My husband and I recently committed what some consider an act of apostasy – we quit our small group. We aren’t holding a grudge against anyone, we aren’t leaving the church, and we aren’t cutting ourselves off from Christian fellowship (as a friend from another church was accused of when quitting her small group). In fact, we are making more efforts at fellowship, inviting others to join us for informal get-togethers so we can develop some genuinely close friendships.
Briefly put, we quit our small group because we didn’t believe it was the best use of our time. We believe in the goals of small groups – developing close relationships so that we can pray for each other and encourage each other to grow more Christlike – but we don’t believe in their methods. Over fifteen years, I have been part of almost a dozen small groups sponsored by three different churches; my husband has joined me in most of them. Never once have I developed a close friendship through one of these groups.
In fact, the very nature of small groups seems to have the opposite effect on most people I know: We learn to keep our true thoughts, emotions, and struggles to ourselves. In one instance, my husband and I were stunned to learn that a couple from our small group was getting divorced. We had prayed with them weekly for a year or more and never once had an inkling that their marriage was in trouble. If that small group had produced true fellowship, we would have been praying for them in a way that might have healed the marriage and prevented the divorce.
I know that some small groups function as they should – at least I hear rumors that some do – but those groups seem to be as rare as a bodily resurrection. In my experience, going to small group means hauling our family to someone’s home, making small talk for a few minutes, and then starting on “the book.” I love to read, but I invariably hate “the book.” No matter what its topic, the small group book is filled with questions that read something like this: “Read John 11:35. What does Jesus do in this verse?” Then everyone waits for someone to state the obvious. Any attempt to generate a deeper discussion on the topic ends quickly when the group leader, who is well trained in the principles of keeping a group on track, says, “Let’s get back to the book.” (Incidentally, the group guidelines in one book we studied insisted that the leader should never say that someone’s answer is wrong but should instead ask someone else for a different answer. So truth is presented as an equal – just different – answer from falsehood, and the Bible is left open for anyone to interpret however he or she would like.)
Following the time in “the book” (small b), the typical small group continues to prayer time. Group members request prayer for sick family members, job hunts, and other real but non-controversial needs. When someone feels comfortable enough to request prayer to overcome an unpopular sin (pride and selfishness are “ok” sins to confess; adultery, assault, and drug use are not), the others tend to respond with blank stares or trite advice. Those who pray are sure to mention all the requests, but the prayers usually lack a sense of expectation that God will really answer them.
We then pick up our kids from another room, pay the babysitters, and go home.
When and where during that time did we really connect with each other? I’m not sure, but I no longer hope for fellowship to take place during small-group Bible studies. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way, but most attempts I have made to question whether small groups are effective have been met with resistance to change (and a suggestion that maybe “a different book” would change the way I feel). Small groups have become as much a part of church as the sermon and the offering, and not wanting to participate in a small group is seen as equivalent to not wanting to be a part of the body of Christ. In fact, several of the people I know who seem to agree with my assessment of small groups have eventually changed churches. They still believe in Christ, but they didn’t feel like part of His family even after joining a small group.
I still haven’t found any Scripture that mandates small-group Bible discussions like those most contemporary churches encourage everyone to join. The Bible tells us we should not give up meeting together, but not that we cannot choose informal fellowship over formal small-group meetings. (I’m not talking about forgoing corporate worship like that of Sunday morning services, simply those extra meetings intended to help church members get to know each other better.) We are told to confess our sins to each other, to restore each other, to love each other, to encourage each other, and to serve together as the body of Christ. I have rarely – if ever – seen these things happen in a small group. And if that kind of fellowship isn’t taking place regularly, why do we keep trying the same methods and hoping for different results? It seems to me it’s time for a new approach.