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In (critical) praise of the small group

09 January 2015

Graham James reflects on an influential expression of faith

Disciples Together: Discipleship, formation and small groups
Roger L. Walton
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £16.99 (Use code CT251 )

IN THE mid-1960s, I remember, my parents helped to form small groups as part of the People Next Door initiative of the British Council of Churches. They were then fairly new Anglicans. They had been nurtured originally in Cornish Methodism, and their chapel still had class meetings in their youth.

They valued these small groups, which enabled the growth in spiritual holiness which lay at the heart of the Methodist movement. They received their Christian education from their class meetings and, owing to an excellent class leader, my father's intellectual horizons were also broadened well beyond anything that his school ever offered him. Without those small Methodist groups in west Cornwall eighty years ago, I doubt I would be writing this review.

Roger Walton, the author of this excellent book on discipleship and small groups, is the Chair of the West Yorkshire Methodist District. Methodist class meetings merit only an occasional mention, but Walton's conviction, like that of John Wesley, is that "the journey of discipleship is not intended to be made alone but in the company of others."

Walton illustrates how per- vasive the small-group experience has been over the past century of church life, and not simply in Europe. Base communities, Alpha, cell church, and a million people taking part in the 1986 ecumenical Lent groups studying "What on earth is the Church for?" all have their place here. (I had forgotten just how big that 1986 initiative was: 70,000 small groups took part.)

The first half of this book is about how disciples are formed. Walton identifies different approaches grounded in the four Gospels. Disciples respond to God's invitation to share in his often uncomfortable mission (Mark); they worship, and discover what it is to be drawn into God's creative work (Luke); and they are called to live in a community where they are friends of Jesus (John). Walton then describes Matthew ("the teacher's Gospel") as building on these core activities of mission, worship. and community as the foundation on which Christian education is built.

Such distinctions would be too neat in hands less skilled than Walton's. He is similarly both sympathetic and forensic about the value of small groups, which, he believes, have a key part to play in helping Christians understand that they are a pilgrim people. Belonging to a small group should help us join any group.

But Walton is no romantic. He has done his research. The evidence suggests that small groups of Christians are not greatly drawn into justice issues or serving the poor. Nor are small groups usually focused on truth-claims or theological learn-ing. Even Bible knowledge doesn't necessarily grow much. Rather, small groups often help Christians to be more confident in faith, helping them come closer to God, more accepting of others, and more able to pray. Walton says that the "God of small groups is a God of comfort, support, love and security". This isn't to be sneered at in forming disciples.

This is no uncritical paean for small groups, but a deeply appreciative critique of their place in Christian formation. It is all the more effective for that.

The Rt Revd Graham James is the Bishop of Norwich.

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