Saturday Book Review: Bill Donahue

This review is by my friend, Bill Donahue, who is unquestionably one of America’s leaders on small group ministry, both in praxis and theology.

The Church and the Crisis of Community

After reading Scot’s posts about Theresa Latini’s book, The Church and the Crisis of Community, I wanted to add to the conversation. Theresa, a pastoral theologian, has provided the Small Group Movement with a much-needed dose of theological reflection and support. And though it is narrow in places and not representative of certain aspects of the group life movement, this resource has much to offer and should be read by pastors charged with building group life in the church.

Allow me to make a few overarching comments before a more specific critique of sections of the book that have the most to say concerning current group life philosophy and practice.

First, this is a theological analysis with practical application, but some readers will get a bit bogged down with theological terminology and the mainline bent, Presbyterian Church PCUSA to be specific. Latini, however, generally does a good job integrating theological reflection with church practice later in the book.

Second, she uses empirical survey-based research to gather data. Some may find this less desirable than a qualitative, case-study approach with churches, but as one who has conducted qualitative analysis, on-site research at a variety of places is expensive and time-consuming.

Third, Latini spends a great deal of time on sociological research and survey data to support the widely held conviction that there is indeed a loss of community in the culture which, in turn, has found its way into the structures and programs of contemporary western churches. For those who have been exposed to the group research of Gallup, Barna, and Wuthnow over the years, this is helpful, though I found it a bit dated (references to the 1990’s and little more current research).

Fourth, in one of the most powerful sections of the book, there is a rich and dynamic discussion of biblical koinonia. Subsequent chapters unpack this idea with respect to group practice and then a discussion of the healing power of community.

Finally, the author provides a comparative analysis of church small group practice in a handful of churches (in the Presbyterian/moderately Reformed tradition with which she is most familiar). Though the selection is narrow, it was helpful as she described what made these “well developed churches” successful with respect to group life.

Many churches lack what Latini calls for – a core understanding of the biblical and theological framework for community and groups. And then, in response to that understanding, creating a clear, effective, well-led design to turn vision into reality, making communal life accessible and formational. I understand her passion for grounding the group life of the church in a rich, yet practical theology of community that produces true and lasting transformation.

Now a few specific reactions and comments.

1) The book makes a great case for church leaders to re-examine their reasons for launching groups, growing them and enculturating group life into the fabric of congregational life.  We desperately need this. Too often group models and strategies are chosen primarily to close the back door, help with pastoral care, connect more people, reach out to our neighbors, warehouse needy people, or simply be contemporary “like the other churches.”

2) There is much solid material provided in the book to support the breakdown of familial and communal structures in society evident in the last 40-50 years. The rise of individuality at the expense of community has taken its toll, and continues to be a toxic force in the church.

Citing Wuthnow’s research on groups from 15 years ago, Latini cautions that groups have become too self-centered, making group life subservient to personal growth, personal needs and individual tastes. The idea that God exists to help me and meet my needs can be exacerbated in a group filled with pragmatists. Groups have become too anthropologically focused and thus theologically weak.

I agree with this general premise, but feel as though Latini is critiquing groups from the 1990’s. She seems less aware of the missional movement within group life in recent years, and unfamiliar with the 20-year proliferation of task-based groups whose primary purpose is to serve others. I assume this is because her research is limited in context and primarily an academic work, little research was directed toward the many groundbreaking churches and movements affecting communal life over the last 15-20 years.

If there is a big weakness in the book, it is the apparent lack of understanding of what is going on nationally and internationally in small groups. There are no references to widely practiced forms of group life, the churches that espouse them, and the authors who have been writing in the field.

(I confess I was disappointed that the only book of mine mentioned was one written specifically for group leaders—Walking the Small Group Tightrope with Russ Robinson. It is neither a theological nor church-wide strategy work. Latini comments that few of the works she read had a robust theology in them, and I wondered why she did not read Building a Church of Small Groups, or Leading Life-changing Small Groups, both of which cite much biblical and theological references.)

There is no reference to any of the major writers in the field from the last 20 years at all. A few notable omissions include Ralph and Randall Neighbour, Roberta Hestenes, Gareth Icenogle (who graduate research is very biblical and theological throughout), Carl George, Steve Gladen, Bill Willits, Bill Search, and Scott Boren. Theological writers on community like Henri Nouwen, Jean Vanier and Gilbert Bilezikian are notably absent. And American pastors like Andy Stanley and John Ortberg, as well as internationally renowned Korean pastor Paul Yonggi Cho (who impacted all of Asia with the cell-group model) receive no mention.  In addition, the emergence of online communities in the last 5 years receives no analysis.

I understand this is partly because of the scope of any work. She focused primarily on the philosophy, sociology and theology of community. But she does devote a couple chapters to the practical aspects of koinonia and offers an additional chapter on small group strategy taken from observing a few church models. If she is going to go make observations about what is taking place in real churches, it would be helpful to have broader exposure. The closest she gets is Rick Warren’s Better Together and his 40 Days of Community campaign.  Perhaps some interviews with a few of the notables above would have helped.

3) Latini makes much of Wuthnow’s distinction between building social capital (bonding activities that build interpersonal relationships) and bridging social capital (reaching out to the world outside the group).  I think his distinction has merit but is over-generalized. I sometimes wonder what kinds of groups Wuthnow ever participated in and what kinds he researched. And so much has occurred in the last 15 years since his Sharing the Journey. His own research on American spiritually since then is quite robust.

