Theresa F. Latini is associate professor of congregational and community care leadership at Luther Seminary and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) serving at Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. In this short exerpt from her book The Church and the Crisis of Community: A Practical Theology of Small-Group Ministry, she tells the stories of two very different small groups from the same congregation and shares why she feels well-developed small groups have such a vital role to play in church life today.
Small groups were my entrée into my vocation as a pastoral caregiver and practical theologian. In the early 1990s, I joined an interdenominational small group sponsored by a Presbyterian congregation. Like the other young adults in that group, I was sorting through questions about my Christian faith and identity. More fundamentally, I was searching for a place to belong, a group marked by honesty and authenticity. I found that and much more: I found a healing, Missional community that reflected life in the kingdom of God.
We were a diverse group: women and men, African-Americans and Euro-Americans, factory workers, teachers, and church musicians. We read Scripture together, ate together, prayed together, confessed our sin together, and shared our sufferings with one another. We encountered each other and God in the midst of poignant questions and pain. We listened to Miriam’s stories of growing up in a rigid cult. We helped Sara construct strategies to individuate from her overbearing mother. We wept with Tom in his depression and despair. We confronted Rich when he spoke harshly to others. We supported Cynthia as she navigated through a series of life changes — marriage and graduate school. We persistently prayed that each of us would experience God as trustworthy and kind, that we would find ways to participate more fully in our respective congregations, that we would fulfill both our common and particular vocations.
While far from perfect, that small group nurtured my connection to God, my connection to the larger church, and my connection to myself. It launched me into both broader circles of community and participation in God’s work in the world. After three years, I joined the congregation and engaged in its life of worship and service. I co-led a support group and taught Sunday school. After a few more years, I headed to seminary to pursue formal training for ministry.
During my years at seminary, I visited my home church and encountered another small group, one whose effects were disheartening at best, divisive at worst, and undeniably tragic. It started off as an intercessory prayer group composed of longtime church members and leaders who gathered together weekly to pray for congregants who were sick and suffering. They prayed for church leadership to follow the leading of God’s Spirit. When they heard about a series of “revival” services at a nearby congregation, they attended in order to experience God in new ways, and they encouraged other congregants to join them. Their sense of God’s immanent presence and their hope for the healing of the world was contagious. They were tired of being part of the “frozen chosen,” that is, mainline Protestants lacking a living faith. So they encouraged change within the congregation. In doing so, however, they dismissed the church’s polity and theology. They unwittingly created two factions within the congregation, those who supposedly were open to the Holy Spirit and those who weren’t. Spiritual elitism kept them closed to input from outside sources. Within five years, the congregation split up: all of its groups were dismantled, and its members, who had once worshiped and served God together, were dispersed into multiple congregations.
How could this be? How could one congregation establish two groups with such radically different effects? What contributed to authentic communal spirituality in one group and elitism and disconnect from the Christian tradition in the other? Why were lives transformed in one and rent apart in another?
I was still asking these questions when I became a pastor and a doctoral student in practical theology. As a pastor, I witnessed the ambivalence of small groups from a new vantage point. I watched persons immerse themselves in recovery groups and then emerge transformed, carrying both passion and vision for ministry to the downtrodden and oppressed. I watched others participate in Bible study groups and for the first time understand the grace of God and their acceptance in the body of Christ. I led a ministry team that welcomed those on the fringes of the church back into full fellowship, which itself became a community (rather than simply another church committee). But I also discovered small groups meeting without any clear sense of purpose, structure, or spiritual focus. Some veered away from the Christian tradition and unknowingly settled for the shallowness of popular Christianity in America today. I listened to the heart-rending longings of those unable to find a place to grow spiritually with a group of trusted others.
As a practical theologian, I read formal studies of small groups that not only confirmed my own personal and professional experiences but also indicated that such experiences are shared by a significant number of Americans. In the early to mid-1990s, Robert Wuthnow, the director of the Center for the Study of American Religion at Princeton University, studied the proliferation of small groups in North America.
After nearly two thousand interviews and direct observation of various kinds of groups, Wuthnow concluded that the small-group movement represents a search for the sacred and a search for community. Small groups provide a social solvent, a means of enduring detachment from traditional forms of community life, and they create space for spiritual growth and exploration. In other words, people gather in small groups to experience or enhance their connection to God, their connection to others, and often, their connection to their truest selves. Thus it is not surprising that congregations provide the strongest support and the resources — that is, leaders, curricula, space, childcare, a common language, and motivation — for small groups.
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The nature of community has changed drastically in the last ten years. We are a mobile society. We uproot our families more frequently than former generations did. We connect with friends, family members, and coworkers through electronic communication. Adolescents and young adults form faceless relationships. Congregations try to sustain community in an era of competing truths, distrust of religious authorities and traditions, and widespread conflict about basic Christian beliefs and practices. Small towns and rural areas are marked by racial-ethnic, socioeconomic, and religious diversity. Such widespread changes in our experience of community lead to pervasive feelings of uncertainty and anxiety, because all of us have a basic need for belonging and trust, for a community in which we discover ourselves and God’s intention for our lives.
In light of this crisis of community, the nature of small-group life seems as pertinent — if not more pertinent — than ever. We need to know how Wuthnow’s suggestions and these small-group resources have impacted small-group ministry in congregations. Are small groups fostering connection to the worshiping life of congregations? Are they grappling with the Christian faith as it has developed throughout history? Are their members supporting each other emotionally and engaging in corporate confession of sin? Are they helping their members figure out what it means to be a Christian while living in a global community?
These questions about “what small groups do” are only the starting place, however, for those of us who are committed to participating in, leading, and developing church-based small groups. We want to know both what small groups “ought to do” in light of God’s work of reconciliation in our world and “how to do it.” We want to know how small-group community can be shaped less by our cultural ideals, such as individualism, and more by our faith in the triune God. We want to know how small groups can foster authentic spiritual community where lives are formed and transformed by the Spirit of God. These are the questions and issues that propelled me to study small groups and to write this book. To answer these questions, I invite you to join me on a practical theological journey, where our understanding of community, small groups, and the church intersect in creative and illuminating ways.