As Senior Pastors, one of the most important questions we need to ask ourselves on a regular basis is, “Are we actually making disciples?”
We must evaluate everything we do with that question in mind. No program or initiative can be kept if it does fulfill the objective of making more and better disciples. Asking this question, and taking action, can be quite painful. But it’s absolutely necessary. Churches are littered with programs that have long outlived their shelf lives.
Five years ago I decided to air – in a fun, give and take series of blog posts with my Small Group’s Pastor – some of the reservations I had about the impact small groups actually have on our mission. The feedback was swift and fierce. I obviously had touched a nerve.
I thought a broader audience might value the conversation, so I published the lead article in that series in the Christian Standard magazine in an article entitled, “Why Churches Should Euthanize Small Groups.” Like the blog response, the comments on the article were quite direct. If you Google “small groups” the article appears on the first page.
Since transitioning all my ministry-related writing off of BrianJones.com (so I can focus there on questions about living out our faith) to Senior Pastor Central (where I can focus on specific ministry related questions), many have asked when I was going to reprint the original articles on this site.
I have decided to republish two of the original articles, but I also added a much-needed new article at the end to summarize what I’ve come to believe about small groups in the last five years.
I hope this spurs reflection among you and your team.
Why Churches Should Euthanize Small Groups
By Brian Jones
A few years ago I brought in a nationally recognized pastor to do some consulting for our church. One of the things I remember most about my time with him was a side conversation we had about small groups.
“I haven’t really figured out the small group thing,” I confessed to him.
“Well, Brian, that’s because they don’t work. Small groups are things that trick us into believing we’re serious about making disciples. The problem is 90 percent of small groups never produce one single disciple. Ever. They help Christians make shallow friendships, for sure. They’re great at helping Christians feel a tenuous connection to their local church, and they do a bang-up job of teaching Christians how to act like other Christians in the Evangelical Christian subculture. But when it comes to creating the kind of holistic disciples Jesus envisioned, the jury’s decision came back a long time ago—small groups just aren’t working.”
“Finally,” I said, “I’ve met someone who’s got the guts to euthanize this small group sacred cow.”
I have been leading, participating in, championing, and applauding the efforts of small groups for the last 20 years of my ministry.
But now I’m done. In my opinion, they just don’t work. Let me share why.
A Flawed Starting Point
Church-initiated “small groups” begin from a flawed starting point.
For reasons that still escape me, soon after becoming a Christian at age 18, Deron Brickey, Dave Polonia, Jeff Snyder, and I started hanging out with one another.
Soon that group grew to 10 to 12 friends. We laughed together, prayed together, studied the Bible together, ate together, evangelized together, and served the poor together. Even though we had no leader, no real set meeting time, no agenda, and no plan or focus, it was through these friends that I made incredible strides toward becoming a holistic disciple of Jesus.
And it all happened by accident.
In fact, looking back on my 25 years of following Christ, here’s what I’ve noticed: Every small group I’ve ever been in that helped me grow as a disciple started by what appeared to be an accident.
I wasn’t looking for it. I wasn’t interested in joining a small group in the least. And in many respects, I didn’t even feel a need to grow spiritually.
Most of all, I wasn’t participating in some superficial churchwide small group sign-up initiative the Senior Pastor dreamed up to jack up small group attendance because he heard church analysts say you should always maintain a certain ratio of worship attendees to small group participants.
It just happened, naturally and spontaneously.
Those experiences couldn’t have been planned, even if I tried. And for the most part, that’s exactly how it’s been happening in the Christian community for, say, I don’t know, the last 1,960 years. That is until we westerners, particularly Americans, started messing it up.
Well-intentioned Christians, armed with the latest insights in organizational theory, let their pragmatic and utilitarian hearts delude them into thinking they could organize, measure, and control the mystical working of the Holy Spirit in community in order to consistently reproduce disciples in other contexts.
Then these people started writing books and hosting seminars. And then church leaders like you and me bought into what they were saying because we didn’t recognize that the same faulty worldview that produced a mechanized approach to Christian community fostered a ready-made market in our hearts to consume their quick-fix solutions.
