Small Group Meetings

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Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Junior
Greeting,

It is a fairly common practice in many churches to encourage the formation of Small Groups, i.e., cell groups, nurture groups, etc.) But is this a good thing? And if good what rules should govern? Personally, I have both led and enjoyed these groups finding them to be a unique form of edification.

But, The Westminster Standards, in The Directory for Family Worship it states:

VI. At family-worship, a special care is to be had that each family keep by themselves; neither requiring, inviting, nor admitting persons from divers families, unless it be those who are lodged with them, or at meals, or otherwise with them upon some lawful occasion.

Westminster Assembly. (1851). The Westminster Confession of Faith: Edinburgh Edition (p. 538). Philadelphia: William S. Young.
What do you think? Please share any experience with small groups you think helpful.

Thanks!
 

earl40

Puritan Board Professor
Our church also encourages the same. I have yet to participate for the reasons stated above. Now do not get me wrong I have no problem if you have a group of friends from church who gather to discuss topics that are coming up in each ones lives at a specific time each week. I am just not sure this should be as official function of the church. At our church one of the pastors became a member of a "small group" and his wife told him to keep his mouth shut during it. In other words, that small group seemed to be simply a venting session which wanted to work out problems without one of our elders.

Also personally another reason I did not, or plan on, joining a small group is that I have so many responsibilities during the week it would be a burden to myself and family. Maybe when the kiddos are out of the house I may enjoy venting to the small group instead of venting to my wife. :)
 

arapahoepark

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
I do not think there is anything inherently wrong but, I have noticed an obsession with small groups in evangelicalism at large. And this trend has been that if one isn't a part of one then they are not really partaking of all the benefits of a church. It's almost akin to the 'second blessing' in Pentecostal circles.
I am not part of one because I am busy though I would attend college group (which is different than small or home groups the way I see it) if I could (largely to try and find a wife hahaha).
 

Edm

Puritan Board Freshman
Is the difference between small groups and Sunday School, that they meet separately during the week?
 

Backwoods Presbyterian

Puritanboard Amanuensis
I am not against small groups, but I do think they should be elder led or at least "educated led". In other words the dangers that these kinds of things inevitably encourage is an unaccountable teaching of doctrines not in keeping with the confessional standards and (not intentional 99% of the time) cliquish subgroups within the body.
 

Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Junior
Is the difference between small groups and Sunday School, that they meet separately during the week?

In my experience, the mid-week groups encourage sharing, prayer requests, and group participation in general as opposed to one leader or teacher being in charge.
 

lynnie

Puritan Board Graduate
We've generally been in small groups the past 40 years, although now we go to a midweek prayer/bible study/worship. The small groups do facilitate getting to know some people in large churches, and having people who pray for you, where otherwise you are lost in the crowd. In the book of Acts they were in the Temple but also house to house; they gathered to pray in homes.

Some small groups have been good, others mediocre. Recently we were in one with several young folks that went through the Gospel Coalition New Catechism (very basic) and it was delightful. We were also in one several years back that went through Sinclair Ferguson's Doctrine of the Christian Life ( excellent little book) and the group had some Arminians and the conversation got very heated at times. I found it to be difficult but at the same time a good stretching experience for my own Calvinist apologetics.

I've been in ones where you go through the bible- it can be great, or it can be awful. I've always been in churches where everybody is welcome, and charismatics are drawn to great ( ie Reformed) preaching, but put them in a small group and it can drive you crazy ( and I am a continuationist!!).

A lot depends on the leader and their doctrine and leadership skills. I was in one group 20 years ago that frequently had a weepy or upset person take up 45 minutes just venting, followed by lots of advice given, and the leader did not have the strength to quell that and push them into pastoral counseling. It felt like a waste, week after week.

It is tempting to talk so long that prayer gets pushed into a quick five minutes at the end. I think a good leader must make prayer a priority in small groups.

Anyway, just a few thoughts from experience. A PCA pastor once told me that when the midweek prayer meetings stopped and small groups started in the USA, the church has steadily slid into great decline. Coincidence? Maybe. But maybe we need to go back to prayer as priority.
 

