Small group ministry is vital for many churches. Groups of around ten believers can be among the best contexts for discussing Scripture, sharing needs, and finding support and praying for one another. In a larger church, there may not be the same opportunity to interact at this level during the main Sunday gathering. We are in a swirl of people, conversations are snatched and bitty, and we are conscious of the need to welcome visitors.
It can be hard to get down to more personal and meaningful contact. Much vital “one another” ministry, then, takes place in small groups. Being with the same gang week in and week out means relationships are established and deepened more quickly. We have the space and context for insights to be shared, and for life’s problems and difficulties to be addressed in an unhurried manner.
It can be easy for a small group to become the main focus of its members’ spiritual lives. In effect, the group can become the church.
This is perhaps understandable, but not desirable. Small group meetings shouldn’t function as a replacement for the Sunday gathering. If your small group becomes your church, you are missing out on much.
Of course, in contexts where there are few believers, churches are small groups and function much as small groups might. Scripture doesn’t prescribe an ideal church size. Healthy churches can be—and are in many places—small in size.
But small groups should not function as a substitute for the church, for three reasons.
1. Small groups can’t give a full picture of the people God has reconciled.
Our small groups usually don’t reflect the wide range of ages and backgrounds found within the wider church family. Even if a group begins with members of various ages and backgrounds, over time they easily become homogenous. Like tends to attract like. People often prefer to join groups with others of similar age and life stage. But even when groups are diverse, it’s unlikely they’ll represent the diversity of our Sunday gatherings.
As Paul writes, it’s through the church that “the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10). And what is this wisdom? That through the gospel “Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body” as ethnic Jews (Eph. 3:6). Jesus has smashed the seemingly unbreachable wall between Jew and Gentile.
The world divides people into categories, but the gospel folds them into the same spiritual family. Diversity in our churches testifies to both human and spiritual onlookers that God has done what humans could not. The gospel is bigger than our economic, cultural, ethnic, and age differences. We flex this muscle in our Sunday gathering far more than in midweek groups.
2. Small groups are hindered because they’re small.
A local church isn’t just a diversity of people; it’s a body made up of many parts (1 Cor. 12:27). And each part plays a distinct role in body life. We need each other. We need all of each other.
A small group won’t possess the full range of gifts and ministries of the wider church family. The small group will do a subsection of church life well (hopefully), but it cannot be and do for its members everything the whole church is meant to be and do. If we replace Sunday church with small group, we cut ourselves off from a significant means God has given for growth. We will grow, Lord willing, but our growth won’t be as rounded as it should be.
3. Small groups aren’t led the same way as a church.
Small groups should be accountable to local church leadership. Those whom the wider church family has approved and equipped should lead small groups. But even a small group with excellent leadership cannot formally evaluate issues of doctrine or behavior for which recognized church leadership is responsible. It cannot share the Lord’s Supper in a way that speaks of the whole church’s unity.
Small groups often serve as a terrific supplement to the church’s gathered life. But they should never be a replacement for it. We want to be in a church with small groups, not a church of small groups. The main center of church life is the whole gathering, not the small groupings.