An Introvert’s Confession Pt. 2: How To Fix The Problems In Church “Small Groups”

In my last post on this topic, I discussed the the rise of “small groups” in many churches and elaborated on some of the ways in which these groups tend to falter.  Particularly, I discussed the ways in which small groups can sometimes abandon study for fellowship, can frustrate introverts, and can create ‘false intimacy’ that, while helpful in maintaining relationships within the group, doesn’t serve to maintain them outside a once-a-week meeting.

In that post, I promised to offer a few fixes for some of the problems I’ve observed.  By implementing these, I think that small groups at least have a fighting chance to serve many kinds of Christians, and to create an atmosphere in which individual growth and learning can thrive.  So, in no particular order, some tips – not just for group leaders, but for group members as well.

Balance fellowship, and redefine it.

First of all, in most study groups, it’s imperative that there’s a suitable balance between the amount of time people spend socializing and the amount of time they actually study God’s word.  It’s easy for discussion to derail and for introductory “hey how are you’s” to turn into lengthy conversations that intrude on study time.  Discussions about God aren’t necessarily the same as time spent with God, and tangential disruptions can lead everything off course. Fellowship shouldn’t always be the main priority. In this case, the responsibility falls largely on group leaders.  Decide on an allotted time for fellowship per meeting – fifteen minutes?  twenty? – and stick to that.  Or, better yet, save the fellowship aspect of the meeting until after the study.  It might be nice for people to come in a reverent and thoughtful mind to dig into Scripture – and then, once that’s finished, to relax and meet together as long as they like (or, for us introverts, to bow out when it gets to be too much).  In an especially large or rowdy group (and for young people particularly) it might be helpful to find a “focus word” for group members to yell out when they realize they’re derailing from the study – a gentle reminder to return the attention to where it belongs.

Secondly, fellowship doesn’t always have to be “people eating and talking to each other” or “people doing sports together.”  Not everyone enjoys that; not everyone finds it a comfortable experience.  Try book clubs or watching movies or short films.  Offer interactive workshops where people can learn to do something – cook or knit or speak a foreign language – to bring people together.  Give fellowships defined start and ending times rather than letting them turn into an amorphous blob that drags on with no clear end in sight. A lot of times when presented with an activity that they might enjoy or an environment where they don’t always have to be “on,” people who might not otherwise embrace fellowship will feel welcome to it.

And group leaders and members? When people want to participate in the study, but feel less inclined to fellowship, don’t punish them for it.  Make sure they’re okay and, if it’s a simple matter of burnout or disinterest, don’t pressure them into that potluck.  Check in on them and be kind to them and be a friend.  But don’t pressure them or make them feel like their attendance is mandatory at such events. You’ll do more harm than good.

Understand the group dynamic and the differences between members.

For group leaders, a large part of this is learning how to guide a study.  If there are two people out of eight who dominate a discussion and keep everyone else from speaking, it’s the group leader’s job both to gently resist that and to draw others in.  If no one speaks and the group sessions are punctuated by awkward floor-staring, it’s the group leader’s job to figure out what tactics might work to change that, whether that’s pre-assigning reading, giving out ‘food for thought’ questions in advance, playing round-robin, or changing the structure of the session.  Additionally, it’s good for group leaders to be aware of the personalities and tendencies of the different people within the group: make room for people to be themselves and recognize that not everyone communicates or engages in the same way.  Shut down distracting conversations, make room for honest and thoughtful questions, and in general keep the study productive.

To this end, it’s also worth thinking about how we arrange our small groups.  Most small groups that I’ve attended focus around “life stage” – marrieds, singles, married-without-kids, married-with-kids – or around age group or spiritual development.  But isn’t it also possible to organize small groups differently? And isn’t it possible that people might benefit from interacting with those outside their peer group? Organizing small groups around, say, a hobby or interest might bring together believers who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to meet together.  Creating groups with different balances might also be helpful: why not create an intense-study group that keeps the fellowship light for those who are interested?  Why not create a weekly dinner club for those interested in fellowshipping and meals together?  Small groups, like people, can have personalities, and every one need not be gregarious and outgoing.  Commonality can be good, but sometimes homogeneity has a way of creating exclusivity and stunting growth.

Make sure that “doing life together” or “building relationships” is an honest, consistent practice.

Small groups propose to be different from “Sunday School” in that they are about experiencing life together, about Christians banding together in tiny tribes to work with and love each other.  And if that is so, then small group life needs to extend beyond the once-a-week commitment many are willing to give to it – either that, or we need to stop pretending it’s something more noble or life-enhancing than a once-a-week-study.  It’s easy to be kind over chips and dip and throw up prayers about weekly requests, but what I’ve found with many small groups is that the buck stops…well, right there.  Disappear for a few weeks?  No one notices or, if they do, they assume you’re fine (because you’d have said something otherwise, right?)  Meals are delivered for pregnancies and surgeries, but the sundry other struggles of life often go unnoticed and unmarked. Requests or statements of non-catastrophic need are often met with “sure, I’ll pray” and no follow-up or subsequent interest.  Individuals sometimes emerge from small group feeling that they only matter once a week, within the confines of their meetings; their lives outside the group are given little regard or thought.

