Today's Small Groups: A Genuine Threat to the Health of the Church?

Small groups...small groups...small groups. The word for today is "small groups" which is what many today are proposing as a prominent mechanism local churches must incorporate in order for intimate discipleship, genuine fellowship and "familyship" to occur among church members. This is the connector mechanism in both large and small churches that insure people have a group for their spiritual and personal necessities as a member of a local assembly...but wait!

An article worth reading deals with the nature of today's church small groups vs the pre-modernistic models and the very distinct departure from a biblical model which is seen in many former kinds to one of consensus and synthesis which is most common today, even in fundamentalist churches.

http://www.crossroad.to/articles2/04/3-purpose.htm

Quote:
While we don't deserve any of God's gracious blessings, small groups do bring people together. So the issue here is not whether or not they are effective, but rather the nature of their effectiveness. Do they deepen our faith in God or our dependence on each other? Do they teach us to know and follow God's Word or do they promote subtle forms of compromise for the sake of unity in diversity? Do they encourage Biblical discernment or open-mindedness and tolerance for unbiblical beliefs and values? Finally, are they led by the Holy Spirit or driven by well-trained facilitators and the "felt needs" of the groups?

Today's facilitated small groups or teams are not like the old Bible studies many of us attended years ago. Back then, we discussed the Bible and its wonderful truths; now people dialogue until they reach an emotional form of unity based on "empathy" for diverse views and values. Dr. Robert Klench gave an excellent description of this process in his article, "What’s Wrong with the 21st Century Church?"

"Total Quality Management [TQM] is based upon the Hegelian dialectic, invented by Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel, a transformational Marxist social psychologist. Briefly, the Hegelian dialectic process works like this: a diverse group of people (in the church, this is a mixture of believers (thesis) and unbelievers (antithesis), gather in a facilitated meeting (with a trained facilitator/teacher/group leader/change agent), using group dynamics (peer pressure), to discuss a social issue (or dialogue the Word of God), and reach a pre-determined outcome (consensus, compromise, or synthesis).

"When the Word of God is dialogued (as opposed to being taught didactically) between believers and unbelievers... and consensus is reached – agreement that all are comfortable with – then the message of God's Word has been watered down ever so slightly, and the participants have been conditioned to accept (and even celebrate) their compromise (synthesis). The new synthesis becomes the starting point (thesis) for the next meeting, and the process of continual change (innovation) continues.

"The fear of alienation from the group is the pressure that prevents an individual from standing firm for the truth of the Word of God, and such a one usually remains silent (self-editing). The fear of man (rejection) overrides the fear of God. The end result is a “paradigm shift” in how one processes factual information."

This process of synthesis is not limited only to settings (as described above) with unbelievers and believers but even more often with believers only and in this setting, with believers only, the problem does not go away. Believers can and do range from quite ignorant to very informed. However, if the dynamic of the Hegelian dialectic process ultimately is the objective, even those who are informed will allow for compromise and consensus forming because of the elevated value of "grouping" and the inevitable criticism for those rocking the boat with dogma. And in the end an assault is made on authoritative interpretation and instruction based on the greater need to keep the "group" together.

Groups themselves are only an anecdotal reality. That is to say, we should not feel the need to form a group, rather we should feel the need to find good teaching and inevitably a group of those with such interests will form. Hence the group will function appropriately with a head (instructor) and proper objective for its members which is to be taught, all the while also allowing discussion. But unlike the consensus building kind that is so rampant in our assemblies the instructor is able to disallow the group drift toward synthesis and always act as the master teacher guiding students into right thinking and away from wrong thinking.

The error, and in fact I would call propaganda, is that such a structured group as I describe (that is one with a teacher who instructs and facilitates with theological authority) is claimed by many to be counter-productive to the "connecting process". That is, if a teacher draws doctrinal lines then a group member might feel hurt or inhibited in expressing what they "believe" or "experience" regarding a biblical passage or topic and lose their sense of community or connectivity. Of course the obvious situation here is that in such a setting the student then becomes the teacher and all group members become their own teacher and there is no real learning rather just what the article points out, consensus building and self-serving sessions.

I personally have strong objections to the small group movement but not because groups, whether small or large, pose a problem but because the small group movement itself promotes, whether it realizes it or not, much of what is contained in the Hegelian dialectic process which does not serve a biblical end.

I recommend a thorough reading of the article.

