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What’s with this “small group” stuff anyway?

Posted by on Dec 2, 2010 in definition | 32 comments

What’s with this “small group” stuff anyway?

So, I’m reading a book right now about “small groups.” The book is about leading your “small group” to be a certain type of “small group.” (By the way, I like alot of things about this book, and I’m sure that I’ll write more about it soon.)

In order to back up their claims, the authors use Scripture, of course. But, I’ve noticed that the Scripture that they use typically refers to the church. The NT writers were describing the church, and these authors have taken the Scriptures and applied them to “small groups.”

Here’s the thing, in the book, the authors are clear that they are describing “small groups” which are part of the church but are not the church in and of themselves.

The “small groups” that the authors describe meet together, pray together, study Scripture together, serve others together, proclaim the gospel together, fellowship together, etc. But, according to the authors, the “small groups” are not the church.

So, why not? What is it that makes “small groups” into “small groups” but not the church? What do “small groups” lack that keep them from being the church?

Is there anything in Scripture that differentiates between a “small group” of Christians and a church?


32 Comments

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  1. 12-2-2010

    Alan,

    I personally don’t see a difference. It’s 6in one hand and a half dozen in the other to me. But perhaps one thing that may be different has to do with committment. From what I have seen “small groups” tend to have time limits. They meet for 4, 6 or 8 weeks–the allotted time for the “program” then they disolve and there is no meeting together until the next round of small groups. Just my two cents, worth about a penny :-)

    -Chris

  2. 12-2-2010

    Chris,

    It’s true that some “small groups” only meet for a limited time. But, in this book, that’s not the kind of “small groups” that the authors are talking about.

    -Alan

  3. 12-2-2010

    My wife and were in a very good small group with other ‘like-minded’ adults as part of one church. Then, the ministry leader stuck us in a different group that tried to be good, but ended a disaster. Now we are in a different church in better group, but limited in size. I can understand the importance of the right kind of small groups. Just don’t mix singles with marrieds!

  4. 12-2-2010

    I love small groups. I think they are the best part of institutional church. I agree in many ways they should be viewed as church.

    But maybe they shouldn’t be viewed as ‘a church’ either. If you have 10 small group churches, are there 10 churches? I believe there is only one church. Small groups is one place some from the church gather. Big Sunday morning services is another gathering of some of the church. There are no competing churches… just one church. Each individual gathering is not a club that people become members of, its simply the assembling of the church…. hmmm where did I get that line from. :)

  5. 12-2-2010

    Alan,

    I’ve definitely experienced this artificial distinction, but I’ve never heard a good explanation as to how all this comes from the bible. There’s simply a presumtion. I’ve also heard it said that small group participation was critical for believers because “that’s where most of the ‘one-anothers’ of the NT take place.” I’ve also heard a number of pastors say they’ve been told by people that they view their small groups as church, even more important than the worship service, but the pastors teach against that, saying that the “worship service” is the number one priority for NT believers.

  6. 12-2-2010

    Hawk Eye,

    How’s Honeycutt doing? :)

    Were the “small groups” that you were part of considered a church? Why or why not?

    By the way, as a married couple with children, we’ve had a great time with some single brothers and sisters.

    Jon,

    It gets confusing, doesn’t it? Unless, like Paul, we accept that “there is one church”… and whenever we gather with other believers, we are part of it.

    Steve,

    I read a book on ecclesiology that discussed how “small groups” carry out all the functions of the church (as defined by the author himself), but the “small groups” were not the church.

    -Alan

  7. 12-2-2010

    I don’t see a difference between small groups of believers and the biblical definition of the church. In fact small groups usually match the description of the church gatherings in the NT more so than the Sunday morning worship service.

  8. 12-3-2010

    Alan,

    According to Luke, over 3,000 individuals accepted Peter’s message and were baptized following Pentecost. Among other things, this young church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Luke 2:42).” Interestingly, the followers of Christ met in the temple courts, but also in individual homes (2:46). According to your description of the concept of small groups in the book you are reading, the author(s) seems to describe the activities of small groups much like Luke describes the activities of the early Christian community in Jerusalem. From what you can determine, was there one large church in Jerusalem, or were there several smaller churches meeting in separate locations/homes? If one church is in view, could we make the case that the gathering of believers in homes was similar in some ways to the modern concept of “small groups?” On the other hand, if we conclude that there were a number of smaller house churches, how might we account for the fact that the believers “were together and had everything in common (2:44)” and that the text seems to address the activities of the entire population rather than the activities of individual churches?

    Ben Laird

  9. 12-3-2010

    Would there have been a few out-of-town guests in Jerusalem at Pentecost that were part of the 3,000? Did they return home or stay in the “entire population”? If they returned home and were together and had everything in common with the believers there…

    Another tact is to say the book of Acts is a transitional time for the church and none of it applies as valid doctrine or practice for us today. Then you don’t have to resolve anything – you can just ignore it.

