The trouble with small groups today is they are focused on curriculum, study, and discussion. Curricula produced for small groups assumes that study and discussion forms people as disciples of Jesus Christ. What they do is help Christians learn about the Bible, theology, Methodism, etc. But the people are rarely changed. This approach to Christian formation is akin to giving a group of people who want to learn to play the piano a series of studies about the piano and how the piano is played. At the end of several months of study and discussion they are very well informed about every aspect of the piano and piano playing. When they sit down at a keyboard they know where all the notes are, but they have no idea how to make music with the instrument they have devoted so much time and energy studying.
While study groups certainly have value, and should be included in a disciple-making small group system, they are unlikely to form disciples of Jesus Christ. The groups are wonderful places for fellowship, and members may develop relationships of love and trust with one another. But the curriculum and relationships formed are centered in the interests of the members or group leader. Small groups focused on delivering information end up forming consumers of religious goods (curriculum and books) provided by religious professionals rather than disciples of Jesus Christ.
The trouble with most small groups is they assume human beings are “fundamentally thinking things” (see You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith). They assume that disciples are formed by what we learn and can know about God and the Bible. To see the problem with this assumption, especially regarding discipleship, we need to look to Jesus. When Jesus noticed two would-be disciples following him he didn’t turn and ask them, “What do you believe?” or “What do you know?” He asked “What do you want?” (John 1:38). He invited them to follow him and “come and see.”
Jesus knew that humans are essentially desiring beings. That’s why he asked them “What do you want?” and then invited the two to follow him to his home where they could see and experience him. Jesus didn’t give them a book to read and discuss among themselves. He invited them into his home to share his life, to learn and imitate his habits. Jesus knew that when his followers shared his life and practiced his habits they would become like him. When others looked at the lives of his followers they would see Jesus.
I have three suggestions for addressing the trouble with small groups:
- Dispel the belief that we are fundamentally “thinking things.” We need to approach Christian formation from the same place the Bible does. We are creatures of desire. “You are what you love.” We are moved by our desires, what we want, much more than by what we know. People coming to the church want to experience God who became one of us in a Jew from Nazareth, Jesus.
- Adopt a congregational rule of life. “A rule of life is a pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness. It fosters gifts of the Spirit in personal life and human community, helping to form us into the persons God intends us to be” (Marjorie Thompson in Soul Feast). I recommend the General Rule of Discipleship, which is a contemporary summary of the Wesleyan rule of life known as the General Rules: To witness to Jesus Christ in the world and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.The General Rule of Discipleship is simple and easy to memorize. It is balanced and practicable. And it helps members follow Jesus by guiding them in doing what he told his followers to do (see Matthew 22:37-40 and John 13:34-35).
- All small groups studies set aside up to 1/3 of each meeting to mutual accountability for how each member is practicing the congregation’s rule of life and prayer. For example, if a small group study meets weekly for 90 minutes, then it sets aside 30 minutes for each member to give account of how they have practiced the General Rule of Discipleship in their daily lives. Each member could select an accountability partner with whom they share their account during the meeting and, perhaps, they could be in touch with one another throughout the week for mutual encouragement in practicing discipleship.
John Wesley knew that religious knowledge must lead to the formation of habits he called “means of grace” (acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion). Such habits form character he called “holy tempers.” The Apostle Paul called them “fruit of the Spirit:” love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
Habits also form our “affections.” When we do what Jesus told us to do his love becomes part of us. We love what and who he loves. This becomes possible only in small groups that allow relationships of love and trust through the practice of mutual accountability and support for loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind and loving who God loves. Wesley called this way of love “holiness of heart and life.”
Wesley described small groups as being people “having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation.”
Small groups that contribute to disciple formation need to do more than study and discuss. They need a balance of learning and accountability and support for practicing the means of grace (acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion). The process of learning and accountability builds relationships of love and support centered in the life and mission of Jesus Christ. Balanced small groups help the congregation to keep its baptismal covenant and faithfully pursue its mission to equip Christ-followers who join Christ and his mission in the world.