small groups

Does Small Group Work?

In Christian RealTalk by Antwuan Malone

Small Group: The (not-so) New Bible Study?

They say only about 12 people can really enjoy meaningful community together in an effective way. Welcome to Small Group.

If you haven’t noticed, church is getting smaller. Small Group has become an integral part of the American Church landscape. We’ve taken our cue from Jesus and his selecting of  twelve disciples to “live with” as He went about his ministry. It’s a worthy model. Those twelve went on to change the world.

But personally, I think the way we’ve done Small Group creates an interesting conundrum for the developing Christian. I wonder if small group (or LifeGroups, or whatever) is designed to promote spiritual growth through studying the Bible or by creating a forum permitting  us to publicly struggle with the way God’s Word and our lives intersect. In other words, are small groups just glorified Sunday School classes, or are they more like support groups where we all share our failings and seek guidance and help from each other?

I’d say the former is the easiest, and most common version of small groups. In the name of being “biblically-based,” most groups start and end with some form of Bible study which may or may not have people there who know what they are talking about. Of course, the other extreme is the overly social group that downplays any sort of spirituality in the name of ‘being friends.’

So which is it? Should small group nurture our spiritual selves through Bible study, or through personal relationships?

If through Bible study, then I think that creates a scary proposition. Frankly, even Jesus had a hard time getting his twelve to understand what He was talking about. On countless occasions the disciples reveal how out of step they are with Jesus’ teachings, which is  amazing when you consider they lived with Him pretty much 24/7. If those are Jesus’ results, then what do we really think we will accomplish with our 2.5 hours a week?

Bible Study, Social Club, or Both

Listen, I’m not discouraging the idea of small group. I just want to know what we intend it to accomplish with it. What do we want our 2.5 hours a week to really be about?

We currently attempt to create relational intimacy and biblical teaching, which is a worthy, if not lofty, goal. But often, the experience is out of balance. Most people need both in significant measure. Piece-mealing these two ideas in compartmental increments only makes us more thirsty for the real thing. Giving a thirsty man a drop of water will only make him more thirsty!

The next generation (and even the generation before) really wants to talk candidly about the problems they have in life, and the questions and doubts they have about the Bible and Christianity. They both want to explore the realities and challenges of the Christian life through relationships and social interaction, and to explore the details and intricacies of God’s Word.

Is small group the sole answer to these desires? Maybe not in its current form.

Some churches have totally released extra-Sunday-Morning-service spiritual development to the function of small groups. In those churches, Sunday Schools and Bible studies are nowhere to be found.  I’m aware of the historically low attendance to traditional Bible Study and Sunday school. In that sense, at least Small Group gets people in the room with a Bible in their hand a second time of the week. I get that.

But I wonder if a concentrated Bible study is not worth re-igniting. Can’t we do both Bible Study and LifeGroup? Are the 20, in the typical 80/20 argument (where only 20% of the church actually come to Bible Study and Sunday School) still worth it? Can we get creative about how to make Bible Study more accessible, with all of our social media, video, audio and other such resources?

I say we can. I think true Bible study deserves  separate time with a qualified teacher. I think considering the two together creates an interesting opportunity to get creative about spreading the gospel. Doing so might free LifeGroups to take on a more relational role. I think LifeGroup, and “living with each other” reaches beyond the Bible Study aspect. Beyond, even, the periodic service opportunities. Small group has the potential to really allow for the grey area of struggle and doubt to surface and be collectively dealt with by Christian friends and family.  Papa said, “Do one thing, and do it well.” I have not yet taken this advice in my own life (but I’m working on it), but it’s a good idea to frame the idea of Small Group around.

So tell me your small group/lifegroup stories. The trials and the triumphs. Do you feel a church should have both Bible Study and Small Groups?  Why?

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Antwuan Malone is a Ministry Director at ELEVATE Young Adult Ministry (elevateministry.net) where empowers young adults toward Christian leadership. He is passionate about seeing young adults take their place in church history by drawing near enough to God to hear his call on their life, and courageously living in obedience to that call.