Will Rice, Discipleship Pastor at University United Methodist Church in San Antonio, is suggesting retiring the term “small group” because he thinks it is not well enough defined (HT: Dave Black Online). It is hard to know precisely what one is talking about when one says “small group.” He’s right–it is hard.
He also has some suggestions, such as defining the mission of the small group, making sure you have leaders gifted and trained to accomplish that mission, and evaluating the results according to the mission. I intentionally repeated the term “mission” multiple times there for emphasis. His suggestion is good. I’ve said many times, and I’m pretty sure I’ve said it within the last several posts, that I can tell how a church is doing on its mission by asking a member if they can state that mission.
I’m also completely in agreement with the idea of finding the right people with the right gifts to put into the right position as facilitator. I’ve even written a book about it, and the title includes the phrase “small group!”
But there’s another side to this that I’d like to underline briefly, and that’s the church (in my experience Methodist, though I have no reason to believe this is exclusively our problem) that tries to over-organize and over-control small group developments (see my earlier post Putting Up Barriers to Ministry). If a group of people meet and they don’t fit the favored definition of “small group” they are actively discouraged. I even encountered a pastor who objected to prayer groups meeting off-campus without church sanction. It’s quite possible to define, organize, and train our way out of existence. I say this as someone who loves defining, organizing, and especially training.
I think there are small groups that develop naturally in a church that are detrimental to mission. I would suggest, however, that the solution is not to force all groups under a regimen of control, but rather the preaching of the gospel and teaching discipleship, along with appropriate, Christ-like, church discipline. I don’t mean that Rice’s good suggestions amount to forcing groups under a regimen. I’m referring to what I’ve observed in certain churches. I think one can tell the difference by observing the fruit–if groups of Christians are gathering and doing mission, it’s working.
Somewhere between (or away from) control and chaos (with apologies to Get Smart) there’s a place where we function as the body of Christ under One Spirit.