Small Groups: The promise of heaven, the perils of hell (or at least purgatory)

I know I should like the idea of small groups, but my experience has left me less than enthusiastic. I should like the idea, because fundamentally Christianity is a communal reality. The God who exists in community creates for community. Christians should do groups well. Ideally, small groups are a corrective to the big box worship experiences that cater to the consumer demands of individuals that many of us experience on Sunday mornings.

So, in the category of “small groups are important, even essential, to being a Christian,” mark me a “yes.”

But I have seldom been a part of one that gave me life. So, where’s the disconnect?

This could certainly be my problem. I could identify a few possibilities.

1. I’m a hypocrite who doesn’t walk the talk.

2. The fact that I don’t really like people probably gets in the way of having an enjoyable small group experience.

3. The fact that I do this God-thing for a living makes it tough to endure the sub-standard theology that comes out in so many forms when people are sitting on sofas.

These things are undoubtedly true, but I’ve been in charge of small groups in congregations that I served, and based on that experience, I would have to conclude that the problem is not mine alone. 

So, there are other things I wonder about as possible reasons why they might not work for most people.

1. Being in a small group takes certain skills for which we don’t equip people. This is particularly true for leading a small group. We either don’t provide any training (you can’t tell our small group what to do!), or we provide a curriculum to stand in for the training. But it’s also true for non-leaders. There are things that people can be taught to do which make group better, and things they can be taught to avoid in group which makes it unbearable.

2. We’re unclear about the purpose of our small group. Is it to learn something? Support each other? Engage in mission or service? 

3. The unspoken value is friendship defined as intimacy. When I think about small groups that have thrived and stayed together year-after-year, this seems to be the common feature. So, groups that already feature friends (I was a part of one of these for awhile), or easily become friends, thrive. Their discussions are great. They enjoy being together. They share deep details about their lives. And this becomes the standard (especially the sharing) around which we judge all small groups (imho).

But I’ve been in more groups where we are not friends and are not likely to become friends (defined as intimacy). I’m not inclined to share details of my life with some members of my group. And the church tends to have members who are relationally challenged and who can make small group a misery for everyone else.

Some of you read this last paragraph and want to refer me back to the problems with me listed above. You might be right. But I’m guessing you’re also an extrovert.

(As an aside, I have often experienced these tight knit groups as a problem for congregational life as a whole. Often, they form a block or opinion echo chamber that allows them to value their own group over the life of the congregation as a whole).

So, I’ve been thinking about what it would mean to think of small groups apart from the primary value being intimacy. I’m not sure I have anything earth-shattering here. But I’ve been learning from people like Jessica Woods and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and my son, Josh, and have a vision forming that I want to give a try.

Stay tuned.

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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4 Responses to Small Groups: The promise of heaven, the perils of hell (or at least purgatory)

  1. mattdabbs says:

    Usually the unspoken purpose of small groups is fellowship with a little Bible study thrown in just to make up for not meeting at the building. Most churches don’t have the staff to supervise this so the training, vision and implementation are lacking. If vision and purpose are going to be embraced, they have to be repeated frequently and reflected in the content/curriculum of the group so that people stay on board and aren’t confused about what is going on.

    On one hand, there is beauty in keeping groups fairly organic and free flowing but you won’t have a unified purpose when you do that. We like having unified purposes for our ministry (in theory we do) and so that seems like a bad thing. On the other hand, semi-organized chaos is not always a bad thing. Different groups naturally have different talents and different drives toward different things and so diversity of purposes in the groups due to lack of coordination isn’t all bad. Sometimes we try to force ministries to take forms the people in them aren’t suited for.

    Enough rambling. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Looking forward to hearing more.

  2. What if the sub-standard theological discussion coming from the sofas is trumped by the very solid theology of people sitting on the sofa together? I would suggest that small groups do not need to be off-campus bible studies. They ought to be table gatherings that kindle relational experiences of Jesus.

    This coming from an introvert who just moved from a mid-sized church where I was doing multi-hatted ministry to include SG leadership, to a large church where I am focusing on SG/Spiritual Formation ministry. Other biases include: 1. I met my wife in a Life Group when I was in high school. 2. Having just moved, I desperately miss my old SG peeps.

    Where can we find the work of Jessica, Jonathan, and Josh?

    • Mark Love says:

      Thanks for reading, Eric. My sofa comment was mostly sarcasm, my spiritual gift, and I’m with you in concept. I’ll write more about Josh, Jess, and Jonathan.

      • Yeah I get your sarcasm (with which I, also, have been spiritually endowed) and the complete truth you illuminate with it. I’m just saying, for me, the experience of the table with others, even those who lack theological training – or maybe especially with those who lack theological training – is rich enough to conquer the occasional (read: frequent) awkwardness and messiness of small group life. I’ve learned plenty about Jesus from 4 year olds in my living room who have broken our homemade bread and shared what they remember about Jesus. Also, I have learned something about Jesus when I have had to forgive that same 4 year old who found an ink pen and, while no adults were looking, created a masterpiece on my wooden dining room chairs. As you say in your writing It’s the practice of community in Jesus, which is often difficult (especially to us introverts), but the breakthrough into real relationship is worth the pain of coming together.

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