In the wake of the Enlightenment, we all struggle with a lack of connection to others. Not only has the broader culture become highly individualistic, but so has the church. The small group strategy is a main way to counter this tendency1. While promising, this strategy faces two significant challenges, which I have addressed in my last two posts: difficulty in building deep relationships (often because group members are connected only by geography) and a tendency to deteriorate into a superficial, subjective type of Bible study. I discussed how to address the first challenge two weeks ago; in this post I will propose ways to address the second challenge (though some may not be possible until COVID restrictions subside).
Training and Empowering Teachers
The first solution is obvious: provide richer engagement with God’s Word. If the problem is that facilitators of small groups are not adequately equipped to teach, there are several ways to correct this problem.
First, we know that God gives various gifts to his people, including the gift of teaching:
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13, boldface added)
So why are people with this gift of teaching often not exercising it in a small group setting, enabling the groups to flourish? There are many reasons, some of which we cannot change. But there is one factor we can change.
In my experience, the curriculum of small groups is highly specified, due to the desire to enable facilitators to have clear directives. However, this high level of curriculum control also stiffles those gifted in teaching. They may have a different way to approach the topic. Or they may sense that their group needs to study something else at a given time. The highly structured curriculum may eventually lead these gifted teachers to stop leading a small group, because they feel that they cannot effectively express their teaching gift. What a loss this is!
So the first solution is to find those in the congregation with gifts in teaching, encourage them, give them a vision for how God can use them as they express this gift, and set them free to teach. When this has been done in various churches I’ve attended, amazing things have happened!
But this assumes such a person is “a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Being a good steward of a gift includes developing the ability to exercise that gift well. For the teacher, this means understanding well what is to be taught.
For most people in the church who have the gift of teaching, formal seminary training is not possible, nor is it what they most need. However, the church already has people with this level of training–the members of the pastoral staff. If those with this level of biblical training each begin mentoring several people in the congregation with the gift of teaching, the number of people trained to “correctly handle the word of truth” will increase. (I use the term “mentoring” to indicate a more intense, one-to-one context, rather than trying to provide this instruction in a larger group format, which I believe is much less effective.)
If none of the above is possible, for some reason (though I can’t think of any), there is a third solution. Instead of asking group leaders to facilitate a conversion around a biblical text, the group might instead watch a video series featuring someone who is gifted in teaching God’s Word. Many such series are available online. Or they could read and discuss a book on hermeneutics–the principles of accurately studying and applying God’s Word. In these ways, the person gifted in teaching can guide members to understand Bible interpretation better, and this knowledge will add to the quality of all Bible studies the group does subsequently.
As long as the videos or books used are not superficial or tangential to the task of building up the body of Christ, much can be gained by having a teacher who is “at a distance” provide this instruction. But be careful; not everyone who purports to be, or is believed to be an expert on a subject actually is. John’s exhortation is important to keep in mind:
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (I John 4:1)
One good way to “test the spirits” is review the person’s credentials–schools attended, books written, etc. If you are not familiar enough to spot red flags, consult with pastors or others in your church with theological training. It is not difficult to identify good and bad teachers if you know what to look for.
Broadening the Definition of “Small” Groups
Another approach I’ve seen used very effectively is to stop limiting the idea of smaller gatherings to just groups of 10 to 16 people. As I discussed earlier in this series, the goals of a small group are to create community that cannot be found in the larger church body, due to its size, and to provide more engagement with the Word. These objectives can be met in formats other than small groups.
For instance, as my wife and I have moved a number of times, we have attended a few larger churches that fostered true community in a different way. Though large, they still provided smaller communities where members could develop deeper relationships and engage the Scriptures meaningfully.
The alternative structure that enabled these relationships was groups that met before or after the worship service to study a book of the Bible or biblical topic. For example, one group studied The Person of Christ in order to understand biblical teaching about Jesus. Another group studied Christian Engagement in Culture to understand better how to have a redeeming influence in their professional lives.
