In Opposition to Small Groups

In modern churches, ‘small groups’ has become somewhat of a buzzword. Nothing new, really, but hardly the Holy Grail, either.

By writing this, I know, I may be letting my own resignation on the matter guide my judgment. I hope that no one will take this as a personal criticism. But I feel some perspective is important, given that pretty much everyone is touting small groups as the solution to everything that’s wrong with the church. I don’t think it is (I don’t think it’s from the devil, either – that’s a whole other issue that I won’t waste my time on).

Having experienced a number of small groups, of which I deem no more than half actually successful, I have to ask the inevitable question: Is it really worth it?

A lot is said and written about the ideas, the different types, the how-tos, and the merits of small groups. I know there are good sides to the story. But in my opinion, not enough is said about the pitfalls. So here are a few observations, rants, or just some things to be aware of:

  • Small groups can consume valuable resources. The most valuable one being: Time. People may get so involved in their small group that they abandon other things in church. Now this may be a good thing if you’re a cell-based church and all you do revolves around small groups. But if you’re not, it is necessary to take a healthy look on how you prioritise.
  • Small groups can create or enhance divisions within a church. As stated above, if people ‘get too much into’ their small group, it may be at the cost of the rest of the church. So what happens to those people who are not in small groups? Or to the not-so-perfect groups? What ever happened to the ‘body of believers’? A good-working group may be reluctant to reach out to other members, since they’re doing quite all right, thank you.
  • Small groups force you into community. Often it seems like a matter of luck wether you end up in a good group or not. With small groups, the church puts you in a group of 10 people, and you must be friends with these people and no-one else. Really? So what if you’d like to hang out with friends from other small groups? Tough luck – they’re probably too busy, since they’re spending all their time on that wonderful small group.
  • Small groups don’t (always) account for different types of people. Many small group how-tos tell you that when you start a group you should decide on what you want from the group and everyone should agree on its values, how they’d like it to work, etc. Right. When was the last time you found 10 people with the same wishes for… well, anything? In stead of forcing some model on people, wouldn’t it be better just to let it be known which types are available, and let people choose the group that best fits their ideal?
  • Small groups are not everything. Some people will tell you that small groups are not just another thing we do in church, it IS church. I respectfully disagree. If a small group grows to be too well-working, too all-encompassing, too harmonious, too close friends, it should be shut down. For one, this often leads to exclusiveness. But more importantly, it feeds a utopian illusion which will be my last point.
  • Small groups are not your best friends. They can be a circle of friendship, yes. But they should never become your personal circle. If this happens, two things may and will result: 1. It is hard to enter the group. 2. Splitting the group (which should be done, as the group grows) becomes not just difficult, but excruciatingly painful. You may never want to join a small group again.

Let me repeat: the above listed are, fortunately, not all things I have experienced in their extremity. But I felt a need to put some perspective into the otherwise often one-sided discussion about small groups.

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Author: Kenneth Mollerup Birch

Living north of Copenhagen, Denmark. MA in Information Science. Interests include communication, internet, sociology, language, politics, religion, theology, travel, music, and food.

6 thoughts on “In Opposition to Small Groups”

  1. HI Kenneth

    I think you have some good points concerning the pit falls of small groups. However, I respectfully disagree 🙂

    Most of your points center around exclusiveness and small group as merely friendship circles. This is, of course, not the point of small groups whose purpose is not to fulfill peoples social needs.

    I disagree in particular with your critique of exclusiveness and time wasting.

    It is my contention, based on my experience and observation, that exclusiveness is a prevailing feature in all churches without small groups. In such churches most members will only associate with 5-10 other members. Small group that are periodically changing and which have unchurched individuals in them, will widen the number of contacts most christians have. This is true whether the small group is well functioning or not.

    As to consuming time resources, the most time wasting activity in modern churches is by far the church service and not small groups. The church service, which requires extensive planning and preparation, activates a small number of members to the point where they don’t have enough time for either a healthy family life or to make acquaintances with unchurched people. Every established Adventist church I’ve seen has involved burned out believers doing nothing but meeting two hours a week at an event where no non-believer would ever attend. Now that is a waste of time.

  2. Thank you Torsten for your comments.

    I did not expect people to agree with me on this one 🙂 And I should probably add that my thoughts on the issue are very much a work in progress. I’m not saying that small groups are necessarily a bad thing–yes, ‘pit falls’ are probably the best term to use for my observations.

    As for friendship circles, let it be a warning to be aware of the distinction and make clear the point of small groups.

    When it comes to exclusiveness, I think circulation may be the key. If circulation does not work, and small groups become stagnant, they will exhibit the same features you mention: that people only associate with 5-10 other members. Perhaps even more so than in churches without small groups. In any case, circulation is essential to avoiding exclusiveness.

    And as for wasting time, yes I mostly agree with you–other things in church usually waste much more time than small groups do. Nonetheless, I still believe it is a valid consideration. You should always be able to step back and ask: is this worth it? But of course, that does not apply only to small groups, but to everything we do.

    I currently describe myself as being ‘between small groups’, but I have not completely lost faith in the concept. I will most probably join (or start) a small group again in a foreseeable future.

  3. Hi Kenneth. Your absolutely right. Every activity should be evaluated as to its overall effect and wether it achieves the desired objective compared to effort.

    Also, my argument as to waste of time resources was not really fair. Instead of pointing out the values of small groups I attacked another part of church life, i.e. the divine service, which you were not commentating on or defending.

    Its so easy when writing a an apologetic to criticize ‘laterally’ on not confront the opposing argument strait on. I apologies and thank you for taking my comments kindly.

    PS. Where I am in my spiritual journal, small group fellowship is my church. I have no other place to meet God through fellowship, thats why I consider them extremely valuable.

  4. Kenneth,

    I do respect that your current perception of small groups is a work in progress, as there are many interpretations of what exactly a “small group” is. Living here in Southern Calif, I was part of a cell-church which, in essence, began as a “small group.” But for many people who would rather stick glass in their left eyeball before stepping foot inside a large, cold, building with organ pipes, pulpits, and liturgical rituals, that small group WAS their church – inclusive and appealing to their need for healing and brokenness. Although friendships and fellowship was par for the course, it was not the intention. Worship and discipleship was the main course.–>

  5. I and my friends have had some bad experiences with small groups, and I would just like to find a church that doesn’t use them. It doesn’t seem like one exists in my area (Virginia, near Washington DC). It is really surprising to me that even if I switch denominations, it is going to be very hard to find a church that was like the “pre-small group fad” church I grew up in. Does anyone know of a protestant denomination that doesn’t tend to use small groups?

  6. I’m sorry to hear that, Richard. My knowledge of the religious landscape in the US is somewhat limited. Here in Northern Europe, small groups have definitely come in vouge the last decade, but I suspect don’t have nearly the same penetration as in the states. For one, the dominant State Church (Lutheran) is not really into this stuff, but even among SDA it is not exactly standard feature (yet). Lutherans in the US would probably be very different from their dominant and traditional posistion here. Otherwise, Catholic or Orthodox might work… but I know that’s a far stretch and probably not what you’re looking for.
    The obvious answer would be: Start your own church 😉 There might be people like you who would enjoy the same kind of church. Worth a thought.

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