Housegroups, cell groups, self-help groups, Christian Union groups, book groups, film societies, and so on…all of them are part of what Robert Wuthnow describes as part of the small group movment in his study “Sharing the Journey”. Whilst the 2000 interviews were conducted nearly two decades ago and the book itself was published 15 years ago it makes interesting reading and gives a facinating insight into the way social science becomes incorporated into popular applied theology books and practice. The undeniable echo of selected parts of this study is clear in many Christian books discussing the benefits of small groups and how they should operate. This is not suprising considering that few books have looked at the subject in the same depth as the 366 pages of analysis this book has, prior to moving on to the methodology. Whilst, as indicated, the book is looking at the small group movement as a whole it has an undeniable focus on those small groups which link in some way to the spiritual.
His central argument is that small groups are changing our understandings of community and redifining spirituality. The findings of the book are that the majority of small groups have existed for more than five years, although many members may be more recent and that these groups can be positive, particularly in the emotional benefits they generate. For the 40% of Americans who were members of these groups in the early 90’s these groups provided an environment where people met regularly and care and support were provided. Thus, he says they become “surrogate sources of intimacy and primary identity”. They are based, he argues, on storytelling, but it is not a communal story telling rather it is the telling and retelling of individual stories, which others listen to and offer affirmation or advice on. Some of us, particularly within churches, become socialised into these groups. They become central in both our quest for community and spirituality within a late modern society, he says. Yet he also argues they have problems and disadvantages: disagreements; they are uncomfortable places for the shy; they require a time commitment many find difficult, they can lead to people feeling they don’t fit in and give unrealistic expectations. They also, perhaps more distubingly, have the power he claims to “domesticate the sacred”, leading us into a superficial spirituality which is based more upon constructing our own version of the sacred within groups rather than actually moving toward a deeper spirituality. In short he can be seen as saying one danger of small groups is that they can give us spirituality lite.
The solution to these problems he concludes is to encourage people to be part of small groups but only within a wider framework of theological education.
This is the sort of sociology which makes my hair stand on end when I read it. On one hand I need to think about it academically but on the other it is the sort of sociology which demands engagement beyond the academy. This is the sort of study which makes me wish that more people in church outside of leadership positions, aswell as within them, would pick up sociology of religion or practical theology books occassionally and engage in a spot of reflexive practice. It’s one of those studies which makes you think about your own thinking and practice and ask the questions what do I do and why do I actually do it?
Reading Wuthnow I realise I was socialised into the small group culture from a young age. As a teenager I attended a youth group which met as a small group on both Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings and mid-week I would attend the church prayer meeting. Moving onto into my twenties I joined a couple of societies including the Christian Union, and was also part of a housegroup. Into my thirties and I have not only done the housegroup thing periodically, but there has been the book group, an accountability group and Methsoc amongst others….and yes, certainly I have used some of them to try and find or extend community. That’s without even touching upon the online communities I am part of which may or maynot be defined as small groups.
Have they proved a help or hinderence? Have they built up my faith or fostered a dependency? Have they deepened my spirituality or provided me with spirituality lite? And finally have they provided me with the sense of community I have been looking for? Well the answer is, unsurprisingly, a bit of yes, a spot of no, and quite alot of grey stuff inbetween.
Some have helped me. The main ways have been through helping me develop and extend my friendship groups. Practically, some of them have provided me with support when I’ve needed it. Yes I think that some have helped build up my faith but some also did make me foster a certain dependency. They have challenged me sometimes but honestly I think they have not helped deepen my spirituality that much…theological education and one to one encounters with people have done that far more. As for the community thing I think sometimes they have met that need but often they have fostered unrealistic and unhealthy expectations.
One of the biggest mistakes I made this year, if not the biggest, was looking backwards at small group experiences and friendships I had back in Kent and longing to recreate them in Durham, with new people. In Kent it happened that I had a circle of 30 and 40 somethings from church and to a lesser extent work that I shared deeply with. I spent way too long this year searching for this, when it was quite simply not available. I kept thinking that if I found the right small group I would magically be able to (re)-create the relationships I had found so useful in Kent, but with new people. I thought community was to be found here. I ended up feeling dispirited and lonely when my search continually failed.
But then something changed. I accepted that I had to focus on the situation as it is now not as it was then. I had to look at the relationships I had formed in a different way, not searching for this elusive “community”. It turned out, I realised, that I had gotten to know a fair number of people this year. If I started to invite them out to dinner or to the pub occassionally I realised we wouldn’t have what small groups provide but we would have fun and start to develop the friendships more. Other people will not become friends in the conventional sense, there are just way too many professional networks in this city with their own inbuilt boundaries. Thus I won’t get that level of knowledge of some people I have gotten in some of the types of small groups I am used to, but I will get that level of interaction which comes through networking.
The net result of all this is that I actually have to take more responsibility for my own life and emotions. I have people around me to look out for me and offer me a kick up the backside if I need it but there is a healthy distance involved. There are no longer people around who feel they have the right to step in and allow me, to some extent, to abdicate responsibility for my own life when it all gets a little crazy. I have also been encouraged to take resposibility more for my own spiritual journeying, but in a way which has acted to resource me more. Within the groups I have found myself in this year I have been given tools to try out and use to build my relationship with God up rather than a flatback to assemble with others, whether it is actually what I need or not.
So my own conclusion is that Wuthnow is right, small groups do have their place but only if used in conjunction with other sources of theological education, recognising the potential weaknesses aswell as strengths they have. Also perhaps we need to stop focusing on our need for “community” and start focusing on our need for “God” in group and individual settings.