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Cautions, Concerns and Opportunities with Small Groups in Lutheran Congregations

May 26th, 2011
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From time to time there erupts on the Internet some pretty heated conversations over the place and propriety of small groups in Lutheran congregations. Some would advocate an “all or nothing” approach to the issue, while others, including me, think there is a more nuanced approach that is more helpful. Some take the approach that either “small group ministry” is essential to the growth and well being of a congregation, or the position that under no circumstances can small groups ever be used appropriately in Lutheran congregations. When discussing these issues it is easy to let emotions get the best of better judgment when expressing points of view. I’ve seen this in others. I’ve seen this in myself. I think it is therefore important for us to understand precisely what we are talking about and lay out cautions, concerns and opportunities when it comes to the use of small group studies in Lutheran congregations.


In the history of the Lutheran Church there arose a movement known as “Pietism,” which was a reaction against some legitimately bad practices that had arisen in the Lutheran Church by the late 17th century, but…as is usually, no make that, “always,” the case: Pietism was an over-reaction. Pietism wanted there to be a more personal understanding of the impact of salvation in our life and as a result, it did not work at recapturing a strong vibrant sense of the centrality of the Word and Sacrament for our assurance of God’s grace and mercy, but rather turned inward, on subjective emotional experiences. A key part of the Pietistic movement was creating little “conventicles” or “churches within the church.” What were these? These were small groups of people, usually led by laity, who set themselves up over against the local pastor and congregation and emphasized their meetings and their emotional prayers and singing of amazingly bad hymns, striving for emotional encounters with God’s grace. They ended up actually despising the Lord’s appointed means of grace and the office of the holy ministry. Today the legacy of this kind of thinking is seen when small groups in congregations become more important than the gathering of God’s people around the Word and Sacraments and when the “what does this mean to you?” approach to God’s Word takes a higher priority than a careful study of God’s Word under the careful supervision and leadership of the ordained pastor in the congregation. The “churches within the church” were set up to oppose the local congregation’s ministry and even to offer an alternative spiritual life and worship experience, as opposed to the Sunday morning Divine Service which came to be held in contempt and treated with disdain.


The challenge with the use of small groups in Lutheran congregations today is found precisely in the fact that, sadly, small group “ministry” in some Lutheran congregations and movements, particularly those movements associated with the Church Growth Movement, have ended up replicating the same errors experienced in the history of the Lutheran Church during the age of Pietism. Challenges arise when small groups in a local congregation are lead by well meaning but unprepared laity who are allowed simply to pick and choose whatever materials they want to use in their small group. When a small group is not about studying God’s Word in the context of an orthodox, confessionally faithful curriculum, under the close, personal supervision of the parish pastor, it sets up a potentially very dangerous situation whereby small groups can spin off into a whole host of bad theology and bad practices. The focus of small groups can be turned toward subjective, emotional encounters and eyes can be taken off of Christ and His Word and put rather on the emotional experiences of small group members. When materials are used by small groups that come from non-Lutheran sources the concerns are only heightened. When small groups are allowed to take a place in the life of God’s people that only the Divine Service of Word and Sacrament must have, that is a deep concern. A significant concern, rightly raised, arises primarily with small groups that are not structured around study of God’s Word, but rather are structured more to be social experiences in the congregation that only lightly touch on some aspect of God’s Word. When a small group drifts free from a focused study around God’s Word there arises even more potential for abuses of small groups. When small groups are taught by a layman, that is, a layman is entrusted with the task of actually teaching the material, rather than leading the group through a pre-defined curriculum and discussion guide, there is where the problems come. There have been cases, unfortunately, where these kinds of unstructured small groups in Lutheran congregations have led to factionalism and very bad theology. For instance, an intrusion of the charismatic movement and other such false doctrine and practice. It is particularly harmful, wrong and dangerous when a Lutheran pastor simply permits a small group to be formed in his congregation and allows it to use whatever material it wants to use as the basis for their small group experience.  Another major concern arises when small groups are put forward in our congregations as the “be all and end all” of a congregation’s ministry. We can never allow ourselves to think that small groups are better than than the fellowship we have together, in and round and through, the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments, which goes on in the Divine Service. Everything in a Lutheran congregation must flow from, and in return, flow back into, our regular gathering together around Word and Sacrament, where the one who hold the office of the ministry exercises that office publically in our midst through preaching and teaching the Word, and administering the Sacraments [their is no difference!] from the pulpit and from the altar.


