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