Community and Small Groups 1

Forces are at work in late modernity’s culture to make us yearn for community (koinonia) and that at the same time prevent us from participating in community. Hence, the rise of the small group movement. Yet, for all the efforts put into small groups, it is not entirely convincing that small groups are creating the community we have hoped they would create. That is why we need books like Theresa Latini’s new book, The Church and the Crisis of Community: A Practical Theology of Small-Group Ministry. It’s a good book; it’s a serious book; and it’s a rigorous book of practical theology.

Latini’s book is too thick to skim so I want to slow down with her first chapter that describes the “crisis of community.” She’s mastered the literature on community and on how late modernity (or postmodernity) opens up a crisis in communal relations, and anyone who has read Robert Bellah or Robert Putnam know some of this stuff. But she helpfully compares traditional societies with late modernity’s societies in order to show the differences — this helps us see where we are.

Big ones: What is your experience with small groups in your church? Do you see unachieved expectations? Are the expectations achievable?

Latini sketches two themes: environment of trust and environment of risk.

In the traditional society, the environment of trust involved kinship relations that stabilizes social ties (think large Italian or Irish or Polish or Serbian families today, but most of us don’t experience this), a local community provided familiarity (folks didn’t up and move to another town or state or country), religion and rituals interpreted the world, and a tradition connected the past to the present.

In modern societies social ties are established through friendship and sexual relations (and folks may well be expecting too much for both), abstract systems (internet relations, etc) stabilize relations across spans of time and space, and there is a future orientation (and not a tradition orientation).

Next she studies the environment of risk.

In traditional societies, threats came from nature, violence came from marauding bandits and small armies, and there was a risk of fall from grace and influence from magical influence.

In modern societies, threats came from the “reflexivity” of modernity, violence comes from the modern engines of war, and there is a threat of personal meaningless from the reflexivity of the self in modernity. What is reflexivity? social practices are constantly under examination and alteration in light of new information — all of life seemingly is in the constant shift mode. Thus, I think of how we each watch TV. As a kid, we watched a few channels, had to get out of our chair to change channels, and we went to the movies to see a movie. Today you can watch anything you want … but we watch through a cable provider, and you may watch through Netflix (and it’s struggling, no?) and you may have Apple TV, whatever that is, and you may store TV shows and watch them when you want … and who knows what’s coming next, but it promises to be better and better … you get the point: things are shifting.

We are disembedded from community (the numbers decrease on community participation all the time); intimacy is being transformed; all of these factors are at work and de-stabilize the self and lead us inward to stabilize it, and we do this to construct our own identity. We are thus “reflexive” in our self. [No wonder therapy and spiritual formation movements are thriving.] There is a dizziness in our freedom.

And religious orientation has changed too. Folks differ; we encounter so much diversity; distrust of religious leaders is common; and beliefs are subject to change and falsification. [I would add that distrust of authorities leads us today toward greater belief in the charismatic leader we sense we can trust, leading to heroism. Sometimes I feel like we are back in Corinth when Paul observed that some were following Peter and others Apollos, etc.]

Small groups, in some ways, are the attempt to recapture the traditional society by people dwelling in late modernity who have no way of connecting to the realities of a traditional society. We lack the structures that can guide us into security in a riskier world. In other ways, small groups have to know what late modernity demands of us and does to us in order to know what a small group can accomplish. Small groups can be a grassroots level of re-establishing genuine koinonia.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • rjs

    We’ve had some good experiences with small groups. But it seems to me that they are too small and too transient, the dynamics and breakups are hard. I guess I’ve learned to hold these kinds of groups at a distance because they are undependable. It is dangerous to be too open and to expect too much.

    I think – and I have no clue how to do this – that we need to build a structure within the church of larger intermingling groups of people, 50, 100, 200 – intergenerational and fluctuating. Small groups are good and should continue, but they can’t be expected to carry the load.

    Right now the trend is very large “Gatherings” and very small circles – and this is unhealthy (or so I think).

