Small Groups or Small Catechism?

At my first congregation, one of the responsibilities that I was given was to create a vibrant and discipleship-oriented small group ministry. As this was not part of my seminary training, I (along with two other congregation members) went for a week long professionally led training course to become equipped in small group ministry.

Small group ministry had been one of the latest ministry movements among evangelical circles for some time, and, good or bad, it was making its way into a number of Lutheran circles. My congregation was one of them. It carried with it the claim that small groups were now the best way to create authentic disciples of Jesus Christ.

In short, my experience with the small group ministry had its ups and downs. Even though I was serving a Lutheran (LCMS) mega church, most folks were not that enthusiastic about. It was a struggle to get people to participate. The groups that were started did have some success in meeting regularly. But they, as well as the congregation in general, just did not have the discipleship turnabout that seemed to be promised by the small group ministry gurus who trained us.

The congregation I now serve does not have a small group ministry, though at one time we were considering it. We opted instead to give greater emphasis to our ministry of catechesis (family and individual), where the importance of passing on the faith, as shaped by Luther’s Small Catechism, was given priority.

What is ironic is that over the last few years evangelical churches have begun to methodically revoke small group ministry. Consider this January 24, 2011 post, titled, Why Churches Should Euthanize Small Groups by mega church pastor, speaker, and author, Brian Jones, at his website www.christianstandard.com. It is just one of many recent critiques. Nonetheless, he shares a revealing conversation that he had with a church consultant hired by his congregation:

A few years ago I brought in a nationally recognized pastor to do some consulting for our church. One of the things I remember most about my time with him was a side conversation we had about small groups.

“I haven’t really figured out the small group thing,” I confessed to him.

“Well, Brian, that’s because they don’t work. Small groups are things that trick us into believing we’re serious about making disciples. The problem is 90 percent of small groups never produce one single disciple. Ever. They help Christians make shallow friendships, for sure. They’re great at helping Christians feel a tenuous connection to their local church, and they do a bang-up job of teaching Christians how to act like other Christians in the Evangelical Christian subculture. But when it comes to creating the kind of holistic disciples Jesus envisioned, the jury’s decision came back a long time ago—small groups just aren’t working.”

Jones then continued on, offering his own biting criticism: Well-intentioned Christians, armed with the latest insights in organizational theory, let their pragmatic and utilitarian hearts delude them into thinking they could organize, measure, and control the mystical working of the Holy Spirit in community in order to consistently reproduce disciples in other contexts.

Curiously, confessional Lutherans have been known to make similar criticisms, emphasizing the nature of the Holy Spirit working faith, through the means of grace, when and where He pleases (AC V). At a minimum, it is a fascinating indictment that extends what is now beginning to be a long list of reevaluations that evangelicals are making regarding their theology and practice of ministry.

By contrast, along with the Divine Service and formal catechesis, confessional Lutherans have long recognized the nature of the family unit being the most natural and effective place to be serious about making disciples. Luther certainly recognized this. Each chief part of his Small Catechism begins with the following imperative: As the head of the family should teach in a simple way to his household.  With the above admission, perhaps there is good cause for Lutherans to return to this model and indulge in the simplicity and versatility of the Small Catechism.

In the end, it would seem that the constant reappraisal, and even rejection of various recent ministry trends, by the denominational originators of these trends no less, should, if nothing else, continue to demonstrate to confessional Lutherans that their historic beliefs and practices do in fact have lasting significance, permanent relevance, and authentic effectiveness, and give ample reason to think twice about trading them in for the latest ministry fad.

As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

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11 responses to “Small Groups or Small Catechism?

  1. Yet another example of how Lutherans seem to habitually climb on the bandwagon just as it’s grinding to a halt. Thanks for passing on these critiques from Evangelical sources; gives us a reason to look once more to our own heritage for approaches to the ever-increasing need to disciple our flock. Thanks, too, for the reminder that our own households are the locale for learning the vocabulary and habits of faith. The family as a small group: how radical is that?!

  2. Marcus Williams

    I just spoke with my pastor today on the issue of teaching the catechism. Our church, before our Bible study on Sunday, assembles in the sanctuary(children and adults alike) and our Pastor teaches us a catechism element and a liturgy element. He figures it takes about three years to get through the catechism for the ten minutes we spend on it each Sunday. I have to say that this seems to be effective for me. There is so much that the catechism offers, it seems strange not to teach it. Though it is simple it is also complex and essential for us as a Church. The catechism is something we ought to all be constantly refreshed in.

