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Why Make Space for a Small Group?

Allen White

Most people already have most of the relationships they need. They are as closely connected with the people they need in their lives. When they are challenged to join a small group, they might not sense the need, because there isn’t a need.

An examination of Joseph Myers’ book, The Search to Belong, reveals four spheres of human relationships: public, social, personal and intimate. His perception is that an invitation or urging to join small groups causes people to jump from pubic relationships, meaning people who attend the same church and might or might not know each other, to intimate relationships in a small group, where they would share the most personal details of their lives.

I’m not sure that most groups are formed by transitioning public relationships into intimate relationships. I am certain that such a premise for forming groups is either bound to fail or quite short-lived.

First of all, there is no guarantee that folks in small groups will form intimate relationships or should. When I think of intimate relationships, I think of a very select group of people: my wife, my parents, my children and my closest friends. The last thing I want in my small group is a relationship with another man that is akin to the intimacy I have with my wife! I’m not a macho man, but all guys must draw the line somewhere.

Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point says that there are only 10-12 people whose deaths would dramatically affect our lives. While we certainly would sense grief at the loss of anyone we knew, not everyone’s death has the same impact on our lives. Most healthy, functioning folks already have these relationships. Since the limit for most of us is 10-12 and the size of a small group is usually 10-12, the likelihood of complete or partial strangers being graduated to my inner circle is quite slim.

Perhaps, the best we can do with small groups, according to Blair Carlstrom in the article, “Small Groups May be Overrated” (Church Executive, February 2005), is create an environment where close relationships could happen. “At our church, we don't even use intimacy to imply "cozy" because we don't want anyone confused about what we want to accomplish. In fact, we tell people not to expect it in a small group. If we can help set a realistic expectation, then they may have a good experience in a group.” According to Carlstrom, pastors should not raise the expectation that any group of members can go from strangers to close friends in no time at all. Perhaps, the disclaimer should read, “Results are not typical. Some group members may luck out and develop close friendships over time with much perseverance, but many will experience side effects such as feeling awkward, uncomfortable or lonely in the crowd, similar to side effects found with sugar pill. Group members should expect much uneasiness regarding their group accompanied by the desire to play hooky on a regular basis.”

Without the equivalent of e-harmony, the dating service, for member placement into groups, meeting day, location and possibly one item of affinity does not guarantee the formation of biblical community and for good reason. Since most people already have those 10-12 spots filled, and since the randomization of group placement does little to guarantee the cultivation of such relationships, perhaps pastors are aiming at the wrong thing in forming small groups. The better fit is to offer an environment for developing personal relationships with the rare possibility of a few becoming intimate relationships over time.

The other issue with Joe Myers’ premise is the starting point: public relationships. The commonality of sitting in the same worship space on a regular basis is an insufficient affinity, and perhaps not even that. People in churches seated in rows facing the same direction have about as much ability to deepen relationships as movie goers in a darkened theater. The format is not conducive to developing closer relationships, even if we do turn and shake hands for 2-3 minutes. The odds of signing up for a group that might produce lasting relationships seems a bit preposterous. This process of random selection causes few strong groups to evolve and leaves many artifacts along the way.

Yet, some small groups do succeed and thrive over the long term. Are these miraculous occurrences? Or, are these groups created with members who socially travel a shorter distance from departure to destination?

The simplest means of forming new groups that might last really doesn’t involve pastors much at all. In addition to 10-12 intimate relationships, most people have about 40 personal relationships. A recent study by MSN Messenger in the United Kingdom found that the average Brit had 396 relationships during his or her lifetime, yet only had 33 relationships at any one time. My suspicion is that Americans might have a few more. While the 10-12 intimate relationships would be included, the balance would be made up with other friends, neighbors, co-workers, and extended family that we know, but not as well as our intimate circle. We keep close tabs on their lives. We might not know their heart of hearts, but we’ve spent time together and know quite a bit. And, we like them or else they wouldn’t be among our personal relationships.

