I Am Starting To Have A Problem With The Church Outsourcing Its Work

It’s small group recruiting season again.

I thought this was only limited to one denomination; it is not.  As I found out just this Sunday, it is apparently pretty common for every church now to pass out what I’ve deemed the Catalogue of The Small Groups: a list of ongoing groups for various ages and genders on a wide variety of topics.

Join! the church exhorted us yesterday during the service, running a promo that listed the benefits of small groups.  Join! they reminded us last week in a special aside before the traditional service.  Three weeks ago, a man a few pews back – familiar with us because he’s greeted us for the past several Sundays – enthused, “It seems like you guys have been here a while – make sure you get into a small group!”

Or you’ll go on being alone and invisible.  At least, that seems to be the implication.

As an introvert, I already struggle with small groups, and I’ve come across a few that have fallen victim to common small group problems.  But in most cases I’m not bothered by the existence of small groups in a general sense.  Rather, what I’m bothered by is the prevailing belief in most churches these days that small groups are where “relationships” and “intimacy” and “growth” is done.  That small groups are where people ought to go if they want to get to know believers, be ministered to, or find a supportive community.

I’m bothered that, as a church, we have outsourced the actual ministry of love and the work of any functional church to small group ministry.

I wish I was exaggerating, but this is all a part of how small groups are “sold” these days.  Want a group of people to pray for you or with you?  Join a small group.  Want people to show up with casseroles and company when a loved one dies?  Join a small group.  Want people to notice if you abandon church or come visit if you’re sick or celebrate a milestone with you?  Join a small group.  Otherwise, you’re out of luck.

It’s funny because for all the sermons I hear disparaging “Sunday Christians” who just show up on Sunday to hear a sermon, the outsourcing of ministry work to small groups is resulting in just that: church is becoming a place where you go to hear sermons and singing and attend events.  The real work of love is done elsewhere, and on other days – and only if you join a small group.

But churches these days are just so big, I hear.  The only way to minister to people properly is to break them down into manageable groups.  I understand the dilemma, but I wonder then why we insist on our churches being so big if this is the result.  Because the result of outsourcing ministry work to small groups is that people who don’t connect with small groups – either because they’re first-time visitors and uncertain, because they’re ill or face difficulties, because their schedules don’t permit, because they’re unbelievers – run the risk of falling through the cracks.  If you don’t “plug in” it’s hard to get to know anyone, hard to have any needs met, hard to serve, hard to do anything.

I know a lot of believers who, rather than go through the rigmarole, simply give up going.

This saddens me because it’s not impossible to be a “big church” and minister to those who show up. I attended a 300-member church many years ago, and the first thing the people in the pew around me did was offer to take my husband and I to lunch.  They made a point to learn our names, to visit, to pray for us.  You know, the things small groups do now.

It’s frustrating not to have that resource any longer, or to feel that there’s yet another obstacle between me and it.

It’s not that small groups are all bad.  “Man,” my pastor enthused this past Sunday.  “I was sick a couple weeks ago and really just having a bad time and man, am I thankful for my small group.  They just really stepped in to minister to me.”

I’m glad they were there for him. I’m glad that people who want to be involved find their small groups (in some cases, anyway) to be loving and dependable. But I remember a time when the church itself used to fill that role, without requiring voluntary participation in what has become something of a transactional affair: join the small group and reap the rewards of being cared for.

I miss the way it used to be.

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11 responses to “I Am Starting To Have A Problem With The Church Outsourcing Its Work

  1. Good post. And of course, I’ve shared similar, such as in this post: https://lightenough.wordpress.com/2013/04/26/are-we-being-or-doing-community/ For anyone else, Samaritan’s Song and I often think alike. : ) Oh and this post too: https://lightenough.wordpress.com/2012/05/25/does-your-church-make-people-jump-through-hoops-stop-it/ Hope you don’t mind the links. No obligation to read them. That second post attracted a lot of attention (for my little blog) when I first wrote it. Stop making people jump through hoops to be loved!!

