Small Groups are Key to Church Unity

Tuesday Remix – This is a popular post from last year, updated and re-run.

Looking back at the hundred-or-so conflicted congregations with whom I have been called to consult over the last decade, here is an important observation: only a small handful (or so) of them had a strong small group ministry. The vast majority of them either had no small group ministry or they had a tired, ineffective small group or Sunday School ministry. I believe there is a correlation.  I believe there is a direct relationship between small group ministries and church unity.

small-groupFor some decades now, church leaders have been recognizing the importance of small groups as a critical tool for Spiritual formation (or for Spiritual “transformation”, depending on whose vernacular you favor). We have all begun to see that, only in the intimacy and accountability of a small group of friends gathered together around the Word of God, can we live the life God has called us to live and become the Christians God has called us to become. It was true in the lives of the apostles (the first small group ever) and it is still true today. Whether you call them Sunday School, Bible Study, home groups, cell groups, prayer groups, support groups or recovery groups doesn’t matter. The reality is the same for all of them: creating a safe environment with equal parts grace and truth and where we “lean into” one another’s lives is where real Spiritual transformation occurs.

But I will take this observation one step further. Because small groups are such a powerful tool for Spiritual transformation, they are also a key ingredient to unity in a local body of believers. Why? Because Spiritual formation is a key ingredient to unity. If the Spirit Himself is the central figure in all questions about unity, then our own Spiritual growth (i.e., learning to allow the Spirit to live through me and to find Him living through others) is likewise a critical part of experiencing unity in the church.

I know some pastors feel a little scared when it comes to small groups, because they definitely have less control over matters of doctrinal purity when scripture is being taught and/or discussed in hundreds of little groups both within and outside the walls of the church. It is also true that small groups can become “gossip groups” where unity is not supported but rather destroyed. So, small groups–especially those meeting outside the church–have not always enjoyed the support of pastors and church leaders. But that does not change the reality that small groups, when done correctly, are where Spiritual growth happens best. In the words of my pastor, “they are where the New Testament church really becomes the church.”

If small groups are where we grow Spiritually, then they are likewise where Christ-centered relationships grow. In this way, they are where unity is both preserved and strengthened.

It seems a little ironic, doesn’t it, that a critical element to unity in the church is our dividing ourselves up into small groups meeting separately from one another. But in this day of the mega-church, where such a large percentage of evangelical Christians around the world belong to a church of many hundreds or even thousands of people, small group ministries become the only realistic means of living in true Christian intimacy with other believers. It is the only way I can live in Biblically nurturing relationships of accountability and grace. I can attend gathered worship services every week for the rest of my life and experience wonderful praise and amazing teaching, but if I am not in relationships with other believers who know what is going on in my life and who will pray specifically for me and ask me the hard questions about those things, what chance do I really have of significant Spiritual growth?

So, if you are looking for a way to create a culture of unity in your church (or, frankly, any other culture which would require Spiritual growth in your people), start by considering your small group ministries. Are the people in your church somehow involved in small groups? Again, whether they be Sunday School classes or home cell groups or even support/recovery groups, are you offering plenty of opportunities for them to get “plugged in” in this way? It is more than just a good idea–it is critical.

© Blake Coffee

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6 responses to “Small Groups are Key to Church Unity”

  1. Blake,

    I think there’s considerable wisdom in this, but wonder how we avoid cliques or “silos” of ministry that can in fact do harm to the body of the Church rather than enhance it. Any thoughts?

    1. JD-

      Great question. Cliques are a very real concern in our church culture. It seems to me that the first line of defense against that mentality would be solid training for small group leaders–training that gives them a deep understanding of what you are trying to accomplish and why small groups are an effective way to accomplish it. Like any good leadership training, it would need to hammer home the “mission” over and over again, celebrate when we get the mission right, and regularly evaluate how effectively we are accomplishing the mission.

      There may be other ways to defend against the clique mentality. I would welcome any thoughts anyone might have.

  2. Some churches have found that spawning new groups out of a cell group helps address that problem. Start a group, and immediately be looking for someone who could move out of your groujp to start a new one. Often one or two other people leaving to help that new group leader is adviseable. I guess that is like “thinning the herd”, so to speak. Build into the mission the goal of spawning new groups out of old ones. The cliques seems always to inhabit static groups.

  3. As some one who has tried to lead small groups which did not take off, and now is involved in a small group that I don’t feel in synch with, this is a very frustrating topic for me. I will be speaking with my pastor about it who runs the small groups this next week. I am comming to find that it is not a one-size fits all, and good intentions and a strong campaign will not bond people together. I agree that there needs to be more training for a leader, which I think my current group is lacking. It’s frustrating when you feel like you have so much to offer and no one seems to care or respond to your efforts and / or passions.

  4. We have a small clique outside, after services, after sunday, etc. our church, pastor, one married couple and the pastors son. The married couple live in the basement of the pastor’s house and are new christians, one year, out of jail and drug free. The son has finally come out , after a lot of our praying, and is ok and wants to witness for christ. I take part in the Wed. nite prayer meeting with these fellow christians, plus 2 more, and the same on Sun. nite bible study. Our church is a very small church, which is ok in the sight of the lord and all of us. At least you cannot hide in the crowd like large groups give the christian ideas. I just want to say, if the groups are controlled by the Heavenly father and a good leader, for all people, then ok. But, what happens when you see people come to church and never come back and it happens a lot?

  5. I would like to also let you know that it is very important to have relationships with each and every christian member and non-member of your church. This should start with the pastor, but how much of a relationship does God want us to have with the pastor? In order to continue to spread the word and win lost soles, we need to encourage others and help in any way we can to get us out on the harvest of lost souls road. How much do we value our ongoing relationships? If a broken relationship needs healing, how and what are you willing to sacrifice in order to get it healed and working again for the Lord? People talk about reconcilatio, but when it comes to making that happen, they are often not willing to do the things it requires.

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