In reaction to the cautions and concerns, here only briefly summarized, there are some today who believe that there should never be any small groups used in a Lutheran congregation. On the other hand, there are many who, like me, believe that an effective small group program can be used in a faithful Lutheran congregations, but it does require careful pastoral care and diligent teaching and supervision, and the use of orthodox, confessionally Lutheran materials in the small groups. What would this look like in a Lutheran congregation? Here is but one scenario: A pastor organizes a program of study of a book of the Bible, or organizes a comprehensive walk through a doctrinal topic, or series of topics, or the Lutheran Confessions. He identifies lay leaders in his congregation who can be entrusted with teaching responsibilities and he works closely with these men to train them and help them understand the content, the goals, the purpose and the objective of the curriculum that will be put into place in the congregation. The program meets in a large group format once a week, or whenever is deemed most appropriate. The pastor leads the large group session, teaching the major content of the week’s lesson. Laity then meet in small groups between sessions to go over the material and to explore and study the given week’s curriculum, with carefully prepared study questions and discussion guides. They do so in these groups with a lay leader appointed and taught carefully by the pastor. I see this as a helpful and workable way of using small groups in a Lutheran congregation. Now, having said this, I want to make it clear that I do not believe there is any essential need for small group Bible studies. I reject the idea that studying the Scriptures in a “small group” is somehow “better” in, any meaningful theological sense, than a large Bible study in the congregation.

Final Thoughts and Observations

Now, I recognize that there are those who still, for the sake of conscience, believe that there can never be, nor should ever be, any kind of small group program in a Lutheran congregation, for the reasons stated above. I do not agree with this position. I think there can be a responsible use of small groups in a congregation. My major concern is how much, and to what extent, the pastor serves as the chief teacher and how well he trains the lay small group facilitators that may be used, along with what materials are being used. Frankly, there would be no need for any “Bible classes” to begin were we to return to a strong doctrinal and exegetical sermon that lasts 45 minutes or more in our congregations, as was the norm throughout the entire history of the Christian Church, and particularly the Lutheran Church, until only the last thirty or forty years. Now I’ve seen way too many pastors preaching ten minute sermons in order to cram the service of the Lord’s Supper into a sixty minute window of time. How about that for a radical proposal?

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Categories: Lutheranism
  1. Brady G.
    May 26th, 2011 at 10:14 | #1

    Having followed the thread on the other site, I really appreciate the way you explained your stance here. I felt this is where you were going all along. It is a refreshing approach to a model that can be effective. When folks complain about small groups, they often use the questions of “how does this make you feel?” or “what does this mean to you?” In my small group experience, I have never asked or been asked those questions. The group I am an currently is using the CPH downloadable series to go along with the Lutheran Study Bible. We enjoy its focus on the scriptures and historical teaching aspects.

    • May 26th, 2011 at 10:26 | #2

      Thanks Brady. The “how does this make you feel” approach is one reason men hate most of what passes for small groups in our congregations these days, not to mention many women as well.

  2. EGK
    May 26th, 2011 at 11:06 | #3

    Paul, your description of the proper way of doing small groups sounds a lot like the LifeLight study methodology! :)

  3. Jean
    May 26th, 2011 at 11:39 | #5

    There are at least 3 Lutheran churches in my area that are using or starting “small-group” ministries. At one church you are “required” or strongly encouraged to be in one if you are a member. If you sign up you can get removed from the group if you do not attend regularly, because they have more people interested than groups available. The materials used is the sermon outline and 2-3 discussion or thought questions from the bulletin. The questions are usually sanctification application and may also be a question relating back to a passage used in the sermon. The groups also are suppose to do a community service project once a month. The small group leaders meet periodically with the Pastor every few months for training and discussion. When I hear small group… that’s the model I think of, unfortunately. Thanks for pointing out that model is not desirable in Lutheran congregations.

  4. Scott Holder
    May 26th, 2011 at 11:52 | #6


    The only thing I would disagree with is your statement that there would be no need for Bible classes if there were a 45-minute exegetical sermon. Bible study, even when led by the pastor, is of a different character than preaching. I think they are both necessary, and neither should be eliminated or collapsed into the other.

    • May 26th, 2011 at 11:56 | #7

      And I think it is worth talking about why we have reached a point where we regard preaching to be so different from teaching. There never was any such thing as a “Bible class” in the history of the church, only preaching. It was not until the 20th century that “Bible class” was introduced into the congregational life of Lutheran churches. It’s interesting to ponder why.

