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.