  • TSG

    The institutional church just doesn’t get it. Most churches develop small group “ministries”. These are usually discipleship or gospel(bible) oriented. I’ll let others in “house” church explain the realities. But I would add that I participated in a Wednesday night “bible study” of a United Methodist church that was thoroughly organic. I believe it’s centerness came from the tradition of Wesley’s classes, its prayerfulness came from members who were living in a retirement home who at younger ages were labeled “retarded” and abandoned(and we as a group were rewarded for their childlike faith), and my last point sounds harsh, but the reality is that it became more relational because no clergy were involved.

  • Diane

    TSG,,
    “It came more relational because no clergy were involved.” That has been my experience of small groups–when I was in an “under the radar” small group (“mom’s group”) that the pastoral staff ignored, small but truly great things happened. The spirit moved. Lives transformed. In another church, years later, a top-down “policy” of small groups fell flat–we were told what to read for our study so the whole church could be on the “same page,” and told how to be “missional,” which in our group involved half-heartedly picking up trash in a park. (That representing “being” the faith.) The lesson: a church can indeed package the “small group experience” but not its crucial aspect, the Holy Spirit. Churches, imo, need to create an environment where small groups can develop (ie, till the soil) and then let them go as the Spirit leads them. But that can be frightening–it seldom goes as the church leadership would like and hence a loss of a control. However–if say a liberal wind then blows through a conservative church or a conservative wind through a liberal church, isn’t that God telling us something: that the Holy Spirit is bigger than our small containers? Let God free! Trust the ride!

  • Diane

    I do think sometimes small group expectations are too high, especially when small groups are seen as the magic answer to “community building.” If they want to create some of the deep-rooted community of traditional societies, which I had encounters with coming from an immigrant roots, A. they have to accept (let in) everybody (a key to TSG’s experience), not become a clique, and B. recognize that accepting everybody who God sends is going to make it tough initially to build relationships (it will be painful and annoying)–but to recognize that when your soul can touch deeply the soul some one who on the surface is “not your type,” then the KOG is being realized. For me, it was making a soul connection with some conservative, Republican women and fully realizing their humanity and loving them without wanting to “fix” them.

  • Amos Paul

    I think that small groups are strategically useful units. But it has been my experience that, ironically, smaller churches have been terrible at small groups and big churches have been terrible at big community.

    My opinion is that the massive churches should form regular and consistent sub-communities out of which small group meetings arise and fluctuate from with set term limits and missional objectives. Small churches, on the other hand, could maybe focus on just one regular mid-week gathering a month, or something like that, with a plan to encourage people to jump into some small groups that will continue to meet for the rest of that month from there.

    Just my thoughts, anyway.

  • Mijk V

    @RJS,

    I think – and I have no clue how to do this – that we need to build a structure within the church of larger intermingling groups of people, 50, 100, 200 – intergenerational and fluctuating.

    Not to be overly negative, but these structures already exist and are on the decline: small, intergenerational churches that tend to be more rooted in the faith tradition of their denomination than their mega-church/multi-site counterparts. Most people I speak to know that we need (and long for) this kind of community when it comes to faith formation, it’s just that no one wants to deal with the ugly nuts and bolts and parochial drudgery that is involved with this sort of grouping.

  • Adam

    I don’t think I understand what people mean by saying “Expecting too much from small groups.”

    Reality is that humans have a limited capacity for relationship. On average, 150 people. And only a portion of that number could be considered close, intimate, and community. That number is certainly less than 50 and might be less than 20.

    So, if there is anything to be expected in terms of community it has to be expected from the small group (the large group is impossible to comprehend with our minds). I think we’re expecting far too little from the people who make up our small groups.

  • Susan N.

    Wow, Scot, as I read the part on “environment of risk in modern societies”, it resonated with my thoughts over on the ‘Christian Higher Education’ post. It is extremely hard in this day and age to connect *deeply* with others. Shallow connections are so much more the norm, it seems.

    Experiences with small groups… Not altogether horrible, but it was not what I expected (hoped) it could be, either. Those small groups that did seem to really “click” were the exception and not the rule. What I had yearned for at one point was a coming together of my eclectic assortment of friends (young, old, married, unmarried, from my church and outside of it) with whom I have a soul-deep connection/rapport, to really dialogue and spend time together on a regular basis.

