From time to time there erupts on the Internet some pretty heated conversations over the place and propriety of small groups in Lutheran congregations. Some would advocate an "all or nothing" approach to the issue, while others, including me, think there is a more nuanced approach that is more helpful. Some take the approach that either "small group ministry" is essential to the growth and well being of a congregation, or the position that under no circumstances can small groups ever be used appropriately in Lutheran congregations. When discussing these issues it is easy to let emotions get the best of better judgment when expressing points of view. I've seen this in others. I've seen this in myself. I think it is therefore important for us to understand precisely what we are talking about and lay out cautions, concerns and opportunities when it comes to the use of small group studies in Lutheran congregations.
In the history of the Lutheran Church there arose a movement known as "Pietism," which was a reaction against some legitimately bad practices that had arisen in the Lutheran Church by the late 17th century, but…as is usually, no make that, "always," the case: Pietism was an over-reaction. Pietism wanted there to be a more personal understanding of the impact of salvation in our life and as a result, it did not work at recapturing a strong vibrant sense of the centrality of the Word and Sacrament for our assurance of God's grace and mercy, but rather turned inward, on subjective emotional experiences. A key part of the Pietistic movement was creating little "conventicles" or "churches within the church." What were these? These were small groups of people, usually led by laity, who set themselves up over against the local pastor and congregation and emphasized their meetings and their emotional prayers and singing of amazingly bad hymns, striving for emotional encounters with God's grace. They ended up actually despising the Lord's appointed means of grace and the office of the holy ministry. Today the legacy of this kind of thinking is seen when small groups in congregations become more important than the gathering of God's people around the Word and Sacraments and when the "what does this mean to you?" approach to God's Word takes a higher priority than a careful study of God's Word under the careful supervision and leadership of the ordained pastor in the congregation. The "churches within the church" were set up to oppose the local congregation's ministry and even to offer an alternative spiritual life and worship experience, as opposed to the Sunday morning Divine Service which came to be held in contempt and treated with disdain.
The challenge with the use of small groups in Lutheran congregations today is found precisely in the fact that, sadly, small group "ministry" in some Lutheran congregations and movements, particularly those movements associated with the Church Growth Movement, have ended up replicating the same errors experienced in the history of the Lutheran Church during the age of Pietism. Challenges arise when small groups in a local congregation are lead by well meaning but unprepared laity who are allowed simply to pick and choose whatever materials they want to use in their small group. When a small group is not about studying God's Word in the context of an orthodox, confessionally faithful curriculum, under the close, personal supervision of the parish pastor, it sets up a potentially very dangerous situation whereby small groups can spin off into a whole host of bad theology and bad practices. The focus of small groups can be turned toward subjective, emotional encounters and eyes can be taken off of Christ and His Word and put rather on the emotional experiences of small group members. When materials are used by small groups that come from non-Lutheran sources the concerns are only heightened. When small groups are allowed to take a place in the life of God's people that only the Divine Service of Word and Sacrament must have, that is a deep concern. A significant concern, rightly raised, arises primarily with small groups that are not structured around study of God's Word, but rather are structured more to be social experiences in the congregation that only lightly touch on some aspect of God's Word. When a small group drifts free from a focused study around God's Word there arises even more potential for abuses of small groups. When small groups are taught by a layman, that is, a layman is entrusted with the task of actually teaching the material, rather than leading the group through a pre-defined curriculum and discussion guide, there is where the problems come. There have been cases, unfortunately, where these kinds of unstructured small groups in Lutheran congregations have led to factionalism and very bad theology. For instance, an intrusion of the charismatic movement and other such false doctrine and practice. It is particularly harmful, wrong and dangerous when a Lutheran pastor simply permits a small group to be formed in his congregation and allows it to use whatever material it wants to use as the basis for their small group experience. Another major concern arises when small groups are put forward in our congregations as the "be all and end all" of a congregation's ministry. We can never allow ourselves to think that small groups are better than than the fellowship we have together, in and round and through, the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments, which goes on in the Divine Service. Everything in a Lutheran congregation must flow from, and in return, flow back into, our regular gathering together around Word and Sacrament, where the one who hold the office of the ministry exercises that office publically in our midst through preaching and teaching the Word, and administering the Sacraments [their is no difference!] from the pulpit and from the altar.
In reaction to the cautions and concerns, here only briefly summarized, there are some today who believe that there should never be any small groups used in a Lutheran congregation. On the other hand, there are many who, like me, believe that an effective small group program can be used in a faithful Lutheran congregations, but it does require careful pastoral care and diligent teaching and supervision, and the use of orthodox, confessionally Lutheran materials in the small groups. What would this look like in a Lutheran congregation? Here is but one scenario: A pastor organizes a program of study of a book of the Bible, or organizes a comprehensive walk through a doctrinal topic, or series of topics, or the Lutheran Confessions. He identifies lay leaders in his congregation who can be entrusted with teaching responsibilities and he works closely with these men to train them and help them understand the content, the goals, the purpose and the objective of the curriculum that will be put into place in the congregation. The program meets in a large group format once a week, or whenever is deemed most appropriate. The pastor leads the large group session, teaching the major content of the week's lesson. Laity then meet in small groups between sessions to go over the material and to explore and study the given week's curriculum, with carefully prepared study questions and discussion guides. They do so in these groups with a lay leader appointed and taught carefully by the pastor. I see this as a helpful and workable way of using small groups in a Lutheran congregation. Now, having said this, I want to make it clear that I do not believe there is any essential need for small group Bible studies. I reject the idea that studying the Scriptures in a "small group" is somehow "better" in, any meaningful theological sense, than a large Bible study in the congregation.
Final Thoughts and Observations
Now, I recognize that there are those who still, for the sake of conscience, believe that there can never be, nor should ever be, any kind of small group program in a Lutheran congregation, for the reasons stated above. I do not agree with this position and believer there can be a responsible use of small groups in a congregation. My major concern is how much, and to what extent, the pastor serves as the chief teacher and how well he trains the lay small group facilitators that may be used, along with what materials are being used. Frankly, there would be no need for any "Bible classes" to begin were we to return to a strong doctrinal and exegetical sermon that lasts 45 minutes or more in our congregations, as was the norm throughout the entire history of the Christian Church, and particularly the Lutheran Church, until only the last thirty or forty years. Now I've seen way too many pastors preaching ten minute sermons in order to cram the service of the Lord's Supper into a sixty minute window of time. How about that for a radical proposal?