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Charlie's picture

We have "community groups" at our church. The primary purpose of these groups are not teaching at all. Rather, they connect people - especially "fringe people" like singles without friends in the congregation or people new to town. Mostly, we pray for each other and focus on meeting physical and social needs. Most of the spiritual discussion focuses on personal life situations or on applying the Sunday message.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Jack's picture

Ours are similar to those at Charlie's church. I began just this year co-leading a community group at our church. Small group leaders must be approved by the pastor overseeing the groups. There is training. In the training they emphasize that the groups are not intended for teaching, but for fellowship or one anothering or whatever you want to call it. Only members are allowed to join the groups and groups are encouraged to work through a reliable Christian book or discuss the most recent sermon (with a focus on application). In short our elders take a number of steps to prevent community groups from settling into the sort of thing Alex describes.

FWIW, in the past year I've seen several of the newer or less mature believers in our group come to a better understanding of doctrine. Primarily, I'm sure, through the Word preached from the pulpit and their own spiritual disciplines. But also, very clearly, from what we've studied in small group. I've been in three different small groups at this church and have never heard something patently unbiblical go unchallenged. I can hardly even recall something questionable going without a request for clarification and follow up. They're certainly not perfect, but I'm confident they do me and our church body far more good than harm.

Kevin Miller's picture

I have spent most of my life in small churches, but two years ago, I started attending a larger church. When I joined a small group, I found it to be very similar in form to the Wednesday night Bible study and prayer time at my previous church, We went through the books of I Corinthians and then Romans with a leader who had spent time studying beforehand. He even e-mailed us lists of questions so we could be familiar with the chapter before we attended the group each week. We would spend an hour in the Bible study, and then another hour sharing prayer requests and praying. I did find that the hour Bible study contained more discussion than I had previously encountered on Wednesday nights, but often I saw that discussion centering on how other people had applied the principles found in the Scriptures to their daily lives. So practical application was being taught as well as doctinal understanding, and we became more involved in each others lives than what would be happening just by attending a Sunday morning service with them.

BJWester's picture

I realize this thread is a few months old, but I wanted to weigh in my $0.02.

Small groups, IMO, are one way to disciple believers. I'm not sure how a small group concept itself can be any threat to the health of the church. The threat the the health of the church almost always comes in the form of the members of the church (and occasionally people outside the church).

Small groups can be done well and they can be done poorly. You can substitute "Sunday School", "Morning Worship", "Bible Studies", and "Prayer Meetings" into that statement as well. The article itself pointed to how the small group was run, not the activity itself.

In a past church, I've suggested small groups as a means of outreach. (Many people wouldn't set foot in a church, but a small group in a home is much more inviting) The Pastor shot down the idea. He didn't like the idea of the church ministry leaving the church building. Not a quote, but the jist of the message. Not long ago, I visited that church and their Sunday School consisted of: 10 tables small group Bible Studies all in one large room. So I'm not sure the reason for his original objection.

So, does the term "small group Bible Study" invoke negative connotations to others out there? Personally, I've had good experiences with them. They need a good Biblical leader with the gift of teaching (not a preaching session), but I've found the encouragement to study the Bible and the fellowship involved very encouraging.

Alex Guggenheim's picture

BJWester wrote:
I'm not sure how a small group concept itself can be any threat to the health of the church.
Your question is addressed in the OP and asking it gives the appearance you did not read what was posted nor wish to address what was presented with a point by point response. But to be most precise, the OP does not cite "small groups" themselves as a threat. I encourage you to rediscover what was presented along with the link provided and see if your question remains.

BJWester's picture

While I didn't take the time to read the entire article (skimmed it), I did read the entire OP. And the subsequent responses. And did again to refresh my memory.

Your title of the OP (which does point at small groups) and your summary statement were what I was attempting to counterpoint. Obviously, it was poor attempt if I didn't communicate it well.

I agree with the OP's basic argument that consensus conclusions in a small group setting are very dangerous. The Bible isn't interpreted by the democratic process of majority rule. I'm not backing Rick Warren or the methods he is describing. But this isn't really new either (nothing new under the sun). Repackaged with pretty bow and a big church, but not new. Various church denomination boards/churches/groups have been doing that for (almost) 2000 years (i.e. consensus conclusions).

I guess what is unclear is if you are opposed to small groups in general or just this particular format of small group. When I originally read "small group movement" in your conclusion, I interpreted it as opposing all small groups (i.e. the example I gave of a former pastor). But maybe we are differing on the "movement" part of that and you are referring more specifically to the PDC style.

