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?