Stope

Puritan Board Sophomore
My PCA church is like that. You are a second class citizen if you are not part of a small group.
I attended Mars Hill (RIP) and the same was the case.

That said, in my opinion Small Groups are absolutely imperative. Heres why: They are scheduled/planned time to come to gether with the body, to go out of our way to sharpen one another (biblical), to pray together and for one another (biblical), etc. For many who are shy or new, this is a valuable medium. However, they do sometimes turn into the Bible being a democracy and so indeed false teaching and distortions can very easily creep in unless not lead by a someone who can be trusted by the man
 

hammondjones

Puritan Board Sophomore
This came up not too long ago. Although that thread focused more on the negative, most of the comments are similar: good/great/edifying if done well, poor/detrimental if not.

http://puritanboard.com/threads/danger-of-cell-groups.90480/

I have heard churches say "if you are not in a small group you are not in church." This is a real problem since the small groups don't have children. But, then, this would be par for the course in mainstream Evangelicalism.

I'll go ahead and repost my reference to Dr Clark's comments on small groups, especially on the danger they pose as a substitute for the actual means of grace.

http://heidelblog.net/2007/08/why-a-second-service/

The pietists have never really cared as much for the stated services and official preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments as much as they have favored “small groups.” Originally they were known as “conventicles.” Today they’re known as “cell groups” and “home groups” and the like. In the 18th and 19th centuries they were called Holy Clubs...

The small group was essential to the pieitist quest to make sure that everyone in the congregation was really and truly converted and had the right sort of religious experience. Nothing wrong with healthy, Christ-centered religious experience oriented around Word and Spirit but that isn’t what pieitism is about. What moves pietism, what makes it what it is, is the quest to experience the risen Christ without the mediation of the preaching of the Word and Sacraments.
 

KeithW

Puritan Board Freshman
But, The Westminster Standards, in The Directory for Family Worship it states:
I always think of context. What do those standards say about the kind of teaching on Sunday? If there is a high standard and your church is meeting that standard, and the men in the church really are leading individual family worship during the week, then that statement makes sense. But...

The best examples I have experienced of why midweek groups are useful has been due to when there is an inadequacy of the Sunday pastoral teaching at certain churches.

I went to a Baptist small group for several years. (It was the small group a friend went to in another town.) It was led by an elder through a very thorough study book. While the elder was lacking in knowledge he was a good facilitator. There were always good discussions of the text between people of different levels of understanding. And there were people in the group who submitted themselves to Scripture and believed reformed theology. The primary reason they gave for the necessity of small groups was that their pastor only had 15 minutes to give a sermon so had no time to teach topics. The people both new and old in their faith were learning far more in the midweek study group through reading/studying/sharing than they were able to do on Sundays.
 

deathtolife

Puritan Board Freshman
In my readings today I came across a piece by J.I. Packer.
In it he elaborates on some of John Owen's view on spiritual gifts, from his work titled The Duties of Pastors and People Distinguished (1643). I thought it worth while to share. Maybe his remarks can be related to the discussion on small groups. I hope it is insightful.

Here it is:


"... a chapter entitled ‘Of the liberty and duty of gifted uncalled Christians in the exercise of divers acts of divine worship’, in which he argued that
for the improving of knowledge, the increasing of Christian charity, for the furtherance of a strict and holy communion of that spiritual love and amity which ought to be among the brethren, they may of their own accord assemble together, to consider one another, to provoke unto love and good works, to stir up the gifts that are in them, yielding and receiving mutual consolation by the fruits of their most holy faith.

Christians may rightly meet to pray together (cf Acts 12:12), and to minister to each other encouragement (cf Mal 3:16) and spiritual help (cf Is 50:5; Ja 5:16). The only provisos are that they should not become a splinter group, withdrawing from the church’s public worship, or despising and disregarding their pastors, or taking up with doctrinal and expository novelties. Owen ridicules the idea that such gatherings had the nature of ‘schismatic conventicles’, affirming them rather to be lawful and proper means whereby Christians ‘may help each other forward in the knowledge of godliness and the way towards heaven’.

