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6 Ways to Stifle Your Small Group

Small groups can be an incredible blessing, but they are not fail-proof. At times, churches “sell” small group involvement as the secret sauce to a thriving spiritual life; overflowing with friendships and community that fills hearts and saves marriages!

Don’t get me wrong. I love small groups. For six years I had the privilege of overseeing the small group ministry in our church and some of the most incredible testimonies came from small group participants. They are an excellent vehicle for discipleship.

Still, even when the bible is present and optimism is high, there are several ways to do the right thing the wrong way. Small groups are no exception.

Here are six ways you (or someone in your group) could be stifling the abundant potential waiting to be unlocked through your small group:

1. Say, “Here is what this passage means to me, what does it mean to you?”
This language stifles because it bypasses the very foundation of healthy small groups. Namely, the faithful interpretation of the bible based on the biblical author’s intent and the context a given passage is set in. Far too often, small group leaders share what a passage means “to them,” then they ask what it means, “to you.” After the circle of participants has fired off with their best take, one might think they were aiming at a moving target.

The truth is, those who do this are likely getting application and interpretation confused. The solution? First ask, “What does this passage mean. To the original audience. In proper context. Period.” Then ask, “How can I apply this to my life as someone living in the 21st century.” Over time, you’ll find personal opinions being outshone by God’s will through His word.

2. Let the single-issue-crusaders and dominant speakers run wild
Single-issue-crusaders are the people who always seem to veer the conversation into the same “pet topic” that they are passionate about. I’ve seen crusaders drive well-meaning small group attendees right out of a group and into a different church because they went unchecked; ruining deep discussions by constantly bringing up politics, personal drama, or spewing unvetted opinions about the same issue over and over. These passionate individuals have value, but they rarely achieve their full potential if allowed to go unchecked.

Dominant speakers can be a leader’s greatest asset. They talk when few are willing, their example encourages others to be open and honest, and they usually offer helpful wisdom. However, when they speak too much, it can stifle the entire group. It may be one of the hardest conversations you have in small group life, but single-issue-crusaders and dominant speakers need loving correction for the health of the whole.

3. Don’t show them how you came to understand a biblical truth
If you want to stifle a small group, keep all your bible study wisdom, interpretation tools, and trusted processes to yourself. That way, your group will depend on you like needy children and develop an attachment to you; requiring that you always be their feeder and leader. This will make you feel very important; fueling your ego as the “anointed source” of wisdom and leadership for the group.

What’s more? It will be a mask for your insecurity, inability to raise up others, and ultimately lead to your demise as a leader. Quite possibly, it could prove you were never a real leader in the first place.

Nobody benefits from this!

Set your group on fire by showing them how you’ve grown, how you’ve studied, and how you’ve learned to apply God’s word and live it out. Ask them questions. Lead them to helpful resources, buy them books, and send them articles. Help them cross reference, root out theological themes in a text, identify key phrases and terms, and apply it all to their own life. They aren’t “yours.” They are God’s. Steward them well and emulate Paul’s instructions to Timothy when he commanded, “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:1-2).

4. Undermine church leadership by teaching contradictory doctrinal views
Small groups can be sweet, but can quickly turn sour when leaders begin using their influence like Absalom did (2 Samuel 13-19). David’s son became infamous for his scandalous attempt to undermine his father’s throne. Under the deceitful veneer of being a good listener and a leader the people could trust, Absalom paid the ultimate price for his sinful pride.

The moral of this story is not that you will be slain if you undermine your church leaders (that’s a ridiculous scare-tactic some false teachers use!).

However, the lessons in the story about unity and integrity can still apply to us today.

As a leader who has been allowed to steward people, be loyal to qualified leaders and be sensitive to how God views discord (Proverbs 6:16:19). Small group leaders should be unified in doctrine and unified in practice with their church leaders; holding to the statement of faith that their church abides by. If you feel tempted to contradict, or you suddenly disagree with the church’s doctrinal convictions, don’t divide or sow discord amongst your small group. Leave humbly. Your reputation will follow you to the next church.

5. Be closed-minded and abrasive towards adding new people to the group
Closing groups or limiting their capacity is advisable in certain scenarios. Homes and locations are not limitless when it comes to space, and everyone can agree that consistency and trust can occur more rapidly if a small group is not a revolving door of flaky participants; jolting the groups dynamic with each sporadic entrance (or exit).

However, the “frozen chosen” mentality is deadly for group health, and more importantly, church health. This mentality sees new people as a threat, and expanding the reach of the group is seen as detrimental to comfort and familiarity. For groups like this, the idea that a new person or couple would disrupt the tight-knit group dynamic takes precedence over the command we have to make disciples (Matthew 28:16-20).

You don’t have to invite the entire neighborhood or make it hard to find seating in your home, but every believer should ask, “How can we give others the kind of community we’re experiencing?”

6. Resist the idea of “commissioning” potential leaders to start new groups
This final item on the list closely parallels #5 but focuses on stifling leadership development. Similar to being unwilling to invest in new people, a leader who refuses to release mature people will stifle group health and missional effectiveness. Some argue that small groups should endlessly divide and conquer; splitting in half at every turn and adding new people into those split groups. Others suggests different methods and argue that dividing groups is nonsensical. Whatever you choose as a method, the mindset must be the same. Commissioning new leaders to “strike out” and start new groups is a healthy way to duplicate and be faithful to the Great Commission.

Small groups don’t exist to merely give people a safe space, baked goods, and bible study. They exist to duplicate! If stewarded effectively, small groups should be reproducing mature, stable, honest, authentic, passionate, servant-leading disciples who in turn begin to lead others where they have been led.

