Sam O’Neal is the author of Field Guide for Small Group Leaders: Setting the Tone, Accommodating Learning Styles, and More. Check out his thoughts on small groups, literature, theology, and more at SamONealWrites.com.
I’m a believer in small groups and small-group ministry. Having led groups for more than a decade, I’ve seen firsthand the good that can be accomplished for God’s kingdom—individually and corporately—through community ministry.
At the same time, for as long as I’ve been associated with small groups, I’ve heard whispers about their potential connection with heresy and false teaching. I haven’t seen those whispers come to fruition firsthand, but I can understand where they come from. Even the best small groups involve a level of detachment from their host church that isn’t present in Sunday School and other ministries. And anytime a lay person is expected to lead others in exploring God’s Word, mistakes and misconceptions can happen.
With that in mind, here are four steps churches and group leaders can take to prevent the spread of heresy and false teaching in small groups.
The first step is rather obvious, but it still needs to be said: If a church wants individual small groups to place a high priority on doctrinal integrity and the prevention of false teaching, those values must first be present in the church as a whole. More specifically, those values must be present in and communicated through the church’s primary leaders.
That means right doctrine needs to be regularly proclaimed from the pulpit in a way that is both clear and memorable. That also means doctrinal awareness should be a key prerequisite when it comes to choosing small-group leaders—which isn’t always the case. Indeed, sometimes churches are so desperate for group leaders that they’ll recruit anyone with a big living room and free time on Thursday nights.
Finally, valuing the truths of Scripture means those truths should be part of the training group leaders receive on a regular basis.
Dust Off Your Doctrinal Statement
I remember one particular group meeting years ago when several participants got into a doctrinal dust-up over predestination. It wasn’t the first time those particular people had argued about that particular topic, so I decided to bring their questions to our pastor and see if he’d be willing to drop a little wisdom into the discussion.
After I explained the situation, he said, “I’m in full agreement with our church’s Doctrinal Statement on that topic.” I was floored. Doctrinal statement? I had no idea such a thing even existed!
Most churches have created a Doctrinal Statement or Statement of Beliefs that outlines the church’s stance on a number of theological issues—but I’d be surprised if many group leaders are aware of such statements. And I’d be downright flabbergasted if many group leaders have a copy of those statements at hand and easily accessible during group meetings.
As a group leader, having a copy of your church’s Doctrinal Statement allows you to say, “This is what our church leadership has to say on that issue.” The same can be true for denominational Statements of Belief, such as The Baptist Faith and Message.
Use the Magic Words
When most people hear the phrase “magic words,” they think of please and thank you. And those certainly are good, useful terms. But for small-group leaders, the real magic lies in the ability to say, “I don’t know.”
I believe that much of the false teaching that happens within the church—and certainly within small groups—is unintentional. People often have a skewed or incomplete view on a theological topic, and they can pass on that view without any intended malice. And in my experience, the chances of something like that happening increase dramatically when group leaders attempt to “wing it” when answering theological questions.
It’s common for group leaders to feel a certain amount of pressure within the group. They’re often viewed as the “authority” among the other participants, and so they’re usually called upon to explain a doctrine or bring the final word during a theological debate.
In those situations, the worst thing a group leader can do is attempt to give an answer without really understanding the concepts or doctrines at stake. Sometimes the best thing a group leader can do is say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” This allows the leader to do some research, consult the church’s Doctrinal Statement, seek out educated opinions, and then re-open the discussion the following week on a firmer foundation.
Invest in Curriculum
It’s a common practice for churches to purchase or produce Sunday School curriculum year in and year out. But even with the tremendous growth in the small-group movement in recent decades, it’s still relatively rare to see churches make a similar investment in small-group curriculum—especially in medium-sized and smaller churches that don’t have a staff person (or budget lines) dedicated to groups.
Consequently, many small-group leaders decide to develop their own curriculum plans—or download something free from the Internet—rather than attempting to purchase material themselves and go through the hassle of trying to get group members to reimburse the expense.
Unfortunately, many people who attempt to write their own curriculum aren’t qualified to do so, or they don’t have enough time available to give their best effort. Such situations create a breeding ground for poor group experiences and poor doctrinal integrity. It’s a simple equation, really: bad curriculum equals bad doctrine.
Full disclosure: I work for a curriculum publisher, which does give me a bit of a bias on this topic. But my day job also allows me to see the hard work and expertise required to regularly develop excellent material. So consider investing some resources—time, money, or otherwise—into ensuring that your church’s small groups can dig into curriculum that is edifying, enriching, and Scripturally sound.