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In my previous post I discussed the term “small group” and how difficult it is to define and pin down what the term actually signifies. Is a small group a curriculum driven study? Is it a hard-core accountability group? Is it an affinity group with no obvious component geared toward Christian formation? In surveying the ways that the term is deployed, the answer would appear to be “yes.”

Figuring out what a small group is becomes even more difficult when we recognize that the boundaries between informational, transformational, and affinity groups are often blurred so that one group contains many aspects of each of these categories of small groups.

At the end of my last post, I suggested that it might be more helpful to skip the question “What is a small group?” and ask instead, “What should the definition of a small group be?” In this post, I am going to propose a definition for how the United Methodist Church should define small groups in the context of twenty-first century American Christianity.

Before offering my definition of how small groups ought to be understood, I want to clarify several assumptions that inform my defintion.

First, the church and people have limited time and resources. Church leaders need to be clear about what is most important for people to do in order to reliably expect to grow in their faith. When it comes to small groups, then, I think the church ought to decide which type of small group will be most helpful for the UMC’s stated mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” and clearly prioritize those types of groups over others.

Second, United Methodist leaders cannot take biblical literacy for granted amongst its membership.

Third, despite there often being room for significant growth in knowledge of the Bible and its contents, a deeper problem for United Methodism than biblical illiteracy is that most United Methodists know more than they put into practice. For example, I am confident that most committed United Methodists could tell you that reading the Bible and praying are important Christian practices. I doubt most United Methodists do both of these things on a daily basis. (I hope I am wrong.)

Fourth, every Christian ought to be able to talk about their faith in light of the every day events of their lives. However, I do not think that every Christian is actually comfortable doing this. One of the reasons many Christians are not comfortable talking about how they are growing as followers of Jesus Christ is because you learn how to talk about your faith by talking about your faith, and this does not happen in focused ways in most small groups. However, I believe it is possible for every Christian to recognize God’s action in their lives and to give voice to experience of God’s presence or a lack of a sense of God’s presence.

Fifth, I assume that Jesus cares more about whether we are becoming the kind of people he wants us to be than whether we are becoming more knowledgeable. I do not think that these two things are mutually exclusive. However, if we have to pick between information or transformation, I think we should have a strong bias in favor of transformation.

Sixth, when the UMC talks about small groups, we should be able to take for granted that any small group would have a strong Christian emphasis. In other words, Christian small groups are not social clubs or activity groups that do not have any focus that is distinctly and easily recognizable as Christian.

I am sure that there are many more ways I could list criteria for how we should define what a small group is. What do you think I missed?

Based on the previous factors, I would say that the ideal understanding of a small group in a Christian context should be:

Small group – a group of people who gather together on a regular basis with the goal of becoming more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, to attend to the ways that God is at work in their lives and the extent to which they are cooperating with God’s grace, and to watch over one another in love and mutually challenge, support, and encourage one another in the pursuit of deeply committed Christian discipleship.

This is very much a working definition that I pulled together for the purpose of this post. However, I think it has the advantage of being general enough to provide for flexibility and adaptability to various contexts and the needs of various groups of people. On the other hand, it is clearly and correctly weighted toward the transformational approach to small groups as opposed to informational groups or affinity groups. There are a variety of ways a group could be organized in order to meet this definition. And yet, any group that is not primarily focused on attentiveness to growth in discipleship would not count as a small group by this definition.

Finally, I think this definition is a start for providing much needed clarity for knowing what we mean when we say “small group.” I also believe that such an understanding of small groups compliments and strengthens United Methodism’s own understanding of its mission, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

This post is admittedly a thought experiment, and certainly not an attempt to try to say the last word about how we should understand small groups. What would you change or add to what I have said?

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