So we came home, armed with our “101 Sure-Fire Discussion Starter” books and binders full of slick recruitment techniques, and started small group ministries at our churches.
We preached powerful sermons. We cast vision. We contorted Acts 2 into saying what we needed it to say. We blathered on and on about all the “one anothers” in the Bible and about how, if we met one time a week for 1.5 hours and followed a well-conceived discussion regime, we could experience Acts 2 in all of its splendor and glory.
And what happened? You know what happened. They failed. Like big-time.
And meanwhile, while our people were constrained by their obligation to the church and their sense of loyalty to us as leaders, their hearts searched for real community and an opportunity to grow as disciples.
What would happen if we euthanized all of our small groups, taught the value of discipleship and community, and then simply let the Holy Spirit do his work?
When I attended my very first church growth conference in 1992, a nationally known small group “expert” stood up and said, “The way we say it at our church is, ‘If you can read, you can lead.’ If a Christian can read the questions in our study guide, he can lead a small group at our church.”
That’s easy, I thought. Too easy, in fact. And ridiculous.
“If you can read, you can lead” is a great slogan for people who organize a rugby team from your church, or your knitting circle, or the Saturday morning llama-riding group. But not for someone recognized by the community of faith as a mentor of new disciples.
The Achilles’ heel of the modern-day small group movement is simple: Small groups don’t create disciples; disciples create disciples. And modern-day small groups are led, for the most part, by people who have attended the church, had a conversion experience, led a reasonably moral life, and can read the study-guide questions, but are not disciples themselves.
American churches have lowered the bar of small group leadership to an absurd level. In fact, it’s so ridiculous most churches would be better off not even having small groups than to offer them with leaders who aren’t disciples.
The common argument against small groups is flawed. The problem with small groups isn’t that they pool the group’s collective ignorance; it’s that they pool the group’s collective disobedience. And it’s not the small group leader’s fault.
It’s the fault of the people who installed the leader and convinced him he could lead their group to a place where they themselves have not gone.
Jesus in Your Group?
Would Jesus join a small group in your church?
Think about that for a moment. Forget about your goals. Forget about your motivations for offering them. Forget about all the supposed benefits of participating in one. Do you honestly think Jesus would join, lead, or start a small group within the existing structure of your small group’s ministry at your church?
Of course not. Not a chance. Not in a million years.
Because while your people are stuck in the “hairball” of your church’s ministry (to steal Gordon MacKenzie’s great line), Jesus would be out rubbing shoulders with people in your community, helping them find their way back to God, and teaching them to obey his teachings.
Jesus would actually be doing what small groups say they want/should/need to be doing, but they can’t, because they’re too busy being a “small group” inside the confines of your small group’s ministry infrastructure.
It’s like a jogging class where the instructor, instead of taking his class jogging and commenting on technique while class members actually are jogging, stuffs everyone into a classroom and lectures to them three days a week and then gives them a final exam.
Disciples are created “out there.” Small groups, if not by their definition, definitely by their practice, all occur “in here.”
With few exceptions, modern-day small groups are great at producing:
• Christians who sit in circles and talk to one another inside a building
• people who read and comment on the Bible
• people who rant about how they long to “get out there” and do something that matters
• people who awkwardly end their time by praying for “prayer requests”
• people who go home unchallenged and unchanged.
You would think there’s a Small Groups Revised Version of the New Testament somewhere.
And I quote:
“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore stay where you are and make Christians of the people you already know, baptizing them in the name of American consumer Christianity, and teaching them to sit in rooms with one another, read the Bible, and pray for one another. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20, SGRV).
If the Small Groups Revised Version of Matthew 28:18-20 were the stated purpose, then most American small groups would be nailing it.
In my humble opinion, the Americanized small group is a remnant of an impotent religious institution that can’t transition effectively into a post-Christian, postmodern world.
Thank God small groups worked in some instances, and in some contexts!
But for every story of success about a small group creating an authentic disciple, my hunch is there are three times as many failures (and that just takes into account the 10 to 30 percent of church attendees who actually participate in them).
