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Do Small Groups Work? Biblical engagement and transformation, by Anna Creedon

24 September 2021

Philip Welsh considers what really happens in Bible-study meetings

EVERYONE agrees that Bible-study groups are a good thing; but what are they good for? Anna Creedon wants to establish, on the basis of empirical observation, just how “transformative” such small groups are. “What impact does reading the Bible in a small group have on people?”

The book is essentially her doctoral thesis, published under SCM’s Research imprint. The first part lays out the context of her work, largely summarising the work of others. Her concern is not with the ideal reader, but with the less explored world of “congregational hermeneutics”: the experience of ordinary readers who encounter the Bible as part of their life of faith.

She investigates the meaning of transformation through several influential writers, as something that we commonly understand more individualistically than the Bible does; and reviews research into Bible-study groups, admitting evidence that most groups exist principally for mutual support.

For her own project, Creedon approached 13 churches, and found three groups that were happy to take part. With such a small sample, she goes for depth rather than breadth, though she makes the point that her groups contained a wider variety of Church of England affiliation than other studies.

Drawing themes from her data, she examines the part played by those seen as the “expert” in helping or hindering transformation, and of enabling groups to address challenges positively (and notes one researcher’s conclusion that “small groups homogenize ideas and censor expression”); but finds insufficient evidence of whether the study materials that they used made a difference to this.

The outcome of her scrupulous research is that “the main purpose of being in the small group appears to be relational rather than transformational,” though she adds — a little defensively — “it is important to note that an emphasis on relationships need not be in any way detrimental to or prohibitive of transformation.”

She recommends, unsurprisingly, that the need to choose group leaders carefully needs backing up by support and training; and that small groups need to have a clearly agreed purpose.

Creedon’s work evidences a significant gap between rhetoric and reality in the Church’s expectations for Bible-study groups, and the implications of this conversation between academy and parish pump could usefully be taken forward in a more affordable format.

Meanwhile, it is good to be reminded of Laurie Green’s Let’s Do Theology, to which Creedon makes extensive reference, with its insistence that leaders must “never allow the group or its members to give the theological task away to others”.

There is incidental enjoyment to be had from the verbatim discussion extracts, as these reflect the chaos of our everyday use of words, evoking at times the spirit of Joyce’s Molly Bloom:

“I think, I can’t, I’m sorry, I can’t help but say in a Christian sense I think the Holy Spirit is, is I do think, I believe that about the Holy Spirit, I think the Holy Spirit moves in people and transform, I think other things, well, oh well, I was going to say other things might be but I don’t know I think all positive transformation is actually somehow founded in the Holy Spirit, yes.”

The speaker was a clergyman.

The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.


Do Small Groups Work? Biblical engagement and transformation
Anna Creedon
SCM Press £65
Church Times Bookshop £52

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