It’s small group recruiting season again.
I thought this was only limited to one denomination; it is not. As I found out just this Sunday, it is apparently pretty common for every church now to pass out what I’ve deemed the Catalogue of The Small Groups: a list of ongoing groups for various ages and genders on a wide variety of topics.
Join! the church exhorted us yesterday during the service, running a promo that listed the benefits of small groups. Join! they reminded us last week in a special aside before the traditional service. Three weeks ago, a man a few pews back – familiar with us because he’s greeted us for the past several Sundays – enthused, “It seems like you guys have been here a while – make sure you get into a small group!”
Or you’ll go on being alone and invisible. At least, that seems to be the implication.
As an introvert, I already struggle with small groups, and I’ve come across a few that have fallen victim to common small group problems. But in most cases I’m not bothered by the existence of small groups in a general sense. Rather, what I’m bothered by is the prevailing belief in most churches these days that small groups are where “relationships” and “intimacy” and “growth” is done. That small groups are where people ought to go if they want to get to know believers, be ministered to, or find a supportive community.
I’m bothered that, as a church, we have outsourced the actual ministry of love and the work of any functional church to small group ministry.
I wish I was exaggerating, but this is all a part of how small groups are “sold” these days. Want a group of people to pray for you or with you? Join a small group. Want people to show up with casseroles and company when a loved one dies? Join a small group. Want people to notice if you abandon church or come visit if you’re sick or celebrate a milestone with you? Join a small group. Otherwise, you’re out of luck.
It’s funny because for all the sermons I hear disparaging “Sunday Christians” who just show up on Sunday to hear a sermon, the outsourcing of ministry work to small groups is resulting in just that: church is becoming a place where you go to hear sermons and singing and attend events. The real work of love is done elsewhere, and on other days – and only if you join a small group.
But churches these days are just so big, I hear. The only way to minister to people properly is to break them down into manageable groups. I understand the dilemma, but I wonder then why we insist on our churches being so big if this is the result. Because the result of outsourcing ministry work to small groups is that people who don’t connect with small groups – either because they’re first-time visitors and uncertain, because they’re ill or face difficulties, because their schedules don’t permit, because they’re unbelievers – run the risk of falling through the cracks. If you don’t “plug in” it’s hard to get to know anyone, hard to have any needs met, hard to serve, hard to do anything.
I know a lot of believers who, rather than go through the rigmarole, simply give up going.
This saddens me because it’s not impossible to be a “big church” and minister to those who show up. I attended a 300-member church many years ago, and the first thing the people in the pew around me did was offer to take my husband and I to lunch. They made a point to learn our names, to visit, to pray for us. You know, the things small groups do now.
It’s frustrating not to have that resource any longer, or to feel that there’s yet another obstacle between me and it.
It’s not that small groups are all bad. “Man,” my pastor enthused this past Sunday. “I was sick a couple weeks ago and really just having a bad time and man, am I thankful for my small group. They just really stepped in to minister to me.”
I’m glad they were there for him. I’m glad that people who want to be involved find their small groups (in some cases, anyway) to be loving and dependable. But I remember a time when the church itself used to fill that role, without requiring voluntary participation in what has become something of a transactional affair: join the small group and reap the rewards of being cared for.
I miss the way it used to be.