  10. 12-3-2010

    Bobby,

    I don’t see a difference either.

    Ben,

    I agree that the believers were the church when they met in the temple. Were they the church when they met in their homes? If not, what were they?

    Eric,

    I think many returned to their homes as well. Discounting Acts would be a mistake, in my opinion.

    -Alan

  11. 12-3-2010

    Ben,

    I believe that the church was the church when it met at the temple as well as when it met in the home. Many times people compare the temple to our sunday morning large gathering and the small group to the home gatherings. However I don’t believe this really is a proper comparison. The temple courts were an open air public gathering place for jewish worshipers. The reason for Christians gathering there daily may have been more for evangelistic reasons and/or just a natural central location. If pentecost had occured in Washington D. C. the saints would had probably met at the mall at the steps of the capitol building. Here they shared there new found faith with their jewish brothers and sisters. While their meetings in homes was encouraging one another. Although I don’t think they planned this. It just happened naturally.

    I think they saw themselves as one city wide church but they probably seldom gathered as the whole church. The gatherings in homes may not have always been the same people. People may have went to different homes at different times and fellowshipped with different people.
    Things were probably going on in the temple courts continously also and they would pop in there as time allowed.

  12. 12-4-2010

    Small groups are definitely NOT churches. That’s the problem today. We have so many small groups of 70 or 100 people calling themselves a church. Just a bunch of people sitting around in a little building. Like an intimate club.

    I’m not sure at what size you can call it a church. I used to think 450 was a good number. But today, it might be 2,000.

    Maybe campus size is a better measure…10 acres minimimum?

    Or, pastoral staff. Have at least one for each specialty: Pastor of Worship, Pastor of Mission, Pastor of Small Groups, Pastor of Family and Outreach, etc, plus a solid Senior Pastor.

    Maybe if we want to use a more spiritual measure, we could use budget. Real disciples give 10 percent, so budget size of $1M might be a good measure.

  13. 12-4-2010

    Alan,

    I think we have to be careful about putting the kingdom of God in a box, or narrowly defining the Body of Christ. The church is simply God’s people, those called out from the world to live a distinctive lifestyle in pursuit of Christ. Thus, I am part of the church, as I sit here in my office, alone, and type this comment. I think the people of God are the people of God no matter where we are, and thus the church is the church no matter where it (or we) are, as WE ARE IT!! I think a better way to understand this question is to see that there are multiple EXPRESSIONS of the body. The body can meet in small groups or the body can meet in large assemblies. The body can meet at regularly scheduled times and places, or impromptu at any time. There really is no limit to the expression of the true church, except that which man may try to impose. I think the last thing that MUST be understood is that the church is global and borderless. Distinctions between churches is really false, and distinctions were made in the NT mostly based on geography (the church at Corinth, the church in Rome, etc.). These distinctions were not intended to set borders on the church.

    I like Art’s tongue in cheek response! It took me a second to get it.

    Mark

  14. 12-4-2010

    Rod,

    I agree.

    Art,

    You know I love sarcasm…

    Mark,

    Yes… WE ARE IT. Best definition ever.

    -Alan

  15. 12-18-2010

    Alan,

    Sorry to comment on this post so late. I have been behind on my blog reading lately, and just got around to reading some of your back posts.

    I am wondering, do you see a difference, in NT terminology, between “the Church” and “a church”? I know you have stated before you think the distinction between “universal” and “local” is artificial.

    I believe that local congregations are an expression of “the Church.” I also believe that, at least in certain aspects, what are commonly called “parachurch groups” are also an expression of “the Church.”

    But, I think that underlying the question you ask here on this post is, what is the difference between “a church” and a “parachurch group”? I am interested to know how you would answer this question.

  16. 12-19-2010

    David,

    I believe that any time God’s children get together, he sees it as church. I mean, that’s the very definition of the word: “assembly.” To me, the human distinctions (that is, the distinctions that we have made between different types of assemblies) allows us to skip the obvious question: for what reason should we get together with other believers (any time we get together)? I think Scripture answers this questions for us several times.

    -Alan

  17. 12-19-2010

    Alan,

    Right now, I am sitting in my recliner, reading e-mails, etc. My wife is in the same room, on the couch, watching TV. We are both believers. Are we, according to your understanding, assembled as “church”? Why or why not?

    Also, from your answer, it appears you make no distinction between “a church” and “a parachurch group.” Am I understanding you correctly here?

  18. 12-19-2010

    David,

    Yes. The two of your are a gathering of God’s children and should serve one another and speak to one another in ways that help each other grow in maturity in Christ.

    I do not find a scriptural difference between what is traditionally called “a church” and “a parachurch group.”

