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4 Don'ts When it Comes to Small Group Ministry

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As of this week our small group ministry is fully underway. We currently have groups meeting regionally every other week. The groups are broadly organized around sermon discussion, prayer, and fellowship. They meet midweek either on Wednesday or Thursday and usually run from 7-8:30pm. Groups also occasionally share a meal together in which case they may begin their meeting a little earlier.

This is the first of two posts on what I’m calling “4 dos and don’ts when it comes to small group.” Today, I’ll take a look a 4 don’ts when it comes to small group ministry.

4 Don’ts when it comes to small group ministry

 1. Don’t allow your small group to become a church within the church.

We’ve all either seen it happen, or heard of it happening…a small group can so easily become a functional church in and of itself. The members of the small group look to the group exclusively to fulfill the “one another” passages of Scripture. They look exclusively to the small group for community. They look exclusively to the small group for personal help, encouragement, and hospitality. The small group can almost become a sacred sphere of people within the church, and it’s only within that sacred sphere that we allow ourselves to live out church life in its fullness.

Small groups can certainly embody a more intimate sphere of fellowship within the church. However, they must never be seen as embodying the totality of church life. Every member of the church needs every other member of the church, and that means people in the church who are outside of our small groups. We owe our covenant commitments to each member of the body.

This is one of the reasons we at Emmanuel are committed to rotating small groups every couple of years or so. This allows the long-term member at Emmanuel Church to experience a smaller more intimate fellowship group with every single member of the church over the course of several years.

2. Don’t allow your small group to displace corporate gatherings.

The church in its fullness is the church gathered. The term most often used for the church is the ekklesia or the assembly. Gathered worship services of the church represent the fulcrum and climax of church life.

However, in this day and age, small groups can often displace corporate gatherings. Many feel more comfortable in small group environments than they do in the corporate gatherings of the church. Pastors and leaders must labor to promote the glories of the public gatherings of the church. It is to these corporate gatherings of Christ’s people that the Lord directs some of His most wonderful promises. It should be noted that a detailed study of the relevant passages would lead one to conclude that many of these promises pertain only to the gathered church body, and not to small groups within the church that may choose to meet throughout the week.

Small groups can represent a vital aspect of the church’s ministry, but they cannot replace gathered worship.

3. Don’t allow your small group to become a substitute for the personal intentional pursuit of community among God’s people.

Having participated in a number of different small groups over the last 10 years or so, I’ve become a big fan of small group ministry. Over the last 10 years, I’ve found myself regularly looking forward to meeting with my small group. Part of the reason I love small groups so much is because they provide a more intimate time of fellowship, prayer, and Bible study with a limited number of people in the church.

However, one danger to be avoided is allowing your small group to become the end all be all of your experience of community in the church. An every other week small group cannot replace showing regular hospitality in the home. A small group cannot replace pursuing a needy brother or sister in the church for one-on-one coffee or breakfast. A small group cannot replace spontaneous opportunities to spend time with other Christians within the body of Christ for mutual fellowship and encouragement.

The Bible would seem to advocate a daily experience of community within the body of Christ (Acts 2:46-47; Heb. 3:13). This does not mean we need to physically see our brothers and sisters in the church every day. Praise God for the ability we have in this day and age to text, email, call, and skype one another. But the fact is, gathering intentionally with others in the church for an hour every other week will not cut it. As Rosaria Butterfield has often put it, the church in America is on “a starvation diet of community.” An every other week small group is no substitute for engaging in regular Christian community throughout the week.

Small groups are best utilized as a help toward fostering community in the church, but not the end all be all of the church’s practice of community. 

4. Don’t allow your small group leader to replace your pastor.

This “don’t” applies to those churches who choose to have non-pastors lead their small groups (which I personally recommend if you have the horses).

A lot of small groups nowadays designate their small group leaders as “shepherds.” I think this is a big mistake for a number of reasons, not least because, biblically speaking, they’re not shepherds. Ephesians 4:11-12 tells us that Christ gives pastors to His church for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry. These pastors, according to 1 Tim. 3, Titus 1, and 1 Pet. 5 have unique qualifications and roles within the body of Christ. Small group leaders ought to be mature individuals who can organize and lead a small group time effectively, but they should not be viewed as those having official pastoral responsibility over those within the small group.

Because of the intimacy that small groups typically engender, it is possible for one to think that his or her small group leader is the best person to go to with a serious pastoral concern. However, it’s best if the distinction between a small group leader and a pastor remains intact. There are certain shepherding gifts and responsibilities that are unique to a church’s eldership. A good small group ministry should reinforce this idea, and not confuse the issue by treating small group leaders like pastors.

Check back in tomorrow as I share 4 dos when it comes to small group ministry…

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