Last Friday a fascinating story was posted at UM Portal, “Going virtual: Building community through online small groups.” The article addresses many different aspects of the church’s witness through the internet. These issues, it seems to me, need more critical and careful discussion. I commend this article to you for its potential to stimulate a deeper conversation among United Methodists about what faithful ministry online looks like.

As I reread the article, I found myself a bit frustrated by how slippery of a term “small group” is. Unfortunately, the term is almost meaningless. When someone talks about a small group ministry the only thing that you can be relatively certain of is that it is a group that meets periodically that is relatively small. So, the agreed upon definition of a small group seems to be that it is a group that is small. Typically, the term “small groups” in a Christian context signifies two different types of groups: informational groups and transformational groups.

Informational groups focus on knowledge and the key question is: What do I need to know? They are curriculum driven (what book are we going to study?) and are led by an instructor. As a result, they are largely passive. The posture of those involved in informational groups is typically listening and responding to specific questions. Bible Studies are an example of this category.

Transformational groups focus on living faithfully and the key question is: How am I living? They are experience driven (how did you see God at work in your life over the past week?) and led by an exemplar (or spiritual director or mentor). As a result, they are more active than informational groups. The posture of those involved in transformational groups is typically thinking about life and the ways that we are being conformed to the image of God and the ways in which we are resisting God’s sanctifying grace. Accountability groups are an example of this category.

Often, a particular group does not fit entirely into either of these categories. A group may be primarily informational, but strives to connect the information to the person’s life. (In fact, I think most informational groups would say they want this to happen. I’m just not sure how effectively they accomplish this goal.) On the other hand, transformational groups may primarily focus on the lives of the participants, but still work in an informational component (such as a period of discussion of a passage from the Bible).

Small groups are in vogue in the 21st century United Methodist Church. But the desire of some churches to grow small group ministries has led to another category that is largely separated from the first two: affinity groups. For example, one church recently had a campaign for starting new small groups and one of the results was the organization of a “Red Hat Society” small group. To be sure, such a group meets the literal definition of a small group, it is a group and it is small. But does it represent part of the Christian ministry of the Church? I must admit, I don’t know much about Red Hat Societies. But, it is not immediately clear to me how such a group would help people learn or become more like Jesus Christ. Groups that are organized only in order to share similar interests seem to endorse a definition of small groups that is so broad it is meaningless, at least as a part of a conversation about the ministry of the Church of Jesus Christ.

The UMC’s Call to Action report has argued that the number of small groups is one of four key drivers to vitality. (You can download the research findings here.) On the one hand, it makes sense to me that the number of small groups would be a likely predictor of congregational vitality. On the other hand, it seems like more needs to be said about what kind of small groups lead to vitality. Do all groups that are small in the church actually lead to vitality? It seems to me that there is a distinction between a vitality that is related to the presence of people and a vitality that is related to people who are present and becoming more and more like Christ! In my view, an appropriate understanding of congregational vitality must be given appropriately Christian weight in defining what congregational vitality looks like. Put differently, is there a difference between a vital social organization and a vital Christian congregation? A congregation could very well be a vital social organization and not a vital congregation. It matters who is the focus of worship and how people are being formed.

So what is a small group? Perhaps a more helpful question is, what should be the definition of a small group? What do you think?