My original point was that small groups are no different than any other means of discipleship (Sunday School, Prayer Meetings, etc...), they can be done well and done poorly. They are like a TV set. Your TV set isn't evil. But what comes across the airwaves may be. It isn't the gun that kills, it the person holding the gun. So, my statement that you quoted, wasn't really a question. It was alluding to the fact that small group concepts are a tool. Its the leaders that run them that can cause the problems.

2 Timothy 2:2

BJWester's picture

In a secular college, I was involved with IVCF. Its a non-denom para-church college group. I don't necessarily endorse it now, but I needed Christian friends then. I became a small group leader and taught a Bible study on 1&2 Timothy to a group that included Catholics, Lutherans, EV-Free, Baptist, Bible, etc... We have MANY interesting discussions on the pastoral qualifications. But one question was constant as I led: "What does the Bible say?"

We at least held in common that the Bible was God's Word and trumped our opinions and feelings. As you continue to point people back to God's Word, they are forced to do one of two things: Agree or walk away. In that Bible study, we had both happen.

Alex Guggenheim's picture

My hope was that even in the title and along with the body of the OP my distinction, when referring to small groups, was as a special kind which was why I referred to them as today's small groups or the small group movement as opposed to small groups in general or their historical use in the church. The special distinction of the small group movement and/or today's small groups are just what I cited and so as not to be redundant I won't repost my thoughts on it but believe the link provides an excellent coverage.

http://www.crossroad.to/articles2/04/3-purpose.htm

I will say that personally my observation is that indeed much of the use of small groups today outside of their healthy use (which I believe is on the much lower percentage) reflects the damaging effect to the body of Christ as the article cites. And on an even more side note, I personally do not believe there is greater or lesser advantage to learning with small or large numbers in the long course of things and that purposing to have large or small groups with the belief one is superior to the other for biblical instruction is not borne out in Scripture. And I am quite familiar with the arguments from those that believe otherwise but the post is not about the value of group size per se so I am not interested in pursuing that argument, rather focusing on the misuse and damage of today's small group format common in many churches. Thanks for your input.

BJWester's picture

Thanks for taking the time to clarify.

I agree completely that neither is superior to the other, both have advantages and disadvantages. My personal preference is small groups as I seem to learn and engage better myself (as leader or follower).

FredK's picture

The highlight of my week now is the Sat 7 AM Men's Church Bible study! Interactive Bible study then out for breakfast. We have bonded. I offer these possible reasons why many object to SG:

1. Programs and methods originiating outside our tradition are automatically suspect. If it's new, different, it's wrong.
2. SG can threaten an authoritarian-oriented pastor. It can be an unnecessary unknown. He has no direct control over it and it may not be lecture-centered.
3. Has not personally experienced the blessing it can be.
4. Lack of trust in Holy Spirit to lead others in the church.
5. Lack of worldwide perspective, historical view - more people get saved worldwide in small group Bible studies in huts than at crusade meetings. House churches were common in NT. Fund. tradition has blinders.

Peace and joy! Smile

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Fred,

You are invited to explore the OP and reflect on any of the reasons why small groups could be harmful. While the article affirms the valid use of small groups in their appropriate formation and employment, its main thesis concerns the harm small groups can bring to congregations, particularly with the TQM approach in mind which is based on the Hegelian dialectic that is often mimicked (often unaware) by well meaning Christian small groups by:

Quote:
Dialoguing instead of teaching/instructing in the small groups

Group dynamics (peer pressure) for establishing truth outcomes and their value instead of truth on its own merit

Encouraging, even celebrating compromise that is treated as enlightenment and discouraging dissent or questions that may expose weaknesses to the ideas, beliefs or outcomes that are preferred and using group shame to reinforce this

Ultimately leading to a shift in how one should process facts in a proper and consistent manner to a system that is tailored for the group's approval

If you are unaware of this phenomenon occurring I encourage you to explore small groups outside of the one in which you participate which appearsto be properly conducted as you have stated. For that matter, just observe a message board or blog and the interaction of certain like minded people that function as a small group.Or you can no doubt do an internet search and study some of the concerns many thoughtful Christian scholars have dealt with which is reflected in the article.

