Recently, I listened to a pastor explain why small groups are a vital part of Christian life.
The smallness, he emphasized, was exactly the point. In a small group, everyone knows each other and can keep up with each other’s trials, prayer requests, joys, and daily life business. Small groups can mobilize quickly to meet group needs, share fellowship, and create community. In small groups it is easier to tell one’s stories, share one’s needs and failures. Small groups are uniquely situated to provide ministry in the areas in which they are embedded. And most of all, small groups offer believers necessary day to day practicing in fulfilling God’s commands for us to love and serve others.
That all rings true to me, and it sounds wonderful, actually. It sounds deeply Biblical, even. So, without further ado, I’d like to offer a modest proposal:
Shrink the churches.
I mean it. Shrink the churches. Turn the churches into small groups, and stop offloading the gospel work of Christian relationship to optional weekly gatherings. Make the church a place where the theory behind small groups can flourish.
But big churches can make a big impact on the community! Big churches can put big money where their mouth is. Big churches mean more love, more grace, more forgiveness, more fun!
I don’t want to imply here that big churches aren’t great, or wonderful, or that they don’t please the people who go to them. I don’t want to imply that big churches cannot do, or have not done, wonderful things. But I do think a strong Christian fallacy is the idea that only big churches can do these things, that bigger automatically means better or more, and that bigger is always preferable.
I know a small country church that out-gives every other behemoth in its association during mission offerings. I know three-people ministries that reached entire communities with their efforts. Individual Christians and small groups of dedicated believers have been the salt and light in their communities in ways that astonish and amaze. The Bible shows us over and over again that there is great power to be had in the small: that the widow’s mite carries the favor of God, that one prophet stood up against Baal’s many prophets; that the testimony of a woman at the well can move the heart of an entire town.
Everyone wants to think big. New church parking lots with four times the spaces! New church buildings with yoga rooms and coffee shops for the growing congregation! Five different services to accommodate the sheer numbers! A pastoral leadership team that rivals the President’s cabinet in size to meet everyone’s needs! Dollars and dollars invested in countless missions programs!
None of that is necessarily bad. But it is also not required.
What strikes me the most is that as our churches keep growing and growing in size, we become more and more aware of a profound lack that results. And it’s the lack that small groups are built to address. When your congregation number soars past 300, you find that you must confront a host of unexpected problems along with the blessings of bigness:
- Half the congregation has no idea who the other half even is, and two longtime congregants of the same church could blithely pass each other in the grocery store without so much as noticing each other because they don’t recognize each other’s faces.
- Individuals and individual needs can get lost in the shuffle. Nobody notices when Susan stops showing up, because they assume she’s in another pew or at another service. Carol shares her father’s surgery with the pastor, but the people three rows over don’t know to even pray about it. Visitors thinking I’d like to feel less alone show up, meet a thousand friendly faces, and walk out with a free swag bag, fifteen invites to future events and places to plug in, and no real relationships established.
- Ministry and any sort of organizing can become unwieldy due to scope and scale.
- Pastoral work evolves, becomes more complicated, and requires a great deal more delegation.
And so we thrust forward small groups as the way to emulate the New Testament church. We point out that they help people get to know each other, and give a platform for individuals to share needs, and allow for leaner, meaner, more immediate ministries and missions. After that, what we call “church” becomes “the place where people go for the service and other events” or “the giant organizing body that brings all the pieces together for important large-scale things” and “the body to which we belong but the entirety of we don’t actually know” and the small group becomes “the place where people do the real work of studying and learning about God and loving and serving each other.”
I don’t really think we should shrink all the churches, of course (though I do think we’d be surprised by what might happen if we shrunk an awful lot of them). But I do wish that in the Age of the Megachurch, of the Franchise Church, of Bigger is Better, that we at least allowed ourselves to ask the question:
What if big isn’t really always best?
What happens if we re-centered within the church the duties we have delegated to small groups?
What happens if we let God work with the mite, and the grain, the loaves, and the fishes?
What happens if instead of creating small groups that emulated the New Testament church, we actually let our churches emulate the New Testament church?
Surely, at least every now and again, it’s worth wondering.