Small groups are immensely popular in evangelical circles these days, and increasingly commonplace in Reformed communions. I’m not sure how much of this is due to the influence of New Calvinism or whether it’s due to old-guard Reformed folk warming up to broader evangelicalism. Maybe both. Regardless of the source, it’s definitely a popular construct. Some would even argue that it’s a staple for ordinary church life.
I’ve been back and forth on small groups for some time. In my more skeptical moments, the following concerns have come to mind.
First, in classic Reformed ecclesiology – which in my judgment is radically biblical – where do small groups fit? They are not the public assembly, where the believers of a local communion “come together” to observe the corporate worship of God (Acts 14:27, 1 Cor. 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34; 14:23, 26). And you can’t assign them to the private (Mat. 6:6, 14:23) or family devotion categories (Gen. 18:19, Deut. 6:4-9), since you can’t have a small group with one person or just one family. So if they are not in the three, traditional categories of worship/means of grace ministry (WCF 21.6), what place should they have?
I suppose an argument could be made that we can get them in the door by the body life argument. Small groups could be seen as a manifestation of koinonia, our sharing in the common life of the Spirit. Isn’t that Reformed? “Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification” (WCF 26.2). Well, I admit coming together for the Lord’s day services is not all there is to church fellowship. There is much to be done on a smaller scale and with more intimacy. Fine and good. “They that feared the Lord spoke often one with another, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon his name” (Mal. 3:16). But when informal, spiritual conversations transition into small groups, something changes. It is formalized, it requires organization, structure, and facilitation if not leadership. In short, it becomes programmatic. So if it is programmatic, where does it fit in the apostolic program? Is it a component of the ‘ordinary means?’
Second, there is the collective wisdom of our Reformed forbears. While I’m no expert in 16th and 17th century church history, it does appear that the Westminster Divines discouraged small groups from having a normative place in the life of God’s people. In fact, they appear to have been suspicious of them. “Whatsoever have been the effects and fruits of meetings of persons of divers families in the times of corruption or trouble, (in which cases many things are commendable, which otherwise are not tolerable,) yet, when God hath blessed us with peace and purity of the gospel, such meetings of persons of divers families (except in cases mentioned in these Directions) are to be disapproved, as tending to the hinderance of the religious exercise of each family by itself, to the prejudice of the publick ministry, to the rending of the families of particular congregations, and (in progress of time) of the whole kirk. Besides many offences which may come thereby, to the hardening of the hearts of carnal men, and grief of the godly” (Directory for Family Worship, Section 7).
Third, there is the obvious susceptibility of small groups to the influence of egalitarianism, feminism, and a host of other -isms. Clearly they are more vulnerable; and what is more, I have to wonder whether they are not in some ways the product of these extra-biblical spirits of the age.
So I ask the question – or to be more frank, I raise the doubt. For now, at least.