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).