Why Small Groups? – Book Review

The following is a review of the book, Why Small Groups? Together Toward Maturity, by CJ Mahaney. You can download the book for free on the Sovereign Grace Ministries Store website.

. . . .

An old black preacher once said, “You can no more do what you don’t know than come back from where you ain’t never been.” That’s so true. If we became aware of the fact that there was a life-changing truth that we needed to know and didn’t, then we could diligently study to learn it, memorize what we learned, and get help to learn how to apply it to our lives so that we could do it. But the old preacher is right, his axiom undeniable, and Hosea concurs, warning us of as much when he laments, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” The solution for all God-fearing believers then is this: we must inextricably link our quest for right living to right thinking (Ps 119:9).

The great need of the hour today is for the church to relearn how to progressively grow in holy living. We need to regain a biblical vision for how to become Christ-like and how to live in God-pleasing ways in an ungodly, please-me, pleasure-seeking world. That’s obvious to all of us. Collectively, we seem to have forgotten how to live holy lives, and you can’t do what you don’t know. Ask just about any pastor, church leader, or church member to honestly answer this question: Are you living holy like God is holy? Wouldn’t the most honest answer be Daniel’s quote, “We have sinned. . . . Righteousness belongs to You, O Lord, but to us open shame” (Dan 9:5, 7)? And wouldn’t we, like Isaiah, under God’s piercing holiness, confess, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isa 6:5)? With holy living as our standard (1 Pet 1:15-16), this is not the church’s finest hour. The church desperately needs to relearn how to grow in progressive holy living. We need Spirit-filled, seasoned/wise, Bible breathing men of God to re-teach us how to live like our holy Savior.

That is the great need of the hour for the church today. That is why Covenant Eyes asked me to do a thorough review of a very promising book, Why Small Groups? Together Toward Maturity. The question I have sought to answer with chapter by chapter blog style reviews is, do these authors and does this book significantly empower the church to live holy?

. . . .

Authors with Knowledge and Experience

Why Small Groups? is a part of a series produced by Sovereign Grace Ministries called The Perspective Series. So far there are four other titles: Disciplines for Life, How Can I Change?, This Great Salvation, and The Rich Single Life. Released on October 1, 1996, Why Small Groups? has sold an impressive 20,000 plus copies. It has recently been released as a free e-book, which I pray will significantly increase in circulation beyond the 1,000 downloads so far to date. This is the version that I read for my reviews.

An obvious strength of the book is its authors. C.J. Mahaney (also serves as the general editor), John Loftness, Greg Somerville, Mark Mullery, Mickey Connolly, John Butler, and Dave Harvey are all experienced pastors, small group leaders, and small group leader trainers. Also, the appendix, which is written by Walt Russell, professor of NT at Talbot School of Theology, is an excellent, easy to read guide for avoiding the pit-falls of relativism in our hermeneutics/Bible study methods.

The contributing authors are all pastors in the Sovereign Grace Ministries, a church planting movement that is evangelical, reformed, and continuationist. I am a staunch secessionist and found the few allusions to ongoing gifts, such as prophecy, did nothing to distract me from the point of the book. Following a Bible centered approach with deadly precision, they hit bull’s-eye after bull’s-eye with one compelling argument after another.

. . . .

Men Who Lead

Although carefully handled, some may also find objections to their conviction that those who lead small groups should be qualified males. On page 54, Mullery states, “By now it has probably become apparent that we are assuming the small-group leader ought to be a man. This is our understanding of Scripture, though we believe it is appropriate for a woman to lead a small group consisting exclusively of other women (Tit 2:1-5).” His defense is short but biblically cogent. He makes it clear that both men and women are made in the image of God (Gen 1:27), receive benefits of salvation, share the expectation of full redemption, and enjoy equal access to God through Christ, and more. He also explains that the Bible reveals that men and women are distinct in their masculinity and femininity. He biblically contends that these distinctions are designed by God and not culturally derived. “In the church, governing and teaching roles are specifically reserved for men. Leading a small group is one such role because it involves oversight—caring for people, counseling them, and providing a sense of direction” (55). I hope no reader stumbles over his carefully crafted biblical defense of complimentarianism.

