Tuesday, December 31, 2013

farewell small groups

Some months ago my friend Dan Edelen posted Are Small Groups Doomed? I'm not sure if he ever received his answer but as I reflect on these things at the end of the year it seemed helpful to repost the bulk of this original post. So enjoy and benefit:

As someone who grew up indoctrinated in the idea that the real life of the church happens in small groups, I worry about the small group model.

Some churches, especially those of the mega variety, pin their entire ministry model on the idea that people will flock to small groups and find there what they cannot within the larger ministry of the whole church. Many churches live and die by that ideal. It’s one reason why I’m concerned.

A few years back, Joe Myers, who happens to live in my general area, wrote a book called The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups. I struggled through that book in all honesty, partly because I thought it was a little too in love with its demographic studies and quotes from sociologists (pretty typical of Emerging lit) and because the studies and quotes painted a disturbing picture.

Myers’s assertions included the following:

1. A church that gets a third of its regular attendees involved in small groups does well. That being the case, it’s ridiculous to drive a church model based on small groups because two-thirds of attendees will never plug into one no matter how hard the church promotes small groups.

2. Having a small group meeting in a private home asks too much of people today. Far too many people feel uncomfortable walking into another person’s home.

Let me talk about the latter statement first.

One of the best parts of both of our groups is the shared meal. I think that echoes the early Church well. I love eating together. I enjoy making meals together, too. There’s a dynamic on that meal prep that bonds the group.

Problem is, that’s hard to do outside a home. Plus, for those people who have a gift of hospitality, part of their gift is thwarted by not being able to host in their own living space. This is not to say that people can’t be hospitable outside their own homes, only that something can be lost by moving to another venue. The Bible appears to reflect this ideal, also, by showing us how the early Church met in each other’s homes.

Worse, if Myers is to be believed on this point, I have got to wonder how bad off we are as a society when people can’t walk into another person’s living space without getting the heebie-jeebies. Honestly, if people today freak as badly as Myers insists they do on crossing the threshold of another person’s house, call Malcolm Gladwell because we’re not only past the tipping point, we may as a society be on the way to the point of no return. If my house scares you, then you’re going to be petrified of my personality. So much for any kind of small group dynamic—please pass the Paxil.

On the first point concerning the one-third involvement, my own experience proves that this is a general number that does, indeed, hold up under scrutiny. Now I know I’m going to get people who write in and say, “Well, in my church, half the people are in small groups.” Great. You are the exception to the rule. But by and large, I’ve been around enough to believe Myers’s statistic is true when viewed on a macro scale.

More to the point, I believe that the one-third number wil increasingly shrink for several compelling reasons:
Bowling Alone Syndrome – The seminal book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam has been quoted by every long-time leader I know, no matter what type of group they lead. Every last one laments the loss of community that once thrived in American culture as exemplified by our fraternal organizations. I don’t care what kind of public group we’re talking about—Kiwanis, Boy Scouts, Sierra Club, softball teams, card clubs, even churches—they’ve all seen the number of involved members drop precipitously. People just are not participating in face-to-face interpersonal groups like they once were. To many, the commitment asks too much. Couple this with the increasingly rootless nature of a society whose individuals spend less and less time in one place. These difficult realities pose enormous problems for churches, especially those that base their ministry model around small groups. 
A lack of qualified small group leaders – Too many churches that expect their primary teaching and discipleship to occur in small groups pin their hopes on people who are increasingly less qualified to lead what they teach. In many cases, the leader of a small group is promoted out of another small group who may have had an inadequate leader. Law of diminishing effects anyone? As so many Evangelical churches have gone this route, is it any wonder that so many Evangelicals display ignorance of even the most basic biblical truths? And if the people lack knowledge, they perish, right? That’s not a formula for successfully perpetuating a thriving small group model. 
The Hegelian Dialectic – I’ve talked about this many times here (see this post in particular), but the tendency toward thesis/antithesis/synthesis teaching in small groups undermines genuinely fruitful Bible study more than we care to admit. Unqualified teachers create some of that problem but so does the need not to make anyone feel uncomfortable should they hold an errant view on the topic being taught. I’ve long contended that small groups may do some things well, but, for most, teaching ain’t it. 
Busyness – This comprises a part of the Bowling Alone Syndrome. Frankly, I find it amazing that any small group meets at all given how overly scheduled our lives are. To the people I talk with, it’s only getting worse. In the case of both small groups I’m a part of, year over year we’re seeing more scheduling issues. I can’t recall if our Vineyard group has met as an entire group so far this year. Due to the nature of our other small group, it’s never met with the same core people from one month to the next. That makes it hard to develop the momentum needed to keep growing in discipleship through the group. 
Expectations – Here’s a loaded issue: group member expectations. I think more small groups burn out due to participants’ unmet expectations than for any other reason. I also think that this was less of an issue in the past because people then didn’t know what to expect of small groups, so their expectations were low. I will also contend that too many people today come to a group with a list of expectations an arm long because we’ve indoctrinated people into believing that the world exists to meet their needs. (In truth, the modern church’s constant catering to felt needs only exacerbates the issue.) That’s a huge problem to overcome because people will flee a small group the second it looks like it won’t meet their needs perfectly. They never find a home, instead flitting from one small group to the next. Worst of all, should the group cater to couples, if one of the spouses sours on the group because of unmet expectations, it puts the other spouse in a bind. You almost always wind up losing two people instead of just the discontented one.

All these issues combine to exert enormous pressure on small groups.

Resolving these issues requires smarter people than yours truly. Several of the problems exist at a societal level, requiring upheavals that too many church leaders are not willing to discuss. That timidity, though, is at the root of the failure.

My contribution:

I have never believed that the small group model works well in teaching the Scriptures to people. I’ve been in numerous small groups over the years, and only one or two have had solid teaching. Perhaps, then, we should focus on other things, especially discipleship through example, which means ensuring the fellowship works well—no small task in itself.

I also think we have to ask ourselves how important the basic philosophy of small groups is to our personal growth. If we believe in what small groups are supposed to provide, then we need to be committed to that belief. We can’t let outside influences distract us from the core vision.

I’ll be upfront and say that I’m pessimistic about the future of small group ministry within churches here in the United States. This is not to say that small groups will cease to exist, only that their influence within churches may be waning.

This begs a greater question: If small groups are increasingly under pressure to provide what churches depend on them to provide, what will replace small groups as the primary means of doing “what small groups do” within our churches? How will churches provide for the spiritual needs of their congregants should the small group model wither?

On this issue, where does your church stand?

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