Why Church Small Groups Struggle to Create Community

The spiritual life is not a life before, after, or beyond our everyday existence. No, the spiritual life can only be real when it is lived in the midst of the joys and pains of the here and now. Therefore, we need to begin with a careful look at the way we think, feel, and act from hour to hour, day to day, week to week, and year to year, in order to become more fully aware of our hunger for the Spirit.

–Fr. Henri Nouwen, Making All Things New

There are thousands of variations on the names of church small group ministries.  You may find that all the effort among them to forge a unique identity is motivated by how little difference actually exists between them, no matter what church propaganda tells you.

One of the most disturbing commonalities is the capacity of small group leaders to ignore what’s going on in and among the group in real-time, instead tending exclusively to the what they believe is the subject at hand (usually bible study).  In so doing, they grossly limit the power of the group to make operative Christ’s work in their midst.

Group TherapyI’m a therapist, so I’m used to groups where someone might ask, “The tension in the group just went up – what’s going on for all of us?” or “Sandy has been talking for a while, and I’m wondering how the group is feeling toward her.  Would anyone be willing to say?”  I recognize that these are very therapisty questions, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why they should be only therapisty questions.  I mean, should therapists have an exclusive claim on attending to the here and now in small groups?  Should they be the only ones who believe what’s transpiring within a group at any given moment might actually be related to how the small group experiences everything else, including that bible they’re studying?

Sadly, most of my church leader friends seem to think so.

I don’t, but it would mean a much greater need for effective lay training.  You know, the kind where people are versed in basic concepts that might be roughly equivalent to a few courses at a community college.  Much to the chagrin of professionals in my industry, there is a host of research suggesting lay counseling can be every bit as effective as the kind you pay for, particularly if lay counselors have a few basic tools.

Here’s a practical example you may find familiar.

Imagine a small group leader struggling with a new group member. Over the course of several small groups, the newcomer confesses his difficulty making friends, and then proceeds to hijack the small group conversation with tangential monologues that last nearly the entire time. He takes breaks only minimally when redirected by the group before rabbit-trailing again. The group leader possesses a heart for marginalized people, but recognizes that something about the newcomer’s approach is likely unhealthy for the group at large.


Wouldn’t it be nice if the group leader had a framework to conceptualize all this?  For example, imagine if she new that the term for this kind of group participant is a monopolist and that the incessant talking is usually in an effort to cope with real and palpable anxiety, or rather, to conceal it – he’s talking so that no one gets to know him, which is ironic given his status as friendless.  This could provide not only a starting place from which to develop compassion and empathy, but also a firm sense of validation about a hunch to nip this in the bud.  This understanding might actually give the group a fighting chance not to recreate the newcomer’s all-too-frequent alienation.

Of course, she’d also need to know how to conceptualize the monopolist within the larger group dynamic.  With the right heart, many of her ministry colleagues might suggest that she simply pull the individual to the side and tell them about appropriate group protocol.  After all, we don’t to be insensitive.  But conceptualizing sensitivity within a group context means something different.  Not only does the “pulling aside” method presuppose that the newcomer and the problem are rational and solvable in short-form, it creates a subgrouping, and carries a number of potentially negative results.

The newcomer may take the one-on-one attention as a cue to use the group leader as his personal counselor from that point forward, jumping her out of the frying pan into the fire.  Previously the newcomer’s anxiety was disseminated across the entire group (hence its implicit benefit), but it’s now exclusively targeted at one person.  How many times have you seen a small group leader or pastor get cornered by the member of the group whose needs clearly outpace one person’s capacity to give?  Subgrouping actually creates this very dynamic.

Worse yet, subgrouping can defeat a small group’s very purpose.  Churches often pride themselves on small groups that are a microcosm of real life, where members show up and can be authenticYet, at the first sign of real life, our first urge is to discuss it outside the group.  It doesn’t follow.  Safety and “come as you are” authenticity are compromised, and the group’s power to effect growth in themselves and the newcomer is removed.  They recreate his pattern of isolation and unwelcomeness instead.

So, the reason many church small groups struggle create community is because they tend so much to the subject matter and so little to what’s going on in the group.  Not out of malice, but ignorance.  They need training.

I’m not advocating that church or small group leaders should go back to school to study professional counseling. Instead, I am suggesting that training for small group leaders should probably land somewhere between 1 PowerPoint slide in a small group training course taught by the pastor, and 4 years of graduate school.  That seems reasonable, doesn’t it?

But every time I bring this up with my church leader friends, the best I get is a bit of intrigue, followed usually by dismissal.

Jesus in crowdSmall groups at churches are not exclusively or even primarily bible studies, even when they officially bear that title, and especially with a moniker such as “life group” or “community group.”  This is true because there is no such thing as bible study divorced from interactions with others – that’s dualismThe clear line we often sense in small groups as we press through scripture while ignoring what’s happening in and among us, right then and there, is inconsistent with reality.  That’s why it feels so icky.  Your bible study is a relational study and your relational interactions are biblical interactions.   Why not treat them as such?

If you’re attending a church where creating healthy relationships within small groups is sacrificed to some other goal, even bible study, then you are attending a church where orthodoxy and orthopraxy are divorced by design.   The gospel of Jesus has no such divorce, and is revealed to us in the context of groups – his family, his disciples, his church.  Relationship and holiness were never separated.  Both were always being attended to in the here and now.  Just when he ought to be preaching or making some great hermeneutical point, he stopped to embrace a child, defend an adulterer, or challenge a religious zealot.

Where do I sign up for his small group?


This post is part of an ongoing series called, A Therapist Goes to Church.

This post was also featured at Ryan’s blog at The Huffington Post.

Ryan Thomas Neace is a counselor, professor, husband, and daddy. Please contact him for counseling via skype or in-person at ryan@changeincorporated.org.

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