Hopefully, the foregoing material (see the previous three issues of ESN) has provided enough basics about small groups to get started. Now, lest anyone think that all will be smooth sailing, it’s time to survey some of the problems that can arise.
As a general guideline, it will be helpful if elders can distinguish among three types of problems: 1) Objections – honest or misguided concerns, often raised at the beginning; 2) Design Flaws – significant weaknesses in key areas of layout or execution; and 3) Little Foxes – small snags that require minor course corrections. Let’s think about each and what can be done to overcome them.
Often coming from sincere individuals, these are usually based on ignorance or fear. Like all groups, brethren assemblies have their traditions, and change does not come easily. Elders must provide clear communication on the needs of the body for increased fellowship and outreach while patiently helping the believers to take small steps forward. The elders should pave the way with studies from Scripture on the many facets of fellowship, opportunities for ministry, and the responsibilities described in scores of “one-another” passages that come alive when lived out practically.
Common concerns include misconceptions about format (“sharing”) and formation of cliques or splinter groups. Counter these by emphasizing the goals of getting to know people and getting them involved. Help them understand that the composition of the groups will change at times and that group leaders will meet regularly with the elders to monitor activities and ensure unity.
At times, a small group will grow too large to be effective and may need to divide into two smaller groups. Some may resist breaking up a “good thing.” I have often reminded groups that when a young couple announces that the wife is pregnant, there is instantaneous joy at the thought of an “addition.” No one laments that a friend will “divide into two”! So should it be with small groups. When the worry is raised about a group growing large and breaking away from the assembly, our elders’ immediate response is “Go for it; we’ll help and support you; we need lots of new assemblies.” The objection disappears quickly.
Three major barriers to blessing are:
1) Poor Leadership. This is seen when elders are unable to develop a desire in the group leaders to work together, or in the assembly to give small groups a try. It can also be seen within a small group when no one is prepared to give guidance. There must be shepherding, and the sheep must know who the shepherds are. Elders and group leaders must have a good working relationship. Training, ongoing support, and a clear sense of mission are critical. By sharing in the pastoral care of the flock, leaders can relieve tired elders while preparing for the day when they themselves will be recognized as elders.
2) Unclear Purpose. Problems are inevitable when the impression is given that small groups are just another optional “program,” rather than the primary fellowship meeting of the assembly. Because it is natural for the intellect to dominate, fellowship can be squeezed out as the group becomes a Bible study. To emphasize fellowship, choose names that reflect goals like “care groups” or “shepherd groups.” I strongly suspect that those who are most opposed to intimate fellowship, demanding only Bible study, may be threatened by the prospect of having bitter relationships exposed.
3) Too Structured. The sign of healthy groups is not strict controls and puppet-like subordination to the elders. The needs of people are unpredictable and unscheduled. If a group design lacks flexibility and cannot adjust to changing needs, people become servants to the group rather than the group being a servant to the people. Well-run groups will be characterized by order and respect for spiritual authority. Signs of health are individual and group growth, as barriers crumble through the entrance of truth and light in an atmosphere of love and trust, i.e., a family.
As parents (and farmers) can testify, growth is not always neat. “Where no oxen are, the crib is clean….. (Proverbs 14:4). Babies will spill their milk, but thank God for the babies! Here are a few tips in dealing with the small issues that crop up: – Don’t be afraid to ask for help and ideas. Others have been enjoying small groups for years..
– Be creative in problem solving. For example, if some people favor small groups and others prefer a combined meeting, alternate between the two for awhile.
– Listen to concerns and deal with problems early as did the Apostles in Acts 6
– Don’t live in fear of problems. Rare is the problem that can escape the notice of the core people in an assembly where open communication exists. Every elder, deacon, small group leader, host or hostess is a pair of eyes to take note of needs. The small group leader meeting is a place to discuss, pray, and plan strategy.
– Emphasize family spirit, training, equipping, outreach and spiritual gifts for service so that the group does not stagnate.
– Encourage the women and young people to get involved, remembering that men do the speaking and leading when the assembly gathers as a whole.
– Welcome visitors warmly but let them look on as the group carries out the functions of a family.
– Encourage accountability because that’s the point at which growth often begins. There is a wide difference between cult accountability (“I want you to be accountable to me,”), and healthy accountability ( “I’ll help with accountability concerning what you are convinced God wants you to do”).
Elders should cultivate clear troubleshooting, which is the ability to discern and correct problems in the early stages. Because the principle of small groups is biblical, no obstacle can permanently cripple where a humble, teachable, positive spirit is found. Indeed, history is filled with examples of how the church under persecution laid aside imposing structures and flourished in small companies gathering quietly in family-sized groups.
Because small groups are geared to individual assemblies and believers, every group will be unique in its outworking of fellowship and outreach. But if nurtured by prayer, good leadership and plenty of love, small group ministry holds tremendous potential for growth and blessing. It will take some time to fine tune details to your needs locally, but the rewards will more than compensate the investment of time and labor.