The Church Exists as a Small Group
The church exists on three levels:
Large group meetings/ congregations/ temple court type meetings. (Technically known in the literature as modalities.)
Task-oriented groups such as Paul's missionary band and modern missionary agencies, publishing houses and benevolence organizations. (Technically known as sodalities .)
Small groups. Known in scripture as house-to-house groups.
The greatest of these is small groups. Most of what it means to be a church happens in small groups. All three are important, necessary and Biblical. But the most practical application of most of what it means to be the church happens in, through and because of small groups.
One of the most surprising aspects of church life is that pastors give lip service to this, but rarely live it out. They are like dads who drop their kids off at Sunday School because, "Everyone needs a little religion." Kids are not stupid. They soon realize that God and church are kids stuff. When they are no longer children, they put childish ways behind them (I Corinthians 13:11). Similarly, many pastors talk the talk of small group life. They will sing the praises of Sunday School. But they are not personally involved. Not only does this cost them personally, it sends a terrible message to the pew: Sunday School is for the spiritual kids. Us mature believers are graduates of small group life.
In the New Testament, no one ever graduated from group life. It was life to them. It was how the New Testament church lived out their existence. Most of the caring, sharing, loving, admonishing, encouraging and so forth happened in small groups.
One could argue that it is not the group itself that is important. The important thing is the relationships that happen because of small groups. Many pastors might argue that they do not need small groups because they have what is the point anyway--intimate Christian friends. I almost agree with this. In fact, one of the early renditions of the D.I.S.C.I.P.L.E.S. acrostic was D.I.S.C.I.P.L.E.S. The missing S was small groups. I argued that the point of small groups is to get people into relationship and if we have the "I" of intimate friendships then that will take care of it. On some theoretical planet, that might be right. Just as it really is possible for people to worship God on the mountains and at the lake. Possible, but history has produced very few godly people who did not enjoy the benefit of regular corporate worship. And we will not produce many D.I.S.C.I.P.L.E.S. except through the vehicle of small groups.
In addition, relationships are not the only thing groups are about. There are two other things that the small group does exceptionally well. To understand this, we need to understand the five basic purposes of the church. People use different language for these, but these five purposes are rooted in the Bible and Christian theology. They are non-negotiable purposes of the church:
In order to understand how each type of group contributes to the overall purposes of the church, lets look at a grid:
|Congregations||Task Groups||Small Groups|
|Evangelism||Can be done by gifted evangelists. Problem: follow up. |
Solution: small groups.
|Can be done through groups like Evangelism Explosion and Campus Crusade. Note that these are a type of small group.||Can be done as each groups seeks to double every two years or less.|
|Discipleship||Teaching can be done well, but the necessary accountability and relational love are absent. If people only attend worship we run the risk of inoculating them against the gospel rather than infecting them with it.||Can be done through special groups such as the Navigators 2:7 Series. |
Note: this is a small group.
|This is the bread and butter of what small groups are about.|
|Fellowship||Very difficult, if not impossible in large groups.||Often does happen as a by product of mission teams and other task groups.||Again, the bread and butter of what we are about.|
|Worship||Worship is at its best in large groups.||Occasionally done in task groups.||Sometimes done in small groups; not the forte.|
|Ministry||Done poorly in congregation sized groups. An example would be a neighborhood Bible distribution.||Ministry is the strength of the task group.||Most people's gifts function best in the context of small groups. People with gifts of mercy, teaching, encouragement, administration, and so on all function well in small groups. In addition, small groups can and often do take on ministry projects.|
With this description in mind, let's recreate the grid, but reduce the analysis to a numerical value using the following scale:
1 means little or no contribution
2 indicates some contribution to this purpose
3 indicates the best contribution to this purpose
|Congregations||Task Groups||Small Groups|
By my evaluation, small groups are the greatest contributor to the purposes of the church. The only thing that can be done better in big groups than small is worship. Task groups may have an edge in ministry that does not show up in a one to three scale. For this reason, it is an imperative part of the definition of D.I.S.C.I.P.L.E.S. We want every disciple in a small group.