Should small groups do homework assignments? I hear that question often, and for me, it's a no-brainer.
I think of small group as "family." My mom and dad never assigned "homework" between our family meetings, or at least they didn't call it that. But, of course, we were encouraged constantly to learn and grow, and we even helped each other do that between meetings (suppertime at the family table). Our family was a community that cared for each other.
I wonder if some groups include homework because they still perceive small group as an academic class that meets in a home rather than as a family community of brothers and sisters in Christ who come together to love one another and grow together as the Word becomes flesh in our lives. Whether or not to do homework assignments depends on the mission, purpose, and values of the group. If it is a study group that emphasizes intense discipleship, then homework assignments might make sense. If it is a care/community group, and the purpose is relationship building (building an environment where discipleship happens), then academic-type homework assignments don't make sense.
In the Book of Acts — and all through the New Testament — we see biblically functioning community, where small groups of people cared about each others' needs, put others' interests above their own, gave to anyone who had need, prayed for and with one another, confessed their sins to each other, encouraged one another, and on and on. That was the emphasis. That was authentic community. That is a model for what the church needs today.
As far as teaching, we see that they "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching" (Acts 2:42). But how was this teaching accomplished? Paul taught the believers to "let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom" (Colossians 3:16). Teaching was and is a spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11), but not many should presume to take on the position of teacher (James 3:1). The person called to teaching God's Word is a servant first (John 13:14) and will be held responsible and judged more strictly for what and how they teach (Titus 2:1; James 3:1; 1 Timothy 6:3). At the same time, however, we should all grow to the place of being able to teach others (Hebrews 5:12). What does all this mean? There are definitely places for teachers and teaching in the church, and specifically in small groups. But most of the teaching that happens in the groups is when we teach and admonish one another. That is, we all take a part in teaching each other how to live the Christian life. The group leader is the shepherd, making sure people are moving and heading down the right path, and the facilitator of people growing together in Christ.
Our people must learn to feed themselves. Just as it is normal for an infant to depend on his or her parents (especially mom) for being fed, so it is with an infant Christian. But as we grow up, we become less dependent and more able to feed ourselves. My kids have progressed from breast milk to baby bottles to sippy cups to strained food to solid foods to meat. My 9 year old can go to the cupboard and fridge, find what he wants to eat (usually cereal), prepare it, and feed himself. If he were to come to us and say, "I just need to be fed," we'd think there was something wrong with him. In fact, we expect our older children to help us prepare the dinner table for their younger siblings. That's the truth the writer of Hebrews was trying to get across when he wrote, "Though by this time some of you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! … Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity" (5:12—6:1). Spiritual formation (going on to maturity) happens best in the environment of a caring community. It does not happen best in the environment of a classroom.
Homework assignments imply a classroom environment or, at least, an academic philosophy. That's not what I'm going for in small groups, however. I'm going for life-changing community, which does not happen in an hour and a half one day a week. That's why what happens between meetings is so important. When trying to build Biblical community, I don't want people working on academic homework assignments; I want them caring for one another, supporting each other, encouraging each other, praying for one another, serving each other, and serving others together. Crying together, laughing together, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, discipling one another. Remember, homework assignments generally drive people to work alone. We have enough individualism and isolation in our culture today. What we need is real community, life-changing community.
There is one more practical reason I do not push for academic homework in small groups. I believe assigning weekly homework effectively closes the group to outsiders. I would not want to show up for a group meeting for the first time and be the only one to have not done the assignment. To many people, "homework" conjures up bad memories from trigonometry or social studies. Just one more reason not to go to small group. I personally believe in open groups, where the Lord can add to their number daily those who are being saved (Acts 2:47). That is the result of authentic, biblically functioning community.
It is all a matter of focus and values. Small groups are places where Christ is present, where we have communion with Him and life-changing community with each other. Does homework fit into that definition? If homework means sitting by myself writing down answers to questions, then probably not. If it means visiting one another's homes or inviting others to my home between meetings to care for and build each other up, then yes, I guess you could make a case for "home" work. But I'd rather just call it what it is: community.
Homework or no homework? It all comes down to one critical decision for the small group: Do we want a classroom or community? I'll take community every time.