. . . .

A Book By Leaders, For Leaders

The targeted audience for this book is pastors, small group leaders, and those seeking to start a small group. The advertised purpose for this work is clearly stated:

Do you want to get on the fast track to Christian maturity? Small groups provide the ideal context for “working out our salvation” together. Whether you attend a small group or lead one, this book will raise your vision and inspire you to excel in the areas of service to which God has called you. And if you don’t attend a small group? All the more reason you may want to read Why Small Groups? and let it change your life.

C.J. Mahaney adds in his foreword, “We hope it is helpful.” Well, C.J., I am glad you have given the church this tremendous work. It is indeed very, very helpful. In this reviewer’s opinion, it may not surpass Robert Coleman’s timeless classic on discipleship, The Master Plan of Evangelism, but it certainly should become the standard work on discipleship for the church today.

Written with a persuasive and inspiring tone, with compelling theological and biblical proofs, loaded with powerful quotes, Why Small Groups? successfully makes the case for the invaluable role of small groups in the church. And as C.J. promises in his foreword, “You won’t find theories in this book; you’ll find biblical principles that have been put into practice by the authors since the early 1980s.” It is thoroughly biblical and highly practical.

. . . .

Small Groups: Jesus’ Model for Growth

In fact, if there is a weakness in the book, it is that it is so practical. Its deft answers will only be appreciated by those who have already struggled with small groups. But as leaders who have been there and done that, each chapter adds a piece of a puzzle that has puzzled the church too long. By Jesus’ example (Mark 3:13-14) and by God’s design (2 Tim 2:2), the church will not produce strong Christians who will effectively overcome the temptations of sin until we get back to the fundamentals of how Jesus and the apostles produced mature believers—through small groups.

As you read you’ll laugh at their humor, you will be stirred by the candid humility, you will appreciate their insights, you will learn from their biblical insights, and I pray you will be moved to action by their consistent, persistent exhortations for pastors and church leaders to invest their lives in what matters to God most: His saints growing in holy Christ-likeness.

The church owes these men our sincerest thanks for giving to us, literally, ready to apply answers to our most critical problem—a means to help our churches grow in progressive holiness. The best way I can think of for pastors and church leaders to thank them is to download this free e-book and start small groups. The fact that false teachers can sell millions and millions of books, and a treasure like this is offered to the church for free and can go overlooked, is quite an indictment against the church and is perhaps one of the reasons why the church is struggling as it is.

And, no—If you’re wondering if I am being paid to publicize this book or if am I a secret publicist for their book—I am not. What I am is a pastor who was trained and equipped to serve God in pastoral ministry through a small group. I am a pastor who has trained other pastors and missionaries through small groups. I am a Christian who is convinced: what God used to bring me to spiritual maturity was small groups. I have been in a lot of small groups. I have read a lot of small group books, and I know for a fact that these men of God have produced a work that, if heeded, will help the church win a lot of battles for Jesus’ namesake—men we are now losing.

. . . .

Chapter Reviews

. . . .

Last, I need to thank Covenant Eyes (and specifically Luke Gilkerson) for inviting me to write these reviews. For inexcusable reasons, I had neglected small group ministries in the church I have been pastoring for the past few years. Well, they are up and running again and doing very well. We recently held our men’s retreat, and because of the transparency and care for one another that we developed through our small groups, it was, in the words of one of the men (who I think spoke for the group), the most impactful retreat we have ever had.

I have thoroughly relished the time writing these reviews and being mentored in refining my approach to small groups by these men of God. I pray that these reviews, and more importantly this book, Why Small Groups? will inspire and equip you to start small groups. Why Small Groups? is more than a must read. It is a must do for every pastor and church leader.