One of the things I love most about autumn is watching trees change colors. To me, nothing is more beautiful than the sun shining on a tree decked out with fresh autumn leaves, transforming it into a brilliant splash of orange. Maybe it is because I have been working on this article about small groups in churches that I noted something I had never really observed before as I admired the autumn trees this year. Although we enjoy a tree in its entirety, when you look closely, you notice that the tree is actually made up of “small groups” – clusters of leaves joining with other clumps of leaves. In some ways, that is not unlike small groups in churches.
In fact, small groups serve many important functions in churches. Ed Stetzer, a Professor at Wheaton College and contributing editor to Christianity Today suggests that small groups are a “pathway” for “birthing healthy community” within the church that can foster “spiritual growth that changes us individually and as a whole” and encourage “transformation in the communities outside the church walls.”
Successful church groups can have many different forms and functions. You probably are familiar with the more traditional models of small groups that are common in many churches including First Mennonite–groups of people who meet once or twice a month to support one another, do service projects together, process church business, and socialize. Andrea Krause has been part of a group like this for several years, maintaining her commitment to the group even though she now spends much of the year living in Germany. She explains, “What I like about our group is that we are all very different. I also value that our friendships have developed and deepened over time. To me, as a German, relationships are something you tend to over time. You invest in them, and as you spend time together, you come to caring and friendship. It’s really nice to go into a group where over time people have pieced together each other’s life story because they have listened to each other and spent time together. And ‘dropping back into’ my small group whenever I spend time in Indy feels wonderfully familiar and comforting, almost like I was never gone at all.”
Kevin Rosner, who is a member of a men’s group at FMC that also fits into this traditional model of gatherings, confirms the value of the relationships that are built through the longevity of a group: “It has given us a close group of friends who feel very close due to our sharing of our life stories with each other.” Joe Longenecker, another member of an FMC men’s group, describes his experience with his group this way: “We try to meet every two weeks on Sunday evenings. Most weeks, we just talk and share stories and concerns about our lives. Usually, there is also conversation about ongoing church business. About once a quarter, there is a more social event, like Frisbee golf at FMC. This is a good group for me. It is easier to open up and share with a small group. It is also good to have a group that is accepting of whatever we bring to the group. I think this group helps the church by making the individual parts stronger.” Bob Walson also participates in an FMC Men’s Group. He sees the purpose of his group as being “to share our joys, daily needs and daily care concerns, even concerns like how to fix mechanical/electrical problems at our individual homes or at FMC.”
There is no doubt that groups like this play an important role in many people’s lives and contribute to the larger church in meaningful ways; yet this isn’t the only way to “do groups” in a church. An alternative approach to small groups is for people to join a group out of interest in a particular topic and commit to making participation in the group a top priority for a short period of time (6 weeks to 6 months).
An example of this type of group is the “Showing up for Racial Justice” (SURJ) group coordinated by Alison Schumacher. Using SURJ resources, the 8 members of this group have committed to meeting monthly for 6 months to discuss race, privilege and power in the U.S. Marcy Major describes her experience in this group: “The information puts me more in tune with systemic racism. People in our group share their experiences and thoughts in a safe setting, and we learn from the materials and each other. I’m hoping that being a part of this group will assist me in making a positive difference.”
Transitional pastor Gary Martin initiated additional short-term groups focused on discerning spiritual gifts through the sharing of life stories. In this model, groups of not more than 8 people are drawn together by interest in a common topic, and group members commit to meeting every other week for a short period of time. The groups are facilitated by leaders who have gone through the experience, and a key component of this group experience is the sharing of life stories. At each meeting, two group members are given 20 minutes to share their story. Martin observes, “Walls can be broken down just by telling those stories.”
The value of this alternative model of small groups in churches is evident in the responses of people who have participated in the two “life-story/gift discernment” groups that were formed at FMC. Marcy Major explains, “Pastor Gary made the invitation to the congregation and we didn’t know who would be interested. Out of the 6 people in the group, I only knew 2 people. I have gotten to know 6 people at FMC on a deeper level. I now know some of their interests, passions, and gifts and perhaps I can connect them to others at FMC they may not know. I can talk with them in a more genuine way, because I actually know what is meaningful or interesting to them. I may tap them for their thoughts and opinions, because I know some of their story and background.”
Another participant, Alicia Amazon, describes her experiences this way: “I continue to participate in this small group because it has been life giving to me and I feel the spirit is working through this group. I have loved getting to know my small group members on a deeper level. It has been an honor to hear life stories and share in identifying spiritual gifts. Participating in the group has given me a new sense of community and feeling connected to others in the church. It has affirmed my spiritual gifts and is encouraging me to use them in the church.”
Anita Das affirms that it has been a “helpful process to look at individuals with greater depth than simply through social contact.” She highlights that in addition to getting to know others better, you also get to know yourself better, stating, “I’m motivated to continue engaging in this process to discover what people’s perceptions are of me, versus my desires and own perception. I am willing to listen to others and receive feedback and mutual support in gaining more self-awareness.”
Linda Dixon summarizes the potential value in these types of groups: “They have a lot of potential to encourage deeper sharing and more meaningful fellowship among church members and participants” and can ultimately be used “to serve our church and to glorify God.”
Participants in both the traditional model of groups and this alternative format clearly benefit from being part of a small group, and both models are beneficial to the church as well. It is important to remember that both models can exist simultaneously within a congregation. Gary Martin encourages existing groups to keep doing what they are doing, saying “If you like your group, keep going!” At the same time, he encourages people to consider participating in one of the special topic, short-term groups when a theme comes up that captures their attention. Marcy Major concurs: “I have been in different small groups over my 22 years at FMC Indianapolis. I understand the different ways small groups can be viewed. Some people switch groups every couple of years so they can get to know a different group of people in a deeper way. Some people wouldn’t imagine changing their small group because of the comfort level they have grown into. I would argue that all FMC participants would benefit from joining a small group of 6 to 8 people for a short duration – and if they wanted to continue meeting in their current small group they could still do that, too.”
So, whether it is participating in a traditional group or in a short-term, topic-focused group, gathering in small groups contributes greatly to the well-being of a church community. Not all of the branches of leaves on a tree are identical, and not all groups in a church need to be the same either. Returning to the metaphor I began with, if the church is like a tree and a small group is like the different clusters of leaves, all of the groups work together, supported by strong roots, to create the life-giving splendor that is Christ’s church.