Small groups- what’s next?

Like most people my age and older, I grew up going to Sunday school. It was all I knew. Then when I got to middle school and my dad began talking to me about starting a church, I started hearing about these things called “small groups”. Once we launched the church, my experience with Sunday school ended, and I haven’t been to a Sunday school class since.

I hear from all kinds of adults that small groups are a much better model for life-change. “Life-change happens in the context of community” everybody says. Churches with small groups are generally much cooler than churches with Sunday school. If I heard that a church had Sunday school, I would probably assume that their music wasn’t very good either.

But if I’m honest, my experience with small groups hasn’t been any better than my experience in Sunday school. I’m not discounting what you’ve seen God do in your life or in the lives of others because of small groups, I’m just saying I’ve never had that experience.

What’s worked for me is having older, wiser people speak into my life. My dad, Michael Bayne, Ben Reed. I’ve also experienced growth from being on a floor full of godly guys as we all mature together. I think that’s the goal of small groups, but the small group environment just never did that for me.

Here’s my hunch: there’s something coming that will replace small groups. It will be more intentional and relational. It will have more rigorous study of Scripture. It will be more effective. I don’t know what it is yet, but I think it’s coming. In the meantime, I think we need to accept the fact that not everybody benefits from small groups, or even likes them. This is not meant to be a slap in the face to small groups or small group pastors/leaders, it’s just my opinion.

For a cool article about a church experimenting with this, here’s a link: http://tinyurl.com/3rbnfs7

Thoughts? What has your experience with small groups been?

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5 comments

  1. Interesting…I’m in a rotation of four teachers to teach a class if single adults. I’ve been in several small groups. In neither situation do I see the full intimacy I think we all bed. The small group was slightly better, say a 2 rather than a 1 from 1 to 10. I do have a small circle of friends that are fairly close, probably a 5 on the scale.

    But I do better in smaller, intimate settings. Some need larger groups to thrive. I don’t think there is any one answer, but I’m not sure most churches are ready to support that there might be more than one way to do things. Certainly not Baptist churches (generally speaking, of course).

    How about this: it’s not programs we need, it’s people who will stand with us and support us, and that we can support in turn.

    1. Jack, thanks for commenting. I do better in smaller settings as well. I think we need to be open to many different forms of community, as you suggest. I agree that it’s not programs we need to an extent, although I think programs often get over-criticized. It’s true that relationships are key, but the program is simply a facilitator of the relationship. A program is really just an organized way of accomplishing something. So, I think we just need to be open to changing our programs rather than abolishing them.

  2. Interesting thoughts, Nate. Thank you for sharing. I’ve had some really enriching experiences in small groups — but the majority of growth, for me, has happened and continues to happen in one on one relationships. The buzzword I’ve been hearing lately is discipleship: biblical understanding passed from one person to the next that takes place within an intimate, intentional relationship. Perhaps this fits the description you set forth of what might come next.

    I think one reason our generation values these relationships is because the ‘message’ being ‘taught’ is backed up or authenticated with a relational investment from both sides, something that is less and less common in our culture. Our generation desperately just wants to know they are cared for. This often is best communicated in one on one relationships (Side note — someone told me today that this incoming class had the highest number of pre-counseling majors Moody has ever seen; if this is true, it might reflect the shift).

    But there’s also the buzzword of community, I definitely see a shift toward a larger community for people to belong to. The family is less and less connected and intact so individuals rely more on the church to fill those relational and emotional needs, whether its a mid-sized community, small groups, or one on one relationships — the common theme of what really impacts people seems to be authenticity and intentionality. I agree with Jack’s statement that sort of sums it up: “it’s people who will stand with us and support us, and that we can support in turn.”

    1. Thanks for commenting! I think your definition of discipleship is a good one, and I definitely agree that our culture values authenticity. From my perspective, the question is how churches approach these concepts. I don’t know any church that would say they aren’t interested in discipleship, but statistics and history prove that lots of churches aren’t doing discipleship. Why do teenagers who grew up in church stop following (which is really what discipleship is all about) Jesus when they get out of the house? It could be because they have hardened hearts and aren’t “really” saved, or it could be because the church wasn’t effectively doing discipleship.

      What’s interesting to me is that we’ve taken the idea of discipleship and turned it into community. Community groups are often described as “doing life with other people”. They’re supposed to be the best context for discipleship because life happens “in community”, but I don’t necessarily think the two ideas are synonymous. I can be in community with someone I’m not growing with, and I can grow from my relationship with Andy Stanley on itunes. I feel like mixing the two can sometimes actually hurt both. If I’m at somebody’s house hanging out, opening up the Bible is an interruption to our friendship (community), and the fact that I’m squeezing the Bible study into a hang out session takes away from the legitimacy of the Bible study.

      Anyway, all that to say, I think the way the church approaches discipleship should not be restricted to community. It’s obviously very important to be surrounded by people who can encourage you and strengthen you, but I think that’s just one facet of discipleship… it’s not the means of discipleship.

      This was cool to verbalize. Thanks!

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