Editor’s note: This article was written prior to the current COVID-19 pandemic. We recognize that many churches are not gathering corporately right now due to health concerns related to the pandemic. This article does not address this unique situation but rather it is intended to encourage us to see the ways in which (under normal conditions) small groups are not a replacement for the gathering of a local church.
Many churches run some kind of small group ministry. Groups of varying size (typically ten or so believers) tend to be one of the best contexts for discussion of Scripture, and for sharing needs for support and prayer. During a main Sunday gathering, there might not be the same kind of opportunity to interact at this level, so small groups tend to be where some of the most vital “one another” ministry takes place. Relationships are deepened, insights are shared, and the problems and difficulties in life are discussed and addressed.
Because of all this, it can be easy for such a group to become the main focus of its members’ spiritual lives. The group becomes, in effect, church.
While this is understandable, it is not desirable. Small groups should not become a replacement for the main church meeting. If your small group becomes your church, you are missing out. It is worth noting that in some contexts where there are not many believers, churches are small enough to function much as small groups do. The Bible does not prescribe what size a church must be. What we are discussing here is not whether healthy churches can be small groups of people—they can—but whether small groups can be a substitute for church—they shouldn’t be.
Why not? First, because being a whole church family is also a way of demonstrating who it is that God has reconciled to himself. Our small groups do not likely reflect the whole range of ages and backgrounds that are included in the wider church family. But our Sunday gatherings do, and this is significant.
Second, the scope of what a small group can do is hindered precisely because it is a small group. A church is a body made up of many parts, with each part playing a distinct role in the life of the body. Within a small group there will not be the full range of gifts and ministries that are present in the wider church family.
Third, the small group is not led in the way a church is. So it cannot make a final call on an issue of doctrine or behavior that the recognized leadership of the church is responsible for. It cannot share the Lord’s Supper in a way that speaks of the unity of the whole church.
Small groups can therefore be a terrific supplement to the gathered life of the church, but they should never be a replacement for it. We want to be in a church with small groups, not a church of small groups. The main center of church life is the whole gathering, not the small groupings.