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Toxic Small Groups

Toxic Small Groups

Words of Faith 7-7-17

Dr. Jeffrey D. Hoy © 2017


Faith Fellowship Church - Melbourne, FL

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1 Corinthians 11

   [17] In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. [18] In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. [19] No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval. [20] When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, [21] for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. [22] Don't you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!


       One of the most interesting things about the volatile, colorful, and divisive problems among believers at Corinth is that some of the deepest problems revolved around small groups. We live in a time in which small groups are popular and important. Small groups are heralded as the answer to just about everything from stewardship to meaningful involvement.

       Small group ministries allow large congregations to meet in more personal settings where accountability and discipleship can take place. Many small group ministries target different ages and interests. Dividing into smaller groups can greatly facilitate personal ministry and, after all, we know that this is more like the first century church, right? Yes, but... we sometimes forget that there were difficulties with small groups from the very beginning.

       One of the very first small group ministries in history became nearly toxic. Paul was disgusted with what he heard about the home group meeting in Corinth. "I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm that good."

     Ouch. Somehow the social pecking order of Corinthian culture had crept into the house meetings and splintered the church. What began as a grand picture of the Kingdom of God where rich and poor came together and slaves worshiped next to slave owners had fallen into a terrible state of disrepair and division.

     The gathering for the Lord's Supper should have been the remembrance of the preeminently selfless act, Christ's death on behalf of others. Instead, the Corinthians had turned the memorial of selflessness into an experience of selfishness and a rite of unity into riotous disunity.

       Paul affirmed the fact that there have to be differences among people-- "No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval." The blessings people experienced were understood as a sign of God's approval that He entrusted blessing to a particular person or family. But these believers had reverted to material blessing as the marker for a social pecking order in the church.

       Paul's primary exhortation was to reestablish the integrity of the Lord's Supper. He called the believers to remember what this institution was really about-- proclaiming the Lord's death until He comes. This text also gives us reason to pause and think carefully about the nature of small groups in the life and ministry of the church and to beware of the dangers in such gatherings.

       Great care must be taken with small group ministry. Obviously, small groups can create a more personal ministry setting for people but they also can create a place to hide and avoid the larger body of Christ. If home groups become cliquish or negative toward others in the Body, they can become toxic to the Body. If groups become closed and inwardly focused, they can become a pocket of infection. If home groups become controlling they can be cult-like. If small groups are not guided or accountable they can veer into unbalanced teaching or heresy. These are the most obvious dangers.

       More subtle concerns arise from the fact that small groups are often built around a certain demographic or interest-- older, younger, singles, couples, with-kids, without-kids, music, arts, crafts, hobbies, travel, etc. Paul pointed out that "there have to be differences among you."

       Differences are normal but if they create a different point of cohesion other than the "proclaiming the Lord's death until He comes"-- God's growing grace in our lives-- it is easy to get off the track of what God wants in the Body. For example, if the music or the hobby or the social gathering becomes more important than proclaiming the Lord's death and His grace, that group has derailed from the course.

       Paul will soon point out that we are called to a Body that is diverse. We are called to mix with the people different from us so as to complete one another. If we get more interested in our small group than in the Body we lose sight of the very things that hold us together in common. Small groups and house churches often become homogenous with regard to race, economics, politics and other social variable.

       While small groups can be a great place for accountability, part of that accountability should be to ask one another-- How are you mixing with people who are different? How are you serving the larger Body of Christ? How are you working to get to know those who are hurting? What are we doing to relieve suffering? Have you attended to the Lord's Supper in the larger gathering of the Body? Are you connecting with unbelievers to share the Gospel with them? Are you discipling new believers who are hungry to grow in their faith? Are we at a point where we need to divide and reach out to others?

       Sometimes small groups reach a place where they need to divide and grow in the same way that cells divides to grow. This is difficult. Certainly, groups can meet together for years but great care must be taken to hold one another accountable lest the group become toxic. Here are good questions to ask periodically as a small group--

       Has our group been meeting together for too long? Are we reaching out to the lost? Do people in the Body feel excluded from our group? Have some in our group stopped functioning as part of the larger Body of Christ? Have we become a "surrogate church" that substitutes for the Body of Christ but misses the mission of the church? Are we too much the same in our group? Do we need to form some new groups that will minister to people who are younger in their faith and need guidance? Are we enabling some persons in our group to be dysfunctional Christians because they are unplugged from the Body of Christ? Are we missing the hurting? Are we missing a significant part of the mission of the church-- making disciples, teaching obedience to the Word, serving the needy, praying for leaders, supporting missionaries or guiding young lives?


       Father God, I pray that You will use every method and means to grow people close to You through me. Give me grace to reflect upon the places that I am called to walk out the Gospel. Help me to discern the health of the groups that I am a part of. Help me to see Your mission and to extend the hope of eternity and life in You. In Jesus' Name.