    In the first post, someone commented about “small group ministry promoted at the expense of whole-community development.” And I think that is a key thing you are getting at. Thanks for writing this post – more Christians need to hear these concerns.

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    • Link away, by all means! I love reading your stuff and I bet the folks who read here will, too. 🙂

      That’s an excellent comment and a pithy summation of the problem – and yet small group ministry keeps proliferating and growing bigger and bigger. It’s the “in” thing now… Frustrating!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for those links! I agree completely.

      Personally, I think the issue is three fold. First, community is a function of size. The bigger the church, the less connected everyone will be, because you just can’t truly know that many people.

      Second, it’s a function of locality. These days, people are willing to travel to find the right place, and you can end up with a church with the majority of its members living half an hour away from each other. That’s why small groups are often regional.

      And third, I think community is a function of how much individuals are willing to risk. This is the big one for me. And what I mean by it is that I think most American Christians value their privacy too highly and only truly connect to people they know well. And where does that leave new comers? Where does that leaves the introverts (like me)? I’ve found that even though we’re in church, no one feels comfortable taking deeply about their faith. Not face to face, anyway. We’ll spill our guts behind a podium, and we’ll spill then even more on social media, but not in person.

      That’s why I’m here. It’s why I started sharing my Bible margin notes on a blog. I want to talk out of the box with people who are willing to risk a little.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Great thoughts all. I’ll admit I’ve often wanted to tackle the concept of the big church in many blog posts before, and may yet – I think it’s worthwhile for believers to question *why* we need our churches to be so enormous. There’s this belief that numbers=success, but sometimes too-big congregations can crush a lot of growing things underfoot.

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  2. I find that the problems goes even further back – so long as there’s been age-segregation (K-12, adults) and station-segregated (marrieds, singles) groups – people don’t interact in ways that cross the group they’re assigned to or choose. Men interact with men, elders interact with elders, women with women, youth with youth – so when small groups came along, it was just another group. The same people tend to be in the same groups. There’s no interacting with anyone from other groups at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, that’s a problem too, and small groups have just reified those divisions a little more. I was fortunate to be in mixed-demographic SS classes at my church growing up and was hugely blessed by being exposed to lots of different kinds of people – it’s a shame that small group ministry can further that sort of stratification.

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  3. Thank you for this. My own church, which only has about 100 members at most, recently began a move in this direction, emphasizing small group meetings and monthly potlucks as the primary tools for building and maintaning relationships. And it’s all happening so that the Sunday morning service can become more of a “sacred space.” Real life, I suppose, is just too messy for church. As a father of four children, three of whom have special needs including high-functioning autism, I’m out of luck. And my kids will de-sanctify that space in about 30 seconds. This transition is in its early stages, I’m trying to fight it, but it’s a strong tide, isn’t it?

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    • Oof, that sounds so frustrating, but thanks for sharing your experiences! I think you’ll find you’re not alone – there are a lot of people who find the whole small-group trend to be more of a stumbling block than a help. You’re right, too – that sense of “real life” as being something that is messy and therefore best handled in small groups is a growing problem. And it can be so alienating, especially when there are people and families like yours that then end up looped out by the whole process.

      It IS a strong tide, and I feel like I’ve been fighting against it forever – especially because to so many people I think it sounds “ideal” and welcoming,” and it really doesn’t occur to them that there are believers who actually see this trend as an *impediment* to fellowship.

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    • Great point! This really makes me realize that “church on Sunday” means a lot of different things to different people. Maybe we need to start with defining what church on Sunday should be… And go from there. But then again, we’d never all be able to agree on what church on Sunday should be.

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  4. The church I used to attend started doing short-term small groups, so you join the small group for just six weeks going through a certain lesson or program then it takes a break until the next six week small group period starts. I guess it’s easier for people since it means less commitment. But really, why can’t we just be friends and care about each other all the time?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, our church is doing the same thing. It sort of bewilders me because small groups are meant by their nature to be “doing life together,” but…I guess in this case we’re only doing life together for a month and a half! Friendship really ought to be a lot more organic and natural in the church than it seems to be.

      Liked by 2 people

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