With the Enlightenment’s shift in thinking, we became much more individualistic. This shift has had some positive consequences but quite a few negative results, at both work and church. Last week I discussed one way the church attempts to respond to the loneliness and lack of community experienced by many in local congregations, and some ways we can do better. This week I’ll outline a second problem many small groups face, and the following week I will suggest some solutions.
The Second Problem Many Small Groups Face
Small groups determined by affinity, just as much as small groups determined by geography, face this additional challenge. The second chapter of Acts discusses how the believers grew in the faith by gathering together. Thousands were coming to faith in Christ at this time. The new believers began meeting regularly in homes. As they met they focused on three things: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).
The Importance of Studying the Bible
As we have noted during the past few weeks, community with other believers is central to growing in Christ (“breaking of bread”–enjoying meals together). So is worship, which brings intimacy with God (represented in Acts 2:42 by devotion to prayer). But a third, equally important element of their time together was devotion to “the apostles’ teaching.” The apostles were teaching God’s Word, based on Jesus’ commissioning of them to this task, as recorded in John 14 and 16. (I’ve discussed this in more detail here.)
Scripture consistently emphasizes that studying God’s Word is necessary for spiritual growth. David writes in Psalm 119:11, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” We see Paul’s commitment to Bible study even in his last days, as he awaits his execution in Rome. He asks Timothy (in 2 Timothy 4:13) to bring him only two things: a coat, and his “scrolls” (what for us now is the Old Testament) so he could continue to study. He exhorts Timothy to do the same, saying, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
The Bible is so heavily emphasized because of its spiritual power: “The word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
Bible study is also crucial to enable us to be effective witnesses to a desperate world. Paul models this: “As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead” (Acts 17:2-3).
The Reality in Many Small Groups
Since studying the Word is so central to Christian life, one would expect that Christian small groups would make exploring God’s truth together one of their main goals. However, in practice this is not always the case. All too often, the small group’s “time in the Word” is superficial and unengaging. With notable and praiseworthy exceptions, serious engagement with the text of Scripture (as well as what can be known of God’s truth from what He has revealed via general revelation) is woefully inadequate.
In place of engaging Bible study that mines the Scriptures for its treasures, small group discussions can easily degenerate into a pooling of ignorance, as each person in the group shares what the passage “means to me.” For those wishing to learn more of what God’s Word actually means, rather than what it means to Joe or Sally, this is discouraging at best (and harmful to their spiritual growth and equipping for ministry at worst).
Why This Is So
There are many reasons small groups struggle with superficial engagement with God’s truth. One factor is the general anti-intellectual state of the Western church, leading to a devaluing of the “life of the mind” and serious study. (I discuss how this came to be in the first blog series I wrote here). In place of thinking well as a part of life in Christ (also loving God with the mind), there is now a preoccupation with our feelings (only loving God with our hearts).
From this comes a lack of interest in understanding the proper ways to study and interpret the Bible (hermeneutics). Our modern individualistic bent tends to reduce Bible “study” to everyone expressing their own ideas, impressions, or feelings about the text of Scripture, as opposed to identifying and applying God’s objective truth.
These tendencies can be corrected only by re-discovering the “role of reason in the life of the soul” (the subtitle of a great book, Love Your God With All Your Mind by J. P. Moreland).
A second factor contributes to the superficial level of engagement with Scripture in many small groups. By definition, there are many people in larger churches, and certainly in megachurches. Combine with this the desire to keep small groups small (usually no more than 16 people), and the result is the need for a lot of leaders.
But often, there are not enough leaders who are gifted in teaching and have the knowledge and training to teach the group. Therefore the bar is lowered, and instead “facilitators” are recruited and appointed to lead many small groups.
Given this situation, it should not be surprising that many people experience superficial engagement with God’s Word, at best, in their small groups. But there is good news. A few solutions are available to overcome this challenge.
Next week I will offer several solutions that preserve the best of the small group strategy, yet correct this deficiency.
Until then, grace and peace.