Often it (the harmful use of small groups) is not the result of a formalized decision to use this method, rather it is the result of either a lack of attendance to such drifts or sloppy and uninformed leadership that does not wish to maintain doctrinal, interpretive or instructional boundaries lest they, themselves, do not maintain a certain charm in the eyes of a group, which leads to forms of an unhealthy or damaging small group.

*One note. Bonding with other human beings itself is neither a virtue or lack thereof when evaluating the appropriateness of a small group formed in the name of Christ for the study of the Scriptures. It may or may not result in personalized group aggrandizement because this should not be the goal, it is anecdotal. It seems somewhat likely but it is not necessary. What is necessary is for the integrity of the Scriptures to be preserved and those studying brought to further spiritual enlightenment. Interestingly, it is bonding that is emphasized in the Hegelian dialectic which takes the view that it (the bonding process) will introduce (if its significance as a feature of good groups is elevated to a higher priority) and influence the group toward group consensus and weaken individual exploration, questioning and rejection of what they would normally not accept.

FredK's picture

Alex, do I hear you saying that you have had a bad experience with a SG? ineffective, unqualified leader? It happens just as some pastors are gifted. Others are not. OK? I wish you could visit ours on Sat. AM!!!

BJ, I too have had lots of secular college campus Bible studies expr. in days of yore - 1970s. Most all very positive!

"How does one know if he has the gift of teaching [ or leading a SG ]? If he is the only one who thinks so, he doesn't" - Matt Prince.

"Where ever two or three are gathered in my name"

Alex Guggenheim's picture

No, I have not have a "bad experience" with a SG. I have interacted with many SG's and have found most to contain the kind of weaknesses that have been discussed but some that did not. This is not about my personal experiences but simply an examination of SG's and their potential misuse.

Joel Tetreau's picture

Small groups can be harmful to a church. I think over the last 15 years I've been leading them in two churches I can think of 2 or 3 groups that were not healthy. The overwealming majority of the 30+ other groups that we've had, have been very healthy. A key issue is leadership and vision. The dangers are real. The benefits when done right are large for any assembly. What I've appreciated about the groups is that when done right, believers get to know and begin to really minister to, "one-another." There is no question that we need to strive to make sure you have a leader in the group that will protect the integrity of Scripture and not allow the discussion to digress into simply "I think - you think." Fred K's list of why SG are often feared is on the mark. My mentor Dr. Singleton was one of the "trail-blazers" with SG in a fundamentalist ministry context. You can't believe the flack he took back in the late 80's and early 90's from some of his "buds." Doc became a firm believer in the community-building effect of SG, especially in larger congregations. There is no question that SG can become dangerous as the article suggests. I have fond that SG can be a great place for new deacons or elders or teachers to develop their abilities to lead a group discussion based on the Scriptures and then build an application bridge for contemporary believers. That's exactly what an effective preacher and/or teacher does. A few thoughts.

Straight Ahead!

jt

Dr. Joel Tetreau serves as Senior Pastor, Southeast Valley Bible Church (sevbc.org); Regional Coordinator for IBL West (iblministry.com), Board Member & friend for several different ministries;

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Small groups, Bible study classes, ladies meetings... all can help or harm a church. The most important factor IMO to which way it goes is the leadership of those groups. All too often SGs are where we see narcissism come into play, novices are ensnared, and where wolves in sheepskin jackets slide under the church leadership's nose. If the teacher does not consider themselves a humble servant of God and an arm of the church's leadership, or are spiritually, mentally, and emotionally mature and grounded, they will most likely end up sowing discord, whether that was their initial intent or not.

Sometimes the best course of action is "When it's doubtful, don't do it". If you have any misgivings about appointing someone as a teacher/worker, then better to not have a youth program or children's church or small groups than to employ those things and cripple the church from the inside out.

FredK's picture

1. If a pastor has been teaching his flock the Word should he trust the Holy Spirit to recall it to SG members minds in discussions?
2. Granted Susan, false teaching is ever a possibility but among well taught students of the Word must we not trust the Spirit's work in lives? If not, what IS sanctification and maturity?
3. A pastor can always place a deacon, leader or mature beliefver in each group to further insure stabiity.
4. Even allowing untaught or off base opinions to be aired serves the purpose of better understanding the needs of the individuals. Who needs more teaching? Who is untaught, confused? Who is struggling at home, hurting?
5. My SG has impacted me more this past 1.5 yr than pulpit teaching (gasp!).

6.Key Q? Can and does the H.S. often edify thru SG members words?