Small Groups and Synagogues

Do small groups support Sunday services, or do Sunday services support small groups? That question is very relevant to the current concerns of many believers about American Christianity’s practices. To find an answer, it’s instructive to consider the Jewish religious practices familiar to the New Testament authors.

Consider these snippets of purpose statements or descriptions of small group ministries of mainstream American churches, collected from a few pages of Google search results for “church small group purpose.”

  • Sharing life through community is part of our design, but meaningful relationships aren’t always easy to find. That’s why Small Groups exist – to make these life-changing relationships relevant and accessible …
  • If you want your church to balance God’s purposes and grow in a healthy way, your small groups must lead the way …
  • The church must provide smaller settings where relationships can grow between members so they will be able to discover each other’s needs. Only then will they be able to meet those needs on an individual level …
  • Small groups can also be outlets for dealing with the special needs many people bring to church. So someone in need of personal attention can …
  • Small groups are essential to the health of a church. In a small group, we can experience all six purposes of the church: worship, evangelism …
  • Small groups are a great way for people to engage in biblical community by intentionally gathering regularly for the purpose of joining in God’s mission together.
  • We will align the whole church family with sermon-based small groups…
  • We will grow larger (in our corporate worship) and smaller (through small groups) at the same time …
  • Small groups meet some of the most important needs we have: need for spiritual growth, friendship, support, encouragement, strength …
  • Small groups exist as a way for people to engage in a biblical community that helps …
  • The purpose of an intentional faith-based small group is to build trusting relationships with God and one another. When we meet each other for conversation …
  • One of the primary goals that we want to live out in our small groups is to strive to have a Gospel-centered community …
  • Our church is about building the Kingdom through making disciples, which means helping you to become a devoted follower of Jesus. Small groups are the key in this growth process because we are created for community.

At first glance, these statements share some common elements. They focus on relationship. They focus on growing Christians. They focus on meeting perceived or actual specific needs. They put that relationship in the context of the overseeing local church. Some are more focused on meeting the needs of the believers – but most include an element of growing the overall organized church itself.

In a nutshell, they all generally focus on growing the overseeing local church in size and maturity.

The Original Jewish Model

Consider the pattern of religious services found in the Bible’s various descriptions of worship practices, as well as many historical records. This pattern would be familiar to those who authored the books of the New Testament.

Jewish worship was essentially centered around three primary constructs: The Temple, the synagogue, and the minyan.

The minyan was a quorum of at least ten adult Jewish men who desired to join together to participate in religious activities. These were everyday men – it was not required that any of them had formal priestly credentials or training. The minyan would elect elders to supervise activities of the group.

A minyan could then come together for regular fellowship, scripture reading, prayer, and worship. They would often meet three times per day. This gathering group would be called a synagogue, which met at a building also called a synagogue, in which such activities were held. A priest was not needed for synagogue worship – any male with appropriate education could become a rabbi or teacher. Even visitors could participate in teaching in synagogues – as Jesus did when visiting His hometown in Matthew 13:54 and Luke 4:16, and even in other synagogues around the Galilee region in Luke 4:14. There were typically many synagogues in a city – Jerusalem had hundreds – and usually each with fairly small memberships, given the constraints of available building sizes.

(Note that if you search for images of synagogues today, mostly you’ll find pictures that look remarkably like modern churches or even cathedrals. Even searching for “Jesus in the synagogue” will produce many beautiful pieces of artwork showing Him standing in massive Temple-like buildings with high ceilings and beautiful pillars and a large podium and dozens or hundreds of onlookers. But this was very much NOT the usual situation. Most synagogues were quite small – the minyan meeting was in someone’s house. The selected image for this post is probably representative of most real synagogues at the time. This discrepancy between reality and traditional artwork, which informs our imaginations, illustrates the problem we often have with understanding the real context of the Scriptures.)

The Temple was the singular formalized place of worship, in the form of sacrifices and offerings prescribed by the Torah. Such activities did not take place in synagogue – by Torah rules that the Lord had given, they could only take place in the temple. Only priests were authorized to make sacrifices and offerings. There was only one accepted temple, in Jerusalem (although the Samaritans had their own temple location on Mount Gerazim).