    -Alan

  19. 12-19-2010

    Alan,

    Thanks. That makes perfectly clear what you are saying. I will have to chew on that for a while.

  20. 5-25-2011

    Alan- what about the small groups not having the Lord’s Supper together because there’s not an official “elder” present – and not observing baptism alone, but with the larger body.

    Why don’t they?

    Did the book that you read mention these 2 ordinances of the church?

    Leah

  21. 5-25-2011

    Leah,

    The purpose of the book was to discuss small groups, not the church. But, it raised this question in my mind.

    As to the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, I know that some churches require elders/pastors to carry out these activities, but I can’t find that requirement in Scripture.

    -Alan

  22. 7-4-2011

    Small group communities probably represent a more accurate picture of what the Church was supposed to look like.

  23. 7-4-2011

    It’s not possible to practice the “one anothers” apart from a small group-type structure so most “churches” are unable to obey the one anothers. Also, it’s more difficult to practice church discipline ala Matthew 18 in a traditional “church” structure and easier in a “small group” structure. Maybe a related question should be, how much is our “church” like church?

  24. 11-29-2011

    The best explanation I’ve heard is the one proposed by cell church author William A. Beckham in The Second Reformation: Reshaping the Church for the 21st Century. He suggests that the church has “two wings” and needs both wings to fly – otherwise it goes around in circles. One wing is the network of cells, and the other wing is the large group gathered for temple style worship.

    I’ve appropriated this idea in what I call “right handed” evangelism (traditional understandings) and “left handed” evangelism (networking through small groups operating like families).

    While it’s been around for a while, a lot of this book is very relevant.

    http://www.amazon.com/Second-Reformation-Reshaping-Church-Century/dp/1880828901/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1322612544&sr=8-1

  25. 11-29-2011

    I once asked a (former) pastor this very thing. His response? There’s no ordained authority overseeing things in a “small group”, so because of that it doesn’t qualify as “the church”.

  26. 11-29-2011

    The only thing the large group meetings have that small group meetings don’t is the show — a band, mood lighting, stuff like that. Everything else is available and probably better in a small group. Think about it. If you want great teaching, take your pick from Francis Chan, John Piper whoever on video. In fact, I’ve never heard a sermon in church that moved me any more or taught me more than a good discussion with friends over the Word. In a small group/simple church there is discussion and about topics that are important to or interest the participants. There is no discussion at “church”, just someone telling you what he thinks you need to hear. It’s even easier to have better coffee in a small group/simple church setting. Plus, you’re allowed to drink it during the “service.”

  27. 12-3-2011

    We underestimate how hard it is to leave Babylon for some people, especially if they don’t know they’re living there….

  28. 4-13-2012

    A church has presbyters (or elders) and a bishop.

    Small groups tend to lack a connective, communal accountability/authority structure. (They often have an authority figure, but if they are functioning as mini-churches, they probably lack accountability.)

  29. 4-13-2012

    People in a small group are accountable to one another. A church hierarchy is not accountable to anyone but itself, especially not to the people it claims to serve. Heresy and doctrinal error are more likely in a top-down organization — no matter its size — than in a group where friends share life together and study God’s Word together with the intent of obeying it. “Wherever two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.” That sounds like a church/gathering.

  30. 9-4-2012

    Hi Alan
    The answers I read here seem to be mostly based upon human experience and its related understanding of scripture, but God birthed the church, not to mention the Kingdom, and it seemed then and now to be somewhat of a mystery. I read in Rev 1 that a church is identified as being legitimate by the presence of a lamp, or upon God removing said lamp for refusing to repent, they therefore are apostate presumably.
    Surely John and his generation must have not thought it strange to have the presence of Christ among them symbolized by a lamp, and obviously not a literal lamp. Surely they didn’t qualify their status as a church by size, doctrine, focus, membership or any of the criteria we use?
    If so, should we not expect to see some or all of them in scripture?
    So, my guess is that there is no distinction between church or other group, assuming Jesus is comfortable dwelling in and among them.
    And that, it seems to me is, if not the only criteria, at least the chief one that we should use to discuss the subject.
    If anyone has been part of a (genuine) church where hardened hearts drive the presence of God away, they will know that what they call themselves, how they meet or who is or is not in leadership is irrelevant.
    blessings
    Greg

  31. 9-5-2012

    The thing lacking from most small groups, as practiced in traditional churches, is missionality. Most small groups are about information transfer and connecting with others, which in its worst form creates a clique or nothing more than a support group. I like Neil Cole’s DNA model — divine truth, nurturing relationships and apostolic mission. Most small groups have to some agree the D and N but not the A.

  32. 4-2-2013

    Mat 18:20 “Where two or three have come together in my name, I am there among them.”

    The importance is in the spirit not the number.