Notes on Preaching and Small Groups

Let us expand a bit on a couple of points. First “Preaching which is foundational and biblical at least 75% of the time. This means exposition, not excess commentary and particularly not application!”

Preaching and the Pulpit are the primary framework for the dissemination of congregational education. This alone is today likely a controversial proposition in many churches with the downloading of responsibilities to pastoral associates and preference group ministries. The pulpit message should be for expository education in the central issues of biblical literacy, theological framework and foundations, and the doctrinal specifics of the faith. Within the context of about 30 minutes a week on average, that alone is a tall order and extensive branching out is sure to water down the delivery of the basics.

The tone and attitude (in both word and action) communicated from the pulpit concerning foundational areas is crucial. That tone and attitude will likely make or break the importance of foundational knowledge in the congregation. In other words, the buck initially stops in the pulpit, and it will have a make or break effect, acting as a watershed from that level to the congregation. Further, in most cases other levels of leadership will emulate the attitude expressed there (even if they don’t agree). Unfortunately, my observations as well as those from other congregations I have queried indicate that more often than not the result is break, rather than make, with the importance of foundations being communicated as very low. The foundations may be called important, but action and ongoing emphasis indicate otherwise, and the congregation readily picks up on, adopts, or least emulates this. The subsequent effect is to shift foundational issues to the sideline of talk, not action. Not encouraging, but true.

Despite the paradox at work here in the difference between the surface message and the real message, the result likely plays out very smoothly on the surface. Biblical literacy and foundational knowledge is moved onto the shoulders of the ubiquitous small group ministry, with the convenient reasoning that it is a matter for individual and group work, and a subject that is of individual choice or preference as to how much is appropriate. This is error. When it comes to the basic knowledge of the faith, our Lord’s statements on this are completely the opposite. The stress seeking understanding and knowledge of “the reason for the hope that is within you”.

Once the areas of exposition and study slide onto the sideline of small groups, where they are largely unguided and unregulated in comprehensive sense, several things happen very quickly. The leadership can consider them ‘dealt with’ and in good hands. This frees them of ongoing direct responsibility, since the matter is deemed as being ‘well addressed’. They can then move on to other more immediately, pressing organizational matters such as organizational and resource growth. Oversight should and may continue, but in the somewhat informal framework of the small group environment in many congregations this is often not the case.

Next, and likely more important to the issues at hand, since small groups largely function with only arms length guidance and oversight, physically separate from the church, with few in-depth resources, often using as a guide largely devotional style, inexpensive literature with limited biblical content, and offered on a volunteer basis by people of widely varying levels of expertise, they are not well positioned to fulfill what should be critical work. They are unlikely to cover foundational subjects with consistent, predictable depth or completeness. This is particularly true of difficult doctrinal or theological issues, which they are understandably likely to avoid altogether or be unable to resolve. More superficial material and exploration is simply more plausible within the available resources. We should not that this is not a commentary on the people involved but on the environment provided. Overall, the result is a quiet loss in these pivotal areas of knowledge from the general mindset of the congregation. With this loss comes general theological and foundational weakness, and a lack of interest in such issues, as a substrata of the congregational body.

Small Groups are well positioned to foster limited, preference group based fellowship, but not education in biblical or doctrinal literacy. The result is an appearance of education and action but no consistent, measurable delivery of either on foundational issues. You don’t believe me? Fair enough. Take a quiet informal poll around the congregation over few weeks, examining individual knowledge and interest (remembering that the encouraging of interest in these matters is a significant part of the process and responsibility of the church leadership), as well as variance in group study content, in even the fundamental tenants of the faith and its doctrine. I have no doubt of what you will find.

Thus we return to Preaching, and to the issues of Small Groups touched on in several points. Put simply, Leadership must have foundational issues as a priority. Small groups, though very useful, and making a great contribution in some congregational respects, do not offer the leadership a pass on these crucial matters.

Let us finish by restating the suggested starting actions, with the addition of the eighth:

1. Blended contemporary and traditional worship – many do this now and it seems to work well.
2. Preaching which is foundational and biblical at least 75% of the time. This means exposition, not excess commentary and particularly not application!
3. A congregational approach to familiarity (preferably with some memorization) with foundational Bible verses.
4. Bible reading, both individual and congregational (this is not small group bible study from a booklet).
5. Congregational education on the denominational doctrines and distinctives to a level of repeatability.
6. A provision for and endorsement of congregational prayer, specific as well as generic.
7. Church leadership (beyond the paid pastoral staff) actively and obviously engaged in the clear Biblical requirements – spiritual guidance, teaching, preaching and congregational care.
8. Remove church growth from the congregational or leadership agenda. It is a side effect of Glorifying our Lord through primary exercise of the faith and sharing of the Gospel (see Witness for the Lord), not an proper activity.

So there you have it. Again, as stated at the beginning, there are surely better analyzes and corrective actions. That does not, however, reduce the present magnitude nor the growing significance of the problem. In the current tide, and without a change in direction, it is likely to only get worse…

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2 Responses to “Notes on Preaching and Small Groups”

  1. While I agree that preaching should absolutely be biblical, I don’t agree that small groups are not an excellent place to communicate, discover and apply biblical truth. Especially when small groups are focused on discussing the previous weekend teaching it can take learning to a level that is often missed. Often we see people walk through the doors on Sunday, scribble notes or intently seem to be listening but make zero changes in their behavior. Unless you are preaching in a house church face to face accountability for every member in a congregation is virtually impossible. That is because I believe learning biblical truth and life application of that truth should go hand in hand. If you don’t apply it have you really spent the time learning it? I wonder what God would say if I asked Him if He wanted me to know his truth or live his truth?

  2. kwilson says:

    Actually Frank, I would at least partially agree with you. Provided that the preaching is in fact foundational and Biblical, then the small group is definitely a good place to expand and explore. However, if the focus is not there then difficulties seem certain, and that would be the basis of my caveats.

    First, many, if not most, small groups seem to function at arms length in leadership, physical location and in subject material from the church. Little guidance is in place.

    Next, a large percentage of small groups that I have observed are following a fairly simple devotional style booklet of some sort. They are definitely not following a preaching series or textual material with great depth or challenge. There is certainly great fellowship, but the depth of focus varies greatly. This was brought into focus by the recent comments of a brother from another congregation and denomination. He said that the result often was the use of material that was convenient and inexpensive but shallow theologically and even Biblically. He felt that he was attending, reading and discussing, but at the same time going hungry in the Word. This does not seem to be that uncommon, and people may not even realize it.

    Next, the great variance in group leadership depth can (and I say that guardedly since it is not always so) again lead to a lack of depth in the exploration, especially if the sort of program you are suggesting is not being followed as guidance.

    All of this points to the needs for accountable oversight at the leadership level, and consistent theological and foundational preaching.

    Having said that, however, I will repeat that given the right circumstances and application, the small group concept is not in itself the problem. I suspect from your comments that your experience that been both positive and satisfying, which I applaud.

    Your comments are appreciated.

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