An Introvert’s Confession: I Don’t Like The “Small Groups” Church Trend

Traditional Sunday School attendance is, in many denominations, on the decline.  Yet participation in “small groups” – inter-congregational Bible studies and fellowship meetings held at different times throughout the week – increases with each year. In 2014, Southern Baptist leaders embraced it as the “functional equivalent” of Sunday School, encouraging “hybrid program[s]” that allow members scheduling flexibility. The Christian retailer LifeWay has launched an entire section of small group studies and books.  And the Presbyterian Mission Agency goes so far as to pin the shift away from Sunday School and toward small groups on millennials, claiming that they “don’t want to be taught…they want to be taught to teach.”

In theory, at least, small groups are ideal: they’re meant to resemble the New Testament churches, groups of close-knit Christians sharing lives, ministries, prayer times, and Bible studies. And they can theoretically work as a “substitute” for Sunday School by serving as an Any-Day-of-The-Week School, which is a boon to those with packed or atypical schedules. The problem, however, is that small groups have the potential to fall short of that ideal: to place an emphasis on fellowship rather than study, to cultivate shallow relationships that masquerade as serious ones, and to alienate introverted believers who prefer one-on-one time or dedicated study to group discussions and open sharing.

It’s not my desire to condemn small groups – many of them work well and I think they can be a vital and helpful part of ministry. Rather, as someone who has tried several different ones and found the experience frustrating (and who struggles at finding them to be a ‘substitute’ for Sunday School), I’d like to offer a few observations to church leaderships and small group leaders about the particular issues that can crop up with small groups:

They can run heavy on the fellowship and light on the study.

Not everyone wants to sit down and read heavy theology – nor should they – but the discussion, talk, and general fellowship aspects of small groups can grow out of control.  I’ve been in groups where fifteen minutes was devoted to the lesson, with the other forty-five going to general hanging-out; where talking about how you feel about God or the Bible or what happened to you that day was more important than actually talking about the Word or its applications; where a potential lesson got derailed by random and tangential discussions; where “building relationships” has more currency than any other spiritual action.  The unfortunate outcome of this is Bible-study-lite – a glorified hangout group where only occasionally the talk centers on a study, on God, or on His word.  Admittedly, this certainly isn’t true for every small group, but it can certainly be a pitfall for a lot of them.

They’re a nightmare for introverts. 

I’m an introvert and what I find is that small groups are…well, generally not made for people like me.  I’m uncomfortable and feel awkward socializing with people I don’t know extraordinarily well, and yet that socialization – under the guise of “fellowship” – composes a lot of the small group experience. And although I enjoy talk focused around a study or a theme and I love learning and listening, in small groups the conversations often derail or, worse, falter; nothing makes me cringe more than those awkward, pained silences when a group leader throws out a question that no one is willing to answer.  Unfortunately for me, small groups seem to be built on the principles of extroversion: the idea that it’s easy and/or gratifying to just sit down in a room and talk about daily life with other people, or – alternatively – to bare your soul about deep and personal issues.  The result of this atmosphere is that introverts like me either a) burn out on small groups quickly because we exhaust ourselves plowing through small talk and fellowship activities when we’d just as soon curl up with a book or listen to a lecture or b) clam up and proceed to feel completely invisible in a group of people who find this sort of communication and environment preferable.

They can encourage friendship-lite.

Small groups can very quickly foster a sort of false intimacy.  When you’re sharing secrets and your spiritual journey with people and they’re asking how you are every week and keeping up on the details of your life, it can feel like you’re all really close…until you’re not.  Nothing’s worse than being in need and reaching out only to find that your small group friends are really small group acquaintances.  Although small groups are meant to model the behaviors of the Christian church, it’s not always a given that small group members actually live life together by checking up on each other and being…you know, friends…throughout the rest of the week.  And that dissonance – the tight friendship in-group and the regular acquaintance-ship outside it – can leave members feeling pretty bereft and more than a little disillusioned.

Again, it’s not my desire to condemn small groups or to eradicate them.  They’re slowly replacing Sunday School and evolving to reflect who we’ve become as a church.  But as small groups evolve, it’s important they don’t lose their fundamental purpose – to give believers a network of love and support as we grow closer individually to Christ, as we seek to “[receive] the word…with all eagerness” (Acts 17:11). I think addressing some of the issues mentioned here will go a long way toward making those groups more welcoming to those who struggle to integrate into them or don’t really feel comfortable in that kind of atmosphere or environment.  And next week I’ll be writing about exactly that, so stay tuned!

You can find part two of this series here.


23 thoughts on “An Introvert’s Confession: I Don’t Like The “Small Groups” Church Trend

  1. The last small group I was in changed topics more quickly than I could process a thoughtful addition. It was frustrating because two people were talking back and forth and eight other people were just sitting there nodding. I’m actually the sort of person that prefers deep theology, I’ve had so much pink cotton candy fluff over the years that the popular books or topics just don’t thrill me. I also find it difficult to relate because my life experiences are different from others around me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s frustrating, isn’t it? The group dynamic can really make or break these things, and I prefer the deeper stuff myself – it’s frustrating because with groups the conversations can stay “at surface” and I wish it would go elsewhere. Your point about different life experiences is well taken, too – I am in a somewhat similar boat, and it really reduces the areas where you feel like you can contribute or join in with the conversation.

      Comforting to know I’m not alone!


      1. Well, and that’s the thing exactly – small groups kind of operate on these ideal assumptions about people and how they will interact with each other in a group, in any given situation: everyone will be respectful and thoughtful and considerate and engage in active listening (rather than in, say, silencing) and etc. and etc. But when people don’t behave in ideal ways the whole project sort of falls apart.

