Why Do Small Groups Exist?

Recently I’ve been using two sneaky questions to ask pastors and small group participants why small groups exist at all.

The question I ask pastors is, “I know nearly every church has them, but what Scriptural examples are there of small groups?”

Most take me to Scriptures that describe the church, not a small group. Since most pastors wouldn’t say that a small group is a Biblically functioning church, the distinction is important. The most common one has been Acts 2:42-47. This passage describes believers who come together to study Scripture, pray, and to eat together in homes. This sounds similar to a small group, but upon further study we realize that the group being described is of over 3,000 people. Not only is this group not small, it meets daily, and it’s describing the early church in a local area, not a subset of a one larger church.

When I press, they tell me about the role small groups play in the church. Now, I’m not suggesting that small groups are bad or abiblical, just that our acceptance of them may have more to do with tradition than theology.

The question I ask participants of small groups is, “If, at the end of your small group, God had granted everything you asked Him about it, what would be true?”

People are eager to answer this one. They tell me about forming deep and meaningful friendships, studying the Scriptures together, caring for one another, and just “doing life together”. It’s clear that what participants are looking for is community, connection, and common experiences.

As I work with pastors and churches in disciple making, I’ve observed that small groups are the fulcrum of a church’s ministry. It’s where big gets small. It’s where style becomes substance. I’m not overstating that the small group ministry of a church will most often determine the disciple making of the church. I’ve also noticed that most churches have “shot-gun approach” to small groups—trying lots of things and seeing what works.

In Scripture, one clear example of a small group is Jesus and His twelve disciples. There may be others, but this group checks most of the boxes of today’s small groups. For example, the group is about the same size, they were invited into it, it’s actually a group (i.e. people know if they are in it or not), they consistently study and interact over the Scriptures, and they are committed to loving each other to name a few.

As similar as Jesus and His disciples are to today’s small groups there’s one very significant difference.

Jesus’ small group understood their mission and unfolded it together. They were not just committed to growing together but also to reaching others. (Mark 3:14, Matt. 4:19). Western small groups have lost view of the mission and that makes them very different from every other Christ-following group in Scripture.

It’s this key difference that keeps many churches from gaining sustainable disciple making momentum. Though it’s just one difference, inwardly focused small groups create a number of obstacles to a disciple making culture.

First, inwardly focused groups lose sight of our purpose. Christ-followers aren’t on the earth to become more like Him for our own comfort and adornment. We are called to love the lost and introduce them to the Savior. Inwardly focused groups engage the church like a Christian club, coming together periodically for connection and socializing. Our call is costly, and we are the ones expected to pay the price (Luke 9:23).

Secondly, inwardly focused small groups are unwilling to multiply. Every pastor is familiar with this problem. Good small groups don’t want to multiply because they’ve found what they wanted. They have built friendships with one another both inside and outside their meetings and they are growing in their understanding of Scripture. Since they have everything they wanted, they don’t want to risk it all by splitting, stopping, or multiplying. This consumeristic mindset is at odds with our call as Christians to put others needs ahead of our own (Phil 2:3-4).

Churches who seek to grow a disciple making culture are hurt by such groups. Their members enthusiastically model the wrong thing. Not only that, but participants in such groups have a hard time moving on for the sake of others. Though some books argue that it’s “dumb to divide groups,” a group that grows into their mission together usually finds good reason to not continue together. Whether they split because many people have been added or discontinue so they can begin a new small group with seekers and new believers, outward facing groups are multiplying groups.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that outward facing groups shouldn’t focus on helping members grow together and towards God. They should do that. But they must do that in the context of their mission. Such groups aren’t difficult to recognize, as they have different prayer requests and applications than inward facing groups.

Practically, developing small groups with an outward focus is difficult because inward focused groups are often effective in rooting people into the church. As a result, inward groups often satisfy everyone. Pastors have more and more people in the church and parishioners have a place where they can find community, connection, and common experiences. Unfortunately, inward-focused small groups aren’t concerned with unfolding the mission Jesus gave to all Christ-followers, to reach the lost who aren’t there.

But Jesus is. He came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). He was known as a friend of sinners. He had compassion on those who were harassed and helpless. Would He feel comfortable in our small groups? Are we helping people to become like Him?