The Purpose of Small Groups and Some Pitfalls to Avoid


Many churches utilize small groups for discipleship, fellowship, and to aid with shepherding. Over the last several years our church has formed several men’s and women’s small groups for the above reasons. But with any established ministry in the church, it is always good to revisit the purpose for that ministry to make sure that it still accords with Scripture. It is easy to carry on a church practice merely due to tradition instead of being driven by clear biblical principles and spiritual intentionality. In this article, I will consider the biblical basis for small groups, offer some suggestions for how to facilitate small groups, and consider a few potential dangers to avoid.

Are Small Groups Commanded in Scripture?
The short answer to this question is, “No.” Small groups as such are not commanded in the Bible. Nevertheless, while meeting in small groups is not commanded in Scripture, small groups are one way that we can facilitate obedience to commands that are given in Scripture. For example, we are called throughout the Bible to practice the one anothers, several of which can be fulfilled in small groups of believers gathering on a regular basis. Indeed, small groups are particularly suited for fulfilling specific one anothers: exhort one another (Heb 3:12), stir up one another to love and good deeds (Heb 10:24-25), love one another (John 13:34), bear one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2), admonish one another (Col 3:16), confess your sins to one another (James 5:16), offer hospitality to one another (1 Pet 4:9), encourage one another (1 Thess 4:18), build up one another (1 Thess 5:11). As churches form their small groups, they should consider each of these “one anothers” and find ways to fulfill them as they gather regularly with your small group. Making a deliberate connection between the purpose of the small group and specific one anothers will enable the group to maintain a biblical course.

What Should be the Content of the Small Group Meetings?
The specific content will depend on the purpose of the small group and the people in it. For example, you may have a small group of men who gather regularly to talk about marriage and fatherhood. Some young ladies may develop a small group to focus on fellowship and accountability. Regardless of a specific purpose, however, the two basic elements of every small group should be Scripture and prayer.

Someone might object to the Scripture requirement, for example, because their small group focuses on prayer, not Bible study. Devoting time with other Christians for the specific purpose of prayer is a great idea for a small group. Without some Scripture component, however, groups run the risk of praying apart from sound biblical guidance. Prayer needs to be fueled and guided by biblical truths so that we can be confident that we are praying according to God’s will (see 1 John 5:14; cf. John 15:7). Nevertheless, how these two elements are included in your small group can be up to the group facilitator/leader and group as a whole. For example, you might fulfill the Scripture portion by assigning a different person each week to teach through a passage of Scripture. Or, you may choose to have each member of the group read the same chapter of the Bible every day for the seven days prior to that week’s meeting and come ready to discuss that passage with your small group members. Prayer might consist of praying for each other’s requests, corporate church needs, or both. You may begin with prayer, or end with it.

What About other Elements?
Because Scripture doesn’t mandate small groups or give us specific instructions for how to manage them, groups are free to include other elements into the group that help facilitate their overall purpose (see above). At our church, so long as groups include a Scripture and prayer component, they are free to include any other social elements that they deem fitting for their group. Some groups may include a mealtime or gather around coffee (or both!). Some groups may not include any food or beverages during their meetings. We allow each group at our church to decide what secondary elements they want to be part of their small group meetings.

We also believe it is best to provide same-gender small groups so that the members of each group can freely share their prayer requests and their specific accountability needs. Apart from the requirement that each group will be composed of people of the same gender, our church doesn’t mandate any hard-and-fast rules as to exactly how to structure one’s small group. (These small groups are distinct from our home groups, which are larger and consist of both men and women.)

What are Some Pitfalls to Avoid?
Small groups can be helpful if they are designed and facilitated well, but the opposite is also true: small groups can be spiritually harmful if they are not structured and conducted according to biblical principles.

Potential Pitfalls when Studying Scripture
When it comes to studying the Bible together, the small group members must each strive to make sure they are seeking to rightly understand the biblical text, not trying to force an unlikely interpretation out of the text that suits their preferences. Small group study times should not be a time where folks offer multiple perspectives on the biblical text, assuming that all the diverging opinions can be equally valid. The group as a whole must agree from the outset that biblical study is for the purpose of discovering the truth, not merely offering one’s opinions about what they think the Scripture means (Ps 119:12, 27; 2 Tim 2:7, 15; 2 Peter 3:15-18). The aim should be to discover the truth through careful investigation and conform one’s heart and life to that truth.

Potential Pitfalls when it Comes to Prayer
When it comes to prayer, there are a few important pitfalls to avoid. First, prayer must not become a time of covert, pious-sounding gossip (Prov 18:8). We must be careful that we don’t provide information in our prayer requests that might sully another person’s reputation or invades on reasonable expectations of privacy (Prov 11:12).

Second, small group prayer should be a time when you are praying for significant personal, relational, or church-related requests. Small group prayer might include requests that relate to the individual’s spiritual health/growth, walk with the Lord, sanctification, physical health and provision, relationships, issues related to the church, and other biblical topics (e.g., world missions, governmental leaders). But we encourage our small groups to avoid the pitfall of praying for insignificant issues or concerns that are far removed from the other group members (e.g., my mom’s cousin’s cat recently died). Overall, prayer requests should be directed by biblical examples and instructions about prayer (e.g., Psalm 18:6; 119; Matt 6:7-13; Eph 1:15-23; 3:14-19; Phil 1:9-11; Col 1:9-12).

Potential Pitfalls when it Comes to Confessing Sin
Third, when confessing sin to one another, small group members must make sure that they are not confessing their sin in a way that may defile or tempt the other small group members to sin. Confession of sin to one another is a vital discipline that helps us uproot stubborn patterns of sin in our lives (James 5:16), but it cannot be done in a way that may tempt another Christian to sin. When confessing our sins, we must humble ourselves (James 4:6) and say enough to expose the sin (Prov 28:13), but not give details that may defile another person.

Also, small group members must avoid commiserating in their confession of sin. If several people in the small group are struggling with the same sin, then the mere practice of regular confession each week will not do much good. Rather, those who are struggling with a particular sin should seek out counsel and accountability from someone who has made greater progress in that area (see Gal 6:1ff) while at the same time using small groups as a time to request prayer for that sin.

Confessing sin is an act that requires some amount of trust between small group members. Therefore, if your group is newly formed or if you are welcoming in a new member, you cannot force them to confess their sin to the group. Actually, while I believe confession of sin to other Christians is a biblical spiritual discipline that every believer should practice (James 5:16), I do not think it is necessary to include confession as a necessary element of your prayer time if there are some in the group who are presently uncomfortable with the practice.

Potential Pitfalls When it Comes to Group Exclusivity
Finally, small groups are an excellent means to developing deeper relationships within the body of Christ. But individuals within these groups must be careful that they don’t develop an attitude of exclusivity toward other members in the church. As relationships deepen among small group members, it may become easy to focus only on your small group relationships at the expense of developing relationships and showing kindness to other saints in the church. While it is not the obligation of a Christian to develop serious friendships with every person at their church (see Prov 18:24), all believers are called walk in humility and kindness toward others (Rom 12:16; Eph 4:2; Phil 2:3). 

Small groups can be an effective means of spiritual growth and of the development of Christ-centered friendships. If you include Scripture and prayer as essential elements of your group and you avoid the pitfalls described above, I believe you will experience rich blessing from God as you love and serve one another through small groups.

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