Do Small Groups Grow the Church? And Should They?

I have a friend who spent time in active service in the British Army. He is really stimulating to talk to about leadership. It turns out that the armed forces know a thing or two about strategy and getting things done!

One time he was telling me about the difference in military life between being out in the field on mission and back in barracks. The one is high intensity, full of strategic decisions, minute by minute trying to take ground from the enemy. The other is structured rest designed to help the troops be refreshed and battle-ready for the mission when it comes. I think there is probably one other main component which is training. Interestingly the same person doesn’t oversee all three. The best leader for mission is unlikely to be the best at supervising care of the troops in barracks.

That got me thinking. I don’t believe that churches should be like the military and I don’t think that you can get your definition of Christian leadership by just looking at what works in other spheres. I’ve written plenty about that mistake. But here are some questions that conversation got me asking:

  • Do people in your church think of it as a place for mission, barracks or training?
  • Do they think some parts of church life do each of the above?
  • Which do they think small groups do?
  • Should everyone in the church be equally active in each of the areas?
  • Does the church think that one leader should be equally good at running and developing all three? (Because the army doesn’t!)

Many growing churches I know have small group ministries which after a while stop growing and developing new disciples but still require maintaining. I wonder if that is because people have started thinking of them exclusively as a barracks-type experience instead of a mission or training one? Is there necessarily anything wrong with that? I think there is. Following Jesus and being one of his disciples necessarily involves being involved in what he is doing, participating in some way with all the other believers in his church in fulfilling the Great Commission.

If we treat small groups (or indeed church as a whole) exclusively as a barrack experience of rest and define THAT as the primary understanding of growing as a disciple then they can easily become a holy-looking substitute for actually getting out on the mission. Imagine if the British Army all of a sudden decided that they didn’t want to go on the field anymore because the barracks are nicer, all their friends are there and it is so much safer. They would be right! But it would destroy the point of having the army.

Should small groups be mission groups then? Or training groups? It has to be worth asking the question. The one thing I don’t buy is the idea that just getting together to study the Bible with other Christians is either mission or training. It can be - if it is all applied, prayed in and lived out together. But it can also be a mere comprehension exercise. Ask yourself which function the small groups in your church fulfills. There might be a variety of answers.

Another friend of mine pointed out to me that there is nothing wrong with a barracks experience of rest as long as that isn’t confused with training and mission. Having a group in the church that you belong to that provides just a friendship experience isn’t a bad thing as long as that’s not all you are participating in. In his church they encourage everyone to get involved in one friendship-oriented group and one discipleship- and disciple-making-oriented one. And not to confuse the two.

Confusing the two is one of the reasons churches grind to a halt. All of a sudden the point of church is to serve me and meet my needs. I no longer see it as a disciple-making body that trains me. I become a net receiver not a net contributor. If you were to ask “what role do you have in furthering Jesus’ Great Cause with this church?” or “how are you growing as a disciple, serving Jesus?” I wouldn’t know how to answer. Ask me whether God is using my small group to change me, train me, empower me, use me in his service and multiply me and I am likely to avoid your gaze and back away slowly.

Churches can assume that just having small groups of some kind is itself a strategy for growth. It isn’t. If it is a strategy for barracks that needn’t be bad as long as it is recognised as such and doesn’t take over from the mission of making more disciples. Small groups don’t have to be about church growth. But get the definition of them wrong and they can certainly prevent a church growing by being so comfortable that people forget what we are really here for.