Another helpful book review from my brother, Tim Bixby, pastor of Cleveland Park Bible Church in Spartanburg, SC.
Title: Why Small Groups? Together Toward Maturity
Author: Edited by C. J. Mahaney
Publisher: Sovereign Grace Ministries
Number of pages: 113
Purchased: Gift from Champ Thornton
Recommended by: Champ Thornton
Review: C. J. Mahaney has assembled seven chapters written by seven different pastors to create what is essentially a handbook on small groups. Wide margins containing blurbs “for further study,” shaded quotation boxes, and application questions with space given for answers to be filled in make it a quick and easy read. Though the title suggests that it will be an apology for the use of small groups within a larger assembly, the first chapter (which bears the same name as the book) is the only chapter to address the question of “Why small groups?” The answer is given in four goals: progressive sanctification, mutual care, fellowship, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The rest of the book addresses issues that small groups invariably face: true spiritual fellowship, humility and motives, leadership, correction, exclusiveness, etc. A better name for the book would be, “How Small Groups?”
The final chapter (“And Now for the Big Picture” by Dave Harvey) provides a helpful defense of the importance of the local church and commitment to it. He tackles five common “viruses” which tend to neutralize one’s devotion to the church, coming down hard on para-church organizations that usurp the authority and centrality of the local church. “It would be unimaginable for Paul to encourage any group, whether businessmen or bikers, to establish an identity independent of the local church” (p.105).
The overall tone of the book is an intentional attempt to be both light and practical. The first of fifteen tips to make your small group a success is “hunger to know God” (35), while the eleventh is “Laugh at the leader’s jokes” (39) and the thirteenth is to “pray on the way” (ibid.). One application box gives several possible answer to a question concerning which problems are so serious that they should be handled by the pastor rather than the small-group leader. One is, “I have never had a consistent prayer life.” The next one is, “My cat is stuck in a tree.”
While helpful as a handbook for a Christian already involved in a well established, Biblically defined, small group, the book’s biggest disappointment is its failure to properly distinguish between the nature of a “small group” and that of the local church and the subsequent relationship they should have to each other. In other words, while one’s commitment to the local church above the small group is emphasized, one’s need for the local church beyond the small group is not defined–except for perhaps the need for preaching. For example, mention is made of “bathtub baptisms” (87), impromptu communion services, a woman who “shared a beautiful prophecy” (40), and the need to focus on both sanctification and evangelism (“Small Groups–Reaching Our World” p. 86), all these within the context of the small group. One pastor gives the testimony of a couple who decided to visit a small group rather than attending the Sunday morning worship service because, “We knew that was where we would see what the church is really like” (95). The result: “We had already decided to be a part of this church before we ever visited on a Sunday morning!” The questions left unanswered are many: should evangelism be a stated goal of a small group? Are baptism and the Lord’s Supper local church or small group ordinances? Should all one’s activities involving the local church be directed through the small group? (Let’s not even broach the issue of “beautiful prophecies” on Thursday night after the snack.)
I enjoyed the help this book gave me on multifarious topics: the corporate nature of sanctification, Biblical confrontation, mutual responsibility (see excellent list of Biblical “one another’s” given on page 23), proper exegesis (see appendix), etc. However, it left a crucial question unanswered: How can a small group (which I think is a good idea though not a Biblical essential) be structured so that it enhances the “one body” principle of the local church? Our goal should be to see the whole local body, being fitted and held together by that which every individual “joint” supplies, in accordance with the proper working of each individual part (member), causing the growth of the local church for the building up of itself in love. Let small groups stand or fall depending on how they help fulfill that objective.
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