    The difficulty with that dream being realized is the busyness of such a diverse group, and trying to accommodate various schedules! I take those “kairos” time moments with my deep/soul-connection friends as they come and feel extremely grateful when they do. It doesn’t happen that regularly, unfortunately…

    My women’s small group now is good, in that the dialogue is open and free, in an atmosphere of respect. Engenders trust :-) I have hope that in time, deeper relationships will be forged. It takes time, and the commitment to see it through. That’s a given.

    I like my adult Sunday School class, too. Diverse ages and stages of life around a common purpose (social justice as it intersects with our faith). I’m in heaven!

  • Susan N.

    rjs (#1) – I just read your comment: Yes, so true! The opportunities to mingle in larger circles, outside of structured worship times is also so beneficial. Our church does Wednesday night meal/fellowship, followed by children/youth programs, and some small groups. I so appreciate the meal/fellowship time. It’s such an old tradition, but such a simple way to get together and meet in an informal, relaxed way with a wider segment of the congregation. Love it!

  • abs

    I think the premise of all of this is that people can only really grow in relationships with others. Disembedded community hinders growth. Although you could also say that unhealthy community hinders growth as well. Or what about “neutral’ community, that is fellowship with no depth. No real authenticity, no real challenge, just surface level community? Thats not koinonia, either.

    To answer your questions about expectations, most small group experiences I’ve been in have had shallow expectations…that is, the expectation is participation, and not much more. It has been assumed that simply getting together with other Christians, and maybe studying the bible, produces disciples of Jesus. I’m just not sure its the case.

    Form and function within the groups is important. I think John Wesley was on to something with the function of his classes and bands, though that would be much more difficult in todays culture of autonomy, privacy, and individualism.

  • Rob

    I find this an interesting discussion. I wonder if part of our problem is that we are so consumer oriented that we look to “get something out of” community experience. We, as modern consumers, are waiting on something inspirational when community grows out of the muck of life. Most of the people I have grown close with are people with whom I have struggled through conflict or shared a burden, not experienced some great moment. I wonder if our expectations are off because we haven’t really thought about the cost of knowing and loving one another. I also wonder if we can begin to see beyond the struggles to the gift of loving and being loved.

  • Fish

    What tends to bother me is the programmatic nature of small groups. Rather than something organic and natural, they sometimes seem to be just another tool in the church growth toolkit to be deployed per the strategic plan.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Susan N. #8: “The difficulty with that dream being realized is the busyness of such a diverse group, and trying to accommodate various schedules!”

    I have been in a stable very enjoyable small group for two years. We meet for dinner, sharing and prayer once per month, and have survived because we have very persistant and stable planners.

    But I believe Susan is exactly right. It is the principality of busyness in today’s society that makes purposeful small groups so difficult to achieve and maintain.

    That said, I believe that one key is to clearly set out goals and expectations at the beginning and to periodically review them. Is concentrated prayer an important part of our group? Do we intend to be inner-focused or outer-focused? Do we want to read scripture? Do we want to reach a point where we DO something in the community? How are we going to get there?
    Peace,
    Randy G.

  • Steve

    Interesting stuff. I guess part of what I’ve experienced, and why I tend to find small groups less effective is that they generally end up being about “talking about Kingdom” rather than “doing Kingdom”.

    The couple that I’ve been blessed to be a part of that were more the latter than the former were much more effective.

  • Dana Ames

    I’ve found small groups to be more like Latini’s characterization when they are not viewed as a “tool in the strategic plan kit” (Fish, above). Even if the stated purpose is as a Bible study or some other specific one, if the group doesn’t *act* like such a tool, it tends to be a more cohesive community.

    An interesting thing I have noted in discussions of this type is that the words “friend” or “friendship” don’t get used much. Is that because of the ubiquity of Facebook “friending”, or is it because friendship is seen as some kind of lower-level relationship than is expected of Christians, or is it something else? Sometimes this really bothers me: it’s as if Christians have tossed out the whole concept. Part of the traditional sort of community Latini describes is the context in which various kinds and levels of friendships develop.

