Tearing Down Those Sacred Small Groups (sort of)

The current General Church Central Office appears to be focused on Small Groups as the answer to outreach, church health and world peace. This obsession seems unwise to me…

There are two New Church camps held an hour southeast from my house. They are in the same general location, but offer two very different experiences (or so I am told). A friend described the distinction as “happy clappy” versus “frozen chosen”.

My husband Derrick, a chronic moderate, has attended both camps in the past and so I asked him how he thought they compared. He told me that they actually seemed quite similar, however, the big difference he noticed was the structure: the “liberal” one was organized around small groups, while the “conservative” one was organized around families.

I had never thought of small groups as an alternative to the family unit, but as I mulled this idea over I suddenly began to understand my own discomfort with small groups.

I have had a lot of exposure to the Small Group Movement: I’ve been in 8 groups in as many years. I worked at the Office of Outreach while they created the first Journey Campaign. I’ve supported and shared resources for small groups created by friends and even by my husband. But almost every time I’ve participated in a small group myself, I’ve found it unsatisfying.

In the past I’ve fumbled for words to express the negative reaction I have to most small groups: “awkward”, “forced” or even “corny”. But now I can more clearly identify that I find them “artificial”: an artificial family.

Small group units attempt to construct a space of community and spiritual support that I find exists naturally in any well functioning family or group of close friends. Side Note: a “family” to me is a larger bracket than mother-father-children (though that is its nucleus). I consider all those extended friends, whether blood relations or not, who support that nucleus and its primary use of raising angels as part of that family. End side note.

Conservative churches are often hostile to the Central Office’s push for small groups. Part of this is probably an aversion to participating in something that has gained a liberal reputation and smacks of congregationalism (a Protestant-Church structure where “everyone’s a priest” as opposed to our New Church’s ecclesiastical structure where the priests are a defined group of qualified spiritual leaders). But I have began to suspect that the conservatives have picked up on the innate artificialness of small groups. “If I was having a problem I would go to my husband/mother/friend for support, I’m not going to spill my heart to a collection of strangers” is something I have heard many variations of over time.

The Small Group world has picked up on this awkwardness to a degree and now encourages leaders to form small groups with people they would like to be friends with. This is definitely a move in a healthier direction, but it is still a far cry from a healthy family unit or collection of close friends where members have had years to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses and years of friendship behind them to endure hard words and advice.

I was most struck by the realization that Small Groups are a recent man-made construct; while the family is unquestionably the unit God designed for humanity. I seriously doubt our creation compares to His.

So am I advocating that the General Church reject Small Groups? Not entirely.

For all their awkwardness, small groups are effectively providing spiritual support for many individuals,  especially to those new to the New Christianity. And this, to me, is an invaluable service.

Few people join a movement for the ideas alone; we are social creature, so we tend to desire friendship and community as well. Small Groups can provide this for individuals who are not a part of an established church family.

However, I have been wondering (and here comes hypothesizing and playing with ideas): if the family unit is the basic structure the Lord created for humankind and, when healthy, I find it more genuinely provides friendship and spiritual support, could not the family unit extend that support to unconnected individuals?

I believe it could. I can imagine going up to a new face after church and saying hello. The next time I run into them I might invite them over to my house for a casual lunch, maybe call over a couple of friends as well to keep the conversation moving. I might mention some thoughts on the New Christianity if the opportunity opened up or I might not. Maybe I’d just leave the doctrinal teaching to the priests and focus on sharing friendship. Slowly but surely I could welcome this new face into my little unit of family and friends. Or connect them to another family I suspected they would really click with.

But how many of us DO that?

There was a time in human history when this sort of conduct was commonplace, even expected. Ye olde fashioned term for it was “Christian hospitality”. And, sadly, it is way out-of-fashion. We don’t tend to invite people into our homes and into our little family circle until a certain level of acquaintance has been made and the character of the individual has been established. And if, after we understand their character and they turn out to be quite different, possibly even immoral, we begin avoiding them.

Sinners come in many different shades. The adulterer who continues to live in sin may indeed require ostracizing (New Jerusalem and It’s Heavenly Doctrines 318 charges priests to remove from the church those who do not believe as they and are making a disturbance). But an adulterer who is looking towards repentance is a very different matter. The New Christianity is essential healing to that person and while the doctrines can be gleaned from sermons, classes or the books themselves, I believe that friendship and support are also desirable. Disclaimer: human prudence should be applied here, obviously people should be more cautious with who they bring around small children etc…

Yes, I think it possible for our natural circles of family and friends to become the “small groups” of our churches if we could but learn to open them up and extend their blessings to those outside them. If ever we were to re-embrace the charitable practice of Christian hospitality, I believe we could provide a more organic and sincere atmosphere for individuals to be welcomed into our church communities.

