Small Groups Forge New Notions of Community and the Sacred

By Wuthnow, Robert | The Christian Century, December 8, 1993 | Go to article overview

Small Groups Forge New Notions of Community and the Sacred


Wuthnow, Robert, The Christian Century


A VINTAGE silver Porsche sits on blocks in the driveway across the street as its owner tinkers with the engine. Next door a man with thinning gray hair applies paint to the trim around his living room window. But at 23 Springdale something quite different is happening. About two dozen people are kneeling in prayer, heads bowed, elbows resting on folding chairs in front of them. After this they will sing, then pray again, then discuss the Bible. They are young and old, men and women, black and white. A teenage girl remarks after the meeting that she comes every week because the people are so warm and friendly. "They're not geeks; they just make me feel at home."

At the largest gothic structure in town several people slip hastily through the darkness and enter a small door toward the rear of the building. Inside there is a large circle of folding chairs. On the wall a felt banner reads "Alleluia Alleluia" (the two A's are in red). Before long all the chairs are filled and an attractive woman in her late 30s calls the group to order: "Hi, my name is Joan, and I'm an alcoholic." "Hi, Joan," the group responds. After a few announcements, Betty, a young women just out of college, tells her story. Alcohol nearly killed her. Then, close to death in a halfway house, she found God: "I thought God hated me. But now I know there is a higher power I can talk to and know."

These are but two examples of a phenomenon that has spread like wildfire in recent years. The activities are so ordinary that it is easy to miss their significance. Most of us are probably vaguely aware of small groups that meet in our neighborhoods or at local churches and synagogues. We may have a co-worker who attends Alcoholics Anonymous or a neighbor who participates in a Bible study group. We may have scanned lists of support groups in the local newspaper, noting that anything from having an underweight child to having an oversexed spouse can provide a reason to meet. But we may not have guessed that these groups now play a major role in our society.

Groups such as these seldom make the headlines or become the focus of public controversy. They are not the stuff that reporters care very much about. Few people are involved in small groups because they are trying to launch a political campaign or attract the attention of public officials. With the exception of a few lobbying groups, they are not trying to initiate public policy. Nor are they soliciting funds, selling stock, distributing products or earning a profit. They are simply the private, largely invisible ways in which individuals choose to spend a portion of their free time. In an era in which television networks and national newspapers increasingly define what is important, it is easy to dismiss the small-group phenomenon entirely.

To do so, however, would be a serious mistake. The small-group movement has been effecting a quiet revolution. It has done so largely by steering clear of politics, business and the national news media. Its success has astounded even many of its leaders. Few of them were trying to unleash a revolution at all. They were simply responding to some need in their own life or in the lives of people they knew. They started a group, let people talk about their problems or interests, and perhaps supplied them with reading material. The results were barely perceptible. It was, like most profound reorientations in life, so gradual that those involved saw it less as a revolution than as a journey. It was concerned with daily life, emotions, and understandings of one's identity. It was personal rather than public, moral rather than political.

The small-group movement is beginning to alter American society because it is changing our understandings of community and redefining spirituality.

Community is what people say they are seeking when they join small groups. Yet the kind of community small groups create is quite different from the communities in which people have lived in the past. …

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