  5. May 26th, 2011 at 12:48 | #8

    Hello Paul, I’m a lutheran from Portugal and I’m surprised cause I’ve never heard of such thing like a 45 minutes sermon in the Lutheran Church. I think that’s a good thing for the growth of the church. Sadly I’ve been used to hear 15-20 minutes sermon and for 2 years I’ve heard even less than 15 minutes sermons. I’ve always asked myself why does the sermon as to be so short. Could you tell me more how those sermons would sound like?

  6. Russ Troester
    May 26th, 2011 at 15:03 | #9

    Paul, you make an interesting point about the 45 minute doctrinal/exegetical sermon. Perhaps I’m being pessimistic but I see that as a monumental shift from our current paradigm and wonder how I would get that aircraft carrier to turn? I completely agree that the 60 minute timeframe is really pretty silly but now that we’ve got a whole church full of Lutherans who’ve been conditioned to this format, any practical thoughts on how we could make that dramatic of a change without causing mutiny? Please understand I’m not disagreeing with you. I think it’s a plan worthy of thought and discussion. Every congregation would be different but I suspect in a fair amount, it would be a lofty challenge. To me it falls then into a bigger discussion of “what are the things that have been lost that are worth fighting to regain” vs. “what are the things that in an effort to regain we’d lose so much ground in the process it’s counterproductive.”

  7. May 26th, 2011 at 21:00 | #10

    45 minutes of good, solid, doctrinal and exegetical preaching will not be a bore at all. The paff that passes as “application” in a sermon is what brings the yawns on for me. A 2 hour service in the course of an entire week would be a real blessing, as would weekly communion and a candlelit evening prayer service per week.

  8. May 27th, 2011 at 04:11 | #11


    Lead me not into temptation, to mount my favourite hobby-horse. The mini-sermon as an extended absolution drives me round the bend, not to mention the 59-minute rule. There are 168 hours in the week. If we can only devote one of them to the Divine Service, what are we saying? How does that fit in with what we confess in the Catechism? ‘Gladly hear and learn it — but not too much’?

    As for small groups, the best small group is a small congregation. If the pastor can’t effectively teach the whole congregation on account of size, perhaps the congregation is the wrong size.

    • May 27th, 2011 at 05:25 | #12

      Tapani, thanks for your remarks. I’d love to hear you flesh out the phrase “the mini-sermon as an extended absolution.” Great stuff, my friend.

  9. Jonathan Trost
    May 27th, 2011 at 07:38 | #13

    In our congregation, the Service of Word and Sacrament is typically an hour and 15 to 1 hr. 20 minutes long. (That’s somewhat longer than it used to be when the Sacrament wasn’t celebrated each Sunday.)

    Perhaps more important than the length of the sermon, however, is the amount of time spent in its preparation. I recall 2 “rules of thumb” contained in an article written by a Scottish Presbyterian professor of homiletics at Yale Divinity School a few decades ago: 1) one hour of preparation for each minute of delivery; and 2) after about 17 minutes, the attention of the congregation may well tend to drift.

    My own experience has been that, if a sermon contains a lot of “I have always (long) believed (felt) that….” the congregation’s attention will drift long before 17 minutes. Alternatively, if those words are replaced with “The church has always taught that….”, the attention span is much longer.

    What works well for us is the adult forum which follows The Service, where the “captive audience” in the pew has opportunity for Qs and As with Pastor relating to his exposition in the sermon on the pericopes appointed for the day. The congregation’s monthly newsletter contains the pericopes for each of the Sundays for the following month, so that we, too, can read them in advance, and prepare for hearing the Word.

    • May 27th, 2011 at 07:53 | #14

      It is interesting to me that in most/many large Evangelical churches the folks attending think nothing about a solid 45 minute sermon, and this was the norm through out the vast majority of church history, both in the Early Church and in the Reformation era through the age of orthodoxy.

  10. Jonathan Trost
    May 27th, 2011 at 08:42 | #15

    In 2 different “large evangelical churches”, I’ve endured “a solid 45 minutes sermon”. What was “solid” was not the content, but the duration, a solid 45 minutes. On both occasions, and after little more than 5 minutes, I realized that the content would be much more about the messenger than about the message. And it was!

    Moreover, it was supplemented with lots of “praise music”, pretty subjective stuff, and much about “me and Thee”.

    How nice it was to get back home and sing our chorales, the words to each of which themselves contain a solid mini-sermon.