If we had time to waste, this wouldn’t be an urgent problem.
But we don’t.
Euthanize Small Groups? – A Balanced Response
I have been working with Brian at CCV for quite some time now, and it is a pleasure to work with someone that is so driven to reach the lost and make disciples. As our small groups champion I have seen both of these things happen in group life at our church. I am excited to interact with all of you on the topic and I hope we learn from each other.
Here’s my take:
Brian, every ministry model has it’s weaknesses. Small groups are no different. They have their weaknesses and I wont pretend to hide behind them, but there are five benefits to small groups that cannot be ignored:
1. Help the big feel small
It is no secret that there is one major fear people have in going to a large church: no one knows them! Small groups change that experience. Every Sunday my wife and I sit with a couple from our small group and I see over 100 others that do the same each week (and that’s just the people I know).
2. Pastoral care
Group ministry is the front line of pastoral care in the church. Group leaders and members are the first responders to crisis in a large congregation. There are many emergencies that occur in our church that I am the last to hear about because our small groups have jumped in and handled the situation before word of it even made it to me.
We have to stop thinking of small groups as “Bible Studies.” We have groups at CCV that facilitate relationships that result in evangelism and one of the groups you said in jest – “your knitting circle” – we’ve actually had! New people have been attending CCV as a direct result of the following affinity groups: softball, kids play group, volleyball, dog walking, tennis, scrap booking, etc.
4. High priority communication
Do you need to get the word out fast about something important in the church? Leverage the small group ministry network. On numerous occasions we have done this about an important change in the church or even aiding with communication for a capital campaign.
5. Volunteer network
I can’t count how many times we have utilized our small ministry to rally the troops to get a job done. Just this week I was in a staff meeting where we were discussing our Kids’ Camp this year and our prop person was happy that one of our small groups showed up to help out with building props last week. And remember we would not have been able to staff our kids program when we experimented with our Saturday night service if it weren’t for entire small groups volunteering to serve on Saturday nights together.
What About Discipleship?
In my opinion, the place where most churches and ministry leaders go wrong is they expect discipleship to happen through one program or ministry of the church. Instead, the best way to approach discipleship is through EVERY program and ministry of the church. A small group is just one environment (among many) that aids in discipleship.
If all our discipleship efforts are expected to happen in the small group environment we are fooling ourselves and you are 100% right. However, the group environment does provide opportunities for new relationships to form where discipleship can happen in and outside of the group.
In numerous experiences I have had, and observed, the small group was the vehicle for the relationship that resulted in a person’s discipleship process.
Are small groups flawed? Yes, but so are we.
Euthanize Small Groups? – Five Years Later
By Brian Jones
A lot has happened in the 5 years since I first had a blog dialogue with my former small groups pastor Frank Chiapperino about groups and discipleship.
- Frank has since moved on to become the Senior Pastor of Crossroads Christian Church in Largo, FL. As I knew he would, he’s doing an outstanding job leading that congregation in growth and maturity.
- I hired Terri Stone to champion our small groups after Frank’s departure. Terri is a gifted leader who came up from within CCV. She has emerged as a leader who has helped CCV’s groups flourish in number and depth.
- In the last five years some core convictions regarding the process of discipleship have been solidified.
5 Discipleship Convictions Solidified
1. It takes time to create a disciple.
Not in the commonly promoted annual “small group” life-cycle time frame, but years. 5 years. 10 years sometimes. Just about every person who likes small groups talks about a group where they grew to become a disciple, years ago. And that’s a key issue – discipleship takes YEARS. Where we miss the mark is in thinking, “It took Jesus 3 years to make disciples, so that’s a good bench mark.” Really?
2. 99.99999999% of the time it takes separating men and women.
I don’t know what it is, but I can lead a group of men to serious levels of intimacy and sharing, but sprinkle a little estrogen in the room and it’s right back to talking about football and work. Women tell me it’s the same way. Discipleship can occur with mixed groups, but it’s rare. Actually, I take that back. I have never seen an instance where guys open up and talk about their deep personal struggles to obey Jesus’ teachings with women in the room.
