Is your small group too small?

I LOVE small groups.

When I was still in high school, I was part of a close-knit youth group that met every week for singing, games, Bible study, and prayer. As a young married couple, my husband and I were part of a book study group that met regularly for supper and to discuss our latest read. Then later as a new pastor, I started a small group that focussed on sharing and Bible study with a vision to reach out to others, and it was wonderful to be able to invite new people and get to know them, and soon grow into a second group.

For all these reasons and more, I LOVE small groups.

And yet, I’ve also seen the other side—where people feel vaguely restless about their small group but aren’t sure why; where even long-time members of a group feel there’s something missing; where people have even left a small group,  disappointed at not finding the community they were looking for.

So I wonder, what is it that makes some small groups too small—not necessarily in numbers, but in the quality of their life together?

My mulling over this question is what initially drew me to The Connecting Church 2.0.  It wasn’t so much the title or that author Randy Frazee ministers together with Max Lucado in San Antonio, Texas, but I was drawn in by the book’s subtitle: “beyond small groups to authentic community.”

It seems that everyone is looking for authenticity these days—so much so that a kind of pseudo-authenticity has become popular enough to be the subject of satire (see for example, John Ortberg and the SDFP–self-deprecating faux pas). But joking aside, still I wonder if there’s something about authenticity that makes the difference between a group that’s vibrant and one that’s disappointing. So I was curious to read this book.

Chapter 1 begins with the story of Bob and Karen Johnson apparently living the American suburban dream with their two children, their four-bedroom home, two-car garage, and in-ground swimming pool. By Chapter 11, they have grown significantly in turning their focus away from consuming things and toward connecting with their neighbours.

I appreciate the story format and practical examples. I appreciate the author’s attempt to address the individualism, isolation, and consumerism of suburban living. But I also find the overall approach of the book rather narrow. So for example in Chapter 1 describing the Johnsons, it’s noted that others are “less fortunate”(19), a problematic choice of words that fails to recognize any social or systemic issues.  In their journey from Chapter 1 to Chapter 11, we are told “The Johnsons had made a colossal decision to trade their goal of accumulation for conversation, exchange doing for being, and swap success for faithfulness.”(149) Those are all positive changes, yet still largely individual and isolated ones.

I appreciate the author’s honesty about his own experience and what he’s learned. “Realize that biblical community is a way of life, not a program” (164). “Teach a theology of biblical community” (165). Realize that there is no quick fix and that building community takes time (168-169). While these are not exactly new ideas, they are good reminders and good encouragement.

But again, I find the author’s view of authentic community rather narrow. He says “if you are serious about discovering authentic community through the church, I believe you will need to choose one of two paths laid out in chapter 13.” In that chapter he describes (1) the spider model of the church which is centralized with programs and specialized staff like legs sprawling out from the centre, and (2) the starfish model of the church which is decentralized into house groups. Are these really the only two models of authentic community in church life? The author himself goes on to describe a hybrid model in chapter 14, and I wonder about other kinds of hybrids and other models.

[March 25, 2013, 7:30pm: oops, I meant to add that I received this book free of charge from Zondervan and Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for an honest review.]

Your turn: What does authentic community look like to you? Have you found it, or are you still looking?



Categories: Book Reviews, Church and Ministry

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8 replies

  1. My wife and I run a small group out of my home… but let me explain. This isn’t a small group of church-going people/church members of our congregation. It’s our “experiment” to be honest. We have a lot of friends, connected in various ways, scattered around our area. Some we know from church, some from other odd connections, some through relationships our daughters have made in the area, and so forth. There are a few Christians in the group… but there’s one who says she’s Christian but has some rather odd New Agish connections… one who is rather agnostic (although she “said the prayer” a while back), one who is DEFINITELY atheist (calls himself “pastafarian”). As for the Christians… we’re all rather a motley crew as it is anyways.

    What do we do on these get togethers? It’s always a gathering around food of some sort (“breaking bread together”… literally). But some weeks we just hang out and gab together. Some weeks we have a more formal “sharing” session where we just update each other on our lives (good, bad, ugly…). Some weeks we play games (playing “Apples to Apples” with this group is an adventure).

    Why did my wife and I start this? Because we realized that our world is broken when it comes to community relationships. People are so disconnected from family, from support structures, etc., that since we already had a bunch of friends, how about we just get everyone together regularly under one roof and just start taking care of each other?

    The way my youth pastor puts it (BTW, he was my supervisor during my internship), my wife and I are planting Jesus… and we’re just watching what grows, cultivating, nuturing, etc., as we go.

    Do we have authentic community? Time will tell… but we certainly have something started and we’re praying that God will move in our midst…

  2. I haven’t yet found it, but I agree with you that there are hybrids, not just two. Whatever works needs to come from the community and speak to them. http://www.facebook.com/lifesjourneyblog

  3. Hi April,

    Interesting reading! We had a meeting on Friday night to discuss having a pastor for our small congregation. We talked about what we would expect of a pastor, finances and “how to’s”. The day after the meeting some of us thought about asking around locally for guest speakers, at least to get something started. I chatted with a fellow tonight and started thinking to myself “Is our group too small??” then I read your blog!

    Love, Judy

  4. April,

    Thanks for contributing to the blog tour.

    Shaun Tabatt
    Cross Focused Reviews

  5. Wow, I love what Robert Martin shared- especially about connecting in community with those from ‘the highways and byways’. It seems that expecting community relationships from the churches or even your own families is a lost cause. So ya, we do have friends- just not in the (any) church. This is sad when it comes from a 73 year old Mennonite, isn’t it? We have such good theology (most of the time), it’s just so damned hard to DO IT.
    Walter.

  6. Thank you for all of your comments!
    Robert, I love the description of your group–sounds like wonderful community already and growing into more. lifesjourneyblog, Walter, and Judy, I wonder about online community too, and its role in filling in the spaces between face-to-face gatherings of a community and even forming a community of sorts. It seems to me that having a presence online can help sustain community when people are spread out and not able to meet often, and to help smaller groups connect with others. Judy, I’m reading a book now about the deliberately small church that I think you’ll find interesting, and I’ll blog about that sometime soon too.

  7. Shaun, it’s a pleasure, and I look forward to posting more reviews in future.

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