I would love to see the Central Office explore ways to support this potential. I believe it will ultimately be a more effective way to grow the New Christianity, especially among the conservative congregations, than the Protestant Small Group Movement.

But I see no reason to wait for the “establishment” to catch on before our GC culture can begin to change. What do you think ladies? How might we adapt our practices as a church and as individuals? What kinds of challenges can you identify?

Addendum: there appears to be a great deal of confusion surrounding the term “small group.” In general, when I use the term, I am referring to:

Small Group: the basic unit of the Small Group Movement (also called Church Cell Movement, and Serendipity Model) which began largely in the 1920 in the Methodist churches and was adapted and brought to the forefront of Christian Church conversation during the 90s by mega churches such as Saddleback (Rev. Rick Warren’s church). The purpose of these groups, as defined by one of the founders, Lyman Coleman, is “to create a small group system where people outside the church can find a place of entry and be transformed”. They contain an identifiable structure, format, and controls and regulations as well as a clear implementation process and ruberic for determining success for Pastors.

As opposed to a “small group”: literally a collection of a few people– for religious purposes or no. A Bible study and mom-and-tots group are examples of this

About Eden Lumsden

Eden is loving wife to Derrick Lumsden and full-time mother to five little men. She grew up attending the New Church of Phoenix, went to the GC College, married a priest and was promptly shipped off with him to Africa. They spent 6yrs enjoying the people and culture at the Westville New Church, near Durban, South Africa before returning to the USA in 2014. They currently live in Sarver, Pennsylvania where they dabble in self-sufficiency, homeschool their boys, and scheme of ways to help the Church. Eden finds the True Christian teachings about women and marriage to be particularly profound.

18 thoughts on “Tearing Down Those Sacred Small Groups (sort of)

  1. A lot of this rings true for me about what has made small groups more and less effective at different points. And I like the reminder that the point could be connecting with family as the starting point. But that, like you said, small groups can be really useful for people who aren’t well connected. Some of the best groups I have heard about and experienced are ones where people who didn’t have that base family support were included in a new “family” and found real connection.

    So maybe there is some middle ground? An emphasis on small groups with a focus on starting with your family? On building up a family group? Less on the running of a specific program, more on getting people to get together regularly and making space for conversation specific to those people? Maybe a push for a shift in thinking with a reminder to families that the point of church is much larger than just going for their own education but also about reaching out to offer support as a vessel of the Lord’s love?

    I’m intrigued by your point and will have to keep pondering it.

  2. …Huh. Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Eden (and Abby). I haven’t had negative experiences with small groups, although I also totally agree about the ideal role of family being THE ‘small group’. Logistically, it’s a whole lot easier to get an artificially- constructed small group together to discuss a certain topic (e.g. Journey Program) than it is to get my family & close friends together, plus there’s the shared-interest bit (e.g. some of my family and friends would have no desire to share the way Journey small groups do). I agree that a middle ground is the way to go, in order to accommodate different needs.

    Speaking of ‘Christian hospitality’, I grew accustomed to having someone over for lunch after church most Sundays when my mom did it during my high school years, and I’m happy to say that I enjoy continuing the tradition; well, not *most* Sundays — but occasionally! It’s a strange concept to my husband, on the other hand, so apparently it works for some people but not others. (He’s open to it, he just didn’t grow up with it.) I’m all for inviting newcomers over, and I agree that it’s the best way to authentically get to know someone and share our lives – which is ‘sharing the church’, in a way, as these people get to see the way we live, not because we’re preaching to them but because they can see how New Church people behave, how they live. (-Not that we’re model NC folk, per se, but I like Jesus’ model of showing by example, then inviting others to follow.)

    So, yeah, I think a middle ground is vital, because just as some people aren’t comfortable with small groups, some people aren’t comfortable hosting or being hosted — and we’ll certainly need to keep the larger group things happening, too, for those who just aren’t ready for small-group anything! Then there’s the super-small group, too, which I’ve recently undertaken by accident: my Sunroom ‘small group’ whittled down to just me and one other person – but she’s keen to keep going – so it’s kind of just a one-on-one conversation: and that really works, for my newcomer friend. (She’s coming to church, now!!) -Meanwhile, though, I’m curious to know your thoughts on how to promote the inviting-newcomers-into-our-families idea: what role would the GC play in this?

