This is one of the better books on small groups among all the texts that we’ve read for this course. In terms of its’ pragmatic nature, I liken it to “Activate: An Entirely New Approach to Small Groups”. There is a substantial amount of “hot-to” information that makes it particularly helpful. It’s rather interesting that, while the authors’ of “Activate” tout their own originality, Osborne shares the value of many of the same ideas at the same general time that the Activate book was published (for example, the short semester-based groups). But I digress.
I must clarify (and be honest) that when I say “better” I am really referring to the fact that I share many of the same ideas and values about church and small group ministry as the author. For example, he believes (as do I) that the best function for small groups is to “close the back door” by helping to create stronger relationships. It is interesting that he laments his early ministry failures as he focused too much on visitors and non-Christians and allowed his members to sneak out the back-door.
I also appreciate his tendency to be honest, even to the point of being “politically incorrect.” While it’s definitely not that impressive or important, I find it refreshing that he openly encourages his members to choose a group based on who else is in the group. This would be in opposition to the idea that because we live in harmony as Christians that we will all get along well in our groups. That’s simply not true; and it seems to me that it would be a mistake in strategy to try to force relationships on people. While this is not a new idea, Osborne’s transparency and honestly has helped to reinforce my own thoughts and convictions that I may have otherwise lacked full confidence in. As I continue to think through, and read the book a second time, I have come to believe that this is the greatest benefit of the book for me and my church—simply reinforcing the convictions, beliefs and conclusions that I have been coming to. To that end this is not a singular occurrence.
Also, I appreciate very much that Osborne writes from a more “normal” church experience. He has served his current congregation (a multi-site, mega-church) for nearly three decades. But when he took over the leadership role it was small and struggling; not altogether unlike the context that a majority of his readers will find themselves in. This is amazingly refreshing after reading from people like Gladen and Donahue who write from the ivory tower of the mega-church.
One of the most tangible and specific benefits of this book is Osborne’s approach to training the group leaders. He openly shares how they failed early on in their ministry by throwing too much at their leaders—both in terms of time requirements and the amount of content they shared. This is an error that I likely would have made starting out. In fact, since reading this I have thought through my plans to have a monthly group leader meeting. I was always hesitant about this, but this is another example where Osborne essentially “gave me permission” to trust my instincts. Now I have decided to go back and work through my original approach.
Osborne makes one fundamental error in his thinking that continues to trouble and challenge me. Essentially, his thesis is that sermon-based small groups are the end-all for small groups. Of course, there is great value beyond this idea; but this is certainly the primary point that he is attempting to make. Here is the problem: throughout the book as the author discusses and describes his method for small groups he always goes back to the argument that sermon-based approach makes it all possible. For example, after discussing how small groups provide a natural point to consistently connect people to both significant relationships and the Bible; he states that:
the best tool I’ve ever seen for connecting people to one another and engaging them with the Bible for the long-haul is a sermon-based small group. It offers a format that fits the way we spiritually grow, while providing a framework for a healthy and sticky church (p.46).
In my estimation, nearly all small groups, if done well will provide the same benefits that he claims for the sermon-based model. He makes this type of claim throughout the book while providing little support or evidence. It’s clearly just a bias towards that particular model that has served his congregation so well.