It is the loss of those spiritual gifts which hath introduced among many an utter neglect of these duties, so as that they are scarce heard of among the generality of them that are called Christians. But, blessed be God, we have large and full experience of the continuance of this dispensation of the Spirit, in the eminent abilities of a multitude of private Christians . . . some, I confess, they [gifts] have been abused: some have presumed on them beyond the line and measure which they have received; some have been puffed up with them; some have used them disorderly in churches and to their hurt; some have boasted of what they have not received;—all which miscarriages also befell the primitive churches. And I had rather have the order, rule, spirit, and practice of those churches that were planted 7 The book is dated 1644, but Owen elsewhere states that this was the printer’s deliberate mistake (Works, XIII:222). 8 Ibid, XIII:44f. 9 Ibid, p 47. by the apostles, with all their troubles and disadvantages, than the carnal peace of others in their open degeneracy from all those things. "
 

Beezer

Puritan Board Freshman
It is a fairly common practice in many churches to encourage the formation of Small Groups, i.e., cell groups, nurture groups, etc.) But is this a good thing? And if good what rules should govern? Personally, I have both led and enjoyed these groups finding them to be a unique form of edification.

I personally dislike them. In many churches they seem to have taken over as the central thing emphasized. The last PCA church we were at expected 100% participation more or less and put a lot of pressure on our family to join one. As a family with two young children it was frustrating to find the majority did not allow children. When I told one of the pastors that we would only join a small group that kept the children together with the adults I was told that was a "home church" concept that nobody would be interested in. This particular church had a catchy slogan "discipleship through relationship" which was constantly used to promote the small groups and other activities outside of corporate worship. They may very well be a good forum for developing a close intimate relationship with other brothers and sisters, but I also noticed they seemed to promote the forming of cliques which often excluded those not in the club.

Over the past year or so I've probably visited the website of every church within an hour drive of my house and it's amazing how many churches advertise their version of small group activities prominently on their homepages or facebook pages. I'm sure people benefit from small groups, but from my perch it is sometimes hard to tell whether they aren't much more than social clubs.

I miss the days when the midweek meeting was corporate and involved all generations of the church gathering together to pray and study scripture as a body.
 

Afterthought

Puritan Board Senior
I sometimes wonder whether the emphasis on small groups is due to a lack of community among the members of a church, and that this in turn is due to members no longer living in the same community and not spending time on the Lord's day together aside from the worship service. I hadn't considered the midweek meeting as part of this problem before, but it does seem to be a likely contributor. From what I understand of the way the midweek meeting once was, it was also a time for older men to exercise their gifts in leading in prayer (as the minister called on them), and a time for younger men to learn how to lead in prayer by learning from the example of those in the midweek meeting.
 

Jack K

Puritan Board Professor
More often than not, the dangers of NOT meeting intentionally with other believers for a close-knit time of encouragement and prayer are greater than the potential dangers of having such meetings. Groups where these things happen are a real treasure, and good for the whole church. Groups where they don't can simply be discarded.

I have an observation: When I encounter a believer who's always upset about something, constantly grousing about others in the church or the state of church affairs, it is usually the case that he is not engaged in daily burden-bearing and confession with fellow believers. One of the chief benefits of small groups is that they remove us from being observers, looking for faults, and force us to love and encourage and forgive other imperfect believers while also receiving the same from them. We become more tender-hearted, and this is a huge blessing.
 

TheOldCourse

Puritan Board Sophomore
Our church also encourages the same. I have yet to participate for the reasons stated above. Now do not get me wrong I have no problem if you have a group of friends from church who gather to discuss topics that are coming up in each ones lives at a specific time each week. I am just not sure this should be as official function of the church. At our church one of the pastors became a member of a "small group" and his wife told him to keep his mouth shut during it. In other words, that small group seemed to be simply a venting session which wanted to work out problems without one of our elders.

