In my occasional travels, I have enjoyed discussing the subject of small groups with assembly elders, and hearing the different ways God has used the gathering of believers in homes to strengthen and encourage His people. Variations are limitless, but enhanced fellowship, active discipleship, outreach to neighbors, and opportunities for the young to get involved are just some of the benefits. Sometimes questions are raised, so I’d like to address a few of the ones I hear most often.
One common question is whether the practice of small group meetings is something new? Good question. Actually, the idea isn’t new at all. It seems clear from the book of Acts that the earliest Christians met not only in united public gatherings, but also in small numbers in private homes (Acts 2:46; 5:42; 20:20). Anyone familiar with the wonderful work of God in England in the 1700’s through the labors of the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, will remember that the heart of that work which reached thousands depended on what they called “class meetings;” weekly gatherings of 12-20 believers for confession, accountability and growth.
A related question is: Are you saying that all local churches must have small groups? Emphatically not! All biblically based gatherings enjoy the blessings of fellowship (I John 1:3), and fellowship has its practical side (Acts 2:42 – 47), but each is autonomous as to the structure of its various meetings. A midweek small group ministry is just one way that some assemblies provide intimate fellowship for the believers. Some things are easier to learn in the informal environment of a home, with a few friends that have come to know each other well. Believers can learn to pray together, discuss the Word together, and grow in the accountability of being faithful to commitments they have made. The truly important thing is that every church have a living, practical approach to genuine ‘koinonia’ or fellowship.
Divide the Church?
Another question has been raised repeatedly, and reveals some cloudy thinking on a basic spiritual principle: “Don’t small groups divide the local church?” After all, division is a work of the flesh (Gal. 5:20), and the Lord loves unity among His people (John 17:21-23), so shouldn’t we insist that all meetings be held in the same place and include all those in fellowship? Let’s think about this in some detail.
Recently, I have been studying through the book of Joshua, and enjoying the pointed lessons that relate to spiritual warfare in the Christian life. The first city facing the nation of Israel once they had crossed the Jordon, was the city of Jericho (Joshua 2, 6). God worked in mighty power as the whole army circled the city until the moment came in which the walls fell down flat, and the city was taken.
In chapter 7, we read next of the attempt to overthrow the city of Ai. Instead of victory, Israel fled in defeat, and Joshua fell on his face in discouragement before the Lord. What went wrong? Much of chapter 7 traces the process by which Achan’s sin of taking for himself some of the spoils was uncovered and judged.
When we come into chapter 8, Joshua is given a comforting word from the Lord that “all the people of war” should arise and go against Ai, because the Lord had given them the city (8:1 KJV). Several commentators have called attention to the contrast with the first attack on Ai in which Joshua was advised (without seeking counsel from the Lord) that only a couple thousand warriors should be sent against such a small city (7:2). This, we are told, was part of the problem! Israel should never have been divided.
Although there is no suggestion in the text that Israel had sinned by sending only some of the men of war against Ai, it might be granted that all the warriors were needed based upon the Lord’s words that Joshua should take them all. But note the divine instruction that follows immediately about how the battle was to be conducted. “Lay thee an ambush for the city behind it” (vs. 2). In order to conduct a successful ambush, the warriors must be divided into two companies. One company draws the enemy away from the gates; the other company rushes in and takes the city. And this is exactly what happened.
Here is a spiritual principle that every elder must know. True unity is not a matter of being in the same place physically; but a matter of oneness of heart! Israel could not stand before her enemies, because sin had come in and brought a spiritual estrangement from the Lord. Once that condition was confessed and judged, the Lord was with His people again, and the very method He chose to conquer the city required dividing the warriors into different groups. As each went to his different place of battle, he went with the quiet assurance that a great inner unity of heart had been restored.
Perhaps, a long answer to a simple question, but how important it is for the life of the church. How many assemblies proclaim “unity” in their outward appearance as all meet in the same room and same building. But below the surface there may be smoldering grudges and long-standing bitterness which have crippled any true fellowship that may once have existed.
Elders may choose to have all the believers meet together in the same place for every meeting of the local church, or they may find it helpful to have several homes open for small groups to meet. It is a blessed truth that a warm spirit of unity and harmony may exist among those gathering in different homes, and in fact, some have found that this practice can contribute much to such a spirit of unity. Of course we should have known these things, as we sometimes sing, “We are not divided; all one body we.” This is true even though the body of Christ actually meets in many different locations all around the world, and ever awaits the day when, for the first time since there were local churches, the whole church will meet together in the same place—at the marriage supper of the Lamb.