If small groups are not created to form intimate relationships, but to maximize personal relationships, then the simplest way of forming lasting groups would be to create groups from the 40 or so personal relationships we already have. The group is already there. All that a pastor needs to do is recommend a Bible study, draw a circle around them and call them a group! We’ve formed nearly 100 groups this way in our church over the last 12 months. What we’ve discovered is that groups of friends far outlast groups of strangers. One person takes the initiative to select 10 people or so of their 40 personal relationships and spend time together studying God’s Word with an easy to use DVD-based small group curriculum. This strategy provides both the biblical content and the close relationships to help a group start well and thrive.

The potential of creating groups from within someone’s current personal relationships is much greater than turning public or social relationships into personal relationships. If the average person is capable of maintaining only 33-40 or so personal relationships at any one time, then to ask someone to accept folks from their public or social relationships into the realm of personal relationships means that we are asking them to essentially replace 10 or so personal relationships with relative strangers from their public or social relationships. The person, first of all, might be very unwilling to give up any of their current personal relationships and thus, never truly bond with the small group. Secondly, we are asking the person to risk 10 relationships they can count on with basically the luck of the draw. Who in their right mind would give up their good friends for the sake of another church activity?

But, there are exceptions. A person who has recently started attending the church by moving from another church, from another city or from the kingdom of darkness, probably does not have any personal relationships with people in their new church home. How do they take the step from public relationships at the church to personal relationships?

The easy answer would be to turn their current personal relationships into former friends and adopt new friends from their new church home. But, that’s not so easy. Let’s take these one at a time.

A person who transfers from another church body probably still has a few friends in the other church as well as neighbors, co-workers, friends and relatives. There may be a few relationship openings depending on the circumstances of their departure. By not attending their former church, over time many of their relationships will grow distant. This is not just because the person is no longer a club member. Human beings have a limited capacity in maintaining relationships of all types. According to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, “Your brain is hard wired to pay attention to about 150 people. Try to have a relationship with any more than that, and your life will turn to pure crap. Just ask the Military, Gore-Tex, or Krippendorf's tribe. They'll all tell you the same thing. One fifty is the way to go. They've known for hundreds of years that people work best in groups of 150 or less.” (“The Magic of 150” on www.commonsenseadvice.com).

So, it’s not so much that the person left First Church to attend Community Church and therefore, First Church members feel slighted (which could be the case). The simple fact is that to develop social relationships at Community Church, then one must forsake some social relationships from First Church to make room for the new ones. Now, the idea of human beings traveling through life in groups of 150 and the implications for church growth will have to be the topic of another article, but I hope you see my point.

The second new member is one who moved from another city. This person, though he or she promised to keep in touch, will in short time have plenty of openings for social and personal relationships. After all, absence makes the heart grow forgetful. The out of towner needs a place to connect. That may or may not be in someone’s living room directly. Those connections may start out in the lobby or foyer at church over a cup of coffee. Those connections might lead to an on-campus class. Eventually, they just might join a group or they might not. But, they probably have more potential for new relationships than anyone else.

Our last new member is the new convert. They have intimate and personal relationships, but the fear of the church is that those relationships will pull them back into the world. The goal, then, is to rid their lives of bad soil and root them in good soil. The problem is that, first of all, they probably don’t know many people in the church very well, since all of the church members ridded themselves of bad soil years ago. And, secondly, in giving his or her life to Christ, the new believer never counted on nailing his or her sins and friends to the cross. Two things need to happen. One is that the new believer needs a person or a group to encourage them in their faith. Granted, they may not have the relational “room” to spare, but this SWAT team-style discipleship is urgent and necessary. The second thing is to help the new believer influence their current circle of relationships for Christ. This person will never know as many non-believers personally as they do right now. To forsake unchurched friends at this point would be remise. By the time the new believer is schooled well enough in the teachings of the church, they will have fully turned over their social, personal and possibly intimate relationships.

There are other points of transition that influence people’s relationships: job changes, moves across town, divorce, life stages, etc. Similar principles can be applied to each of these.

My point is simply this: most people have at least eight people in their lives that they could do a small group with. They don’t need to be assigned to a group of strangers and expect instant relationships. They don’t need to give up existing relationships to establish new ones. Every believer is called to “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). As pastors equip their people to do the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12), let’s not make this more complicated than it has to be. Discipleship is not something that we do to other people. Discipleship is what we do with other believers. The people of God, filled with the Spirit of God, interacting with the Word of God brings about positive results.

In forming small groups, what are you really asking your people to do?

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