Small groups can be a source of life, growth, and grace. So why do so many pastors have gripes about the development of small group ministry in their church? Honestly, there are a lot of reasons.

A quick look at Jesus’ ministry, the Book of Acts, and the New Testament Epistles reveals that small groups formed the lifeblood of the early church. Are pastors rejecting New Testament practices, or do they have good reasons to distrust many standard small group models? Do they really hate small groups, or are they reacting to design flaws common in traditional small group models?  

I think it’s the latter. Many small groups share strategic flaws in how they are organized and led. (Such groups are about as distasteful as coffee made with pickle juice.) Whatever you want to call them—home groups, cell groups, life groups, growth groups—here are seven common reasons many pastors have legitimate gripes with small groups. 

  1. Group leaders go rogue and start their own church or ministry. They use the small group to grow a platform and followers and take the group members with them when they leave. They pillage the flock and break relationships with the pastor and church to expand their ministry. Gifted but self-centered leaders can end up dividing churches.

  2.  Groups become centers for gossip, negativity, backbiting, and complaining before and after the official group meeting. In the absence of appropriate structure, group members feel free to gather and “chat” about what’s wrong with people, the pastor, and the church. 

  3. Groups become a gathering of disgruntled church members. Sometimes, influential but unhappy church members start their own “homegroup” and gather those who are similarly dissatisfied. Meetings become a place for the disgruntled to share their issues and vent frustrations. This kind of venting, of course, does nothing to address actual relational problems. It makes things worse by providing a thin veneer of respectability that makes complaining seem acceptable and allows the group to self-reinforce the negative opinions of its members. While these leaders don’t “go rogue” they subtly undermine the church and pastor. It’s like Absalom, “If only I were pastor (king), I’d do things this way, and we’d all be much happier.” (2 Samuel 15:4) 

  4. Groups attract narcissists who are eager for positions of authority and power. Their professed desire to “serve others” is really a smokescreen. What they really want is a platform to be noticed for their gifts and a position to exercise power and control over others. Once at the helm of a group, the narcissist becomes rigid, controlling, and abusive. They don’t tolerate disagreement or differing viewpoints and are great at self-justification and blaming. If pastors allow the narcissistic influence of such a leader, it will cause significant damage to group members and the greater church community. People can end up leaving. 

  5. Groups become dumping grounds. During some small group meetings, time for “personal sharing” and “prayer requests” becomes so toxic that hazmat suits are needed! Here, group members use these opportunities to vent their drama, frustration, unhappiness, anger, and bitterness in the name of “honesty and authenticity.” These folks are not interested in doing the hard work needed to grow through their situations. Instead, they feel the need to vent and share the misery with everyone else. Backhanded complaining is confused as “being spiritual.” For example, I’ve heard women trash their husbands (and husbands trash their wives) in ways that dishonor them both. When it comes time for prayer requests, they want prayers so that their spouse will “change.” Or, during prayer requests, things can sound like, “I feel so burdened for Pastor _____. His sermons have just not been what they used to be. Can we please pray that God will get him back on track again?” 

  6. Groups built on a foundation of pain are not life-giving. In the name of mercy and compassion, some small group leaders routinely allow the group to become centered around the person(s) in the most pain. Codependent leaders and group members then consistently spend most of their time trying to comfort, encourage, and sometimes “fix” the most hurting person in the group. In times of crisis, this can be appropriate. But, when the group consistently becomes about “who is in the most pain tonight,” it can eventually suck all the healthy air out of the room. Of course, codependents thrive in this atmosphere, and heathier, non-codependent members are marginalized, become “fixers,” or leave the group. Support and recovery groups are fantastic, but these have distinctly different objectives. Is this what God asks all small groups to be? I doubt it. 

  7. Groups that focus on Bible study undermine the faith of many when led by immature, poorly trained teachers. Bible study can actually become unbiblical. Now that we live in an age of access to an unprecedented number of teachings, podcasts, and courses about Scripture and the Christian life, we need to be discerning. Some of this material is helpful, while others are downright dangerous for growing believers. Whatever we study, it needs to be backed up by sound theology. Listening to the newest podcast from the latest and most trendy big-name preacher does not qualify me to lead a Bible study. Far too many think we’ve become experts without the training, wisdom, or character to sustain healthy leadership and a healthy small group. If I had a dollar for everyone who feels called to “lead” and assumes that they should get a platform and microphone to begin teaching and building legions of loyal followers, I’d be a wealthy man! I am not knocking Bible teaching. Still, it’s just too easy for leaders to wander off course—unintentionally guiding group members away from sound teaching and the church. 

These characteristics are so toxic that we need to run—and not walk—to the nearest small group exit. Let’s look at rebuilding a healthy model. To begin, we must answer a few questions:

  • Is there a way to create a new model for small groups with structures that bring life instead? 

  • Can we develop new systems that provide maximum protection from these seven issues? 

  • Can we redesign training for small group leaders that grows character and empowers them to share their hearts, gifts, and passions to create sustainable, transformational communities?

My new book will help answer these questions for your church or small group. Beyond Becoming: A Field Guide to Sustainable, Transformational Communities provides a blueprint for small group life intentionally focused on growing stronger, grace-based attachments with God and others. Well-structured, practical activities help group members experience and share God’s amazing grace together. 

Watch for the release on May 1, 2022. Find out more at www.equippinghearts.com or Amazon.com

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