  3. I completely agree that the family is the ideal place for discipleship and instruction in the faith (catechesis) to occur. But what about those who have no families, or whose families are broken (a significant portion of our population)? Have you found anything that works effectively for discipleship and fostering healthy relationships in these settings?

    • Dear Dan,

      Great question. Broken families do indeed represent a significant number of our society, as well as a similar segment of our congregations. Since each individual case is different, I will offer a general answer to your question based on what I have found effective in my ministry. The first priority for me in providing a place of discipleship and instruction in the faith would be to have the individual or fractured family begin regularly attending the Divine Service. If they are new Christians, I tend to couple that with regular individual pastoral care and catechesis, as well as having them enroll in our next “Welcome to Worship” class, which is a new member class taught on the basis of the liturgy and why we worship the way we worship, as well as rejoicing in the daily and eternal life that flows out of the worship (Divine Service) that we partake in. It does also often provide a core group of people for them to get to know and make them feel like they belong.

      Yet, for those who are single and/or fractured families, there is often a challenge in feeling part of a community because of past baggage they carry with them. And this is certainly something I am mindful of when caring for them. To be sure, here it is important to help cultivate and foster relationships for them that can help reinforce the faith they are learning. Small groups were intended to help do this, but what has been found, as noted in my post, is that they really only succeeded in creating superficial relationships that did not significantly help growth in faith or discipleship. Thus, I have found the most effective way of thorough discipleship and instruction in the faith to be through the regular attendance of the Divine Service and various corresponding catechesis/Bible classes (individual and group settings).

      Now, helping the individual or fractured family feel like they fit in can be another challenge. (I recognize this as distinct from instruction in the faith, but not necessarily separate from it). Nonetheless, it is often done by introducing them to established mature Christians who are regular attenders of the Divine Service and Bible class, who will come along side of them (as well as the pastors) as they enter into the congregational membership and traverse the loneliness or fractured nature of living in this sin filled world. It is not always an easy process. Sometimes it is messy because, sinners being sinners and the world being fallen, life is messy. Of course, there are many variables that come into play depending upon each situation. But despite all those variables, there is confidence to know that, at a minimum, the Divine Service and catechesis classes are a constant and regular source for their discipling.

      • I think that in addition to all of what you wrote adding a weekly Matins or Vespers service in addition the DS is also a very good way to catechize not only broken families and people with no families but all of the families of your church and encouraging those even without families to daily prayer and guided bible study would also help. Just my thoughts

  4. Lucas,

    “Small Groups or Small Catechism”…… I would suggest that one size doesn’t not fit all. That is the fuel for the Evangelicals to create the latest and greatest tool for disciplemaking. But it seems to me that we do the same thing in Lutheran circles. Toss out good tools including small groups “Christ Care” families if you will for being….more Lutheran. For the record, I love being a Lutheran-Christian. But I care not to be Roman Catholic, High Church or move back to the days of the Middle Ages…a trend I see in the LCMS as an antithesis to the Evangelical movement/influence in Lutheran circles. My vague point being is that all that we ought to be building upon ought to begin with Justification (AC IV). So if my small group meets we begin there and as we grow more small groups among many dysfunctional families in this particular community we begin there as well. So my premise would be that one might consider that our blog title be more of “Small Groups and Small Catechism”. There is no better place than to build a house with a sure foundation. I use it in an exhaustive manner in our “Small Group” which BTW is the entry level class to becoming an active disciple for the Lord’s Church-Lutheran.

    Brian Downs

    Thanks for the article….blessings to your ministry.

    • Dear Brian,

      Thanks for the comments. What you say has merit. The “and” of your comment can certainly work, thus I do think small groups can have their place when not overly forced. Nonetheless, I find the trends and trend reversals among evangelicals, and subsequently Lutherans, to be fascinating. And perhaps, as you note, there is a trend by some toward Roman Catholicism or High Church as a reactionary movement. However, a thought I have been entertaining as of late is that, in view of our Lutheran history, it would seem that Lutherans should be more Roman Catholic than baptist/evangelical, though you will find extremes on both ends. (And no worries on the grammar/punctuation… been there myself).

  5. I apologize for my poor grammar and punctuation I hit the send button before the edit.

    Brian

  6. Thanks for all the great replies. I’ve been tied up the last week and haven’t had a chance to respond until now!

  7. Pingback: Small Groups or Small Catechism?

  8. There is something similar going on in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia. Nowdays Latvia’s Lutheran pastors have chance to choose between the alpha course and Small Catechism. And guess what? Unfortunately most of them prefer to the alpha course.

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