If you’ve never been part of a church small group, or have been part of a group that was unhelpful, it might be difficult to appreciate their draw. Indeed, the case for small groups is often overstated, as in, “small groups are really where church happens.” To equate small groups with church is to miss Scripture’s emphasis on elder-led (1 Tim. 1:5) Word and sacrament (Rom. 10:14; 1 Cor. 11:17–34), and corporate worship practiced by a distinct congregation (Heb. 10:25).
Orlando Saer puts it well: “The basic ‘unit’ of the church is the church itself, not some subdivision of it.” Small groups are not the essence of the church.
But without something like a small group ministry, it can be difficult for Christians to reflect the biblical pattern of communal life. Again, Saer is helpful: “Small groups can be a very helpful means of achieving ends which certainly are demanded by the Bible of Christian churches.” The Bible does not demand “house churches.” But there is an undeniable beauty in church members meeting publicly as well as in homes (Acts 20:20; Rom. 16:5). Christ’s followers break bread together as a united family in the Eucharist and as smaller groups around tables where common life happens (Acts 2:46–47).
There are many reasons why small group fellowship meetings have been an important part of Christian experience throughout the ages.
Small groups provide opportunities for believers to learn from each other as they apply the gospel within the intimacy of relationships (Titus 2:1–8). “Who is Jesus?” (cf. Matt. 16:15) is critical to hear from the pulpit. But we also need friends to help us wrestle through that question face to face. We need people who are willing to get to know us so they can help us walk with Christ more faithfully (Acts 18:24–26).
Some Christian groups meet to discuss and apply Scripture. Of course, there are pitfalls to group Bible study which the elders should work to prevent by providing good materials and capable, accountable group leaders. But by discussing and applying Scripture together, members can learn to understand not only the Bible, but also each other, so that each will know better how to love the other. The combination of a capable Bible teacher and eager learners, all exchanging ideas together, can be powerful.
When small group leaders cultivate an environment of openness and trust, group members are encouraged to ask questions they might not ask elsewhere. “I heard the pastor use the word ‘justification’ before. Now I just heard it again. What does it mean?”
When we think about church accountability, we are right to think about elders (Titus 1:5–9). But elders should first equip God’s people to work out their problems together. Every member should encourage and gently urge their brothers and sisters to better follow the Lord (Matt. 18:15–20; Gal. 6:1–2). But how can we exhort others to “contend earnestly for the faith” (Jude 1:3) if we rarely witness them practice the faith outside of corporate worship?
If small groups can help believers assist each other, they can also help elders shepherd their flocks with greater familiarity and empathy. Model-elder Paul “lived among” the believers at Asia (Acts 20:18) so that he knew how to proclaim what was helpful from house to house (v. 20). If parishioners feel that their elders do not know them well enough to help them through the tears and trials of life, small groups can help close the shepherding gap.
If we fervently believe in the power of the means of grace—that God works his grace through the official proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments—we should desire that the “uninformed” and “unbelievers” be present in corporate worship so that they too will worship God as they sense his presence (1 Cor. 14:22–27). But small group meetings can be an important stepping stone to church worship. Likewise, many church members might find it easier invite friends to a small group who are unready to come to church.
Many believers feel drawn to practice the biblical imperative of loving those to whom they have no natural bond (Heb. 13:2, Rom. 12:13, etc.), but they don’t always know how to begin. The very thought of hosting non-family members can intimidate. But as believers gather in homes for food and spiritual conversation, those present can witness hospitality blossoming from theory to practice.
Many churches have a number of guests or occasional visitors “orbiting” the church; they are considering landing but not sure if or how they can. Small groups can provide a way for those who are trying—or considering whether they would like to try—to break into the life of the church.
In the New Testament believers prayed together “with one accord” (Acts 4:24). Believers pray in private and in their family networks. In corporate worship, they pray heartily while the minister voices the words for the community. But in small groups, children and parents, neighbors and friends, elders and new converts help each other come to the throne of grace, articulating their praise and petitions in personalized words and accents. In such settings, we can learn to pray even as we appreciate the universal fatherhood of God among believers.
Fellowship is not a spiritually-neutral activity. As we catch up with friends and make new ones, we practice our calling to understand and love each other. As we share and listen to stories, we learn how others are attempting to intersect the common life and the sacred life.
Small groups can help us develop a greater sense of Christian community in a disconnected age. They can facilitate the formation of deeper Christian friendships, encourage greater spiritual accountability among church members, and become a natural opportunity for inviting unbelieving and unchurched (or under-churched) neighbors to interact with a covenant community.
Small groups should never supplant the church. But they can provide a setting where the church begins to experience the kind of closeness that will characterize the life of the redeemed in the age to come.