If teaching core doctrinal content is ineffective in small groups, where can it be taught? This is a good question and one that we need to address.
Over the centuries, the church addressed this need in various ways. Scripture does not give us a consistent picture. Many use Acts 2:44-46 as an apologetic for small groups. Perhaps it would be wiser to keep those verses in their context. Acts 2:42 says, "They devoted themselves to the apostolic teaching and to the breaking of bread and to prayer." Please note the nature of the teaching received: it was apostolic teaching. Exactly who communicated such teaching is a matter of conjecture or speculation. If it were not the apostles themselves, it probably be someone who taught with their approval. The teaching was certainly not "group grope."
The small group movement defines such a group as between 8-12. At 16 the group should "hive" off and form a new group. We assume the home groups in Acts 2 were such groups but this cannot be proven. We must remember that the early church owned no buildings so they met where they could when they could. We do not know if these home groups were 12 people or 120. We do know that 120 gathered in an upper room prior to the activities on Pentecost. Does this mean that I think we should reject small groups of 8-12? Absolutely not! I do not think, however, we can use Acts 2:44-46 in a way that says this is a biblical mandate for such groups.
As the church grew and extended itself beyond Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, we are not told how the church communicated "sound doctrine." As I mentioned yesterday, Paul told Timothy to entrust what Paul taught him to "reliable men who will be qualified to teach others" (2 Timothy 2:2). It seems to me that this indicates that qualified leaders should communicate core Christian truth. Perhaps this is why a qualification of the eldership found in 1 Timothy 3 is that they are "apt to teach."
Church history tells us that the second and third century churches established catechetical schools to instruct "seekers" in core beliefs prior to their baptism and access to the Lord's Table. Although many of us would resist the implementation of such efforts to catechize newcomers prior to baptism, I can only see one difference between those efforts to prepare individuals for membership and the current trend of premembership seminars: the time involved. Most 101 seminars last 4 hours. Catechetical training in the early church was lengthy and involved.
Protestantism long depended on the preached word for doctrinal instruction. Protestant sermons tended to be long and theologically deep. The emphasis upon the sermon as a teaching tool does not imply that such messages failed to make practical application. Puritan messages, for example, were often practical but grounded on "sound doctrine."
In the mid-1700s, Robert Raikes established the Sunday School in an effort to provide literacy training for London street kids. The church soon adopted the Sunday School as its main teaching arm. It remained so until the end of the 20th Century when many congregations began abandoning the Sunday School for the relationalism of the small group. The Sunday School taught Scripture believing, as did most in the Restoration Movement, that doing so would communicate core Christian truth. Elective studies provided a means of offering specific concentrated teaching on core biblical issues and Bible studies increased exposure to Scripture.
Today the sermon is a practical message directed toward socialization, human need, and relational issues with an emphasis on relevance. Core biblical truth is usually, but not always, avoided from the pulpit. Mega-churches faced with tremendous expense in purchasing land for campuses, erecting huge facilities for celebration services, and installing the high technology "required" in today's worship find it too expensive to include additional facilities for mid-size groups. Therefore, many of these churches are dispensing with "Sunday School" and are becoming "small group churches." In the process, messages without sound doctrine and small groups with group grope are producing a biblical and theological vacuum in our churches.
Where then, can "sound doctrine" be communicated? I still believe in the mid-size group as the focus for teaching sound doctrine. I think every church needs to make some definite commitments: (1) There needs to be a renewal of the conviction that there is are core truths needed to create a biblical worldview in new Chrsitians. (2) There needs to be an awareness that such truth is not effectively communicated in small groups with facilitators rather than teachers. (3) Doctrinal preaching needs to be included in a year's preaching plan to balance the tendency toward consumer relevance. (4) There needs to be the conviction that mid-size groups still have a place in communicating truth. (5) Churches must see their role as disciple-making not merely convert-making. How each local church seeks to work this out is dependent upon the commitment and creativity of its leadership. If it is not done and balance restored, the church of Christ will succumb to false teaching and become only a reflection of our postmodern culture.