August 27, 2009 in Sovereign Grace Ministries
I often receive emails asking me how, specifically, SGM deviates from “normal” Christianity. This is always a tough question to answer, as oftentimes the surface truth is that SGMers do NOT deviate from “normal” (and are frequently very well-spoken and super-nice, got-it-all-together people as well). But when one takes a closer look at how SGM views certain traditional biblical terms and concepts, one may pick up on subtle (or not-so-subtle) ways in which SGM is very different.
Over the past week or so, we’ve been interacting with the SGM-published book, Why Small Groups?. I put up a couple of posts about my initial reactions to the first two chapters, but after some further study, I thought it would be useful to share some additional (and maybe a tad bit more organized) analysis of SGM’s beliefs about small groups and how SGM’s leaders have (re)defined the word “fellowship.”
I think it’s safe to say that Sovereign Grace Ministries places a pretty big emphasis on its members’ participation in small groups.
At first glance, SGM’s approach to small groups seems like a good thing. In an ordinary church, it can be very difficult to reach the point where you feel like you’re part of church life….it can seem next to impossible to experience what the theme song from the old 1980s TV show Cheers describes:
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came;
You want to be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same;
You want to be where everybody knows your name.
Sadly, as most folks know, Cheers was a show about a bar, not a church. Yet for God’s own saints, the comaraderie the theme song describes can seem elusive in this age of impersonal, anonymous megachurches. The methods that SGM churches use to bring about “Biblical fellowship” look like reasonable measures to ensure that every member will have an opportunity to “know and be known.”
Certainly, in our own SGM experience (which, for those of you unfamiliar with our story, lasted a little less than a year, did NOT culminate in membership, and did NOT involve anything particularly negative) we really enjoyed our small-group experience. (Our particular SGM church had few restrictions on small-group participation, so we were permitted to join one without becoming members.) And we loved having a church-centered “instant social life.”
But recently, I’ve come to learn – through reading the SGM book Why Small Groups?, as well as through interacting extensively with both former and current SGM members and through taking a closer look at SGM teachings that are available online – that SGM’s approach to small-group participation is about WAY MORE than simply having a church-centered “instant social life.”
In fact, SGM’s underlying beliefs about small group participation have next to NOTHING to do with one’s “social life.” Yes, SGM members engage in what we’d consider to be social activities with one another – they engage in what we Christians from “ordinary” churches would consider “fellowship” – but SGM has redefined “fellowship” to mean something a whole lot more intense (and specific) than getting together and sharing our hearts over coffee. Here is what John Loftness writes about “fellowship” in Chapter 2 of Why Small Groups?:
If I spend time with a brother in Christ playing volleyball, talking about shared political views, or following the ups and downs of an NFL franchise, we may have a wonderful time and deepen a friendship. But in none of those things will we have had fellowship.
Let me press the point further. Fellowship is not (at least not necessarily) going to a Bible study with someone, or sharing doctrinal commitments, or attending a Christian men’s rally where emotions run deep and passions are high. Fellowship is not found in a “group therapy” session where participants reveal their darkest thoughts—even if everyone in the group is a Christian and brings a Bible. In fact, two Christians can be married to one another and still not experience fellowship.
So, Why Small Groups? declares that “fellowship” is NOT about groups of Christians hanging out together and interacting together without some sort of set agenda. It’s not even necessarily about studying the Bible together. “Fellowship,” according to Why Small Groups?, is something else, something that most (non-SGM) churches apparently do not offer.
So just how does SGM approach fellowship? Here are some things I’ve learned about SGM and “fellowship”:
- SGM teaches that true “fellowship” can really only occur within the context of a small group.
- At most (if not all) SGM churches, including SGM’s flagship Covenant Life Church, regular participation in a small group is required of members. In other words, you cannot remain a member in good standing for very long without taking a regular and active part in a small group. The rationale for this requirement is that SGM’s leaders view small-group participation as a biblical requirement for sanctification. (See the direct quotes in the posts about Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, as well as comments #13 and #20 from the Chapter 2 post. You can also gain a better sense of how SGM pastors view small-group participation by reading paragraphs 13-16 in this post, which is a transcript of a teaching given at this year’s “Pastors’ Conference,” on the subject of “The Counseling Process.”)
- At the same time, some SGM churches, including CLC, limit small-group participation to members only. In other words, at least some SGMers never get to experience firsthand the activity that will be a huge part of their lives – and a condition for keeping their membership – until AFTER they actually become members.
- At some SGM churches, including CLC, members don’t have much of a say in which group they will attend. Members are essentially assigned to groups by pastoral staff. It is not an easy matter, either, to be “released” to attend a different small group, if, for whatever reason, one finds oneself not really liking the group to which one was assigned.
- The prevailing belief among SGMers is that any time one feels uncomfortable about something, that discomfort is most likely the result of one’s sinfulness. Our “natural” desires and instincts are always to be distrusted. Our feelings are automatically suspect. Therefore, if you don’t feel good about your small group, that feeling is simply the evidence of your sin nature at work, attempting to derail your spiritual progress and prevent you from engaging in the activities that will make you more holy. This is the mindset at work when pastors won’t permit members to move to another small group. This is also the mindset that drives people to override any natural reluctance they might feel about revealing themselves intimately to people they may not know very well.
