I believe it was “Charlie-in-the-Box,” the misnamed Jack-in-the-box sentry on the Island of Misfit Toys who said disparagingly in the middle of a snow storm, “Well, it’s Christmas Eve, but . . . ” to which the pink polka dot stuffed elephant replied, “Looks like we’re forgotten again.” (Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, NBC, 1964).
Some years ago, a study authorized by my denomination declared the proliferation of small groups as a surefire indicator of congregational vitality. Over the years, many others have joined in the small group mantra. I was serving a church that averaged twenty-eight people in worship at the time of that study. I thought to myself then—and every time I hear it—“But we are the small group in our church!”
Sure, we separate into smaller units to study, pray, practice music, discern direction, and make decisions, but those units are not the heart of the action or growth. That heart remains in the greater body of fifteen, thirty, or sixty people who maintain worship, practice soul care, and order the life of the church. Small churches are about the integration of spirit and matter, belief and practice, and true religion and institutional life.
When a smaller subset of the greater body starts to think and act as an autonomous unit—and especially when it begins to see itself as the “invisible church” or “true church” that exists apart from the murky life of the larger institutional church—there are problems. Whether in the form of a disenfranchised family unit or self-identified spiritual elites, cliquishness is a cancer that threatens the life of a small church.
The small church is a small group, but it’s not always the small group it should be. And here is where small churches have something to learn from the various small-group reform movements. The virtues found in small groups at their best—the hospitality, intimacy, mutual accountability, in-depth learning, and capacity for replication—these are virtues that speak to the conscience of small churches. They remind them of their DNA and can inspire them to seek things lost. Let me illustrate.
The Intensity of Intercessory Life
After serving for twenty years in larger churches and in specialized ministries, I returned to a small church. My first experience of culture shock came in the worship service during intercessions. The list was long. The language was blunt. The emotional investment was raw. Given my larger-church instincts (such stuff belonged in small groups!) I was at first uncomfortable, even a little embarrassed by the small church’s practice of intercessions. Whether spoken by them in the service or passed to me on scraps of paper to be read out loud, I found myself resisting. Too personal! Too commonplace! Too close to violating HIPPA laws!
“My brother is in the mental hospital for beating up our father.” “I’m having walking issues because of my MS.”“Bill, my brother, had to file for bankruptcy.” At my present small church, we have a hands-on ministry with people living on the margin of society. That has added a whole other layer of desperate needs. “I was mugged while sleeping on the bench near the river last Friday night.” “The electric car window in the ’86 Honda Civic my brother and I live in is broken and won’t go up.” “My son’s girlfriend is shacking up with my neighbor’s husband.”
Eventually my discomfort with the prayer voice of the small church gave way to curiosity, and curiosity gave way to respect. There was something primitive and authentic going on here, an energy not available in larger congregational settings—only available in their assorted small groups. I began to look for ways to name it, not for their sake (they take it for granted) but for mine. And I found myself coming back to the prayer vocals of the psalms where prayer is alternately deeply personal and deeply communal.
Now, here’s the thing. I have served and worshipped in small congregations where the stinging authenticity of intercessions was missing, where prayer was sanitized, generic, and safe. Similarly, I have served in small congregations where Bible study is “stand and deliver” rather than interactive, where the native capacity for soul care is lost to surface relationships, or where a smoldering defensiveness virtually guarantees there will be no new members. In all these situations, it would be helpful for the small church to hold up a selfie of us in our better days. I see models of healthy small groups as that selfie.
When someone asks me how many small groups I have in my congregation, I answer defiantly but truthfully, “One—sometimes.” In the small-groups reform movement there are glimpses of the small church at its best, a way for me and others in my situation to replace “sometimes” with “always.”