These gatherings go by different names depending on the church, such as “Adult Bible Fellowships” (ABFs) or “Adult Sunday School” classes. They meet the need for community and teaching for two reasons. First, people choose which class they wish to attend, and so those gathering share an affinity around the topic. Within this topical affinity, they often develop deeper relationships around other affinities such as age or stage of life.
After the class is over (usually five or six months), some may continue with the group to study the next topic, while others move to a different class for its new topic. Yet even after people move to a new class, they retain some of the friendships formed in the previous class, and over time many strong relationships form (this was certainly the case for me and my wife).
Second, these classes help each person truly feast on the Word. Since the groups are not limited to an artificial size, the number of teachers needed is smaller. In this context, those selected to lead these classes truly have the gift of teaching, as well as the requisite background to teach the topic adequately. The result is a very engaging, lively, challenging, and truly life-changing study of a range of topics.
The place where I saw this approach most fully developed was Kettle-Moraine Evangelical Free Church (in suburban Milwaukee). The church offered ABF classes in five distinct areas: Biblical Theology (studying books of the Bible, chapter by chapter and verse by verse), Systematic Theology (studying doctrines, such as the full teaching of Scripture on the doctrine of salvation), Historical Theology (studying church history, and how past errors are repeated by modern-day cults), Natural Theology (studying apologetics and worldviews, to be able to discuss biblical truth via what is created with those yet to believe), and Practical Theology (applying biblical principles to practical issues such as financial management, marriage, and parenting, as well as issues in spiritual formation). Though we moved away from Wisconsin 20 years ago, people we met in those classes remain among our closest friends.2
Unfortunately, it is hard to find churches with this model today. Buildings are designed to accommodate more and more children’s classrooms, but no adult classrooms. Even if space is available, time is often not built into the Sunday morning schedule for adult gatherings of this type.
These realities reflect the contemporary evangelical church’s model of church growth, as well as the devaluing of the life of the mind and the need for study. However, there are additional “work-around” options. Someone who possesses the gift of teaching and has the knowledge necessary to exercise this gift well can always offer a course on an important topic for those who are interested. Some of the best small groups I’ve been in have been of this sort. But again, before joining any such group it is important to keep in mind John’s exhortation in I John 4:1 (above).
Putting Small Groups on “Steroids”
A third strategy to solve these problems has recently emerged in the United States: the “micro church” movement. In a very real sense, this approach is taking the small group strategy and living it out fully.
Micro churches are communities structured much like larger churches’ small groups. But they are not a program of a larger church–they are the church. These communities are often affiliated with a larger body to provide accountability and training, such as the Xenos community in Columbus, Ohio or the “Underground” movement growing in many cities. (The term “underground” is used to honor believers in churches that have met surreptitiously throughout history and in many parts of the world today. Such underground churches are often characterized by a considerable depth of community, spiritual life, and engagement with God’s Word).
As one city’s Underground movement puts it, the microchurch is “the most basic expression of the church. … When believers work together in sincere worship and genuine community to accomplish part of the mission of God, they are the church.” Though small, without formal pastors or buildings, these micro churches often exhibit deep community and sustained engagement with the Word. In this way, they are also addressing the challenges of developing community in our modern age.
Each of these solutions to the shortcomings of traditional small groups has its own pros and cons. I will leave it to the reader to discern the positives and negatives more fully, and to determine how best to accentuate the positives and mitigate the negatives.
You may be in a flourishing small group. If so, rejoice! However, this is not the experience of many (as discussed in “Small Groups Anonymous,” a recent article in Christianity Today). For those experiencing these struggles, it is important to find ways to help our churches develop deeper community in order to resist Enlightenment individualism. By doing so we will all flourish, the church will flourish, and God will be glorified!
Until next week, grace and peace.
This conversation of the “small group” strategy is within the context of the contemporary American church, where I experience community. Small groups have existed in other times and places within Christendom, such as early Methodism. I do not know enough about the history of these communities to comment.
I do not intend to imply that larger groups of dozens of people can form the same depth of relationships that can be done in a smaller group. However, often in these larger “small” groups communities those who have gathered around a given affinity begin visiting socially with a few others more frequently, and develop deeper connections with one another in this context.