Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What is the Future of Small Groups?

There has been some excellent discussion in blogs this week on small groups - based on an article in the Washington Times (?!) - "Group movement showing its age". Are they effective? At what? Are they out-dated and in need of replacement? What will supplant them?

Kathy Guy, the Director of Community at Granger found some good points in the article, and politely but strongly observed: "I do think that small groups as we've known them are dying and will continue to do so." That post is entitled "Sunday School, Small Groups, what's next?" Guy is a huge proponent of the necessity and power of relationships, but points out different venues may work better for different people.

Dave Treat of the Willow Creek Association had two excellent posts in response to this article from the Times, "Showing Our Age" and "Are Small Groups Dying?"  Dave and co-authors on the blog Bill Donahue and Greg Bowman have been proponents and practitioners of small groups for quite some time. He's convinced that small groups on the whole are alive and well, though program-heavy approaches or pushing a specific model may be counterproductive.

In the post "Are Small Groups Dying?" I chimed in with this response in the comments:

Whenever I find myself strongly agreeing with people on opposite sides of a discussion it's a sign that there is powerful truth to be found in the intersection while the disagreement is in the periphery reflects different assumptions.

These are the points I'm seeing as common ground...
- Life-change and spiritual growth are far more likely to occur in a smaller community setting than in isolation or in large venues. -> Relationships matter greatly.
- Honest discussion about improving the way we design ministries is fruitful. Strong language may be helpful in drawing attention to the need for change, but it can also leave us defensive and arguing over words.
- No system is perfect and even if it were, the change in society and culture would require us to change/modify what we do to be effective.
- Some in small groups (including me) love them and have found them to be truly transformational, and wonderful experiences. Yet many people today are simply not interested in a small group as currently practiced, whether they have never tried such a group or have had a bad experience with a poor group.
- Metrics as an indicator of success are useful only to the extent that they measure the desired outcome of your activity. When that is difficult (eg goal is heart change) we may need to measure some secondary reflection; the challenge is to not forget the primary goal.
- Relationships, community and discipleship can be found in other 'small' groups that are not 'small groups'.
- It's counterproductive to oversell intimacy as an expectation of joining a small group with people you don't know.

And here are what seemed to be the key differences.
- While no one argues Christ-centered relationships are central to everything we're talking about -
  Small group proponents would say their intentionality helps make sure Christ is at the center of interaction.
  Small group detractors prefer to let relationships form organically and without programming everything.
One starts with Christ and builds relationships around it, the other takes relationships where they are and seeks to help Christ become the center.

- Proponents believe small groups done well are the best way to build both relationships and disciples and so a church should make them a pivotal structure for the group, and strongly encourage coming to one
  Detractors view small groups as merely one of many ways to foster relationships, prefering not to impose an unnatural structure among people who don't find that comfortable.
One is centripetal in approach, the other centrifugal (Attractional/incarnational if you prefer)

- While both agree that discipleship is not about information, and that program-heavy structures often fail to produce Christ-following disciples,
 Proponents say discipleship is hard and so must be intentional, as Jesus was.
 Detractors say discipleship is hard and so must be organic, as Jesus was.
One focuses on *process* to produce disciples, the other expects disciples to *emerge*.

The differences seem to recap the differences between the modern mindset and the postmodern, don't they?
The world is made of people in both camps, so the body of Christ needs different kinds of churches and relationally based community and discipleship models.

It's my prayer and hope that the next stage of the 'small group' is intentional, organic, meets people where they are at, and leads them to a place closer to Christ, in a way that feels right for each person.


Terrace Crawford said...

Just ran across your blog. Thought I'd say hello!

--Terrace Crawford

Larry Baxter said...

Hi Terrace! Thanks for stopping by and saying hello :)