I have been doing a little thinking about the concept of small groups. I have to admit that I like them, but I have some concerns. In the last two churches I have been in the small groups have struggled. I wonder is there ways that we can tweak them so that they can be more effective.
I once heard Erwin McManus say that he thought that you would have to be mad to open your heart before a small group. I thought he was being cynical. However, I think he has a point. If our small groups are a random collection of people who happen to live in an area and be free to meet on a certain evening, then it is unreasonable to expect that will have the required personal chemistry needed for genuine intimacy. I think that pairs, or triplets, of people meeting together have a better chance of delivering the intimacy that people often hope to experience in their small groups.
Our churches struggle with the burden of busyness. I don't want people to think that they have to attend yet another meeting in the church. I don't want a church community that doesn't give people the time to spend with their families or developing meaningful relationships with those who are not yet Christians.
Then there is the fact that small groups can encourage fragmentation. I like the idea of the church coming together regularly to pray. The traditional prayer meeting has some things going for it. Although in truth the numbers who attend traditional prayer-meetings tend to be minimal.
There is the need to have the right material. Small groups can end up having directionless conversations if they are not focused on good material and the discussion is not well led. I also think that prayer needs to be a central part of small groups and that it is a pity that so few groups spend time in praise.
But one of my biggest worries about small groups is that they tend to be inward-looking. A small group should have a sense of mission. A small group should not simply be pre-occupied with the immediate needs of those present. The first place that small groups should show their concern for the wider world is in their praying. But I think there should be more than that. I like the concept that Mark Stibbe talks about of MSCs (mission-shaped communities). Perhaps small groups could take upon themselves the task of running a Christianity Explored course, taking on a ministry in the church community or volunteering in the local community.
So here are my suggestions for tweaking small groups:
1. Have realistic expectations of what small groups can deliver. We shouldn't seek to manufacture an intimacy that might simply not be there.
2. Stop making attendance at small groups a guilt related issue. Some people may find that they find mutual encouragement and up-building in other ways, such as meeting regularly to pray with one or two other Christians. Similarly, some people will better spend their time at home with their families or developing meaningful relationships with with non-Christians. However, if you say that you don't have time but happen to spend hours in front of the television then you may need to rethink your priorities.
3. Make prayer a priority for your small group. Also praise should be a part of what we do together when we meet.
4. Turn your small group into a mission-shaped community. Maybe you could meet together one week and volunteer with a charity the alternative week etc.5. On a regular basis small groups should not be on and the whole congregation should devote extra time that week to united prayer.