Also personally another reason I did not, or plan on, joining a small group is that I have so many responsibilities during the week it would be a burden to myself and family. Maybe when the kiddos are out of the house I may enjoy venting to the small group instead of venting to my wife. :)

I am much the same way. I think it often devalues the public and private worship required of us on the Lord's day and, when churches implicitly or explicitly insist on it, it doesn't recognize the moral importance of secular duties on the other six days of the week ("Six days thou shalt labor"). Obviously we are blessed today in that many of us can fulfill our vocational and familial duties with significant time to spare during the week, but if the mid week gathering is at a time that conflicts with those duties for someone, then their responsibility is to their work--not to the gathering. Unfortunately I've come across pastors who treat Wednesday evenings (or whatever time) as a Sabbath-like period where all worldly labor ought to be stopped. Some of those who insist most strongly on it don't even have that attitude on the Lord's Day itself! In many places it seems to me like a substitute for taking up "the whole [Lord's Day] in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy." I would guess that a pastor's interpretation of Ephesians 4:11-12 will also go a long way in predicting his attitude toward small groups.

That's not to say that it couldn't be done right with the primacy of the Lord's Day maintained, but even beyond that it often, in my experience, becomes a sort of mini-church service with lay-led worship services filled with uninspired hymnody that's not supervised by the elders, lay teaching that often evolves into lay preaching, a strange emphasis on personal confession and transparency/authenticity, etc. These things become means of grace in their own right.

Perhaps it's done better at more carefully confessional reformed churches, however.
 
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2ndViolinist

Puritan Board Freshman
I am not against small groups, but I do think they should be elder led or at least "educated led".

I agree completely. My church home has men and women's Bible studies which I suppose would be considered "small groups." I would love to attend the women's study, but my work schedule prevents me from doing so, sadly.

In college I was part of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. There were the weekly "large group" and "small group" meetings based on dorm housing and interests. I was not so fond of those. There were Roman Catholics, uneducated females, and Democrats leading studies. They were exactly as several on the board mentioned: meetings for pooling ignorance. It was sad.

I would love to attend an elder-led Bible study during the week but for now, Sunday School satisfies that desire!
 

Pilgrim

Puritanboard Commissioner
I sometimes wonder whether the emphasis on small groups is due to a lack of community among the members of a church... and not spending time on the Lord's day together aside from the worship service.

I have wondered the same thing about the "howdy time" in which 5-10 minutes during the service are set aside to greet each other. It's as if is understood that this is necessary because it won't be done otherwise!
 

Jack K

Puritan Board Professor
But what if your church, like many, struggles to include folks and build community naturally? Yes, the members should be spending time together, encouraging and praying with each other, even without any imposed structure. But if this isn't happening, is it okay to get intentional? May you form small groups and call for a hand-shaking time before the service? Or do you resist these activities because they shouldn't be necessary, figure it's the congregation's own fault, and just let the church stay cold?
 

earl40

Puritan Board Professor
But what if your church, like many, struggles to include folks and build community naturally? Yes, the members should be spending time together, encouraging and praying with each other, even without any imposed structure. But if this isn't happening, is it okay to get intentional? May you form small groups and call for a hand-shaking time before the service? Or do you resist these activities because they shouldn't be necessary, figure it's the congregation's own fault, and just let the church stay cold?

Is the assumption that all who do not hang around, before or after, corporate worship is a "cold" church? Not to say that I would not "hang around" more if our local gathering had studies and Godly conversation as appropriate on The Lord's Day, but instead we have Wednesday evening events which creates huge burdens on our congregation which are In my most humble opinion not appropriate.
 
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Jack K

Puritan Board Professor
How a church does these things matters a great deal. It shouldn't feel like a burden. Many folks need to feel free to opt out while others will benefit from some prodding to join. Wise leaders will know how to encourage the flock.

