After more than two decades of promotion in books, magazines, seminars, and classes, the fact about small groups is that few churches can testify to success. Among the reasons are:
- We have few role models, at least in our own culture.
- The literature on the subject has promoted the idea without offering practical methods.
- The American concept of home privacy causes such ministries to develop more slowly here than in some countries.
- Our American style of church leadership does not often encourage lay ministries to develop outside the walls of the sanctuary, beyond the immediate supervision of the pastor.
- Pastors who decide in favor of home ministries become discouraged when they cannot find specifically prepared Bible study materials. If we want to give direction to the teaching, we must adapt materials created for other purposes—and that's too much work.
Yet we cannot escape the reality that many lay Christians want a small-group experience and can benefit greatly if the group functions properly. The question is how.
After seven years of experience with thousands of home meetings in dozens of churches as a denominational administrator, I think I know why more churches do not have home programs. The writers and speakers, myself included, were onto a good idea but were simplistic, idealistic, and premature. We approached the subject without understanding the complicated sociological terrain onto which we had so glibly ventured. The equilibrium of congregational life is finely balanced, and few pastors will risk disaster by adding untested and partially understood programs that operate largely outside their direct supervision.
Here are five theories I've had to revise along the way:
Myth 1: Small Groups Are a Wonderful Evangelistic Tool.
One of my early misconceptions was about the very purpose of home Bible studies. At first I said, "Home groups are our outreach to the city."
But a couple of years later I said, "Home Bible studies contribute to the total outreach of the church. They are not directly evangelistic."
Several years and much experience later, I said, "The evangelistic results of home Bible studies are indirect, for the groups draw from the congregation rather than the neighborhood. Home ministries conserve the results of other evangelistic methods." Most churches that start new programs have outreach in mind, but they soon become disappointed with the evangelistic results. Churches that are successful with home ministries, I concluded, must do so for their developmental and conservational value, not solely for evangelism.
Then finally it dawned on me: Home Bible studies are a withdrawal from the community into an intimate Christian circle for fellowship and nurture. They are for inreach, not outreach!
People brought to Christ through the home meetings usually are drawn to the church by answered prayer. Much as wheat is harvested at the critical point of its ripeness, so people brought into the church through the home meetings are reached at some moment of personal crisis. Still, they often come to the church before attending the home group that prayed for them.
Myth 2: Small Groups Unite the Christians in a Neighborhood.
Another lesson I learned was about the locations of home groups. Like many churches starting home programs with little advance knowledge, we began by studying the territory and recruiting host homes throughout the community. Then we asked the church people to attend the home fellowship group nearest them.
Obedient as our congregations sometimes are, the plan worked … for about two weeks. After that, people went wherever their friends attended.