Consequences of the Jewish Model

It is clear from the above descriptions that the vital life of the Jewish religious culture existed at the synagogue level. The individual minyan groups, not the Temple priests, managed each synagogue’s own affairs independently, and taught their own lessons, and led their own non-Temple worship. Formal Temple worship led by the priests was necessary to offer sacrifices for sin. But the Temple was not the ultimate focus of synagogue life. Rather, the Temple existed as the dwelling of the Lord, and its facilities served the religious community by offering a location for the formalized worship. In fact, when the second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the sacrifices for sin ended – but Jewish synagogue worship definitely did not end.

As New Testament Christians, we of course understand that Christ became the ultimate sacrifice for our sins, and He became our High Priest forever. Temple worship is no longer required. Now, we worship in spirit and in truth, instead of by means of animal sacrifices and offerings. We individual followers of Christ, not a building, are the Temple, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit of our Lord, according to 1 Corinthians 6:19 and 1 Corinthians 3:16. And according to Ephesians 2:22, corporately we are being joined together “to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

It’s instructive to note that the New Testament does not say that we are a synagogue of the Lord. An earthly building may provide a convenient place to join together, bringing the Lord who dwells within us into the presence of fellow believers, but it is no longer required for worship. In fact, “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” in Hebrews 10:25 may refer as much to that spiritual corporate assembling together into Christ, as much as it might refer to meeting physically with fellow believers.

The Initiation of the Modern Christian Church Model

It is important to understand some history of the modern Christian church model. Most scholars place the true initiation of an institutionalized church with Emperor Constantine’s official recognition of the Christian faith as a Roman state religion in the early 300s AD. This placed the church directly under the authority of the widespread Roman state, and led to a fairly significant overhaul of church practices, including specifically the authority of church leadership over members.

It is also important to note that “worship” did not include the concept of music until the late 300s. A review of church history will also show that the development of liturgy and standardization of the language of worship was related to a desire for doctrinal control by church authorities – more centralization of power.

And the formalization of buildings devoted to worship began about this same time, with state sponsorship necessary to fund the massive edifices and cathedrals. The construction of large centralized church buildings necessarily also led to a centralization of meetings.

So we should not lose sight of the fact that much of our modern Christian expectations of patterns of worship are based on post-Bible traditions, and are not Biblical as such. A review of the New Testament will find very little that looks like modern Christian worship services. This is not to say that our modern practices are heretical – I do not believe they are. However, on the other hand our modern expectations should not be considered necessary for true worship, and that should include our focus on music, our liturgy, our traditional practices, our formalized buildings, our formalized authority structures, and our large gatherings. These must be held loosely as we discuss “church.”

What is the Focus?

With this in mind, the much older Jewish model of synagogue and Temple is worth considering with regard to the Christian life, as it was the foundation for the New Testament authors’ expectations and instruction.

Returning to the list of small group purposes above, those statements generally focus on growing the overseeing local church in size and maturity.

Thus, the inherent focus in American Christian culture seems to be supporting the local church – the institution that oversees the small groups – and providing for maintaining its facilities and programs. Most American churches largely reject any sense of government control over religion – although Christian Nationalists are recently insisting that the government must be explicitly Christian and must ensure correct laws and practices, in essence creating a state church once again. But even for those who disagree with a state church model, there is still a significant focus on the institution and its needs.

By contrast, the Jewish model has the institution (the Temple) supporting the small groups (the synagogues) which were very much not institutions. The life of the church exists in those small groups, not in the large Temple worship events led by priests or formalized worship teams.

Institutional worship consisting of one or two hours once a week, with 30 or 45 minutes of preaching, and usually a Sunday School Bible study, is hardly a way to create deep discipleship, grow in maturity through shared life experiences and challenges, study the Word deeply together, or meet one another’s personal and family needs. It can HELP support that community life – but it cannot BE the community life.

Is the Focus On the Institution or the Individual?

In my mind, if the ultimate focus of a small group ministry is on growing the Sunday morning institution, the mark has been missed. The answer to any question of structure, or management, or purpose, or practice, will always be: Does this benefit the institution?