    1. That’s fantastic Jenn that you give out a weekly invite.

      Yes, I really like the idea of a middle ground– or rather “multiple approaches”– to spiritual support.

      If the only take away readers have from my ramblings is that “small groups don’t work for everyone,” I will feel very satisfied.

    2. I’ve been thinking about that last question of yours, Jen, and I’m not sure that there is a role for the central office exactly. That it is a broader culture shift more than a program being offered, maybe? I can be pretty quick to say that the leaders of the organisation (any organisation not just this one) need to do things differently or change this or that, but while I’m quick to judge when I actually stop to think about solutions I never know how they are supposed to do that. Easier for me to blame someone else I think. So I really don’t know how the organisation would make a push at culture change around this – and maybe it’s on me to do the changing not them.

      1. I’ve been thinking about it too. And I think part of my challenge with the Small Group Movement is that it feels so fabricated and controlled so I think I’d prefer less intervention overall.

        But the GC could definately make a shift in focus. For example, as several ladies have pointed out, not everyone has a functioning family/marriage/circle of friends. So consciously focusing in on encouraging and supporting family stability, for example.

  3. I find it interesting that you are questioning small groups in a space dedicated to being New Christian women, when the small group “movement” has been so specifically brought into being – by New Christian women. It seems to me that the small groups are the most feminine function the General Church has embraced, and I am intrigued that you feel they are “artificial.” Do you feel that it is the General Church’s place to behave in specifically masculine or feminine ways as a functional collective?

    1. The modern Small Group Movement was not created by New Christian women- though I agree that many of its strongest champions within the GC are women. It began in the Methodist churches in the 1920s. Some people like to link the movement all the way back to the Lord’s “where 2 or 3…” But the movement as we recognize it today, it’s format and all its many rules, began then(the part I find controlling and artificial). And it was created by men. Even in the GC, around the world much of the implementation is performed by the Clergy (men). But I agree that women are very involved.

      And I see much good that has come out of small groups but I now believe they will never be “the future of Christianity”. They are an option, not THE option, for spiritual support and church structure.

  4. Thanks to Eden for introducing an interesting and valid idea; namely that of small groups being an alternative to the extended family unit. I found however, that the comments posted by others were a little more moderate and inclusive. I hope I can add my own thoughts in a charitable manner – emotionally, this is potentially a red button issue for me!
    I like the idea Eden puts forward of the healthy, church-based family unit extending a hand to support newcomers or those not so favorably endowed. This approach is something that needs to come from families looking outward in just the way Jenn suggested – living by example. It comes from an attitude of love towards the neighbor and sharing our incredible spiritual wealth with others. I find it difficult to see how Outreach or Central Office might encourage us to do this, as an alternative to the small group journey programs / Sunroom opportunities. This attitude is more a product of inclusiveness and being open to the validity of the ideas and experiences of others – real spiritual growth in action. In my personal experience with people from 4 or 5 different New Church communities, I have not had the courtesy of one family invitation in 12 years – much as I have yearned for one. Ministers yes, but families no.
    When it comes to conservative societies, it is has been my experience that the journey programs have been and continue to be, highly effective vehicles for opening up the ‘frozen chosen’ to positive, dynamic change. Furthermore, the core family unit can in fact be highly dysfunctional in many cases, particularly where emotional intelligence and spiritual guidance are lacking. An extended family community can also tend towards care for its own and exclusion of others – a clique in other words. Our New Church societies are not immune to any of these problems.
    I don’t feel that small groups are the place for airing problems or listening to hard words of advice. In my experience, they are places for caring support where people get an opportunity to be heard and to connect with like-minded people. I have not found that my small group participation replaces my interaction with intimates such as my husband and close friends. Neither do the participants adopt the attitude of ‘everyone’s a priest’. It does however, allow for more participation than the traditional study group where only the minister holds forth on a subject. I imagine that most ministers welcome the opening up of discussion around the application of doctrine to life, with opportunities to correct and instruct as required.
    I am currently in the process of setting up a small group (or two) in the SW of England, drawing on both General Church and Conference out of necessity for numbers. I hope we will form new bonds around the current journey campaign, but people may prefer a different approach for getting to know each other. We will see. My motivation is quite simply loneliness and hunger for New Church company. I am the only practicing Swedenborgian and person of faith in both my primary family in South Africa, and the family I’ve married to in the UK. I have no access to a New Church community in the area and no longer feel in any way comfortable in Protestant churches. With my passion for the Writings, I now find it difficult to initiate new friendships not rooted in my faith. I live in secular or Anglican surroundings where our belief system is seen as radical or misguided – how do I express my love under such circumstances other than initiating contact with strangers in my faith; again and again and again?
    I hope I have not been too strong in giving voice to my personal predicament and experiences in relation to this valid topic. It has been useful for me to consider these different opinions whilst in the process of creating a small group myself.

