I recently participated in a small group at a local church. During one of our meetings, I asked fellow participants to say what attracted them to the church-and what didn’t. One young woman (I’ll call her “Angela”) remarked that she was drawn to sermons and programs “that are relevant to my life.” Urged to say more, she explained, “well, a couple of weeks ago I heard a sermon that kept referring to ‘Pontius Pilate.’ I don’t know who that is. I want sermons that relate to what’s happening today rather than these obscure biblical characters.”
How could I respond? I wanted to exclaim, “Look at the front page of any daily paper, and you’ll see how relevant Pontius Pilate is! His story is repeated with every corporation executive or public leader who sells out and sacrifices others to get ahead!” But then I realized the problem: it wasn’t that Angela didn’t understand Pilate’s relevance. It was that she didn’t know about Pilate because she hadn’t heard the story.
In congregations of all sizes, denominations, and locales, people for years have gathered in small groups to learn from each other and provide mutual support. It has often been understood in such groups that foundational religious education has taken place elsewhere: during worship, Sunday school, or other settings. Small groups, on the other hand, have been places of personal and social intimacy—where we could let down our defenses, open our hearts and minds, share our stories and listen to others, and begin to make profound connections between our lives and the larger story of our faith traditions.
But what happens when there is no longer a shared biblical story around which we can connect? Is there not a danger that small group conversation can turn from personal revelation into self-absorbed banter? And in such a context, is there not a tendency to conclude that our stories are somehow ours alone—that a whole host of saints and sinners have never faced our challenges in life? Finally, is there not the risk that in forgetting (or never learning) the story of God’s people, we lose sight of their God—and ours?
It’s easy to bemoan—and sometimes chuckle at—biblical illiteracy. But the truth is that many people who grace our doors for the first time have not grown up hearing the stories of our faith traditions. And many of those same people are seeking the intimacy, trust, and sense of community that a small group can offer. How can we respond to both of these conditions, helping people to connect their personal stories to a larger story?
Fortunately, there are resources for congregations seeking to do just that. Here are a few (many more are available; check with your denomination): The Congregational Resource Guide is proud to make available online an adapted version of James Newby’s Gathering the Seekers (originally published by the Alban Institute in 1995). This tutorial for small group leaders provides the tools and processes for increasing biblical and theological literacy “while deepening the ability to reflect on the twin poles of life and faith” through developing a NET (“Nurturing Experience Theologically”) Groups program. We invite you to check out this tutorial and give us your feedback.
Other resources? You might consider The Art of Theological Reflection by Patricia O’Connell Killen and John De Beer. The authors present nine processes for theological reflection—each of which focus on our lived experiences and enable those experiences to converse with our religious heritage. Or take a look at James and Evelyn Whitehead’s Method in Ministry: Theological Reflection and Christian Ministry. Here is a model that draws upon Christian tradition, personal experience, and cultural realities as tools for theological reflection. We also recommend Reflecting with God: Connecting Faith and Daily Life in Small Groups by Abigail Johnson, a book that explains the basics of setting up theological reflection groups and developing Christians committed to taking Scripture, theology, and their own lives seriously.
Claudia Greer, Research Associate for the Congregational Resource Guide. www.congregationalresources.org
Tutorial for Small Group Leaders
Gathering the Seekers by Dr. James Newby. Tried small group ministry and failed? Then try one more time with James Newby if you want to:
- Empower participants to be more effective ministers regardless of profession;
- Increase the biblical and theological literacy of participants;
- Deepen the ability of adults to reflect on the twin poles of life and faith; and
- Revitalize congregations and edify community.
Based on his successful workshops that have changed lives and churches, Newby presents a practical program for developing small group ministries that work. He shows clergy and lay leaders how to select, train, and motivate small group leaders and their groups. You will discover how small group ministry can become the linchpin of your church’s revitalization.
Small Groups in the Church: A Handbook for Creating Community by Thomas G. Kirkpatrick
This planning and leader training handbook offers a distinctive broad-based, small-group approach to building community. From the Jewish havurot to Christian koinonia, you will gain a thorough understanding of community, learn how to plan an effective small-group ministry, how to select and train leaders for all kinds of small groups, and how to start small groups that are a part of and not apart from their congregations.
Reflecting with God: Connecting Faith and Daily Life in Small Groups by Abigail Johnson
In a broad sense, theological reflection happens any time that we wonder about God, our faith, our beliefs, and our values. In this book, however, Abigail Johnson offers a structured process for engaging in theological reflection by looking at a situation or event through a series of questions. These questions are designed to help individuals and small groups to think through situations with the eyes of faith. Click here to read a chapter.