Ostensibly, small groups were meant to remedy the problems of “big” church, where people can fall through the cracks and simply be forgotten about if they don’t know the right people.  Unfortunately, small groups are also vulnerable to these issues, and people fall through the cracks there, too.  If we’re serious about small groups functioning on a more intimate level than the main church, then believers and leaders need to genuinely buy in – to invest in each other’s lives with purpose, time, and energy.

Make small groups one option among many for study and growth; don’t let them become the only choice for believers to grow individually and outside services.

Small groups work on a series of assumptions: that Christians want to and should work together in small and closely-knit groups, that believers will be equally invested in making these groups work, that believers share the same goals of learning and growth, and that all of these previous things will supplement regular “church life.” The problem is that when real-life conditions don’t match up, small groups can falter and fail.  Some expire.  Some turn into fellowship free-for-alls where no learning takes place.  Some are sessions dominated by one or two speakers; others become group-therapy exchanges where little actual study occurs.  Some lose members and truck right along and think they’re thriving, without realizing that those who have walked away did so because they sensed little care or concern for them within the group.  And in every church wander small group ‘orphans’: the people who simply can’t find a group they they feel accepted by or feel comfortable being around.

While it’s vital that we “not give up meeting together” (10:25), I think it’s worth recognizing that sometimes small groups just aren’t all that they could or should be.  And while they’re certainly worth trying and certainly worth looking at as an option, it’s dangerous to throw the baby out with the bathwater – to decide that Sunday School and more in-depth studies and other meeting times or activities can be enfolded in, or can be replaced by, small groups without being missed.  The “small group” concept is not more sacred nor more valuable than any other ministry technique; as always, if it’s not helping increase love for Christ and growing individuals in Christ, it demands critique and examination.

Sometimes small groups don’t work.  And we shouldn’t force them to work.

Sometimes they do.  But we can always, always make them better.

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12 responses to “An Introvert’s Confession Pt. 2: How To Fix The Problems In Church “Small Groups”

  1. I do agree that small groups can work as long they don’t become a clique for a certain ones. But if you have the right group leaders that shouldn’t happen.

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  2. I really love the idea of learning a language together – it’s one of my interests. (Hablo español!) But I know how challenging it is for others to pick it up the habit of learning languages if they don’t care about it. In most of my groups – it’s really difficult to balance out the dynamics. When I studied Proverbs, the oldest man in the class (85) would monopolize time trying to say something profound which I usually could not understand. That didn’t leave the rest of us very much time to talk about the sayings. I was the youngest member of the class (20) and often felt out of place.

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    • Tambien hablo español! And yes, a member of my church actually taught a Japanese-language class that was a lot of fun and brought people together. I really enjoyed it for the time that we had it.

      Ahhh, that Proverbs group sounds awkward. In that case it really does fall on the leadership to take a proactive role and even out the time – though that, too, is easier said than done without leaders who have some idea of how to go about doing that. Those kinds of age dynamics can sometimes skew quickly.

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      • Language classes just make sense – the more languages you speak to, the more you can talk about faith and religion. The best activity I had ever done was to take a Bob Ross-style painting class. It would be great to get to do that again. I wonder if there is an element of fear of things getting out of control if most smaller churches were to try something new.

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      • This makes me want to write a post on integrating language classes into church! And yes, they’re great opportunities to talk about culture too. That Bob Ross-style class sounds like the most soothing thing on the planet. Yes, there is an element of fear and I think uncertainty – a language class doesn’t fit easily into a “box” in terms of measurable goals – plus there is probably also concern about resources in smaller congregations.

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      • I hope you do! There was one church in my area that temporarily started a Spanish service, but it hasn’t been mentioned in such a long time I think they ended it because of lack of attendance. It’s weird because they segregate out people by language, which segregated people out by race. I know of a Korean church and a Chinese church very far away, but we don’t really integrate with difference people in our communities partially because of the language barrier. I was reading up on Sign Language earlier today and read that there was a community where deafness was so prevalent, that even hearing people learned sign language so that the deaf people would never be at a disadvantage. They signed behind the back of teachers at school, from one side of a farmers field to another, and even during church sermons. Of the two, learning languages seemed more godly than accepting an unintentional segregation of the community because of the language barrier.

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      • I am drafting it as we speak!

        And yeah, I’ve been at churches that had Chinese services, but we literally never were able to interact with the Chinese congregation in any way, which seems sad to me. That story about the community learning Sign is fantastic. Sometimes even just the effort to learn a language can mean so much – whether you stumble through or attain full fluency, it’s a really wonderful way to reach out to people and to show you care! And certainly it is also, as you put it, a godly act.

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  3. Pingback: An Introvert’s Confession: I Don’t Like The “Small Groups” Church Trend | Samaritan's Song·

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