    1. Karin, that’s fantastic that you are taking the initiative to start some new groups–I especially like that you are working across denomination!

      Yes, both isolation or the lack of a healthy family unit are very good reasons to create Small Groups: “Few people join a movement for the ideas alone; we are social creature, so we tend to desire friendship and community as well. Small Groups can provide this for individuals who are not a part of an established church family.”

      My original draft had a great deal more supporting small groups in the second part but i cut it to try and shorten the article. Just left the ideas that were new in, but I think now I should have left them to help calm some pro-small group readers down.

      Do keep us posted on your progress!

    2. I love your comments, Karin, and feel like I usually need to read them through a couple times before I respond – so many good thoughts!

      Two things that occur to me reading this just now:
      I wonder if maybe these are actually just fully two separate approaches rather than one that can take another’s place. That small groups are amazing when done well and do so much to provide support and connection. But when they don’t work for someone, maybe an approach that person could take would be to try as a family unit inviting a person or one or two people over specifically for a religious or at least meaningful conversation. But that they are both things that need to exist side by side for different people.

      Which lead to my second thought which is that I wonder if statistically small groups work better for people who are more extroverted? That as a more introverted person historically I have participated in small groups out of a sense of obligation, and it is those groups that have felt more forced and artificial. By contrast the ones I have participated in and really been fed by have been ones that weren’t organised by my church leaders but separately, and much smaller group of people I was already friends with and run in a fashion that suited those who were a part of it very specifically. But those suited my introversion. And based on typical things introverts do and don’t like, a setting with my family as the backdrop for interacting organically with one or two people I don’t know very well is much less stressful and more satisfying than the larger, less personal sometimes anxiety producing small groups of strangers I have participated in.

  5. I disagree that family has to be the starting point for spiritual work.

    Our spiritual work is between us and the Lord only. Some people can do reflection through private prayer and have it be effective. Some people do well by having to organize their thoughts such that they can be communicated to another person. It leads to deeper reflection, having to articulate experiences.

    Why not just articulate experiences to family? We all do that already, to whatever family we have available (I should add, *if* we have it available). But with some situations, we might not gain clarity from sharing with family alone. With someone new, we have to start the story at the beginning, rather than assuming the listener knows all the background information, which leads to us seeing the issue in its larger context. It might be difficult to share financial struggles with family, if there is financial disparity amongst the family, which could lead to envy/guilt/etc. (Same with issues of health/illness.) We have to maintain a long-term relationship with our family, and keep that in mind when we talk with them. For example, I know a woman who’s husband was struggling with pornography, and therefore she was struggling in the relationship as well, and she didn’t want to tell her family or friends, because she was hopeful that he would stop, and she didn’t want to taint her family’s opinion of him. Family members have their own baggage around certain issues. A woman might water down what she says to her husband, if she knows he had a tendency to get irrationally angry around a particular issue.

    There’s a large number of reasons why it isn’t functional to be brutally honest with our family members. But, to process our own thoughts and reflect well, that honesty is necessary.

    I’m a working mom. A number of my friends are also my co-workers. It also doesn’t support long-term professional relationships to be completely honest with them.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking piece!

    1. Hi Caira.

      Thanks for joining the discussion!

      I don’t think family HAS to be the starting point for spiritual work, either. But I do believe a HEALTHY family or circle of close friends is the best place for spiritual support (I agree spiritual work is between an individual and the Lord).

      But not everyone has such a space, which is why I support Small Groups:

      “Few people join a movement for the ideas alone; we are social creature, so we tend to desire friendship and community as well. Small Groups can provide this for individuals who are not a part of an established church family.”

