Idolatry in Small Groups

Small Group Ministry Leader, if you discovered that one of the small groups under your care was engaging in idol worship, what would you do?

Small Group Leader, if your small group ministry leader came to you to warn you to stop worshiping idols, how would you respond?

In both he Old and New Testaments, idol worship is strictly forbidden and considered detestable (e.g. Ex. 20:4, 23; 22:20; 1 Cor 10:7, 14; 1 Jn. 5:21), and yet many small groups are engaging in this wicked practice every week. No, I’ve never seen a group pull out a golden calf, but man-made objects are not the only false gods people and groups bow down to.

The first commandment is clear: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). The next three, and in many respects, all of the rest of the commandments, are based on this one. Whatever we place before God, his Word, his Kingdom, his call, and his mission becomes our idol, our master (see Matt. 6:24), and the focus of our attention.

This, of course, is serious and vital for groups to recognize. I don’t believe groups intentionally set out to be idolaters, but, much like God’s people of old, we set our minds on earthly things instead of God.

How do Christian groups engage in idol worship? When anything else becomes a substitute for the One True God.

  • When they come together for any reason other than God and his mission. That doesn’t mean groups can’t have fun, of course. That’s part of the community life God intends for us. But when that  “fellowship” is not God-centered, leaves out the presence of God, and becomes a substitute for carrying out God’s mission for that group, it’s idol worship. (See 1 John 1:3.)
  • When the group leader keeps all the focus on himself or herself. Worldly, power-hungry leaders love the praise of their group members. They seek validation of their own knowledge and leadership skills. But their hearts are far from God.
  • When group members usurp God’s place. Oftentimes, needy or hurting group members make themselves the center of the group’s attention. Often narcissistic, they desire the group’s love and focus, often above the all-powerful God who alone has the power to bring healing.
  • When the study materials are the focal point. This one is especially insidious. We can study materials to help us grow in our relationships with and mission for God and yet, at the same time, allow these man-made resources to become the center of our attention.
  • When comfort is a main objective. God has called us to costly discipleship—surrendering all to follow Jesus. Yet some groups are gatherings of “rich young men and women” who cannot give everything they have to follow Jesus (Matt. 19:16-29). They’d rather settle for the god of comfort.

I’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg with these five gods that groups bow down to. I’m sure you can think of many more.

The reason I made “Christ Centered” the first vital sign of a healthy small group (from my book Small Group Vital Signs) is because groups must get this one right before they can grow in any of the others. It goes back to the First Commandment as well as Matthew 6:33: “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (NLT). 

Small Group Ministry Leader, this is your #1 Priority in equipping and coaching your groups. You must root out all idolatry in your groups and teach them how to seek God and his Kingdom first. Contact me to discuss how.

Small Group Leader, God has entrusted you with this group of his people (1 Pet. 5:2). Take that responsibility seriously as you lead the group to worship the Lord your God only. Get help and coaching as necessary. Read more posts on being a Christ-Centered group on this site. Read Chapters 1 and 2 of Small Group Vital Signs. But start by surrendering your leadership and the group to God. It’s his in the first place. Lead as an act of stewardship.

“Dear children, keep away from anything that might take God’s place in your hearts” (1 John 5:21, NLT).

QUESTIONS: (1) On what other idols have you seen small groups focus? (2) How do you respond to the first two questions at the beginning of this post?

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Michael Mack has led Small Group Leadership full-time since 2012, but has been involved in small group ministry for more than 25 years.

He lives in Pewee Valley, Kentucky (just outside Louisville), with his wife Heidi. Their family small group, which includes their four young adult children, has much potential (and much anticipation) for future growth and multiplication. Michael enjoys mountain and road biking with a group of great friends who participate together in various charity rides.

See the “About Michael Mack” page under About Us for more about him.

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