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.