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Is small still beautiful?

19 October 2011

Have small groups had their day, or are they as central to personal and corporate spiritual growth as ever? Jo Swinney looks at some of the shapes small groups are taking

SMALL groups, cell groups, house groups, care groups, life groups, kinship groups — however they are branded, they are a feature of many of today’s larger churches.

Research carried out by the Insti­tute for Natural Church Develop­ment found that the existence of “Holistic Small Groups” is one of the eight qualities that must be pre­s­ent for a church to thrive numer­ically, relationally, and spiritually. The late John Stott wrote: “I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that small groups, Christian family or fellowship groups, are indispensable for our growth into spiritual maturity.”

In spite of such arguments, for many people the very thought of house-group membership is an­a­thema. This may arise from a discomfort with intimacy, but it could equally be a response to a model that has stagnated and needs a rethink — or at least an injection of creativity. It could be that we have perpetuated a myth that house groups are the only place in which community and belonging can be found in a church context.

Humans are profoundly relational — we are wired for connection. But the number of significant relation­ships we are able to maintain is finite. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar has argued that there is a correlation between brain size and group size among primates. His equation suggests that Homo sapiens is capable of social relationships with a maximum of 150 people (we are not talking Facebook-style friends here, but something a little deeper). Most of us have what psy­chologists call a sympathy group — of between ten and 15 people — whose death would affect us severely. Even Jesus capped his inner circle at 12.

The Early Church generally met in clusters of 30 or less, simply because, until the third century, they did not have purpose-built venues, and were constrained by the size of their homes. Today, there are many churches through whose doors thousands come each week, in giant structures designed to accom­modate a multitude.

BIG churches can be exciting, inspiring, and effective, but they can also be impersonal, and it would be easy for a person to slip in and out, remaining anony­mous and disconnected. One of the early visionaries behind the house-church movement, Gerald Coates, has a hunch that “most people want to be a part of some­thing big — a big narrative — but want to be valued by a few people, and not get lost in the crowd.”

Before the 17th century, Bible study among the laity was almost unknown, owing to low levels of literacy, a lack of access to the scriptures in the mother tongue, and a fear of sectarianism and the development of unorthodox biblical interpretations.

When a house-church ideal was revived in the 17th century by the Pietists and Dissenters, it was in rebellion against controlling state churches. John Wesley was arguably the first to encourage people to think of membership of a small group as supplementary to church attendance, but, even then, Methodists risked persecution for this practice.

As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews understood, drawing near to God, holding on to hope, and doing good deeds, are best done with the encouragement and company of fellow believers. And, because our churches tend to exceed the number of people with whom we can meaningfully relate, small groups are an obvious way to facilitate the kinds of relationships that will nurture our faith. But small groups need not be identical.

MANY small groups follow an unofficial but still rigid set of traditions — from the obligatory tea and biscuits to predictable prayer requests for Auntie Helen’s health and Michael’s exams. If this works for the group, that’s fair play. But Gill Nobes, a member of a liberal Catholic church, belongs to a group that likes a bit of variety.

“We explore faith through a mixture of Bible study and looking at moral issues, music, and contemporary literature,” she said. “Our meetings are very social, sometimes with themed food.” although the group mixes the content, their goal is the same as that of the more conventional groups.

“The main purpose of the group is to provide a venue for people to come together to explore and develop their faith; to ask questions, express doubts, and to explore these together,” Ms Nobes said. “It has also provided a venue to develop friendships, talk about any troubling issues, and to provide mutual support.”

Who could argue with the benefits that result from being part of a group such as this? Nevertheless, in some churches, small groups simply do not catch on. The Revd Christopher Ramsay has been Vicar of St George’s, Southall, for the past ten years. Neither he, nor the previous incumbent, managed to get more than a couple of groups meeting regularly.

Although he has not given up on his belief in the value of such groups, he acknowledges that the make-up of his particular parish may mean that a new strategy is needed.

“Eighty-five per cent of our congregation are from an ethnic minority — largely Asian and Afro-Caribbean. Family networks are highly valued within these com­mun­ities, and the concept of a contrived group-setting in which to form relationships doesn’t make sense.”

In contexts such as St George’s, the small-group principle needs some adaptation. Which is precisely what the church has done — there are a variety of options on offer. A monthly prayer meeting is enthusiastically attended, and is followed by a communal meal. A committed group is progressing through a two-year theology course, and occasionally forms groups for ten-week book studies.

ELSEWHERE, churches form groups around a purpose other than Bible study and fellow­ship, and, arguably, have a parti­cularly strong bond because of their broader focus. Helen Paterson is a member of the congreation at St Barnabas’s, Cambridge, and her group meets one week for Bible study and the next for a practical project.

She described how this came about: “Being useful in our com­munity felt like a good thing to do. The church [nearest] to where we often met as a home group was small, and in a fairly deprived locality; so therefore lacking in resources and skills. We did some painting for them, and sorted out some desks in their office.

“We had also painted a flat, on behalf of the Salvation Army, for a family to be newly housed in. The impetus to do it on a more regular basis came partly out of those experiences.

“It has been good to care for the poor in a practical way. It is some­thing that is integral to our faith, but if you live in a middle-class world, you sometimes don’t see the oppor­tun­ities. It has taken a lot of us out of our comfort zones — knocking on doors and relating to random people isn’t something all of us find easy, but that’s not a bad thing.

“I think it’s fair to say that having something we ‘do’ together has drawn us together as a group. For some members of the group, talking while painting, or cleaning, or gardening, comes more easily than sitting around in someone’s living room.”

