Group Dynamics and Church

Posted by in Church & Missions

Back during my M. Div. studies (MABTS ‘83-‘84, ‘86-‘87; SWBTS ‘88-‘89), I took a class in Group Dynamics. Generally, M. Div. programs do not include Group Dynamics as part of the core curriculum. Neither does the Bible treat the subject of Group Dynamics in a scientific way, in the manner a Sociology Department in a university would do so today. As a result, it may appear “unspiritual,” from the viewpoint of some, to give much attention to studying the church from that perspective.

However, I am convinced that much of what the New Testament has to teach us about the church, both from the descriptive approach of Acts, as well as the prescriptive approach of the Epistles, is tied in to the way individuals relate to one another in the context of different types of groups, and how the characteristics of these groups affect the nature of these relationships. I am also convinced that much of what is lacking in many churches today can be attributed to a faulty application of basic principles of group dynamics.

I want to be careful at this stage to point out that I am not an expert in the scientific study of group dynamics. Far from it. The observations I am making here come not so much from the perspective of scholarly investigation as from years of casual observation of and reflection on the life and organization of the various congregations of which the Lord has given me the privilege to be a part.

Underlying my thoughts on this post is a good bit of reflection on the purpose of the church. The idea that the church has essentially five basic purposes – worship (or leitourgia), proclamation (or kerygma), fellowship (or koinonia), discipleship (or didache), and service (or diakonia) – was something I first learned in Systematic Theology class, under the able instruction of the late Dr. John Kiwiet. The Purpose-Driven Church by Rick Warren, which I regard as a classic, fleshes out this idea a bit more. I have also gained valuable insights on the purpose of the church through the writings and ministry of those involved in the Cell Church movement, notably Ralph Neighbour, Bill Beckham, and Joel Comiskey. More recently, several of those in the House Church (or “Simple” or “Organic” church) movement have added to my thoughts on this (including Wolfgang Simson, Frank Viola, Neil Cole, etc.). I have also read and reflected a bit on books on this subject by people such as Watchman Nee, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ray Stedman, and Howard Snyder. I have also benefited lately from reading the thoughts of several bloggers who think deeply about these questions, including fellow Southern Baptists Alan Knox, Guy Muse, and Ed Stetzer, as well as some of the non-SBC “missional” guys like Alan Hirsch, David Fitch, and others. I would have to add to the mix numerous personal conversations with missionary and ministry colleagues, assorted seminars I have had the privilege to attend, practical lessons learned in everyday church experience, and personal Bible study.

Obviously, there is no way possible to even begin to summarize here everything I have learned regarding the purpose of the church from all of these different sources of input. But, I believe it is helpful to know something of the different “wells from which I have drunk” to understand better from where I am coming.

Basically, I think that one of the main elements overlooked in many congregations today is the need for interactive relationships, in which each member of the body is given the opportunity to participate and put into practice the spiritual gifts that God has given them. The many “one another” verses in the New Testament are, in my opinion, foundational to a correct understanding of what church is all about.

While there is definitely a place for, and nothing inherently wrong, in and of itself, with meetings in which relatively large groups of people are lined up in rows, all looking to the front, listening to what the people up there have to say to them, I think that much of the essential purpose of the church will never be accomplished through this type of meeting alone. In Southern Baptist life, we have traditionally given lip service to this idea through the existence of all age Sunday School. In recent years, many churches have also included small group discipleship or affinity groups in their menu of church programs.

I am not necessarily advocating the use of one program or system of church organization over another here. The important thing is that, however you choose to organize church life, the various purposes the church is meant to fulfill are actually accomplished. And this is where group dynamics comes in.

Studies have demonstrated that, at least in normal Western contexts, once a group grows beyond 18-20 members, the dynamics of the group almost always change. It becomes much more difficult for there to be open participation. Some group members naturally begin to clam up. The unspoken expectation increasingly takes root among the members that the appropriate thing to do is to assume more of a spectator role, and not interrupt the person who is perceived as being “in charge.”

The problem in many congregations is that this principle can often find itself at odds with numerical church growth considerations. As church attendance begins to grow, there is often a corresponding lack of space for Sunday School classes and of qualified teachers (or affinity groups and leaders). The solution? Put more and more people in the same class under the leadership of the same teacher. The problem with this? This “solution” ends up changing the essential dynamic of the class, and converts it, for all practical purposes, into just one more “everybody in rows looking at the person up front” type of event.

I am not sure just how much this scenario plays out in churches across the Convention. But I have a sneaking suspicion that way too often. Biblically, church is not meant to be a “spectator sport.” It is not meant primarily to be an event in which one person (or a small group of people) speaks to a large group of other people. It is intended rather to be a local expression of the Body of Christ, in which each and every member ministers to and edifies one another. That, in my opinion, means talking to one another. It means getting into one another’s lives. It means sitting down and opening the Bible together, with each one taking turns sharing what God is teaching them. It means holding one another accountable for each one’s spiritual growth, and “spurring one another on toward love and good deeds.” It will also probably mean giving greater priority to the training of small group leaders. And, it may well involve some radical reorganization of such things as meeting times and meeting places in the overall life of the church.

Personally, I don’t care so much whether this happens on the campus of a church building, in private homes, or somewhere else. Nor whether you call it cell groups, affinity groups, house church, or Sunday School. I think it is possible to provide for this type of dynamic both in mega-churches and small churches; city churches and rural churches; churches with a contemporary worship style and churches with a traditional worship style. But, if there is not a regular time in the life of a congregation in which this type of “one another” interaction takes place in a meaningful way, and is actively facilitated by the group dynamics of the situation, I dare say something is seriously lacking with regard to the fulfillment of the basic purpose of the church.