Is the church necessarily "cold" if folks don't hang around before or after the service? Maybe not. But something biblical and necessary is missing if folks seldom want to be with each other outside of corporate worship or Bible studies, especially if the burden-bearing, mutual encouragement, confession of sin to one another, and prayer for each other that Scripture commands rarely happens. And for many people, simply hanging around and making small talk builds the familiarity that makes this deeper fellowship possible.

I'm not a guy who thrives on small talk either. But I recognize that it is important to many people because it helps them build friendships—and Christian friendships are a godly endeavor. In American culture, small talk is a way of affirming and including people; it shows kindness. So a healthy measure of small talk does not make conversation less godly than if we were solely, say, discussing theology. It may, in fact, make the conversation more godly.

I think even if you or I aren't wired that way ourselves, we ought to be willing to indulge a fair amount of it in others.
 

Pilgrim

Puritanboard Commissioner
But what if your church, like many, struggles to include folks and build community naturally? Yes, the members should be spending time together, encouraging and praying with each other, even without any imposed structure. But if this isn't happening, is it okay to get intentional? May you form small groups and call for a hand-shaking time before the service? Or do you resist these activities because they shouldn't be necessary, figure it's the congregation's own fault, and just let the church stay cold?

Doing it before the service is much to be preferred to interrupting the service to do it. It also tends to occur naturally in the healthier churches that I've been a part of. Those have had regular attendance that is 150-300, so it is naturally more difficult to get to know people in larger congregations.

I also wonder how much the fanatical devotion to the NFL plays into this, along with eating out after church and trying to get to the restaurants before people from other churches do? 30 years ago, it seemed that most worship services started at 10:45 or 11:00. Now the trend seems to be 10:00-10:30 (Central Time, when NFL games kick off at 12:00.) Now it may be that some just prefer an earlier service and the perhaps change reflects that. But could there be another reason?

These are aspects of Southern church culture and I don't know to what extent they are a big deal in other parts of the country where nominal Christianity hasn't persisted in the way that it has here.
 
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KMK

Administrator
Staff member
Generally speaking, small group meetings are exhilarating for extroverts but exhausting to introverts. They are simply one tool of many in the minister's toolbox.
 

Jack K

Puritan Board Professor
Generally speaking, small group meetings are exhilarating for extroverts but exhausting to introverts. They are simply one tool of many in the minister's toolbox.

Yes, for sure they are just one tool of many and not always for everyone. But for what it's worth, I as an introvert appreciate being prodded a bit to be in a group. True, it sometimes feels exhausting. But without the group I would retreat too readily, and unhealthily, into a too-private Christian life. Sometimes we need to be (gently) encouraged to do things that feel a bit uncomfortable.
 

KeithW

Puritan Board Freshman
Generally speaking, small group meetings are exhilarating for extroverts but exhausting to introverts. They are simply one tool of many in the minister's toolbox.
I am very much an introvert. Small groups can be a places which give an opportunity to come out of my shell. And it is often the only opportunity to speak with other believers about a wide variety of Scriptures. Because even for us introverts it is necessary to speak about Scripture and our faith.
 

TheOldCourse

Puritan Board Sophomore
But what if your church, like many, struggles to include folks and build community naturally? Yes, the members should be spending time together, encouraging and praying with each other, even without any imposed structure. But if this isn't happening, is it okay to get intentional? May you form small groups and call for a hand-shaking time before the service? Or do you resist these activities because they shouldn't be necessary, figure it's the congregation's own fault, and just let the church stay cold?

It depends on what you mean by intentional. They, in my opinion, should not be viewed as "ministries" of the church and pseudo-liturgical micro worship services. I've been to NAPARC churches that openly speak of their small group "ministries" as being the "core" of the church and the "engine" that drives the church. If adherence to the regulative principle of worship is "staying cold", then I won't want to be "warm." Small groups are not a mark of the church, nor is "community" in the modern, buzzword sense of the term. The way they tend to be practiced in the US is borrowed from a revivalist ecclesiology that is incompatible with a Reformed confessional ecclesiology that emphasizes the means of grace, marks of the church, and RPW. In my, admittedly limited, personal experience, the emphasis on small group ministry tends to be inversely proportional to careful confessional fidelity which, to me, suggests it's more a sign of lukewarmness than warmth. Many non-Reformed evangelical churches today view the small group ministry as more important than public worship (which, of course, may not even be on the Lord's Day). Since many people come to NAPARC churches from those kinds of backgrounds we need to be especially careful to distinguish ourselves there.

