“Why Small Groups?” – Chapter 2

August 24, 2009 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Today we’ll continue taking a closer look at Why Small Groups?, a book which has had a significant impact on the culture within Sovereign Grace churches.  You can download Why Small Groups? free of charge by clicking here.

Chapter 2, written by John Loftness, begins, as just about all Sovereign Grace teachings do, with an appeal to his audience to recognize a crisis.

In this case, the crisis Mr. Loftness attempts to point out is that Christians have cheapened (or “sold out”) the idea of fellowship.  According to Mr. Loftness, true “fellowship” between believers does NOT happen when said believers are just hanging out, enjoying a shared activity or having a non-directed, non-purposeful, non-spiritual conversation.  He says,

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.

A few paragraphs later, Mr. Loftness attempts to define what biblical fellowship actually is.  He says (and please note, all itallics in the quotes in this article were there in the original text – I did NOT add them for emphasis),

What is fellowship as defined in the New Testament? Just this: participating together in the life and truth made possible by the Holy Spirit through our union with Christ. Fellowship is sharing something in common on the deepest possible level of human relationship—our experience of God himself. 

Participating together…life and truth…sharing in common…human relationship…experience of God—these phrases capture the essence of the unique Christian experience of fellowship.

Mr. Loftness continues, a bit later, with this:

In short, fellowship with others begins with an honest, open, obedient relationship with God rooted in the truth of his Word. How we share that relationship with others—how we wrestle with understanding truth and struggle to apply it to our lives—is the essence of fellowship.

Thus, fellowship has one source and two channels. The one source is God. The two channels—both to be understood in the light of Scripture—are the work of the Spirit directly in our hearts, and the work of the Spirit through other believers.

Mr. Loftness then proceeds to identify what he calls the “means of fellowship” – the things we can do to “posture ourselves to experience fellowship.”  These “means of fellowship” are 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.

The first time I read through this first part of Chapter 2, I must confess that I had two immediate impressions.  The first impression was that I didn’t really see anything amiss with Mr. Loftness’ reasoning.  But the second impression was that something – although I didn’t know what, exactly – wasn’t quite right.

So I went back and read this section again.  And that’s when I began to figure out what it was that was bugging me.

First of all, has the church REALLY cheapened the idea of what constitutes fellowship?  Is there REALLY this big need that must be filled…this big problem that needs correcting…this crisis in the church…when it comes to Christians having fellowship with one another?  And does the Bible REALLY spell out that all these things from Mr. Loftness’ list of “Means Of Fellowship” need to be done at all times in order for fellowship to occur?

I mean, maybe I’m just naïve, but it has always been my understanding (and experience) that Christian “fellowship” takes place any time Christians get together.  After all, in Matthew 18:19-20, Jesus Himself said, “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”

Do we really need to be jumping through all these hoops and trying so hard to have fellowship?  Doesn’t the Holy Spirit play a part in this thing, too?

Also, as I looked over Mr. Loftness’ “Means Of Fellowship” list, I was struck by something else:  aside from two key points – 7), “confessing our sins to one another,” and 8), “correcting one another” – every single one of those “means of fellowship” almost certainly occurs at some point when groups of Christians get together.

I’ve spent a lifetime in Bible-based Reformed Christianity (with several years’ sojourn through a hyper-Charismatic church), and from the many and varied experiences I’ve had in different congregations throughout several regions of the country, I can say with confidence that, with the exception of spending a lot of time talking about our sins and confronting and correcting one another, every time I’ve participated in getting together regularly with people from my church, these “Means Of Fellowship” have all eventually occurred.

In fact, I’d venture to say that if you make just a little bit of effort to get involved in some extracurricular church activity, you, too, will experience these “Means Of Fellowship,” minus the sin-sniffing and the culture of confrontation and correction.

Now, yes – it is vital for us as Christians to have some relationships where we can be open and where we can share about our struggles and our sins. But it’s fascinating to me how this chapter turns this principle around on its head.  Rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to knit believers together through the shared experiences of worshipping, studying, praying, and serving together – so that eventually, deeper and more intimate friendships form, where confessing one’s sins and correcting the other person are natural outgrowths of an established relationship –  Mr. Loftness makes that sort of intimate and extremely vulnerable interaction one of the starting points for “fellowship.” 

In fact, if you understand that with the exception of this sort of sharing of sins and confronting and correcting one another, all of Loftness’ “Means of Fellowship” are already happening in “normal” (non-SGM) small groups anyway, then the reality is that the only thing that makes Why Small Groups? remarkable is that its authors believe that “real fellowship” can’t even occur unless there is FIRST that level of brutal honesty, where people who sometimes barely even know each other confess their sins in front of the group and feel free to confront others about perceived shortcomings.

The final portion of Chapter 2 addresses “Hindrances To Fellowship.”  Mr. Loftness credits J.I. Packer with identifying these hindrances:  self-sufficiency, formality, bitterness, and elitism.

Because of the absolute authority wielded by leaders within SGM, and because of the way that SGM so frequently loads the language by adding to traditionally accepted meanings of words, there is so much to parse in this section of Chapter 2 that we will save it for yet another post.

Until then, what do you all think of the first portion of Chapter 2? 

Those of you who have participated in non-SGM small groups, can you back up what I’ve said about how the “Means of Fellowship” do eventually occur, without having to try so hard? 

And those of you who have experienced SGM’s type of “fellowship,” here’s another topic for discussion:  how have the relationships you formed with others in your small group held up over time?  Does SGM’s approach to “fellowship” produce deep, life-long “communion of the saints”-type friendships that eventually transcend shared circumstances?  Or have those relationships proven to be dependent upon your continued participation in the group?

© 2009, Kris. All rights reserved.