Small Groups Introduced in My Parish On Sunday – Well, Sort Of… by Pr. Rossow

On Sunday I introduced small groups at the parish I serve, well, sort of. We had some fun in Bible class. I have spent the last eight weeks teaching Article V of the Formula of Concord on Law and Gospel. This week I asked the class to form into groups of three to five people and randomly pick passages out of the Bible and determine if there was any law, gospel or both in each passage. We had some fun joking about how I was introducing small groups into the parish.

Of course these are not “small groups” as we are using that term on this website. This was just a helpful exercise to test the students to see how well they had learned the material, and this is important – it was an exercise that was dependant upon and secondary to the scriptural role of teaching by the pastor.

This little episode actually provides a timely opportunity to define “small groups.” Our discussions of the pros and cons of small groups on this website will benefit from better definition. In his pamphlet titled “The Proper Form of a Christian Congregation” Walther defines small groups for us. Before getting to that he tells us what things are necessary for the word of God to dwell richly in the congregation. Here is his list (paragraphs 20 – 25):

  1. Establish the public ministry in the parish.
  2. Call a pastor.
  3. Conduct public services on Sunday, feast days, and penitential mid-week services during Advent and Lent.
  4. Baptize infants soon after birth.
  5. Catechize the young.
  6. Practice absolution.
  7. Celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
  8. Publicly solemnize marriages.
  9. Have the pastor visit the sick and bring them the Word of God.
  10. Provide Christian burial.
  11. If possible establish a Lutheran Day School.

Notice he does not mention Bible class or small groups. Bible class, as best I can tell, came into the LCMS via the Sunday School movement of the early 20th century. If you have ever read any of Walther’s sermons, you know why he did not need Bible class. His sermons were about 45 minutes long and included lengthy sections of doctrinal instruction. So Bible class appears to me to be an innovation in the LCMS. But, it is in innovation that grows out of the scriptural role of teacher given to the pastor. The Scriptures and the Confessions use “teacher” and “pastor/preacher” interchangeably.

Notice that small groups are left off the list. Not only so but in the very next paragraph they are actually forbidden by Walther. Here is what he says:

º 25. In order that the Word of God may have full scope in a congregation, the congregation should lastly tolerate no divisions by way of conventicles, that is, of meetings for instruction and prayer aside from the divinely ordained public ministry, 1 Cor. 11:18; Jas. 3:1; 1 Cor. 12:29; 14:28; Acts 6:4; Rom. 10:15: “How shall they preach except they be sent?”

Note well that in the scripture passages, Walther defends this rejection of small groups via the doctrine of the office of the ministry. For example, he argues, if we allow conventicles, we are violating Romans 10:15 which says it is given to the pastor to preach and teach.

Paragraph 25 of “The Proper Form…” is probably the best definition one could offer of a small group. A small group is “a meeting for instruction and prayer aside from the divinely ordained public ministry.” This is the bare bones definition. I would also add that it is important to understand the historical setting in which small groups arise and this is why I am so concerned about the small groups at Concordia Seminary. The two times that I know of in church history that small groups have risen to prominence are the age of pietism (late 17th century to the mid 18th century) and now (the late 20th century into the early 21st century). This historical reality is profound. Each of these eras is characterized by a reaction of individual piety and emotion against the perceived “dead orthodoxy” of the time.

Do the Concordia Seminary groups fit Walther’s description? I have said in a previous post that the CSL groups are not your typical small group. The difference is the presence of an ordained pastor in each group. The important thing in my mind is that the seminary has started a small group program that has much in common with the typical small group program and more importantly, that they have started small groups at all. Seminarians will be leaving St. Louis as pastors and will be starting small groups in their parishes and will be able to say – we did this at the seminary in St. Louis. The problem is that they are not going to have a pastor in each of their small groups in their parish but the precedent for small groups in the church has now been set by CSL.

In addition, the small groups at the seminary are using a typical approach out of small group theory wherein there is an emphasis on interaction and a lack of emphasis on the pastor as teacher. The seminary is using the SOAP method which is Scripture, Observation, Application, Prayer. I believe Walther used the TEACH method, that is the pastor as the called teacher of the word, teaches the word to the sheep. I am convinced that the seminary’s small groups are a product of the current trend in the church. If there were no 1960’s romantic and narcissistic turn in church culture, I am convinced, the seminary would not be doing small groups. That is why I make the connection between the seminary’s use of small groups and Pietism. There is no doubt we are smack dab in the middle of a new wave of Pietism. We ought to guard against it; not compromise with it. Has CSL organized the small groups with proper supervisory authority? It seems so. That is good. Do the groups reflect the relational turn of the new pietiesm? Yes, I believe they do and this is a bad precedent.

In future posts I will talk more about the reasons why Walther and others reject the use of small groups. The summary and review of my time in St. Louis is still in the works and will be published soon. I figured our little fun with small groups in church last Sunday was a good segue into a post defining small groups.

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