If any discussion of doctrine or practice or institutional structure includes a statement like “this may hurt our membership numbers” or “we might scare away some attendees by saying that” or “that teaching would be Biblical but would offend some members” or “this may hurt our tithing” then I suggest that the focus is on the Temple experience, not the synagogue life.

Instead, the question ought to be: Does this benefit the life of the church as expressed in its individual members, meeting in relational small groups? Is the ultimate focus on the growth and maturity of each individual? What can the institution do to facilitate the growth of the believers, even if the institution must decrease or suffer as a result? Will the institution leave the 99 to find the 1?

Any vital and viable small group of believers will naturally flow and flex according to relationships and interests and passions. Trying to shoehorn people into geographical groups, or overriding their existing relationships by some arbitrary grouping, or ignoring their unique callings, will bring frustrations.

Such pigeonholing can only serve two purposes: to bring uniformity to the Sunday experience, or to force cross-cultural experiences onto small-group members. While cross-cultural understanding is essential, forcing it will likely only be harmful in the long run. And bringing uniformity to the Sunday experience seems to idolize Temple, by making it the focus of the exercise. “What’s best for the Sunday morning attendance” is the natural result.

And pigeonholing a group, mandating its membership, for the sake of some institutional goal, tries to make the institution’s needs more important than the work that the Holy Spirit would do naturally in existing relationships.

Is It Fixable?

Ultimately, any discussion like this leads to questions of whether institutional church is the right answer.

If you asked a Jew of Jesus’ time “is the Temple an appropriate way to worship?” the answer would always be “yes, of course it’s appropriate. God told us to do it that way.” Similarly, I think most modern Christians would automatically answer “yes, organized churches with Sunday morning services are the right way to worship.”

I don’t think that’s the entire answer. It’s a very natural cultural understanding for an American Christian, who has been conditioned their entire life to understand “church” to mean some variant of “a place where, or a large group with whom, we gather on Sunday mornings, which also oversees small group fellowship meetings at other times.” 

Biblically, however, “church” referred to the people, not a building. It was all about relationship. Unlike Temple, I don’t see any evidence that the Bible directs the formation and maintenance of city-scale church organizations and facilities. And I also don’t see any evidence that the term “pastor” or “bishop” or “overseer” in the Bible (Greek “episkapos”) referred to a leader over a city-church-sized group. Those leaders would have been understood to be overseers of relatively small groups of believers. Only the apostles were responsible for overseeing the church at large, and they were itinerant leaders, not tied to a single fellowship.

But that doesn’t negate the value of an organized American legal entity called “Church” on its Articles of Incorporation filed with the IRS for 501(c)(3) tax exempt status. Modern life is much larger in scale than in Biblical times, and what would have passed for a city church in Paul’s day wouldn’t hold a candle to a modern megachurch in sheer attendee numbers. Even a small-town American denominational church of a couple hundred members is probably larger than the churches to which Paul wrote some of his letters – for example, the city church in Corinth was estimated to be less than 150 believers by some researchers, and they almost certainly met “house to house” in small groups, not all in a single gathering.

Yes, It’s Fixable – If We Refocus

There is definitely a great value in having an appropriate designated space where the synagogue-like small groups can gather for a Temple-like time of sacrifice and offerings. And such spaces – the “church buildings” – require some organization and administration to sustain them, maintain them, and serve the Sunday morning functions. They can even act as suitable spaces for the synagogue-like meetings at other times of the week.

But ultimately, the very life of the city church ought to be in the synagogue-like experiences. Sunday morning ought to support the small groups. Temple should support synagogue, not the other way around.

I recognize that this clashes with our American understanding, and certainly will be an unpopular viewpoint with most American pastors or priests. But as I have watched the ongoing process of deconstruction among many of my friends, as many believers across America are questioning the role of the institutional church in the Christian experience, I think the Temple/synagogue concept might provide a model of understanding around which the institutions can reframe their thinking and decision-making. In so doing, we may thereby address the legitimate concerns of those seeking a truth closer to the Bible than to our tradition.

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