When centered on faithfulness, unity, and the word of God, small groups can be a thriving vehicle for making disciples and deploying a new generation of leaders for the glory of God.

Embracing Evangelism

Whenever the word “evangelism” comes up, it’s not uncommon for Christians to experience some sort of emotional response that is less than pleasant. Eye rolling, ear plugging, or even church hopping are all strategies that some will employ just to avoid the topic altogether.

To be fair, many Christians just don’t know, or have never been properly taught what evangelism actually is. Worse, far too many pastors do not teach or expect their church to boldly live out the life-changing power of the Gospel. As long as the people show up, give their money, and keep the lights on, everybody goes home happy. Those are all necessary things, but is that really all that the church is supposed to do while we wait for the King to return? Hardly.

This type of common Christianity I’ve just described is barely Christianity at all. It’s maintenance mode, possibly even lukewarm! If a church won’t challenge its cruise-control Christianity it’s bound to become the church of the frozen few [no matter how many thousands fill the seats].

Most people view evangelism as a programmatic, door-to-door effort that that people are forced to engage in. It’s as though somewhere along the way church leaders thought it would actually showcase the manifold wisdom of God (Ephesians 3:8-10) to make evangelism a “drive by” activity like handing out tracks to strangers at the beach, or giving away free turkeys in poor neighborhoods. Are either of those bad things? Certainly not. But even the world can hand out marketing material and free food to the needy during the holidays. So what can the church do that no other thing on this earth can do?

The church can be the church! 

That’s exactly how Christ intended it to be. Think about the way that the apostles laid the foundation with preaching the truth and living according to the truth. Peter didn’t dish out papyrus tracks or free pita bread to people and then invite them to come check out the weekend “experience” so that he could cross off “evangelism” on his to do list. The apostles and the early church lived lives that showcased truth, transformation, restoration, obedience, love, and sacrifice! That’s the life changing power of the Gospel in action.

The church has long since been established but the process of evangelism remains the same. The church lives the truth because it loves the truth, then people are attracted to the truth. For 2000 years people have been miraculously saved by this process and brought into right relationship with the Father under the Lordship of Christ.

This world doesn’t need any more clever evangelism programs or Christian gimmicks. What this world needs is for the church to be the church.

Do you want to spend less time being a one hit wonder on Sundays and more time being the church all week long?

If so, start by changing your mind about evangelism. Real evangelism isn’t a program, it’s a people! It’s you. It happens in your decisions, in your relationships, at work, at family functions, at weddings, at funerals, and even when you think nobody is watching. It’s not just the pastor’s job, it’s everybody‘s job. The body of Christ in the local church is responsible to be His ambassadors in every way possible and each member will stand accountable for how they represented the Lord one day.

Will you be standing before Him with your head bowed in repentant regret or will you fall at His feet with humble adoration claiming, “Master! Thank you for using this clay pot as a vessel for Your glory!”?

In his book, Marks of the Messenger, J. Mack Stiles offers some practical ways for every Christian to become a healthier evangelist.

Here are 10 based on his list:

Disclaimer: These are counter-cultural ideas. Be ready for pushback from people who say you take this “church” thing too seriously.

  1. Attend a church that takes the gospel seriously (Hebrews 10:25). Treat form as secondary, the gospel as primary. Incense and candles, rock band worship, liturgy, Gregorian chants, a pastor with tattoos…these are “form” and therefore secondary. Clear Gospel presentation from the leadership is primary.

  2. Become an actual member of a church. I’m serious; membership shows your loving commitment to one another. This is truly radical. Go against the grain and show that you are really crazy in love with Jesus and join a church. And just think, the less cool the church the more opportunity to demonstrate real love!

  3. Turn down jobs that might take you away from church even if they pay more.

  4. Arrange family vacations around your church’s schedule. Or better yet, take your family on a short-term mission trip with other members instead of a family vacation. This will blow people’s minds.

  5. Move to a house closer to the church and use your house as a place of hospitality (Romans 12:13).

  6. Practice church discipline. It’s biblical (Matthew 18:15-17). This is truly off the charts-radical. Church discipline is not usually what people think it is; the goal of church discipline is always to restore, not to punish. You may offend people, but then again you may save some people from living a hell on earth – or for eternity.

  7. Respect the authority in the church when leaders are biblically qualified (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; Hebrews 13:17). Think about it. How many church people fall into the bad habit of bad mouthing their leaders over every little thing? So the sermon went 10 minutes too long? Thank God you got 10 extra minutes of truth from your faithful pastor.

  8. Turn heads by really practicing the biblical teachings on giving an receiving forgiveness. Be quick to forgive others (Ephesians 4:32). Be quick to say you’re sorry (Matthew 5:23-24). Forgiveness may be one of the most radical ways to express love and unity in a congregation, and it’s rarely practiced.

  9. Pray for each other (Ephesians 6:18). Don’t just say you’ll pray. Actually put into place some ways to pray for each and every member.

  10. Focus on caring for one another spiritually by discipling one another (Galatians 6:1-2). Though discipling only looks like having lunch, it’s secretly and subversively radical. Over a Caesar salad ask the dangerous question: “How are things spiritually?”

Do you have any idea how many questions people will ask you over the years if you live out just half the things on this list?  Every single time you answer them with the truth you will expose them to the life-changing power of the gospel.

If a church will live, love, and labor like this, the results will be an evangelistic overhaul in the community around them. The power of the gospel is unstoppable and every Christian is an ambassador armed with that power when they walk in the truth.

Remember, evangelism is not a program, it’s a people!

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Recommended reading:
Evangelism by J. Mack Stiles
Marks of the Messenger by J. Mack Stiles
The Gospel and Personal Evangelism by Mark Dever