In the first part of my series on church small groups, I described some of the problems all small groups face. In case you don’t have time to read it, I want to emphasize that I think that small groups are a positive model for creating church community. I’m also not sure how a new model of fellowship could resolve the problems I’ve dealt with.
Both of my posts began as a response Todd Engstrom’s post at The Gospel Coalition. He envisions a model of small groups that cultivates a more family-like social atmosphere, leaving Bible Study to take place in small groups of two or three people within the larger group. I think he makes a lot of good points, and a majority of Christians will probably gain a lot from his model.
But when I think about small group dinners, I cringe. Nothing brings out the bad side of people like a small group dinner. I used to dread them whenever they came up, and even though I attended every single small dinner I was invited to, I can’t think of a single one that ended well. Small group dinners are where you find out how little you have in common with people, or worse yet, how little you matter. Small group dinners are when people rant about how evil liberals are without realizing that they’re talking to a liberal. Small group dinners are where your Bible Study leader asks you how you can tolerate the n*****s in your class, or how n*****s are predisposed to animalistic behavior.
In my last post, I discussed how the biggest problem plaguing small groups is that longtime friends use them to catch up with each other, while ignoring newer members. Extroverts -especially if they’re a married couple – can adapt to this problem more easily than introverts, and they stand a better chance of getting included in the core group’s reindeer games. But if you’re shy or if the novelty of your presence has worn off, forget it. You might get extra attention at first because you’re new, but once you’re a regular attender, you’ll find yourself in this weird zone where everyone knows you, likes to talk to you, but couldn’t give a rip about you. You might be pleasant conversation, but you’re not their best friends, so you find yourself jostling for openings.
Over the years I learned to overcome this by training myself to become a extrovert. I also learned that if I was going to connect with the people in my small groups, I had to talk about the things they were interested in. And given my gender, I had to be carful who I spoke to.
Small groups have a way of sorting themselves out by gender. There’s an unspoken rule that women are expected to hang out in one room and socialize, while men go to the other room. When it’s time for Bible Study or dinner, everyone gets back together. A few years ago, I found myself with a dilemma: the women were talking about Jane Austen, while the men were talking about car repair. I love Jane Austen, and talking about cars bores me to tears. It’s assumed that, since I’m a guy, I’ll go hang out with the menfolk. This time, I decided to hang out with the women. Besides, I had endured a hundred conversations about car repair, and I was tired of hearing the guys rehash the same stories.
At first I was content to just listen to the women. I wanted to figure out which book they were talking about (it turned out to be Pride and Prejudice) and get a feel for the rhythm of their conversation. I didn’t want to be the guy who came in and hijacked the conversation.
Then the guys gave me funny looks. Why wasn’t I in the kitchen talking about cars? Then one of the women pointed towards the men and directed me over to them. That’s when I announced that I love British literature, and I thought Pride and Prejudice was a great read. Stone cold silence. I had broken not one but two taboos: I was fraternizing with the wrong gender, and I expressed interest in an author I wasn’t supposed to like. Five cold shoulders sent me to go listen to the guys talk about cars.
As awkward as these conversations could be, sitting down for dinner could be worse. Dinner time was when you found out how you really stood with the group. If you were doing well, someone voluntarily sat down next to you even if there were plenty of seats available. If you weren’t, you got pushed off to the far end of the table by people who politely asked you to get out of the way because they wanted to sit across from their friends. I got pushed to the end a lot.