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.

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Author: Ryan Thomas Neace

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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  • Interesting and important thoughts, though I take slight issue with the title, as it seems to imply this to be a universal issue where small groups always fail to create community (I don’t think you are actually saying this, but it’s just how it reads initially to me). In my experience as both a leader and member, I’ve seen some pretty great, authentic community develop. Its quite possible that I might have given up on the church by now, at least in America, if I hadn’t found a great community group my first year of graduate school.

    Don’t get me wrong, I know a lot of small group leaders can be pretty clueless on group dynamics and will let people monopolize or ostracize, but I just wanted to note that small groups really can be a wonderful experience in the Christian walk.

    • Ryan Thomas Neace

      Thanks for your comment Josh. Sure, it’s not universal. Much more common than necessary, and my experience is that the good stuff to which you’re referring is mostly by sheer happenstance.

  • This is a challenging post for me, especially given the scenario. I haven’t figured out what to think just yet. I think addressing the tension head-on is likely to create problems. I could see a viable solution in saying, “Hey, I know you have a lot to say, but let’s see what someone else thinks on .” If you start addressing the tension itself, as in, “Hey, the tension just went up here. Why is that?” then I think you run the risk of creating an *everyone vs. that guy* situation. It would probably feel like an attack. I know I would feel attacked.

    Perhaps pulling him aside with a group of people is more appropriate. That way, you have more control over the quality of the response to his behavior, but you also don’t end up shouldering the whole burden of his anxiety, yourself.

    Again, as we said in private, I think there is a substantial difference between the therapy room and the small group. A small group is for addressing real life problems *of a sort*, but there are better venues for dealing with more specific issues. It is not as though the small group is anathema to authentic experience and relationships, but it’s like you don’t go to a family practice doctor to cure your cancer. A person with a serious problem is going to need a more specialized venue for addressing that problem.

    That is not to say that there is nothing that the small group can do to help this guy. A guy with anxiety like what you describe is likely going to need a lot of support and friends who will invest in him unconditionally. That is one of the ways in which the church has a very unique sort of function, because in most cases, love is conditional.

    I’m thinking about my small group in particular as I write. We have a great small group where people are free to come with a whole manner of different problems, and everyone is accepted. But, if someone were to start creating a huge amount of tension in the small group, I’d feel very odd and uncomfortable if asked to address why there is tension, especially if it is obviously a single person’s fault.

    • Ryan Thomas Neace

      Thanks for your comment Chris. I don’t fundamentally disagree with anything you’ve said, and there is certainly possible a multiplicity of ways to handle this. To address the newcomer directly in group, you’d need a leader who was skilled at conveying warmth and concern while also being direct. Churches aren’t exactly known for that kind of thing. I can also appreciate the idea of a “special” group for this guy, I just think that churches keep finding reasons not to be able to help people, and before they know it, the pews are going to be empty, or rather, filled with people who don’t think they have any problems. But as to your last comment, talking about tension in a group would cause most people to feel odd and uncomfortable. I would feel some of that myself, even though I’m more used to it, I suppose. I just don’t think those realities are reason to avoid addressing the tension.

      • First, I have no idea why it put in that very weird formatting into my post…

        Anyhow, I think the thing I most agree with from your post is your statement that churches are doing everything they can to keep from having to address real problems in the church. I have definitely suffered that first-hand, when my theological views made the pastor uncomfortable (Acts 29 pastor who went to Oral Roberts University). Rather than figure out a solution, he decided to shut me up and kick me out of the church (incidentally, that led to the defunding of the church by their primary donor).

  • Craig

    If you can though, watch that whole video. Those guys are hilarious. The first example he gives just sounds like the leader is not a good teacher as group management is a part of teaching. I get what he’s saying in the second paragraph because that’s how I’m wired. When I lead/teach, I have a goal and that goal is to teach the lesson in the time given. Because of my personality, I get frustrated with interruptions, even if those interruptions are dealing with someone’s personal problems. But when I’m discerning enough, I will put the learning on hold so the group can meet that need (and I do mean group because I’m usually not so good in dealing with those needs). I think this article is really harping on the lack of training of the leader and is missing the point of a community GROUP. All groups have diversity and that’s why they’re so good. So if a leader has teaching skills and not so much interpersonal skills, then hopefully the group is diverse enough that someone else who doesn’t have teaching skills will have interpersonal skills to help deal with the felt needs in the group.

    • Ryan Thomas Neace

      Craig, I appreciate your sentiments about diversity. Well, evangelical churches are not exactly known for being bastions of diversity. But either way, perhaps our church experiences have been different, but I don’t see a lot of leaders deferring to others for input about group norms or direction. Even when diversity is present, leaders don’t tend to be as responsive as you suggest. By definition, my point is that leaders proceed in the direction they see fit, And I think what happens in-group is too important to leave up to chance (“then hopefully the group…”).

      • Craig

        I hope my use of “diversity” didn’t get taken out of it’s context above. I use it as to explain diversity of skill sets/spiritual gifts within a group. Even between you and I there is diversity. The premise of your post proves this diversity in the church because you address leaders, which some are, and counselors, such as yourself and there are numerous other types within the church (personally my favorites might be the bakers/givers).

        When it comes to leaders, their gifts are in leading, which is why they miss the things you point out. Whereas your gift is in counseling which is why you are able to see where this is lacking in the group and by the leader. Because of this difference of gifts I’m sure that if all that was being done in a group was counseling, a leader could write a blog post about how there is too much counseling and not enough leading and Bible study occurring in the group. I don’t think a leader who doesn’t counsel is a bad thing as well as I don’t think a counselor who doesn’t lead is a bad thing either. We should all use our gifts that differ according to the grace by which they have been given.
        I just don’t think that because we have a particular gift that we should expect others to have the same gift. I’ve been a leader in many different roles and would get frustrated sometimes when I did not see leadership qualities in others. This was wrong because if leading wasn’t their gift, then it wasn’t there gift, but I’m sure what they were gifted in was something I lacked. This is why we have groups in the first place.

        I will concede that a leader is not a good leader if he is not humble enough to allow a counselor to counsel and the same goes for anyone with a particular gift who is not humble enough to allow others to practice their gifts. So if a counselor within a group recognizes something that needs to be addressed, he ought to be free to address that issue and the same goes for others in the group with other gifts. If someone with the gift of service sees a lack of service within the group, then he ought to be able to address that, etc.

        (Romans 12:3-8)

        • Ryan Thomas Neace

          You’re using a paradigm I wouldn’t, both to describe this situation and at large. In other words, I don’t see this as related to areas of gifting or roles, though certainly some have more of a knack than others. The thrust of my piece is that you can learn some of the basics at most any skill level – i.e., it’s about training. Also, I have a much more fluid conception of people’s giftedness anyhow. I’m not just a “counselor”, and a “leader” (not even sure what that is or that I’d concur on a definition as posited by the evangelical church) isn’t just a leader. Jesus wasn’t that dichotomous. The call of community is to grow beyond our original programming (to quote Lt. Commander Data).

  • Tom (aka Volkmar)

    Totally identified with the group maladies described in this post. Thanks. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

    • Ryan Thomas Neace

      Thanks, Tom!