  6. I am really enjoying the discussion that this article has created. I am not a fan of small groups per se and although I have enjoyed the journey group topics, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I didn’t like them much and reading your article really brought it home to me. I don’t enjoy talking about my “stuff” to people I don’t really have a connection with – the trust is not there. Similarly, I don’t want to hear all their “stuff” either, because again the connection isn’t there and to be honest, I am not in a place to hear/receive their stuff.

    What has made small groups more connected and relevant for me personally, are those where we are ‘like-minded’ people at a similar place in life. We agreed from the beginning what our purpose and objectives would be with the group. We then agreed on what we wanted to read and have gone from there for the past few years. We were a small group of 3 people looking for support for one another emotionally/ physically as well as some spiritual input (since we all have small children and often don’t get to hear the sermon) and it has been a wonderful way to connect. This worked well and became my ‘family’.

    I agree that just sharing with my husband and immediate family is difficult at times, but for me to feel able to share I need to trust and feel ‘held’ in that space. This is what I found with our very small group. We love and respect each other for ourselves and all our imperfections and were there for one another and our families.

    I agree that some of the small groups I have been involved in in the past have felt forced and uncomfortable and I just don’t want to get involved in those kinds of groups again at this point in my life.

    I am also a working mother of 3 children and need emotional/spiritual support – I am enjoying that through a very small group of 2 – we are best friends and understand one another. We support each other and our families and that is what we need at this point. I do not have the energy right now for extending beyond my comfort zone in this area.

    I agree that small groups work for some and not for others. That is life. But making it “the” policy going forward is not ideal. There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach to outreach and individual societies also have to decide what works and what doesn’t. Where there are no groups or no societies we have to make our own way forward as Karin pointed out above. Our small group came about because of a need of 3 friends in a society who needed some spiritual input – the journey programme was integrated when they arose – but the group was created for a purpose. These can work well. Organised weekly groups allow for individual spiritual growth and some people feel happier sharing more than others – it depends on what you need from the group as an individual. These don’t work for me, but do for others.

    Anyway, I can feel myself waffling. Thanks for a great discussion point.

    1. I totally agree with Anne that the best small groups I’ve been in have been ones where we share something in common beyond just “being in the same church.” I know friends in larger denominations/congregations where small groups tend to be organized more around life stages and that seems to work quite well. There are teen groups, college groups, young-marrieds, new moms, married men, parents of teens, divorce recovery, etc. type groups, which helps bring together groups of people who may share similar concerns both naturally and spiritually. This can be harder to achieve in a small society though.

  7. This article has left me feeling sorry–sorry that not everyone here has been blessed with the same enriching, supportive, and deeply authentic experiences in small groups that I have. Sorry that something as potentially simple as grabbing a cup of coffee with a few friends and hearing and encouraging each other in the Word can feel forced or contrived to some. Sorry that one size doesn’t fit all–and we know it doesn’t. I am NOT sorry that, for many years now, I have had the privilege of being part of a small group in which women are brave and vulnerable enough to teach and learn in a way that fosters growth. I am NOT sorry that sometimes when we invite someone new into the group, it’s not a right fit. I am not even sorry that some of the members of my group choose not to attend my local church (or any church). As one person (or 8 people) it feels good to be a part of something that helps keep faith/peace/hope/love/charity alive in our hearts and homes.

    1. Hello Burgandy. Welcome to the discussion.

      I’m happy you have a spiritual support system that works for you!

      And i certainly find nothing artificial about a collection of friends (and new ones they’ve invited!) getting together over coffee (or tea!) to talk about the Word–that would very much be exactly what I was encouraging in the article. It is the regulations, controls and Small Group Format that gets imposed over these that contribute to it feeling concocted to me such as “no unsolicited advice,” or that nothing spoken in the group is allowed to leave the room etc.. Those elements. A lot of the stuff in the binders. If the GC simply encouraged me to grab a group of friends, invite some new ones and talk about the sermon or read the Bible together however works for us, I would find nothing forced about it. But frankly it would not be a Small Group Movement small group (really need terminology clarity).

      Hope that clarifies a little. We could always get together (over coffee!) to chat more?

  8. I wrote a long comment on my little phone but did not retread it. Did you get it? A little out of my comfort zone. Meant to be thought provoking and not critical…

    1. Hello Gillian. I cant find any other comments from you in the comment queue–did you send it a while ago or just recently? I’ll look to see if it got flagged as spam but I suspect your initial comment didn’t fully post. Could you send it again?

      So sorry for the technical glitch.

      ~Eden

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