By Steven Lee, Pastor of Small Groups and Community Outreach at College Church in Wheaton, IL.
What you believe about your small group will dictate how you approach potential problems when they arise. If you buy a house knowing it will be a fixer-upper, then you approach that faux wood paneling in the family room as an opportunity to upgrade and improve. Whereas if you buy your dream house and find out the basement floods, you’re pretty disappointed and discouraged.
In the same way, people are often disappointed in their small group because they come to it with the wrong expectations. Here are five common myths about small groups, and the corresponding truth that corrects our wrong thinking.
Myth #1: A successful small group will not be relationally messy
While most people wouldn’t explicitly say their small group shouldn’t be relationally messy, it’s what they ultimately believe. They go in thinking that these people will be their best friends (more on that later) and when they find out they’re nothing alike they wonder if they’re in the right group. When someone in the group is passive aggressive or talks way too much about politics—you’re looking for the closest exit.
Yet the reality is that small groups are comprised of sinners all along the same journey of faith. It’s going to get messy relationally, which is precisely why we have the gospel of grace that shows us how we ought to be long suffering and humble towards one another (Phil. 2:1-11).
Truth: Small groups are where the grace of God overcomes all types of relational messiness.
Myth #2: Small groups exist for others to meet my needs
Don’t misunderstand this. It is a wonderful blessing that our relational needs can be met by one another in small groups. It’s a good thing that if you don’t feel connected, or know anyone, you can join a small group and meet others at the church.
But the broader overarching reality is that small groups exist for you to love God by loving his body, the church. Small groups exist for you to love others with the love of Christ. This is a radically different orientation than expecting others to meet your needs. And when we all have this aim—to love each other with the love of Christ—then we do meet each other’s needs.
Truth: Small groups exist for you to love others with the love of Christ.
Myth #3: Trust and transparency take many years to cultivate in a small group
Consider Acts 2 where the believers had all things in common, making sure none was in need, breaking bread together, praising God together—how long had they known each other? They probably had been in community for a couple of weeks or months, but not much longer.
The reality is that more time together doesn’t always mean more trust and transparency. That just tends to be an excuse. I think stepping into a small group, where the expectations are properly set, trust can be cultivated very significantly from day one.
What prevents you from opening up? Perhaps it’s shame over your sin, embarrassment that your marriage is struggling, or perhaps the heartbreak over your wayward children. This is precisely what the gospel addresses. Christ took the wrath of God at Calvary and with it took our shame, condemnation and fear of man. We can in fact be open and honest about where we are with God because God is actively in work in us to conform us to his image.
Truth: Trust and transparency are fruits of recognizing we are all recipients of God’s abundant grace for the forgiveness of sins.
Myth #4: Small group members should become best friends
Certain expectations are embedded into this – idealistic visions of taking vacations together, our kids growing up and marrying each other, attending each other’s birthday parties and that we’ll be lifelong friends. While it would be a wonderful blessing if members of the same small group did become close friends, the NT is nearly silent on the importance of friendship as a basis for love.
Rather, our unity in Christ is the foundation and basis for our sacrificial love for one another. The whole of Ephesians 2:11-22 is about how Christ demolishes the hostility between Jew and Gentile by his unifying work on the cross. Is this not amazing? Similarly, it is the blood of Christ that unifies us to be members of Christ’s body, committed to encourage, build up and love one another.
Truth: Small groups are united by the blood of Christ and members of one body.
Myth #5: Small Groups should focus only on Bible study, not sharing sins or engaging in outreach
Small groups that truly focus on Christ and his word, will inevitably explore how the gospel changes our life in all ways, including how we can share our faith. Unfortunately, some small groups hide behind Bible study in order to avoid talking about the deeper heart issues that the gospel aims to address. If we truly allow God’s word to speak, it must speak into our lives so that we confront our sin, strive to serve one another, and make intentional efforts to share this good news with the lost in our spheres of influence.
Truth: Small groups focus on how the gospel of Jesus Christ transforms us as his disciples who grow in holiness and as witnesses of his truth.
Make the gospel central
These five common myths underline a greater issue: the gospel must be central in the vision and mission of your group. If your group exists to meet your personal needs, then when it begins to fall short you go looking for the next group. But if the group exists to be a microcosm of the church, where people of all types gather at the foot of the cross, then challenges, sin and brokenness are an opportunity to apply the gospel of Christ.