    • May 27th, 2011 at 09:12 | #16

      Jonathan, of course, the point of my remark was not to endorse the content of the message, but to highlight the fact that there are many, many Christians who do not look askance at a 45 minute message and think, frankly, that it is strange that we serve up “micro sermons.”

  11. May 27th, 2011 at 12:50 | #17

    @Tapani Simojoki
    Tapani, these are some excellent comments. I think what he means by “extended absolution,” Paul, is that Lutheran sermons have a tendency to devolve into boilerplate Law-then-Gospel. The teaching office is neglected. Its retrieval isn’t just tacking on a “sanctification” section at the end, but by an artful interweaving of Law/Gospel throughout the sermon, injecting the kerygmatic into the didactic and vice versa (let the reader understand, this is different than the dreaded “mingling of law and gospel”). The gospel proclamation transforms the Christian worldview and informs each aspect of Christian life. Dr. David Schmitt at Concordia, St. Louis, is doing excellent work in this area, and I encourage anyone to look up his chapel sermons on iTunes for sterling examples of how this kind of proclamation can be done faithfully.

    Regarding small congregations, when I accepted the Call to my congregation they were apologetic for being small, and nonplussed when I told them that I preferred the small congregation. As a pastor, I think it’s important to, you know, actually know the names of my congregants! Alas, for most of our society bigger is still “better.”

    • May 27th, 2011 at 17:38 | #18

      Not to worry, I knew exactly what he meant. It’s one of my concerns as well. Ten minute sermons that are a string of pious thoughts, punctuated with some Law and then the Gospel as, “Not to worry though, Jesus loves you” and then some kind of reference to Baptism or Communion. Very formulaic.

  12. David Ernst
    May 27th, 2011 at 17:23 | #19

    Pastor McCain,

    Thank you for a balanced perspective on the subject of small groups. Personally, I have had a positive experience with small Bible-study groups over the course of 20 years, but after learning more about pietism and its continuing influence on the Lutheran Church, I understand the concerns as well.

    I don’t think you can talk about Bible-study groups in the context of church history without mentioning Acts 17:11. The Bereans “searched the Scriptures daily” specifically to see if what Paul was preaching was the truth. The text doesn’t say whether they did this individually or in small groups, but obviously they were not limiting their study of the Scriptures to an hour or two on Sunday. For me this was the point of small-group study: to deepen my understanding of the Scriptures in order to better receive and evaluate the preaching of the Word on Sundays.

    Adult Bible classes, whether on Sunday or during the week, allow for specific questions and elaboration of points raised in the sermon (even a 45-. to 60-minute sermon does not allow enough time to cover everything that one might find in a particular passage of Scripture). Also, sermons must be tuned to the level of understanding of the congregation as a whole. Adult Bible classes, like Sunday school and confirmation classes, can take into account differing levels of Scriptural knowledge and understanding.

    Adult Bible study on Sunday morning in a large congregation is often a large group in itself. For some, this can be an obstacle to participation and learning. That is why I think small-group study tends to fulfill a need particularly in large congregations. And before one says, “The best small group is a small congregation,” one should be prepared to point to where God’s Word sets a maximum size for a congregation.

    We are told that “two or three gathered together in My name” constitutes a legitimate congregation, but nowhere are told how many gathered in one place at one time is too many. I think there is a lot to be said for maintaining a relatively small congregation, branching off a “daughter church” after a certain point. But I have to note that apparently Jesus was okay with preaching to 4,000 to 5,000 people at a time.

  13. Larry Luder
    May 27th, 2011 at 20:03 | #20

    Rev McCain,

    I’ve seen way too many pastors preaching ten minute sermons in order to cram the service of the Lord’s Supper into a sixty minute window of time.

    First and foremost, I see no reason to gather other than to gather around the Eucharist. That’s just me. As for a 10 minute sermon, I will put that up against a long winded sermon. I’ve read many sermon by the church fathers and Luther. They are not as long as many would think. How long was was Christ’s Sermon on the Mount? It is not how long the preaching but rather what is being convey in the stead and for the sake of Christ. You may be mistaken in believing that a shorter sermon is given for the sake of a sixty minute window. Nice posting and general insights by you and all the previous comments. You sir, are a very wise man and capture the big picture.

    • May 28th, 2011 at 07:17 | #21

      We are the church of the Word and Sacrament, not word and SACRAMENT.