        Fascinating post, btw!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I guess that’s why I still go whenever there’s a good one – just to be a thorn in their side. If they get comfortable with the way things normally are they might not want to tweak it to make it better for everyone.


  2. I’ve never heard anyone put this into words before. I myself struggled to pinpoint why I was so hesitant to attend small group every week, while my husband was loving it because, like you said, he is an extravert!
    I’m all the wiser now about my introvert tendencies. Going on to read your part 2.
    Thanks for the insight!!
    ❤ Kaytie


    1. You’re very welcome! I’m always happy when someone comes along who’s been feeling the same way I did all these years – it took me a long time before I was able to figure out why, myself! Thanks so much for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. OMG! Thank you for this! My husband and I joined a church about three years ago and they about to begin “Small Groups” in January. Being an introvert I’m terrified! I know no one is twisting my arm, but if I don’t join, I’ll feel like I’m not “all in” for Jesus or a true Christian. I really need to pray about this!


    1. I feel your pain! And I will pray along with you that God reveals what He wants you to do. In the meantime, it’s okay to take it slow and just not join a group for a while while you figure it all out!


  4. I am so thankful for this post. I was just discussing with my husband about our small group that maybe I have too high of expectations. I am in my late 20’s and my husband is in his early 30’s. We moved from the East Coast to California a few years ago and have had a terrible time at getting plugged in. Finally we did and it seems that the focus of the group is to get together to talk about feelings and occasionally have wine/game night as a substitution. When we have brought up integrating structure and reading the word and have a couple things written down in advance to bring forward to discuss it seems that only a couple other people are interested. Is this the norm now? Why is it so hard to find people that want to do a Bible study and be challenged?


    1. I’m so glad the post hit home for you!

      I’m not really sure about the why, though I often wonder myself. Is it generational? Is it the expectations we’ve somehow created in the church? Is it the corporate branding/promoting of certain types of studies? De-emphasizing intellectualism of any sort? I don’t know. I do think that there is an issue in the church in general with conflating fellowship with study, or in assuming that “talking together about some Scripture and feelings” is the same as learning and growing in the Word in a meaningful way. It’s a shame, and I wish I knew the source. Because what you’re describing is pretty much what I experienced and found so dissatisfying, and it seems to be getting more and more widespread.


  5. I thank you so much for writing this article as this reflects my thoughts on small groups so well. Finding the right fit group can be amazingly hard and, beside that, they are just not for everybody. (For all you folks that just read that last part and said, “See, I don’t have to go”…read on.). I think the church is kind of “worldly” in the sense of making one “answer” or process be the prescribed path. Certainly there are things that fall into that category, like attending worship services with other believers. That is not up for debate as it is a biblical mandate. I feel that more than a few churches have put small groups in that category and I don’t think they are. For me, I much enjoy getting together regularly for deep discussions with one or two brothers in the Lord about Bible subjects, philosophy discussions, stuff we are dealing with and how we are overcoming (or not) and a host of other things. We learn from each other, enjoy each other, and pray for each other. Does this not accomplish the same thing as a small group. (I will give you the answer; “yes”) :). I get the fact that the church is trying to get people to fellowship (and that is truly a worthy goal) and be in community but small groups are ONE way…not the ONLY way. Your post is much appreciated and is a blessing to me as I have struggled with fitting in at small groups for years.


    1. YES. I think that’s a great distinction and point you are making, too. Fellowship and gathering together w/believers is absolutely important, and Scripture mandates it…but it doesn’t mandate small groups as the only or best or necessary way to do it.

      They definitely work for some people, and I’m so glad for that. But it’s true that there are those of us who just find them awkward, or struggle to fit in, and get our fellowship in other and different ways that are just as meaningful and growth-inducing.

      So glad you enjoyed the post and took the time to comment with your experience!


  6. ugh, small groups. i found them tense and uncomfortable as a super introvert. they are for show offy confident extroverts who want to preen about how smart they are. life is better without them. life is better without churches, too, churches are for control freaks. real christians ain’t hanging around no churches. going to church doesnt make you a christian. its how you use your heart to follow jesus’ words. we all fall short there.


    1. Well, I’m not huge on generalities. I’m sure small groups work well for some very fine people. I’m actually a church-going Christian, myself, and I consider myself pretty “real.” But I completely understand and empathize with those turned off by the small group phenomenon, for sure. As for following Jesus’ words and falling short – too true, too true. We all do.


  7. Thank you for your post and for ways a small group can “reinvent” itself. I attend our small group because I feel the need to be connected to the sermon and other people’s ideas. However, what do you do when the women want to socialize separately and you do not want to do this as it makes you feel uncomfortable? I like all the women, but do not wish to “eat and chat” on a monthly basis. How do I respond to this offer and still remain friendly with the women at our small group session? Any suggestions for a response?


    1. You are so very welcome!

      There are a few suggestions I have here: if you are willing to get together with them every now and again, but not always, you can simply say “I can’t make it regularly, but would love to drop by when I have the chance!” That allows you to pick and choose your opportunities.

      But if you’d rather not go at all, I think you simply thank them and then say you can’t make it. The key here is to be warm and kind, but I think sometimes we believers (and I am one of them) can get a little more comfortable with (pleasantly) turning something down without having to explain and or justify it. If you continue to respond with kindness otherwise, there shouldn’t be an issue from simply opting out of the eat-and-chat!


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