    Dana

  • Matt Edwards

    I love small groups. The best book on small groups I have ever read is The Search to Belong by Joseph Meyers.

    Meyers notes levels of intimacy in our relationships: (1) the people you see every day but don’t really know (like your local barista), (2) the friends with whom you would have casual conversation at a dinner party, (3) your close friends with whom you would share a meal, and (4) your intimate friend (your spouse or a close sibling). People need relationships at every level–fewer at the more intimate levels and more at the casual levels.

    The “meat” of Meyers book is the relationship between space and intimacy. We are comfortable letting our intimate friends close to us, but we want more personal space between us and people we don’t know well. When a casual relationship is forced into an intimate space, we feel violated.

    Meyers ties his research between intimacy and space to small groups in a number of insightful ways. He says that small groups function at the “dinner party” level of intimacy given the number of people involved and the size of the space. So, it is not right for a small group to pursue “intimacy.” Intimate activities like sharing prayer requests and asking for accountability can’t be forced on relationships that haven’t built that trust, and they can’t be forced on groups of the size of a typical small group. Instead, those activities should be reserved for groups of 2–3 people who know each other really well.

    Small groups are great, but they are what they are. If the goal is developing friendships, they work great. If the goal is developing intimacy between 12 people, they are doomed to fail from the start. Some of the friendships created in a small group can develop into deeper relationships outside of the group. That’s what I try to do with small groups.

  • TSG

    Diane,
    We’re definitely on the same page. I need to relate another experience. As a public school teacher I was involved in a move of the Spirit. It started in a bible club, but ignited into a group that was meeting in a large group instruction room. We had Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Charismatics, Presbyterian and Methodist mainliners. There were a couple of Baptists thrown in and more than a couple of recent born agains and some that were not saved but shared especially about family. It lasted about six months,and we had a couple of meetings with over a hundred(a school of 800), and had over 25 every week. I was the only adult ever present, and was definitely only another participant. Basically we sang a few 1990 “worship songs”(I always thought Gaither- like “He touched me”), then several shared, and there was alot of small group talking. We ended with a biblical benediction. They were surprisingly short get togethers. How it ended still haunts me. Sometime in the winter a young man started sharing for a few weeks in a row that you had to speak in tongues to be born again. People started bailing( first the Catholics and Lutherans) and despite some others reading from the bible about gifts, it was quenched. The tears and hugs and encouragement was history, but one that anybody involved has to remember. Very unique in public school. It was my experience of over 30 years in various incarnations of bible clubs that most young people bring expectations to the group for it to be like their “youth group” at church. And this is to be expected, because they find their youth group to be so cool. HOWEVER, it is those expectations, along with youth’s mythic-literal faith that hinders the move of the Spirit.

  • Jon G

    My take on what makes a successful small group:

    1) Shared interest
    2) Time spent together
    3) A commitment to continue when the going gets rough.

    These are the ingredients for any successful relationship.

    If you don’t have something of interest that you are all pursuing, there’s no hope of community. Pursuing each other is stifling (and kind of creepy). In other words, “I want to be your friend” as opposed to “wow, you like that too?!”

    If you don’t expose yourself (easy there) to input and experience with the others, no growth can occur. Bonds form over time, not by force.

    If you aren’t secure enough that the other will be there, no matter what, you’ll never truly open up and real realationship cannot form.

    Just my 2 cents…

  • Tom F.

    I led a small group along with a few others for around a year and half at a big church. I have to say, I think the “late-modern” dynamics will tend to overpower any community that might compare to pre-modern/early modern community.

    I really think the “reflexivity” is a big idea, although its effects may not be immediately apparent. I’ve been a part of a small group that formed through a para-church organization that did indeed eventually break up (year and half in) because of people adopting versions of Christianity that just had too much tension between them (i.e. Calvinist and…well…the rest of the evangelicals). The “reflexivity” comes in because people had to go about figuring out an identity, and it turns out that they came up with different identities. Sad.

    It can happen in smaller ways too. I was part of a thriving small group which combined college students along with early twenty-somethings. A few of the other twenty-somethings started to feel like it didn’t meet their needs anymore and wanted to break-off. They said the group didn’t reflect their “stage in life”. There are probably a lot of things going on here, but at least one is that associating with these college students didn’t match up with the identity these folks were trying to construct as independent, “grown-up” twenty-somethings. Sad.

