The Naughty Baptist

On small groups, babies, and bathwater

A friend posted a link to an article on why small groups are a bad idea. My interest here isn't in dealing with that article per se. I think it was a bit too hand-wavey. In general I'm not a fan of sweeping statements; they do a good job of clearing out the bathwater, but often at a high price for the poor baby. I do, however, want to deal with the question of small groups in general.

Small groups are not necessarily bad. It is important, however, that we get to the real question: "Why are we doing this?" The normal responses usually fall into two general categories. The first category is the Christian Community category. We all need, the argument goes, to be in community with other believers. It's in this community that we can discuss not only Scripture, but life in general.

The second category is the discipleship one. We are to be growing disciples of Christ. In small groups, the thinking goes, we can meet together to help each other along in the Christian life.

Obviously these are not mutually exclusive, nor do they encompass everything that can be said in defense of small groups. But I think they're fair.

The argument against small groups tends to be 1) they keep us in Christian huddles, and 2) they tend to be shallow. The article above makes the (sweeping, apparently unsubstantiated) claim that "90% of small groups never produce one single disciple, ever." As far as I can tell this is a made-up statistic. And this is where things get tricky.

Both of these claims may be true. However saying, "Some small groups are terrible" is not nearly the same as saying, "All small groups are terrible." Unless you can prove from Scripture that they're unbiblical, we need something by which to judge them.

What are you trying to do? Let's take the "doing community" motivation for small groups. A good question to ask is, "Why is this necessary?" I'm not trying to imply we should not have Christian community. In asking this I'm trying to ask, "Why don't we already have it?"

I few years ago I read a thought-provoking article entitled, "Are Small Groups Just for White People?" This quote sums it up:

[Q] Small groups are a white church thing? [A] White people rely on small groups to connect. Other ethnicities form community more organically, more relationally. Immigrant communities find fellowship within extended families. In the city a lot of community happens on the front porch or sidewalk. So non-whites aren't as eager to set up structures and systems like small groups.

I'm in a suburban context, and this seems doubly true here. We isolate ourselves so much we need to create programs to try and counteract them. Small groups are a simple fix. One person says of the reason for small groups, "I think whites really value efficiency."

Read the whole thing. It's short and worth your attention. You may not agree with it all (I don't) but it's worth thinking about.

So, again: What are you trying to do with small groups? Is it just covering up other problems?

Are you actually accomplishing your goals? If one of your goals is creating community, is that happening? You say you want to develop true disciples. Awesome. Are you?

Most of the time, if we're honest, the answer is a solid, "we have no idea." This is because we have no way to actually measure progress toward our goals. And that's a major problem.

Read any book on leadership and it will mention goals. In the discussion of goals most of the time it's going to tell you some variation of, "Goals must be specific and measurable." Do you have a way of measuring progress?

Speaking this way normally results in one of two reactions. The first is still more hand-waving and possibly some indignation. Someone will say (whilst gesturing emphatically), "You can't put a number on spiritual growth!"

The second response is to say, "Sure, we've got measurements. Attendance and participation being chief among them."

I'll address the second one first. Please be careful with measurements that are based solely on performance -- showing up, talking in the group, things like that. These things do matter, and we should not ignore them. Just be wary of putting all your stock in things that you can do with or without Christ. I don't have to be growing as a Christian -- or even be a Christian at all -- to faithfully attend your small group.

That said (returning to the "you can't measure it" response) these numbers can be useful. The best way I've come across to use them is in the book Simple Church, in which they advise viewing things as a process. The first step is Sunday worship attendance. The second is small groups, and the third is serving. The authors advise looking for patterns. Have you had a big increase in Sunday attendance, but your small group size remains the same? It's possible -- not certain, but possible -- you have a problem moving people along the process. (This is an over-simplification, go read the book.)

I also advocate something I've only seen done a few times: Testing.

No, really.

When I was co-teaching a high school seniors class, the lead teacher gave a short (I want to say 20 question) survey to the students at the beginning of the year. It was a 1 - 5 scale from strongly disagree to stronly agree. Not too complicated, and not real specific. But it did give us a baseline for where they were at. When I took over the class I continued this.

What would have been interesting would have been to give the same survey at the end of the school year. It was anonymous, so we couldn't have measured any one person. But we could have seen if the baseline had changed.

Most times when I mention this people get wiggy on me. Just think about it for a second. How do you know if folks are learning if you don't ask? I can easily imagine a doctrine class where, on the first day, you ask people to write out their definition of the Gospel. Do the same thing on the last day. Are the answers better? If not, you didn't teach them much. Did they give great answers the first day? Maybe you should be focusing your time on another class.

But you never know if you don't ever ask.

Final thoughts Now, if you're paying attention you're thinking, "Wait a second, knowing something is the same as showing up: It doesn't mean you're growing. I can do that without Jesus."

You're absolutely right. But if we take being committed, participating, increasing in knowledge, and combine it with somethings I haven't addressed like dealing iwth sin in your life, killing idols, seeing Jesus more and more -- then you have a better idea of whether or not you're really building a Christian community, or just hanging out. There's nothing wrong with hanging out, but that's not the goal of small groups.

So after about 1200 words, do I think small groups are good? It's my usual answer: It depends. I think they can be great for some things. For others, most notably for truly dealing with personal sin, I think they're overrated. But really it comes down to why are you doing them, and how do you know if you're doing that?

In other words: Small groups aren't necessarily wrong. But they are very, very difficult to get right.

What about you? Are you thumbs up or down on small groups? What have I missed?