3. It takes a very, very small group.
Small group practitioners make the mistake of “modeling” their small group leader-to-attendee ratios on a flawed model – Jesus. Jesus had 12 disciples, not because that’s the ideal ratio for disciple-making, but because, as most scholars believe, he was making a statement about the apostles, the twelve tribes, and a new Israel. If you’re looking for a more realistic model, the inner circle of Peter, James and John is as good as any.
4. It takes a genuine disciple.
According to Matthew 28:18-20, discipleship is not about teaching people Jesus’ teachings, but teaching people how to obey Jesus’ teachings. In fact, that’s probably the simplest definition of a disciple I can give:
A disciple is someone who knows and obeys Jesus and his teachings.
Who cares if someone can lead a small group discussion on worry? People become disciples in the presence of someone who can teach them how to stop worrying, from experience, by the power of Jesus. The argument most people make against small groups is flawed. The problem with small groups isn’t that they pool the group’s collective ignorance; it’s that they pool the group’s collective disobedience.
5. “Group time” must be balanced with “out there” missional time.
If we know anything about Jesus it’s that (1) he spent time with his disciples alone and (2) they followed him into situations where they watched him heal, teach, rebuke, serve, and love. My experience confirms that an added dimension of growth occurs when those being discipled are encouraged to go “out into the wild” and “actually do what Jesus did.”
How CCV Connects Group Life To Discipleship
In the last five years here’s how we’ve connected our existing small group ministry to the purpose of discipleship.
- First we acknowledge (as Frank’s excellent “balanced response” article pointed out) that groups serve a whole host of amazing functions outside of discipleship. For that reason alone they have been worth further expanding.
- We have begun to view groups not so much the “end all” for facilitating discipleship, but the springboard for creating discipleship opportunities. Maybe it’s the East Coast, but because people are so transient and naturally cautious, I don’t know if discipleship would ever occur at CCV on a wide-scale basis if groups didn’t exist. To use an architectural analogy, groups are like the front porch where people can meet in a non-threatening way. Once connected, the Holy Spirit can lead people he has brought together to the family room for deeper conversation. And eventually to the back deck for quality one on one time “out there.”
- We have made the conscious decision to cast the vision for each group at CCV to balance “group time” with “out there doing ministry” missional time. To facilitate that we’ve created bi-annual community-wide “Servefests” where we as a church bring hope and healing to our region by going out and showing God’s love in practical ways. Our goal is to get each group at CCV to not only serve as a group, but continue serving as a group well after “Servefest” has ended. This approach has been wildly successful.
- Terri and our group leaders have done a great job synthesizing our convictions regarding discipleship and our existing small group structure by re-envisioning three progressive types of groups whereby someone is taken from being a casual attender to a fully devoted follower.
Connection Groups – focus on friendships, common interests, and social activities. The whole point of these is to get people connected. These are your basketball group nights, etc.
Growth Groups – focus on spiritual growth, Bible study, friendship, and service projects. These are what you would consider your typical small groups, but with an added, on-going missional service component.
Discipleship Groups – focus on accountability, overcoming sin and addiction, concentrated memorization of scripture, and replication. These can exist under the umbrella of a growth group, but that’s not a requirement by any stretch.
- Up to this point all we’ve had time to really implement are Connection Groups and Growth Groups. That obviously doesn’t mean Discipleship Groups aren’t present. They’re everywhere. It just means it’s going to take some time to get to the point where we can launch and replicate them with excellence. That’s going to be a priority for us going forward. Everyone needs the chance to be discipled, and to disciple others.
So that’s it. Not too earth-shattering. But that’s where we are.
First, I believe in people, not models. People disciple people, not groups, classes, events, retreats, etc. Skin on skin. Life on life. Tears on tears. And from our group leaders to Terri, I am so privileged to work alongside such a remarkably humble and passionate group of people.
Second, if there are any shortcomings in what we’re doing, look no further than yours truly. As any leader knows, if something’s not working, you’ll find the problem in the closest mirror.
Thanks for asking about this ongoing discussion.
Anything else to add?
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