IN 2003, the Anglican diocese of Oxford launched a fresh expression of Church. “Home” describes itself as a “progressive, all-age, Christian community of spiritual seekers sharing spiritual practices”. The whole group meets weekly, and fortnightly there is what they call a “Huddle-in”.

A regular member of the Huddle group, Jim Barker, said that mem­ber­ship is open to anyone from the church, but that there is no expecta­tion of commitment. The content of an evening varies — sometimes they will explore a theme or an issue, and sometimes they work through some scripture.

The aim is to move beyond the superficial in their relationship with each other and with God, and, although they sometimes struggle to maintain momentum, the group is a place in which change and growth happen.

Mr Barker is also a part of what he describes as a “closed group” — five men who have made a commit­ment to meet together and who strive to share their deepest concerns and fears with each other.

“In the closed group, the levels of disclosure are much greater, which increases the risk,” he said. “And sometimes it can be difficult for us to share with each other what’s really going on. But when we do, it’s groundbreaking.”

Mr Barker’s two groups have different functions in his life, and being a part of both of them means that he does not ask too much of either one.

CURRENTLY, the most successful small church-based group operation is the Alpha course, run by more than 7000 churches in the UK alone. Its aim is unapologetically evangelistic, although people are encouraged to express any opinion or question they have about Christianity with no fear of judgement.

Mark Vogler felt that the Alpha group he joined worked particularly well. “I have to say that I’ve been very lucky to be in a great small group where everybody has got on well, and the time we have spent together has been really enjoyable.

“It was challenging at first to share my thoughts or opinions with people I didn’t know very well, but I came to consider them friends, and looked forward to catching up with them every week. They helped me realise that I am not alone in the questions I am asking about my faith.”

Once the course finished, Mr Vogler became a committed member of a church, but, having just had his first child, he no longer feels that he has the space in his life to attend a small group in the long term. He is not alone. People who need to budget their time find that the specified ten weeks of Alpha work for them, but they cannot commit further. This is a problem for many group initiatives.

ANOTHER reason why small groups can flounder is the mix of people. There is something admirable about accepting the fact that the body of Christ is an oddball family in which members love one another even if they would never have chosen to be friends. But, if groups have some additional common ground, it can make for more enjoyable, and perhaps more fruitful, times together.

St Saviour’s, Guildford, has a group made up solely of couples with young children; at St Peter’s, Manchester, there is a students’ house group; and at St Aldate’s, Oxford, “Wednesday Women” has childcare provision.

More exotically, snowboarders in Val d’Isère are working through an online Bible Society resource, “Lyfe” (www.lyfe.org.uk), which is designed to introduce ways of integrating spiritual practices into daily life — even if theirs is little less humdrum than for most of us.

THE current orthodoxy — particularly among Evangel­ical churches — is that the best way for anyone joining a new church to become part of the life of the church is by joining a house group. This largely goes un­challenged.

But Joseph R. Myers, of FrontPorch, a consulting firm that helps churches and other organisa­tions to develop healthy commun­ities, questions the assumption. “Small groups do not accomplish the promise of fulfilling all facets of a person’s search for community,” he said. “Small groups deliver only on one or two specific kinds of connection.”

While he makes clear that he is not against small groups per se, he is very much against small groups “being used and marketed as the ‘end-all’ solution for answering the individual’s search to belong”.

We set ourselves up for failure if we expect our small groups to deliver intimate relationships, support, spiritual nurture, and fulfilment of all our social and personal needs. There are plenty of contexts within church life that are equally important, but, somehow, the small group has been promoted above all of them.

It may be that there are many other activities which can make a contribution to the spiritual and relational health of a church. The church picnic; the volunteer teams that work on worship; children’s work; church maintenance; visiting people who are housebound or in hospital; online forums; and groups on social-media sites. The list is almost endless. Community and spiritual growth cannot be forced, and certainly will not be contained within a designated shape.

Small groups are doubtless here to stay, and, for many churchgoers, they are a midweek beacon of friendship and spiritual encourage­ment. But for those who have opted out of small-group membership, as they say on the BBC, other products are also available.

Jo Swinney is a writer and speaker, and author of God Hunting: A diary of spiritual discovery (Scripture Union, £6.99 (CT Bookshop £6.30); 978-1-844-27678-3.


How to start a small group

1 People
A group needs members, otherwise it will be just you, sitting there by yourself. They do not need to have much in common, but a shared willingness to get to know God and each other better is the bedrock.

2 The number game
The optimum number of people for a small group is between six and 12.

3 Location, location, location
A comfortable, warm, informal setting establishes an inviting tone, and helps people to feel at home.

2 The number game
The optimum number of people for a small group is between six and 12.

3 Location, location, location
A comfortable, warm, informal setting establishes an inviting tone, and helps people to feel at home.

4 Soul food
Food is always a good idea. A small group meeting is vastly improved by the presence of cake.

5 Expectations
Begin by defining the purpose of your group. Prepare everyone to have their expectations disappointed — then, hopefully, they will be pleasantly surprised at how things unfold.

6 Follow the leader
The part played by the small group leader varies according to the person or people in charge, but it usually involves a degree of pastoral care, a bit of admin., and keeping an eye on group dynamics.

7 There’s always one
You can expect to have at least one awkward person in the group. If you don’t know who it is, it’s probably you. The best way to handle awkward people is to love them.

8 Confidentiality
If you want any kind of intimacy to develop, then it is wise to agree up front that what is said between you will remain between you.

9 Content with the content
There are many excellent group resources out there. There is no reason for you to be bored or aimless. Start by asking members what is on their mind.

10 Part of the whole
If it is important, start your small group with the knowledge and blessing of your church leadership.

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