In my previous post I discussed the term “small group” and how difficult it is to define and pin down what the term actually signifies. Is a small group a curriculum driven study? Is it a hard-core accountability group? Is it an affinity group with no obvious component geared toward Christian formation? In surveying the ways that the term is deployed, the answer would appear to be “yes.”
Figuring out what a small group is becomes even more difficult when we recognize that the boundaries between informational, transformational, and affinity groups are often blurred so that one group contains many aspects of each of these categories of small groups.
At the end of my last post, I suggested that it might be more helpful to skip the question “What is a small group?” and ask instead, “What should the definition of a small group be?” In this post, I am going to propose a definition for how the United Methodist Church should define small groups in the context of twenty-first century American Christianity.
Before offering my definition of how small groups ought to be understood, I want to clarify several assumptions that inform my defintion.
First, the church and people have limited time and resources. Church leaders need to be clear about what is most important for people to do in order to reliably expect to grow in their faith. When it comes to small groups, then, I think the church ought to decide which type of small group will be most helpful for the UMC’s stated mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” and clearly prioritize those types of groups over others.
Second, United Methodist leaders cannot take biblical literacy for granted amongst its membership.
Third, despite there often being room for significant growth in knowledge of the Bible and its contents, a deeper problem for United Methodism than biblical illiteracy is that most United Methodists know more than they put into practice. For example, I am confident that most committed United Methodists could tell you that reading the Bible and praying are important Christian practices. I doubt most United Methodists do both of these things on a daily basis. (I hope I am wrong.)
Fourth, every Christian ought to be able to talk about their faith in light of the every day events of their lives. However, I do not think that every Christian is actually comfortable doing this. One of the reasons many Christians are not comfortable talking about how they are growing as followers of Jesus Christ is because you learn how to talk about your faith by talking about your faith, and this does not happen in focused ways in most small groups. However, I believe it is possible for every Christian to recognize God’s action in their lives and to give voice to experience of God’s presence or a lack of a sense of God’s presence.
Fifth, I assume that Jesus cares more about whether we are becoming the kind of people he wants us to be than whether we are becoming more knowledgeable. I do not think that these two things are mutually exclusive. However, if we have to pick between information or transformation, I think we should have a strong bias in favor of transformation.
Sixth, when the UMC talks about small groups, we should be able to take for granted that any small group would have a strong Christian emphasis. In other words, Christian small groups are not social clubs or activity groups that do not have any focus that is distinctly and easily recognizable as Christian.
I am sure that there are many more ways I could list criteria for how we should define what a small group is. What do you think I missed?
Based on the previous factors, I would say that the ideal understanding of a small group in a Christian context should be:
Small group – a group of people who gather together on a regular basis with the goal of becoming more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, to attend to the ways that God is at work in their lives and the extent to which they are cooperating with God’s grace, and to watch over one another in love and mutually challenge, support, and encourage one another in the pursuit of deeply committed Christian discipleship.
This is very much a working definition that I pulled together for the purpose of this post. However, I think it has the advantage of being general enough to provide for flexibility and adaptability to various contexts and the needs of various groups of people. On the other hand, it is clearly and correctly weighted toward the transformational approach to small groups as opposed to informational groups or affinity groups. There are a variety of ways a group could be organized in order to meet this definition. And yet, any group that is not primarily focused on attentiveness to growth in discipleship would not count as a small group by this definition.
Finally, I think this definition is a start for providing much needed clarity for knowing what we mean when we say “small group.” I also believe that such an understanding of small groups compliments and strengthens United Methodism’s own understanding of its mission, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
This post is admittedly a thought experiment, and certainly not an attempt to try to say the last word about how we should understand small groups. What would you change or add to what I have said?
John Meunier said:
Would your definition apply to a group with a clear leader or guide – a more mature disciple who structures or leads the meetings of the group?
The accent on “mutual” makes me think of a group that is self-organized and directed. That may just be my reaction.
I think your fourth assumption really captures an important aspect of the small group experience. Processing experience through the lens of faith and sharing it within the group context has been the most transforming aspect of my small group experience.
