The motto, “good is the enemy of great” applies as much to a church’s small groups as anything else. Many churches aim too low. The reason for this is not that small groups don’t provide many benefits for churches, but that they provide so many. It is easy to focus on the lesser benefits rather than the best ones.
The unfortunate result is that people do not grow and are not served to the extent that they could be if the church leaders directed their small group ministry toward what they can do best.
What are some benefits of small groups that are “good” but not “great”?
Small groups are good for assimilation
An obvious benefit of small groups is that it gives you a place to plug new people. This is often referred to as “closing the back door” of the church. Without a place where you can direct newcomers to get connected, people leave at almost the same rate as they come in. That means you need a lot of visitors just to grow your church just a little bit – unless you have small groups.
I don’t intend to deny this fantastic benefit that small groups provide. In fact, as a pastor who is accountable for the assimilation efforts of my church, I rely on our small groups to be a place where new people can connect. The problem is not when you use small groups for assimilation, but when you use them primarily for assimilation.
If assimilation is your bottom line, then you will measure the success of your small groups based on how effectively the grow your church. Of course, we all want to see our churches grow. But we don’t want people in our churches just for the sake of having them. We want them to serve and be served in our church.
So there must be something more to small groups than assimilation, even though assimilation is an important step.
Small groups are good relational connection
Another obvious benefit of a thriving small group ministry is that it connects people relationally. One of the most common reasons people leave a church is because they couldn’t find community. Small groups are a good place for church members to build friendships.
In support of making relationships the primary goal for small groups it is common for pastors or authors to quote Genesis 2:18, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” They argue, therefore, that relationships are a fundamental need people have, and small groups provide a place where people can go to not be alone. Unfortunately this is a drastic misapplication of this verse. Notice that in Genesis 2, God does not provide the man with a small group or a friend, but a wife. It was not good for Adam to be alone, not because he would be lonely (he was in the very presence of God!), but because he had a mission to subdue the world through fruitfulness, in order to spread God’s glorious image throughout the world.
Like we saw with assimilation, if relationships are your goal, then you are aiming too low. I am not saying that you shouldn’t aim for people to connect relationally in small groups. Relationships play an essential role in them. But mere relationships should not be the main goal for small groups.
Granted, we want everyone in our church to have vital friendships, but for what purpose? Just for the sake of having friendships? I don’t think so. We want people to have a certain kind of relationship – the kind that is described in the Bible.
Small groups are best as a context for the “one anothers”
Whether your church is big or small, you need some kind of system where people can show and be shown the kind of love the Bible commands the church to show. They often pop up in the New Testament as “one anothers,” and this is what small groups are best for. Here are some exmples:
· “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10).
· “Live in harmony with one another” (Rom. 12:16).
· “Comfort one another,agree with one another, (2 Cor. 13:11).
· “Bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2).
· “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thess. 5:11).
· “Always seek to do good to one another and to everyone” (1 Thess. 5:15).
· “Stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24)
· “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another” (James 5:16).
· “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another” (1 Pet. 4:10).
While it is possible to live these “one anothers” out without small groups, it is easiest within them. Small groups provide a context where people can be known, so that they can be encouraged in specific ways. People can make their needs known, so that they can be helped immediately and personally. Small groups provide a context where people can build relational capital with one another, which can later spent through confession or confrontation.
When you get to this level, your assimilation and relationship efforts are even more effective. When you hit that level relationally, everyone in the group is serving and being served. When you assimilate a high percentage of your church into a small group, then almost everyone in your church is serving and being served.
Being the body of Christ
The “one anothers” describe nothing more and nothing less than living as the body of Christ. Which, by implication, means that we can’t do them without Christ. He is the head, we are the body.
In order to get small groups that are actively doing the “one anothers” for each other, you must point them to Jesus, and they must rely on Jesus. We need his example, his grace, his strength, and his guidance to do them. When small groups love each other in these ways, it will not only be for the benefit of the small group, but the benefit of the whole church, and for the glory of God.
Eric McKiddie serves as Pastor for Gospel Community at the Chapel Hill Bible Church He helps pastors grow as well-rounded ministers of the gospel at his blog, Pastoralized, and through sermon coaching. Follow him on Twitter: @ericmckiddie.