and misunderstanding and anger will occur. But, through it all, we have encouraged, loved and walked with one another through life. We have so far to go to become like the earliest church, but we are growing more into Christlikeness every day, and I believe these smaller settings are working so well with our larger gatherings toward that goal. If I had to do it all over again, I would lead us toward small groups because people need community.