The book was good, but the material was intense, and I knew I would need time to process what I was reading. So I “cheated” and read the last chapter. The book was The Connected Life by Todd W. Hall (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2022). What he wrote echoed what I preached last Sunday and, indeed, what I preach every time I get the chance — the crucial importance of small groups for the Christian life. Hall writes:
The first two tiers of small groups — up to six members or fifteen members, respectively — are where attachments and closer relationships can develop, which have the potential to promote transformational change. In his book on building community, Peter Block echoes the importance of the small groups, suggesting it is “the unit of transformation.” We might extend the idea to suggest that small groups are the unit of belonging. (196)
Todd is making two important points here. Followers of Jesus need to be in small groups because small groups are where we mature in Christlikeness, and where we connect with Christ and with each other. Interestingly his first- and second-tier groups correspond with our understanding of micro groups (3–4) and small groups (12–15).
Todd goes on to say:
Larger groups within our spiritual communities are important, but we must strive to connect with people in first and second tier small groups, because these groups create the conditions for intimacy, authentic relatedness, a unique valuing of each person, and meaningful dialogue. (196)
Forgive me for quoting so much of Todd but he says things I have tried to say for the longest time, and he says it so much better. He says that small groups:
. . . create an environment in which it feels safe to share struggles, promoting authenticity. We attempt to model for each other humility and an ongoing process of growth—the mindset that none of us has “arrived” and each of us needs God’s grace every day. This creates an environment in which everyone is uniquely valued. There is an implicit understanding that each person is important, and this value is inhabited as the group is responsive to the needs of each person as they arise. Sharing struggles and important things about our lives, in turn, creates the safety for true dialogue. (196–197)
My heart was strangely warmed as I read Todd. I found myself saying “yes, yes” this is why healthy small groups are critical for the lives of Christians and their communities.
But then I was also gripped with sadness. I know that many churches don’t take small groups seriously, seeing them as playing second fiddle to the larger meetings. Look at the photos that churches post on social media. They are usually about big group meetings, Sunday services, revival meetings, special teaching meetings, etc. I know it is difficult to post pictures of meaningful small-group meetings but the end result, intended otherwise is that the important gatherings are the large-group meetings not the small-group meetings. The early days of Covid forced us to rethink this but as things go back to “normal” many are returning to the large-group gatherings as the main expression of church life.
I also felt sad because while many churches have some form of small-group ministry, the relationships within such groups are extremely superficial. I met with some pastors recently and they all agreed that there was hardly any authentic sharing in the small groups in their churches. Many are essentially Bible studies where people interact with the text but not with each other. I suspect attempts at conversation are usually dominated by the extroverts and what is shared is usually superficial. There is hardly any sharing of the struggles and other important things of life that Todd talks about.
As churches move beyond Covid, many are calling for a fresh movement of God — excitement, empowerment, and engagement with mission. But I have yet to hear a cry that because of the lessons we learnt during Covid we need to take seriously our small-group ministries and intentionally help them be places of genuine encounter with God and with each other. One key thing that must be developed in our groups is meaningful dialogue. Todd again:
. . . we must intentionally promote meaningful dialogue, which is all too often absent in out gatherings. Real dialogue, David Benner notes, is challenging because it goes beyond the simple exchange of ideas or opinions. Dialogue, rather, is “exploration and discovery through conversational engagement. Ït’s designed to promote awareness and insight and seeks mutual understanding. (197)
Yesterday, I was chatting with a friend and I voiced a question that I frequently pose to my good friends these days — what are some things I should focus on in this chapter of my life. I suspect promoting healthy small groups will be one of them.