Book Review: Jeffrey Arnold's “The Big Book on Small Groups”
I’ll admit I was biased before reading Jeffrey Arnold’s The Big Book on Small Groups. I’m not a fan of books with titles such as “Everything You Need to Know About Subject X.” I have yet to read a book on any subject that can cover everything in one volume. My bias seemed to be confirmed in the first chapter when the author, recounting the history of key leaders in the small-group movement, failed to mention Charles or John Wesley. But reasoning that the book would obviously cover a lot of important dynamics about small groups, I continued holding out hope.
Arnold stresses that small groups that are inward focused will die, while outward-focused (missional and evangelistic) groups will thrive. This assertion came across as a bit too either/or for me. Arnold’s overly simplistic equation is that inward-focused groups are nothing more than cliques. He seems intent to point out only the negatives of closed groups. He misses the positives of groups that value deep relationships built on trust and vulnerability.
His definition of a small group offers some advantages. “A small group is intent on participating with Christ in building his ever-expanding kingdom in the hearts of individuals, in the life of the group and, through believers, into the world” (23). This definition gives more than the functional characteristics of a small group, connects small groups to Christ’s Kingdom, and at least attempts to be missional. (I’m not sure he achieves the last part, though.)
Arnold also is helpful in giving descriptions of different types of small groups: cell groups, discipleship groups, ministry groups, special-needs groups, affinity groups, and house church. With the diversity of small groups that churches offer and the variety of descriptors for them, it is always advantageous to define our terms. Listing the strengths and weaknesses of each was only marginally useful, and the descriptions were still a little vague.
Arnold points out that small groups have three dimensions: Small group are to reach inward (nurture), upward (worshipful), and outward (evangelism/mission). He even breaks down a sample meeting time to show how all three dimensions can fit in each small-group session. While valuable, since groups should consider such factors, this analysis comes across as overly simplistic to me. In particular, his description of mission will probably be absent of what Wesleyans refer to as acts of justice. Much less is there a connection made between our baptismal call and our life as disciples of Jesus Christ.
The first four chapters of The Big Book on Small Groups contain the essential aspects of small-group ministry; the last eight chapters are secondary–but necessary–for ongoing leadership training. To me, the second section often drifts into areas that it just doesn’t need to cover, or it doesn’t cover some areas in-depth enough. For example, Arnold’s chapter on worship spends too much time giving the purpose of worship instead of making the connection between the formation that happens in worship with the formation that happens in small groups.
Likewise, Arnold spends a number of chapters on the importance of building community. While building community is certainly important, books such as Cloud & Townsend’s Making Small Groups Work covers many of these dynamics better.
The “Questions for Review” section at the end of each chapter is a helpful way to digest the material. Some of the “Ideas for Coaches/Trainers” at the end of each chapter are also valuable. The appendix offers supportive resources, such as the job descriptions for particular roles and evaluation worksheets for the small-group leader’s monthly report and a small-group evaluation.
One of Arnold’s more valuable contributions is his caution that if small groups are not done well, they could likely be harmful. “Not all small groups provide a positive impact. If structured carelessly, small groups can hinder growth, exclude people, provide platforms for negative or destructive impact” (32). Arnold is right to stress that structure and training of leaders is vitally important to the health of small groups. For small groups to succeed and achieve their purpose, care and design are essential.
Arnold is realistic about the lifecycle of small groups. He notes, for example, that groups will come to an end. And I think Arnold is correct to note that instead of just drifting apart, groups should celebrate what was life giving while the group existed. This can help individuals deal with something they rarely take time to process – the grief of a loss.
The Big Book on Small Groups still has much to offer, even if it doesn’t live up to its billing as a catch-all book. Only the rare book could. If you have several responsibilities within the church, and you have time for only one book that you can use as a reference, Arnold’s would be beneficial. Still, I hope you’ll take the time to supplement this “big book” with some smaller and more directed works to really solidify your small-group ministry.