  14. May 28th, 2011 at 13:50 | #22

    Yes, what Jonathan said. It’s the formulaic that I object to, as well as the neglect of teaching. If the text serves only as the point of departure into the Law-Gospel shoe horn, something’s amiss.

    I would also add that there’s a genuine danger that, just as in some Evangelical circles the preaching of the gospel is only for the unconverted, and Christians only get taught the law, likewise in some Lutheran circles detailed teaching is only served to catechumens, while the regular congregation only getes the extended absolution (unless they attend the teaching sessions outside the Divine Service).

    However excellent the small group or the Bible class is, in my limited experience, they are never attended by all. The only time when the pastor gets to teach the majority of the congregation is from the pulpit. If you leave the majority of the teaching to other venues, many people will fall through the net and will not be taught sufficiently.

    As for length, there are some excellent short sermons. They are probably more memorable, and make a greater impact, than even good longer sermons. On the other hand, as with all formation, it takes time, and it’s not always the one point memorably and strikingly made, but the patient weaving of the tapestry that leads to more profound formation. Not to mention the fact that not many a parish pastor can rival an Augustine or a Nagel for rhetorical skill. Most of us need more words than they do to say as much.

    I don’t mean this by way of the law: a sermon must be a certain length, or a congregation a certain size. That’s obviously absurd. Some preachers can’t preach long without being long-winded, and others can’t get enough said in less than 20 minutes – or 40 (and I’m not referring to long-windedness here). Very large congregations have obvious benefits as well, though I’m not minded to join one. What I have written here and above is what I would consider healthy guidelines.

  15. Larry Luder
    May 28th, 2011 at 16:37 | #23

    We are the church of the Word and Sacrament, not word and SACRAMENT.

    Indeed we are! Alleluia! I failed to convey that far too many of our parishes view the Eucharist as optional. So, as you say, “and”, is important. Our Lords offers us poor miserable sinners his body and blood to us for the full forgiveness of all our sinful transgressions. I see too many of our parishes offering the Eucharist as a option, once or twice a month on a given service time. The absence of the Eucharist can also be viewed as parishes denying his true presence to the bride. All is good, I rejoice on the hilltop where he has gathered us, evermore showing us with endless gifts, as we wait for his return.

  16. May 28th, 2011 at 22:44 | #24

    I tend to get “uninvited” from those “how do you feel about this” small group studies that I visit. I was actually asked to leave by one group leader for being disruptive. :P

    It turns out that I tend to feel exactly what the text says in it’s proper context… even if that totally blows the source material out of the water. Oh well!

  17. Neely Owen
    May 30th, 2011 at 07:59 | #25

    Paul —

    Thank you for your well balanced approach to the “small group” issue. As was noted in a recent article in Logia on the quia subscription to the Lutheran Confessions, as soon as the New Testament came into being [and for that matter the Old Testament] there were heretics trying to commandeer it for their own purposes and to twist its meaning. We must always guard against heresy. Faithful pastors have been given to us to aid in that.

    I agree with David Ernst in his comment when he indicated that

    I don’t think you can talk about Bible-study groups in the context of church history without mentioning Acts 17:11. The Bereans “searched the Scriptures daily” specifically to see if what Paul was preaching was the truth. The text doesn’t say whether they did this individually or in small groups, but obviously they were not limiting their study of the Scriptures to an hour or two on Sunday. For me this was the point of small-group study: to deepen my understanding of the Scriptures in order to better receive and evaluate the preaching of the Word on Sundays.

    Scripture encourages us to immerse ourselves in the study of it and the blessed Dr. Luther (among many other courageous individuals) translated it so that it would be accessible for the laity to read and even a youthful plowboy would be able to have more knowledge of the Truth than the Pope. Ensuring that the laity are not led astray by wolves in sheep’s clothing is always a concern for faithful pastors who truly walk among their people, who know their issues and concerns and who seek to teach them in all circumstances. The difficulty arises when we promote a mind-set that discourages people from being in the Word and promotes an attitude that they cannot read scriptures without having a pastor at hand to explain even the clearest texts. The saddest comment I ever heard about reading the Scriptures was when I was discussing this with a Roman Catholic friend whose response was “Oh, we don’t read the Bible. That’s why we have the priests. They’re trained and paid for that. They can tell us what it says.”

    Again, you presented a very fair and balanced view. We must encourage our people to read and discuss scripture often; and, we must be so clear in our teaching that they can spot heresy when it arises or at the very least be made uncomfortable so that they look to the pastor for aid in understanding.

    Thanks for your continued dedication to these issues.

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