Your definition nails it. I would like to see us incorporate this definition at Munger Place Church.
Kevin Watson said:
John – Great question. My initial response is that I hope that it would. If I were starting a small group ministry from scratch, I would want to identify mature Christians to lead the groups as facilitators and mentors, though not as the traditional Sunday School teacher who is the “expert.” At the same time, I think there is a place for small groups that are more mutual and lack a clear leader. A true accountability group, for instance, would meet the above definition but not need a spiritual director in the same sense.
Nick – Thank you for chiming in, and thanks be to God for the ways that God has used Munger’s “Kitchen Groups” in your life!
Very good. Thank you
Is it an affinity group with no obvious component geared toward Christian formation? In surveying the ways that the term is deployed, the answer would appear to be “yes.”
I like this challenge a lot and am printing it out Kevin as I want to come back to the question again and again.
For me a small group can be anything – but it should not be. If we are talking about Wesleyan Small groups meeting together for the express purpose of growing as disciples (and lets face it why on earth would we meet otherwise!) then to answer John M above I think mutual does mean self-organised and directed (though a mature Christian in the group might offer more insight than a new believer – who would ask more fabulous questions that help us grow)
in my limited understanding of Wesley this is indeed what classes and bands were all about – growing as disciples by working together with the means of grace and expecting the others to help you grow (and vice versa)
What I would like to explore more is the place of spiritual direction in such groups (ie. the group dynamics) – because mutual is important. Am I willing to let others (of all shapes and sizes) shape me as a Christian. Am I willing to commit to meet regularly to allow this to happen? And how does my faith get to express itself (as you noted we fail to talk about our personal faith journey with non Christians because we don’t talk about it with Christians)
looking forward to more dialogue
Steve Rankin said:
I think the key to small groups in a Wesleyan framework is Christian perfection. We join small groups of various sorts in order to get and stay on the path to maturity (perfection).
Marty Cauley said:
We use this definition so it can be easily remembered by our people:
A Connection Group is where followers of Jesus hold each other up to live at a higher level; hold each other together when our lives fall apart; and hold each other accountable to be the people God has called them to be.
Nice piece !
Andrew Conard said:
Kevin – Excellent definition and assumptions. Thank you for sharing!
I know where the idea of small groups came from but how are we going to apply this? Too many of the churches that I serve as a lay speaker would themselves be considered a small group. But the context in which it is phrased say that we have church with a large membership and we are going to break up into small groups. Somehow, I don’t see the small church as doing that.
What do we do with the small churches? Make them combine with other small churches so that we can get a big church from which to draw small groups?
Kevin Watson said:
Karen – Thanks for your kind words.
Lorna – Thanks for your comments. You raise several great questions. I particularly appreciate your focus on the importance of allowing others to shape our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.
Steve – Thank you for adding Christian perfection to the discussion. I should have made that explicit in my post. A very helpful addition.
Marty – Thanks for sharing your church’s definition.
DrTony – You raise an important question. More important than the idea of breaking a church of any size up into groups is creating space in every Christian’s life to take inventory of their relationship with God and talk with other Christians about their pursuit of growth in holiness.
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What would modern day field preaching look like? Would it still work to form bands and societies?
see-through faith said:
Anonymous, Wesley wanted people to flee the wrath to come right? … and he knew /discovered that the best way to work out our salvation was in small groups (bands and societies) … I’m not sure what modern day field preaching would look like, but I remain convinced that we continue to work out our salvation by allowing ourselves to be held accountable to live holy – sanctified – lives by a close community of Christian friends and mentors (whatever we call that group is irrelevent) That call is not only to works of piety but also works of mercy … just as in Wesley’s day.
Sometimes I think people like Bono and the call to make poverty history was field preaching … at least in part 🙂 you?
See-through faith, I guess I should define what I mean by “field preaching.” Introducing people to faith and inviting them to join that small group you so rightly endorsed. (I was unnamed because I had no idea how to log in.)
see-through faith said:
thanks for the clarification darrell.