- It is standard practice for small group leaders to regularly submit reports to the pastoral staff about what is going on with each group member, including summaries of whatever members bring up in meetings.
- Small-group participation is so emphasized within SGM because, according to the SGM book Why Small Groups?, this is really the only way to engage in “Biblical fellowship,” which is defined as containing all the following: 1) worshipping God together; 2) praying for one another; 3) utilizing our spiritual gifts; 4) carrying one another’s burdens; 5) sharing about our spiritual experiences; 6) confessing our sins to one another; 7) correcting one another; and 8 ) serving one another in practical ways.
At first glance, SGM’s definition of “Biblical fellowship” doesn’t seem particularly different from what one would experience within any small group at any other Bible-based Evangelical/Reformed church. From my own experiences throughout many years of participation in church life in several different congregations, any time I’ve committed myself to a small group, I have eventually encountered a strong measure of all the characteristics of “fellowship” that are listed in the preceding paragraph.
Well – all of the characteristics except, perhaps, for #6 (“confessing our sins to one another”) and for #7 (“correcting one another”).
When reading Why Small Groups? and perusing other SGM teachings (as well as interacting extensively with people who have been SGM members), it becomes clear that a HUGE emphasis within small groups is the cultivating of an atmosphere where weaknesses, struggles, and sins are freely shared among group members and group members feel a great freedom to “bring observations” to one another and correct one another. This process – more than anything else on the list above – is what most characterizes SGM’s unique take on “fellowship,” is what most sets SGM’s approach to small groups apart from that of other churches.
SGM believes that the sanctification process demands that we develop a culture of confession, and a culture of confrontation. SGM also believes (correctly) that sanctification MUST follow salvation…and they appear to have some quite specific ideas about what sanctification looks like. So therefore, if someone persistently resists participation in a small group where such confession and confrontation regularly occur, that person is likely not saved.
So…what’s wrong with that sort of thinking? Doesn’t the Bible tell us to confess our sins one to another? Doesn’t the Bible advocate exhorting and challenging one another to do better? Doesn’t the Bible instruct us to correct one another?
Further, isn’t it true that our natural mind will object to the activities that God has designed for our sanctification?
I think it’s important to ask these questions, since they are foundational to the way that SGM handles its small groups…and since small groups are foundational to life within SGM.
Yesterday, I received an interesting message from someone – a longtime SGM member – who reads the site but does not comment. With this person’s permission, I’m going to share the following feedback that he/she sent me:
Kris, I do not believe small groups greatly propel the sanctification process as much as CJ thinks they do. And I think it would be helpful to point out some of the other ways God brings about sanctification outside the parameters of a small group.
Jesus taught us to confess our sins directly to God the Father. He told us to pray, “Our Father in heaven…forgive us our sins as we forgive those who trespass against us..”
Thus as believers, we become more like Jesus each time we forgive others or ask forgiveness when we are sinned against or, at those times, when we sin against God or man. There is rarely a need to include any other human being and certainly not a group of people. Once forgiveness is granted, there is nothing left to discuss.
I have learned that most of my sin happens in my thought-life and most of my spiritual growth occurs in those quiet conversations with my Father in heaven, solely between Him and me. This is a good thing because with my propensity to sin it would be most inconvenient if I had to include someone else in on the conversation!
I have come to believe that confessing sins publicly, in the majority of cases, is actually unhelpful as well as unnecessary. Immature Christians aren’t always prepared to hear of other peoples’ sin. They can easily be tempted to gossip and I have even seen some tempted to fall into the same sins as those that are confessed, due to the bad example of a fellow saint. Sometimes when they hear confessions of sin they mock or laugh with embarrassment and say really stupid, unhelpful things. At these times, they can either discourage you or possibly soften the sin. Frankly, I have rarely heard good advice given in the small group context. This kind of behavior from fellow small group members can destroy all likelihood that you will ever trust them again with your ‘fine china’ as Tripp calls it. Personally, I can think of no one in our small group, worthy of that much trust.
For these reasons I believe it actually harmful and wrong for Loftness or Mahaney to require small group participation on this intimate of a level, as a primary means to sanctify the church. God simply does not require us in every and all cases, to confess our sins to one another. If that were true then someone living in an isolated part of the world would be hopeless. So, except in those cases where you need to ask specific forgiveness from another person, I see no biblical mandate to do so.
The point is, we can most certainly grow and fellowship deeply with God, when we are alone. In fact, I would much rather be in the gentle hands of the Holy Spirit when conviction and repentance arrives than in the hands of some of the members of our small group. As sweet as they all are, I do not look to or rely on them for wisdom in the deepest things of life that only God can know.
While I do not claim to know all the reasons why the leaders of SGM promote group confession, I do firmly believe they are deceived about its importance as well as its impact. There are many reasons auricular confession has historically failed and many reasons not to promote it or participate in it.