Many small groups lately are meeting online using video chatting software such as Zoom. Eventually, though, groups will again be able to meet in-person at churches, in homes, or even at Starbucks (if that’s your thing).
Regardless of where your small group meets, every small group has one mission: make disciples of Jesus. That means small groups are supposed to help people know, show, and share the gospel of Jesus. However, no small group does this perfectly 100% of the time. Pitfalls, errors, and distractions happen because we are, by nature, sinful creatures.
In this article, I want to highlight eight of those pitfalls so that your group can recognize them, avoid them, and thus more effectively make disciples who know, show, and share the gospel of Jesus.
1. Forsaking relationships in favor of studying Scripture
Bible study is vital in a small group, but so are personal relationships. Sometimes a small group places such a high priority on biblical study and exegesis that the members are not afforded adequate opportunities to develop meaningful bonds and friendships.
Jesus was a small group leader. He had his twelve apostles and his close circle of Peter, John, and James. Although Jesus spent a lot of time teaching his followers the Bible, he also helped them develop personal relationships with each other and with him. Jesus found a balance between study and friendships.
We also see this modeled with Paul. It’s evident that Paul taught the Bible to many people such as Timothy, Barnabas, Priscilla, and Aquilla. It’s also very obvious that he considered these people his friends, indicating that he developed personal relationships with him.
Small groups should be about developing relationships and friendships that extend beyond the group Bible study and out into the world:
- Small group members need to support each other
- Small group members need to help each other
- Small group members need to socialize together
This necessitates allowing—and even encouraging—people not only to learn Scripture, but to learn about each other and develop interpersonal relationships with each other and with Christ.
2. Forsaking studying Scripture in favor of building relationships
While some groups overemphasize exegesis, others downplay it.
In an attempt to foster relationships and grow friendships, some small groups relegate Bible study to a secondary or even tertiary matter. More time is given to socializing and banter than is given to learning God’s Word.
Although Jesus had friends, he also taught his disciples Scripture. In fact, when it comes to Jesus’ conversations, Jesus spent a lot of time teaching his disciples God’s Word. Of course, he also encouraged and developed relationships beyond just being members of Jesus’ chosen twelve.
Along with fostering interpersonal relationships, small groups should give adequate time to learn God’s Word, understand what God is saying in it, and discover how it impacts their lives.
Relationships matter. Bible study matters. Small group leaders should follow Jesus’ example and find a balance between the two.
3. Ignoring the context of a passage
Pastor and Christian apologist (i.e., defender of the faith) Chris Rosebrough often reminds his viewers of the three rules of proper biblical exegesis: “context, context, context.”
Nobody wants to be taken out of context, yet Christians frequently do just that with God and others. So prevalent is this problem or ripping things out of context and applying a different meaning to it that Eric Bargerhuff wrote a book titled The Most Misused Verses in the Bible.
We should never take people context—especially God! Yet, we do it with reckless abandon.
When we rip a Bible verse, or part of a verse, out of its context, it disrespects the authors, ignores authorial intent, distorts the meaning, and leads to bad and heretical theology. When we take a Bible passage out of context, we are guilty of the sin of speaking for God things he may have never said.
Small group leaders should work hard to make sure that the passage being taught is understood in the context of the surrounding verses, the book itself, it’s literary genre, and more. I recommend going through Grasping God’s Word by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. It will help you learn to read Scripture in context and, thus, have a greater understanding of what God himself is saying.
4. Asking “what does this mean to you?”
This is a well-meaning but problematic question:
- It opens the door to imposing ourselves and our ideas onto Scripture
- It replaces the author’s intent with our own thoughts and opinions
- It can lead to multiple or even contradictory meanings being given
Instead, small group leaders should ask, “What is the author telling us?” This encourages the small group members to consider the context and what God actually saying rather than reading into it what they want. It also helps protect the group from adopting false gospels and heresies.
5. Forsaking dialog and questions just to get through a scripted lesson
I’m certain we’ve all seen it: a teacher or leader dismisses questions because “we need to get through this lesson.”
A small group is supposed to help people know, show, and share the gospel. This means that people must gain an understanding of what God says and how to live it out. To assist small group leaders and churches, there are thousands of Bible study tools published each year with clearly and carefully designed lessons. However, I’m certain every author would affirm that the purpose of their study is to help people become growing disciples of Jesus.
It’s easy for a small group leader to become so interested in completing that week’s lesson that they quash conversation and push aside questions. Doing this can actually hurt a Bible study! It can leave people confused, uncertain, and lacking understanding, which means the group isn’t making disciples, but merely finishing a lesson.
This doesn’t mean that a conversation should get out of hand or that any and all questions must immediately be fielded. Sometimes it’s permissible and even recommended to postpone dialog and questions, especially if it goes beyond the text. As with relationships and Bible study, there is a balance between the lesson and the interactions. Leaders must find it and maintain it.
6. Thinking discipleship and completing a book/program are synonymous
I’ve heard it before: “Yes, I discipled someone. I took them all the way through [enter Bible study title here].”
It’s a common misconception that discipling someone means to taking them through a discipleship book, and that once the book is complete, the person is “discipled.”
First, small group Bible studies are not about taking people through a study book, but about helping them understand and apply the Good Book. Second, discipleship never ends regardless of how many courses, classes, seminars, and programs one completes.
Discipleship is helping someone grow in their faith and in their relationship with Jesus.
Discipleship is teaching people about God’s Word.
Discipleship is going with someone on their journey with Jesus.
Published materials and courses can aid in discipleship, but they themselves are not discipleship. Someone can finish all the study courses in the world and not be discipled; someone can also be discipled without completing a formal study.
Small groups should remember that, even if a book or lesson isn’t completed (see #5), discipleship still happens as long as people are growing in their relationship with Jesus.
7. Not fellowshipping outside of the Bible study
Small groups generally meet once per week or once every other week. Sadly, though, that’s often the only time the small group members get together. As stated before, small groups are about both understanding Scripture and developing relationships. Part of developing relationships is finding opportunities for the group members to socialize outside of the weekly Bible study times.
Admittedly, this requires effort and time on the part of the leader and the members, but it is time and effort well-spent because it helps people develop stronger bonds with each other, promotes everyday discipleship, and helps unify the body of Christ.
Once things open up (or if they have already), go camping together. Go bowling. Go do fun stuff together. Go get coffee and just hang out.
8. Not doing outreach as a group
At least three times, Jesus sent his disciples out to share the gospel and do social ministry (i.e., show the gospel). He sent 72 disciples out in Luke 10:1-12. In Matthew 10:5-8, he sent out his twelve disciples. Finally, with the Great Commission (Matt 18:18-20; Acts 1:8), Jesus sends each of us out.
Small groups should find ways to fulfill this mission together rather than just meet every week or so for coffee, chats, and a Bible study. Small groups must find ways to take what they learn and live it out in the community.
Find a social ministry and get involved. Seek opportunities to engage in personal evangelism. Do acts of service in the community. Volunteer as a group in the church or with a local non-profit.
Small groups are ministry groups, so do outreach ministry as a group.
What other pitfalls would you add to this list that you’ve seen small groups fall into? Share this article and continue the conversation. Comment below your thoughts and ideas on how to improve the disciple-making ministry of small groups?
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