Looking back at the hundred-or-so conflicted congregations with whom I have been called to consult over the last couple of decades, here is an important observation: only a small handful (or so) of them had a strong small group ministry. The vast majority of them either had no small group ministry or they had a tired, ineffective small group or Sunday School ministry. I believe there is a correlation. I believe there is a direct relationship between small group ministries and church unity.
For some decades now, church leaders have been recognizing the importance of small groups as a critical tool for Spiritual formation (or for Spiritual “transformation”, depending on whose vernacular you favor). We have all begun to see that, only in the intimacy and accountability of a small group of friends gathered together around the Word of God, can we live the life God has called us to live and become the Christians God has called us to become. It was true in the lives of the apostles (the first small group ever) and it is still true today. Whether you call them Sunday School, Bible Study, home groups, cell groups, prayer groups, gospel communities, support groups or recovery groups doesn’t matter. They all have slightly different aims, but one reality is the same for all of them: creating a safe environment with equal parts grace and truth and where we “lean into” one another’s lives is where real Spiritual transformation occurs.
But I will take this observation one step further. Because small groups are such a powerful tool for Spiritual transformation, they are also a key ingredient to unity in a local body of believers. Why? Because Spiritual formation is a key ingredient to unity. If the Spirit Himself is the central figure in all questions about unity, then our own Spiritual growth (i.e., learning to allow the Spirit to live through me and to find Him living through others) is likewise a critical part of experiencing unity in the church.
I know some pastors feel a little insecure when it comes to small groups, because the pastor definitely has less control over matters of doctrinal purity when scripture is being taught and/or discussed in hundreds of little groups both within and outside the walls of the church. It is also true that small groups can sometimes become “gossip groups” where unity is not supported but rather destroyed. So, small groups–especially those meeting outside the church–have not always enjoyed the support of pastors and church leaders. But that does not change the reality that small groups, when done correctly, are where Spiritual growth happens best. In the words of my pastor, “they are where the New Testament church really becomes the church.”
If small groups are where we grow Spiritually, then they are likewise where Christ-centered relationships grow. In this way, they are where unity is both preserved and strengthened.
It seems a little ironic, doesn’t it, that a critical element to unity in the church is our dividing ourselves up into small groups meeting separately from one another. But in this day of the mega-church, where such a large percentage of evangelical Christians around the world belong to a church of many hundreds or even thousands of people, small group ministries become the only realistic means of living in true Christian intimacy with other believers. It is the only way I can live in Biblically nurturing relationships of accountability and grace. I can attend gathered worship services every week for the rest of my life and experience wonderful praise and amazing teaching, but if I am not in relationships with other believers who know what is going on in my life and who will pray specifically for me and ask me the hard questions about those things, what chance do I really have of significant Spiritual growth?
So, if you are looking for a way to create a culture of unity in your church (or, frankly, any other culture which would require Spiritual growth in your people), start by considering your small group ministries. Are the people in your church somehow involved in small groups? Again, whether they be Sunday School classes or home groups or even support/recovery groups, are you offering plenty of opportunities for them to get “plugged in” in this way? It is more than just a good idea–it is critical.
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