Now I certainly have no problem with persons or officers in the church inviting people to their homes for informal gatherings, regularly scheduled or no, and announcing such things (outside of stated worship, ideally). Personally, in my church, if there is a bbq or other type of gathering at someone's home where we can spend some time together with fellow church members during the week we will usually attend happily if our schedules make it practical. If it's a stated ministerial event of the church on a common day with lay teaching/preaching and worship then we will not.
 

Jack K

Puritan Board Professor
By suggesting good small groups are helpful to many believers, I certainly did not mean to suggest we should start having bad worship services. I fail to see why one would lead to the other. The fact that some churches take a wrongheaded approach to small groups does not mean all churches should avoid them completely.

I suppose bad or fluffy small groups might pull fluff-seeking people away from worship services. But in my experience, good and deep small groups are good for everything the church does. I have yet to encounter a church where the members eagerly gather outside the service for prayer and confession and fellowship, and the result of all that extra spiritual encouragement is that folks ignore worship. That just isn't how it works. Spiritual vitality outside the worship service leads to a desire for more and better vitality within the worship service.

I also will suggest we need to be careful not to turn the regulative principle into the fault-finding principle... where we show up for worship prepared to find fault with anything jovial, innovative, or seeming to distract from the church taking due care to have the sort of worship we wish the church was having. I have fallen into this bad attitude many times. The fault-finding feels righteous, but really is just me getting grouchy due to disappointment with the church. I get angry about things that, in themselves, are perfectly good things I shouldn't be upset about.
 

TheOldCourse

Puritan Board Sophomore
By suggesting good small groups are helpful to many believers, I certainly did not mean to suggest we should start having bad worship services. I fail to see why one would lead to the other. The fact that some churches take a wrongheaded approach to small groups does not mean all churches should avoid them completely.

I suppose bad or fluffy small groups might pull fluff-seeking people away from worship services. But in my experience, good and deep small groups are good for everything the church does. I have yet to encounter a church where the members eagerly gather outside the service for prayer and confession and fellowship, and the result of all that extra spiritual encouragement is that folks ignore worship. That just isn't how it works. Spiritual vitality outside the worship service leads to a desire for more and better vitality within the worship service.

I also will suggest we need to be careful not to turn the regulative principle into the fault-finding principle... where we show up for worship prepared to find fault with anything jovial, innovative, or seeming to distract from the church taking due care to have the sort of worship we wish the church was having. I have fallen into this bad attitude many times. The fault-finding feels righteous, but really is just me getting grouchy due to disappointment with the church. I get angry about things that, in themselves, are perfectly good things I shouldn't be upset about.

If you believe that man is free to innovate in worship then it's hard for me to tell in what sense you believe the RPW actually obtains. Our only directive for worship is the command of our Lord, regardless of what seems to man to promote spiritual vitality. The whole point is that "the sort of worship we wish the church was having" should be irrelevant. If the Lord commands it and I wish it not, rebuke me. If he doesn't command it, the RPW forbids it.

Col 2:23 Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.
 

Jack K

Puritan Board Professor
If you believe that man is free to innovate in worship then it's hard for me to tell in what sense you believe the RPW actually obtains.

Not all church innovations are wrong. Many innovations—changing from songbooks to a projection system, for example, or creating fellowship events during the week—don't change the elements of worship. Yet speaking personally, I find it easy to get grouchy about such things when I believe the church is not worshipping the way I believe (my Bible-based convictions, not my personal preferences) the church should be worshipping. And I end up with, in effect, an attitude better described as a fault-finding principle.

Does that explain things better?
 
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