By contrast, the late George Gallup Jr.’s research and personal experience with groups reveals a broader impact. George, a friend and colleague, spoke at a conference with me in 1999 and I was surprised at his deep understanding of group life. (He recently passed and I mourn the loss of a thinker, a lover of Christ, and a man committed to small groups as a way of life: he had often been more than one group and spoke openly of what small groups did to change his heart and mature his character.)

He was unapologetic about the need for healthy group life as an end in itself (for the group, not the individuals). In other words, if groups are designed to serve one another, help people meet Christ, care for each other’s needs in crises, and provide a place for safety and personal growth, that’s wonderful. George knew what Luke knew when he penned Acts 2:42-47 – that a rich experience in community that is truly biblical and Holy Spirit empowered will have an impact evangelistically and culturally.

I contend that, in contrast to Wuthnow, it is not “groups” that are the problem, but rather churches. Churches that have a strong, spiritual culture of true community cannot help but love the things Jesus loved – people in general and the poor in particular. But if churches have an inward focus, then navel-gazing groups should be expected to exist. When churches and groups exhibit spiritual depth and vitality, it tends to energize people for mission and service.

4) There is a call here to a fuller integration of Scripture and life experience rooted in the biblical concept of koinonia, and an appeal to make this normative for groups. I agree wholeheartedly. The richness of koinonia is often ignored or skimmed over. The result is camaraderie, not community. Hanging out with friends and neighbors has supplanted the call to reach across racial, social, economic and institutional boundaries to forge truly biblical community.

Latini aptly cites five aspects of the multidimensional nature of koinonia (p. 77):

* the koinonia of the Trinity

* the koinonia of the Incarnate Son, Jesus

* the koinonia between Christ and the Church Codes

* the koinonia between Christ and church members, and

* the koinonia between the church and the world.

5) Her work also recognizes that groups do indeed fail at times to achieve the lofty purposes we have in mind when we form them. Again citing Wuthnow, she notes that many small groups ignore or avoid addressing conflicts. This is not a problem unique to small groups. This is a problem in relationships among people! No one likes confrontation. I cannot help but think, however, that without groups we would not be aware that such conflicts even exist.

So what does the church without some form of group life do with conflict? Do they process any relational challenges at all? Where? In Sunday School classes and Worship Services? I cannot imagine those environments being conducive to relational authenticity at a deep, interpersonal level. They are simply not designed for it. If groups are failing at processing conflict, it is because the church at large has been failing at this for decades or more. We have utilized classroom models for preaching and training, where people sit and listen. As church culture changes and group life becomes more normative, we will see (and are seeing) more conflicts observed and addressed.

6) As I alluded to earlier, the book has a lot of theological jargon and an academic style to it; a small group pastor or church leader will have to wade through it for practical application. I realize that is Latini’s point – that we rush to the practical – but be prepared to engage in serious thrological reflection if you plan on reading this to mine specific next steps for groups in your church. The chapter entitled, “Epilogue: Toward a Neo-Barthian Practical Theology” reminds the reader that this is a book for theologically informed (degreed?) pastors.

7) Finally, and despite the comments in number 6 above, Latini’s description of what a robust group ministry needs is right on target! I believe this is a great summary of what it takes. It reflects the results of her empirical research (the design of which she describes in an appendix) and personal experience. Here it is and I decided to list the aspects if you do not read the book (pg. 190-191).

  • Small group membership should reflect the grace through which we enter koinonia.
  • Some small groups should be organized to reflect the ecumenical nature of the church.
  • Small groups should become a primary site for learning to live the way of the cross.
  • Overall, small-group ministries should reflect the unity and diversity of koinonia.
  • Small groups should accept and work through conflict as a way of honoring the radical particularity of each member of Christ’s body.
  • Small groups should practice confession, forgiveness and mutual forbearance.
  • Small groups should be marked by mutual service.
  • Small groups should be connected intentionally to the worship life of the congregation.
  • Small-group ministries should be dynamic and exemplary, always being reformed so that they more faithfully reflect life in koinonia.
  • Small groups should nurture generosity, openness, and compassion among their members.
  • Small groups should contribute indirectly, if not directly, to the church’s solidarity with the world.

Latini’s book is a must read for every pastor who is responsible to foster the communal ministry of the church, especially with respect to groups. It is theologically sound, provocative, thoughtful and compelling. Despite the weaknesses mentioned above, the benefits far outweigh any drawbacks. We need more of this kind of work from a variety of perspectives. The research base, serious analysis and critical thinking evident in the work will elp the movement.

Group life in the church has moved from being a novelty (1970’s) to an emerging church-wide movement (1990’s), and now to a maturing VALUE in the present generation. Fewer churches are asking whether and why to have groups, and are instead simply asking how. The value of communal life – much of it expressed in groups of all sizes and experiences – is a core component of established churches and a virtual non-negotiable value in emerging churches worldwide.

Works like Latini’s are evidence of this maturity, and I look forward with great interest toward the future.

Dr. Bill Donahue, Ph.D.

Leadership and Group Life Consultant


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  • RJS

    How small is a small group? How exclusive? How homogeneous?

  • Great post Bill. And a good reminder to resist the temptation to choose group models and strategies primarily with a view towards the pragmatic.

  • T

    That’s a very helpful review. Thanks Bill & Scot. I think I may read those aspects of a small group to our small group and our elders. Thanks.

  • T

    RJS, not very. 😀

    Sorry; It’s the weekend. 😀

  • RJS


    Well my comment was cryptic perhaps – but it occurred to me that my gut level negative reaction on small groups may have to do with a definitional disconnect. (I.e. I may be reading into the discussion something that was not meant by others.)