Todd Engstrom has a post today about church-based small groups that brought back a lot of nightmares. Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing in his post outlining his vision for church community that is inherently problematic. If you asked me to design a model for fostering church community, I’d probably use many of his ideas.
But that’s because it’s a model that works for the vast majority of people. It’s so effective and popular that it’s hard to think of an alternative approach. But what works for 90% of the congregation can be hell for the remaining 10%. I’m part of that 10%.
Before I get into my experiences, let’s start with the basics. Small groups are the means by which churches -especially bigger churches- develop a sense of connection and community. They usually consist of 6-12 adults who meet on a weekly basis for Bible Study, dinners, and the occasional social outing. Our church had a bulletin board that advertised all of the small groups, so people could check out the meeting times and addresses and join a group of their choice.
The problem is that most small group are started by a core group of 2-3 couples who have known each other since forever. Given their busy lives, the small group becomes their best chance to catch up with each other. It’s the one night when they’ve all got baby sitters, and it’s the one night when they have no volunteer or work commitments. It’s extremely hard for new people to become part of that core group, particularly if they’re at a different life stage. When new couples do manage to become part of that core, a critical mass takes place. Everyone still gets along great and enjoys each other’s company, but the core can’t take in new friends, and more importantly, they don’t want to. They’re happy to host these new members and invite them on all of the small group activities, but they’re not really interested in them.
My former pastor recognized this dynamic and tried to counter it. He approached the leaders of each small group and asked them to consider splitting up into new groups. He got mixed results. Some groups recognized the problem and split up, while others stood defiant. For him, the problem then became how to handle the defiant groups. They were the oldest groups with the closest friends. Taking these groups off of the bulletin board would have angered them, because it would imply that they weren’t welcoming or that they didn’t really want new members. In truth, they did not really want new members – they just couldn’t admit it out loud. So he decided to keep the peace. He left these groups alone and kept their photos up on the board.
And to be fair, I could empathize with the groups that refused to split up. The reality is that in a large church, leaving a small group is like moving to another town. All of the activities you used to do with your old friends are now spent with new people, so you have less time to spend with your closest friends. Over time these couples end up either miserable or happy enough with their new group to let their old friendships whither.
I’ll share my personal experiences in Part 2.