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.