    I could go on, as I have maybe two or three other examples. I’m probably a little bitter, but I think I’ve just been burned by too many pastors preaching a gospel of salvation by small-group (and by my own uncritical acceptance of that gospel). I know that the community of the church is essential to our life in Christ, but I wonder if sometimes we aren’t as honest with ourselves about how hard even just community is in the modern era. Acknowledging the difficulty would call into question too many modern sacred cows (maybe even idols?), such as individualism, late-modern capitalism and the workforce mobility that it demands, and perhaps even self-identity construction.

    I look forward to this series and I may pick up this book.

  • AHH

    As others have hinted, one of the most difficult things for small groups is navigating the conflicting values of wanting to build a level of trust so you can share deeply and wanting to be open to new people. This is especially hard for introverts like me, where it takes a long time in relationship to feel like I can open up.

    Another obstacle, at least in my age bracket, is that consistency is hard to maintain, and the #1 contributor to that problem is parents with overscheduled kids. The last small group we were in had 4 couples, but average attendance got to be about 5 people, with most absences being due to a child’s activity.

  • abs

    Matt Edwards, what about a group like AA. I don’t know that intimacy is the goal, but accountability certainly is. And people somehow are able to join any group anywhere and even change groups based on time preferences, yet accountability remains. Does Meyer discuss a group like this at all?

  • Matt Edwards

    abs,

    Meyers doesn’t talk about AA.

    I know a lot of people who go to AA or Celebrate Recovery. They often complain about how superficial church small groups are. But, when I have been in groups with them, they don’t share their problems with the group any more than the others do. Even when I have challenged them to push the group beyond superficiality by being vulnerable themselves, they don’t.

    Why is that? Why would the same person be vulnerable at AA but not at a church small group?

    I think AA gives artificial intimacy. The risk of being vulnerable in AA is mitigated by the fact that: (1) it’s anonymous, and (2) everyone in the group has the same problem. It’s WAY different being vulnerable in a church small group beause you’re not anonymous and the people in your group don’t necessarily struggle with the same things. There is a greater risk of rejection (but subesquently, a greater reward for vulnerability).

    That’s not to discount the value of AA. AA and Celebrate Recovery are awesome. But they are different than church small groups.

  • Chris

    There are many passages in the NT that are in this vein: love one another, encourage one another. To be able to truly do them requires more than a generalized “keep on keeping on, brother”. We need to know each other well enough to know their real problems and they to know ours. What actual struggles do you have in dealing with that nasty boss or bully neighbor, with that hurting person you meet on the commute every day, the struggles of a relative with children walking on the wrong side of the law? Their needs time to build a level a trust to be able to confess my sins to one anther for healing–to take the risk of opening up about my fears.

    We have been trained by this individualistic society to compartmentalize everything, including relationships, feelings, concerns, fears, hopes. It is necessary to learn to reconnect within and with others for the support of fellowship at a deeper level.

    It is hard. The men in my home church struggle with being intimate about ourselves. We are slowly learning to be transparent. But we still slide back into our old ways and just be a gang of guys enjoying being together–both are good.

  • http://abisomeone.blogspot.com Peggy

    During my pastoral days, I was responsible for between 50 and 100 small groups (yes, the numbers fluctuate wildly!) — and just as I was about to begin to implement a change of direction, I was downsized.

    But I still believe that where I was heading is the right direction for small groups: neighborhoods. I was going to begin to reorient all recruitment for new groups (there was little hope of getting the established groups to reorient themselves) to geographic neighborhoods. Within a four block radius of my house are at least 10 households who attended the same church. I believe the call for small groups is to impact the daily lives of its members — so that they are able to love each other and, together, love their neighbors.

    I still think it will work. It is the basis of the vision I have been nurturing for almost 6 years now: CovenantClusters. It is a big change … and I trust that God will bring it into reality when the fullness of time comes.

    Be blessed…as you seek community, or better yet, communitas (as Hirsch and Frost describe).


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