The Enlightenment caused many shifts in our thinking. Last week, I discussed three ways it changed how we think about involvement in a local church. This week I begin discussing a fourth implication of this excessive individualism–the loss of community in our local churches. I also discuss one way this problem is being addressed, and suggestions of how we can do better.
Large Churches, Megachurches, and Small Groups
The rise of large churches, including “megachurches,” has exacerbated our excessive individualism. It is increasingly common for churches within the Evangelical tradition to have 1,000 members or more, with some megachurches having over 10,000 members.
Larger churches also have large pastoral staffs who specialize in many aspects of ministry. (There is debate as to which is the cause of which–more members lead to more pastors and specialization, or more pastors and specialization leads to more members. It is probably a both/and.)
The problem is that a larger church, and especially a megachurch, almost by definition works against community. In fact, some would say the word “megachurch” itself is an oxymoron, for church is essentially communal, and true community is never “mega.” The larger the church is, the harder it is to get to know others. My wife and I attended such a church at one point for about two years. Though we attended as many events as possible to find community, we never developed relationships past the superficial “Hi, how are you?” level.
Large churches are aware of this problem. One of the main attempts to solve this problem a it through the “small group” strategy. Members of the congregation meet in smaller groups–usually between 8 and 16 people. The group usually meets in someone’s home and usually weekly. There is an emphasis on developing deeper relationships with this small group of other members of the church.
Furthermore, because believers need more engagement with the Word of God than just a weekly sermon at church, these small groups include time in the Word together. In essence, the design is to create many “mini-churches” within the larger church. These gatherings go by different names, such as small groups, home groups, cell groups, community groups, or care groups.
The Benefits of the Small Group Strategy
This small group strategy has been deemed successful, and so most Evangelical churches have now adopted it, even those not larger or “mega.” And much can be said for this strategy. It has proven to be a way to connect people who otherwise would feel lost in a local church community. It provides a smaller, more intimate group of fellow believers to journey with. As a result, it often allows members to foster deeper, more authentic, and more sustained relationships with several others in the church.
Yet this is not always the case. In my experience, there are two factors which limit small groups from being effective means of addressing the challenges of larger churches.
The “Neighborhood” Small Group Strategy
I have observed two approaches to forming small groups in local churches, one which seems to be much more effective than the other. In some cases, these small groups are formed on the basis of where one lives. In this case, individuals and couples join a community group that meets in their neighborhood.
Unfortunately, too often I’ve seen this result in artificial and unsustained relationships, rather than the deep, authentic relationships desired (and needed). As a result, eventually (after six months, a year, or two years) the individual or couple stops attending the community group. If another community group meets in the area, they may begin attending that one instead. Yet again, because the grouping is simply based on where one happens to live, the same problems surface and the cycle often repeats itself.
The “Affinity” Small Group Strategy
On the other hand, I’ve seen small groups flourish and members develop true community when the small groups are formed on the basis of common interests and needs. Rather than grouping individuals in light of geography, these groups bring together those who share something that already unites them.
A person has many such natural affinities with others. For instance, those at various stages of life have similar questions and experiences to discuss. I’ve seen small groups flourish when they bring together people just beginning their careers, those who are new parents, those who are recently empty-nesters, or those who have just retired. In each case, they are all asking “now what?” and benefit by being connected with others also seeking to navigate this new season of life.
Another area of affinity is vocation, regardless of age or stage. I’ve seen small groups flourish when composed of medical professionals, teachers, those working in business, and so on. These communities can tackle topics discussed nowhere else. For instance, a small group of medical professionals can discuss together the important issues in biomedical ethics, from a biblical perspective. Such discussions, in a safe environment of like-minded believers in the same profession, is much needed and invaluable. From these groups, deep and long-term relationships often develop.
A third area of affinity is general interests, such as reading theology texts together. I lead a small group of this type composed of women and men who are interested in Christian philosophy (and I have led similar groups when living in Tampa, Milwaukee, and Los Angeles). These groups always result in deep and sustained relationships being formed, as “one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).
Two features of this type of small group foster the desired depth of community. First, the groupings are voluntary. One is constrained to join the groups that happen to meet nearby. Members are able to choose the group which best meets their needs in a given season.
This leads to a second feature I’ve observed of flourishing small groups. People’s circumstances, interests, and needs change, so being a part of a small group should never be seen as “one-and-done”–i.e., you choose your group now,and will remain in it forevermore.
For instance, a couple may be in a reading group and may then have their first child. As a result, they may want to join a different group of new parents (as new parents. it goes without saying that they don’t have time to be in two groups!). They can now leave the reading group and join the new parents group (and still keep their friends from the reading group).
This model of small groups seems to capitalize on the value of this strategy to create community in large churches, while avoiding its potential pitfalls.
A Caveat Concerning the Affinity Small Group Model
I hasten to add that the small group, no matter how deep the affinity and how rich the community, must be understood as only a part of the larger body of believers. If not, a person will end up in relationships and conversations with only those most like themselves.
An important part of the body of Christ is being around those we are not like, in order to be challenged, shaped, and matured (again, iron sharpening iron). If one’s only engagement with other believers is in the context of a small group of others like us, this exposure to believers who differ from us in important ways (perhaps in age, interests, perspectives, ethnicity, professions, theology, etc.) is a valuable part of our maturity in Christ.
If your church has a small group of others you share an affinity with, please join it! If your church does not, consider starting one. This can be as simple as inviting a few others who share an affinity over for dinner and discussing what it might look like to meet together regularly for fellowship and the study of your shared topic of interest. God’s guidance and the creativity of those around the table can lead to exciting opportunities for true, deep, rich, and sustained community!
Yet neighborhood small groups and affinity small groups both face a second challenge. If not addressed, many will be disillusioned and without community. In my next post, I’ll discuss this challenge and suggest several remedies.
Until then, grace and peace.