Getting Deeper: Getting Smaller: Small Christian Communities Revitalize Faith, Strengthen Parishes, Participants Say

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Two Friday nights a month, Tim and Trina Wurst meet up with four other young Indianapolis couples in one of their homes. They're not there to unwind with a movie and a few drinks. Instead, they read scripture, pray, share their faith journeys and plan service projects.

It's not an easy commitment, considering that the couples are busy parents who have 12 children among them. One night, they might arrange for babysitters. Another night, they take the kids along, and one of the adults skips the meeting to look after the youngsters in another room. A few times a year, the children join their parents in an intergenerational meeting.

"We've been doing it since before we had kids," said Trina Wurst, a mother of three who joined the group in 1999. "We've just been very flexible and had to adapt .... The idea of us not staying together is harder to imagine than figuring out a way to stay together."

Half a continent away, in suburban New Jersey, another small Christian community gathers every three to four weeks--more frequently in Lent and Advent. Composed of mostly middle-aged and retired Catholics, the group doesn't worry about babysitters or school schedules; in fact, they don't all have kids. They've bonded in different ways.

Longtime friends and occasional political activists, some had protested the Vietnam War together in the 1960s. Others had formed a food co-op in support of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Workers movement. Even now, they tend to be politically active, although they've disagreed on issues ranging from immigration to the Iraq war.

"We've had conflict. We're not all the same political persuasion," said Mary Ann Jeselson, 68, who has been a member for 13 years with her husband, Stephen. "[But] I have such a deep respect for these people that I've got to believe that they have arrived at their decisions and their opinions in an honest way."

Across the country and around the world, a small but fervent cross-section of Catholics have been meeting in small Christian communities, some for decades. While the majority of Catholics look to their parish as the center of their spiritual life, those in small communities say their groups add a level of support, intimacy and nurturing that are hard to find at the parish level.

Further, they say, reflecting on scripture and discussing its application to everyday living makes them feel more accountable for how they live out their faith in the world. Some proponents say small Christian communities have the power to revitalize the face of parish life and the larger church.

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Small groups have long been gathering in parishes, but the groups of previous decades were usually connected to outside programs instead of rising from parish life organically.

"Those [programs] are invaluable experiences ... but the thrust of small communities is to root the small communities in the parish instead of making them parallel to the parish," said Marianist Br. Bob Moriarty, who leads the Office of Small Christian Communities in the Hartford, Conn., archdiocese.

As many as 45,000 to 50,000 small Christian communities may exist in the United States today, and there are surely at least 37,000, according to "Small Christian Communities in the U.S. Catholic Church," a study funded by the Lilly Endowment and conducted in the late 1990s. William V. D'Antonio of The Catholic University of America headed the research, which was then compiled in book form by Marianist Fr. Bernard Lee, vice president for mission and identity at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, a fellow researcher on the project. Lee is a coauthor of the 2000 book The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities (Paulist Press), in which researchers posit that Catholics' thirst for sharing their faith at an intimate level goes back to the home-based gatherings of the early Christian church (see related story on Page 6). …