What we don’t talk about when we talk about small groups

For the past 2 1/2 years, we’ve led a small group at our church, a little ragamuffin group of mostly college sophomores and juniors with another married couple mixed in for good measure.  Some have come since the beginning and we’ve picked up a precious few others along the way.  Sometimes I struggle to remember the names of the people who visited only once, those people who spoke of wanting to join a small community but then disappeared without a word.  I send emails to a ghost for a few weeks and then take the hint—they aren’t coming back.

Our group no longer feels like a baby group, and so I’m doing a little reflecting on the growing pains.  And, oh, there are such growing pains.

After all, there are nights when you prepare a feast, and no one comes.  You carefully pick out a passage of scripture that never gets read.  And you sit at the table with your spouse and fight the urge to complain, to commiserate over the fickleness of college students, and to cancel the group forever.

Because hosting a church small group is always a hard thing at the beginning, and the beginning can last for a long time.  (Sometimes the group dies in the beginning because it didn’t realize it was still in the throes of the beginning.)

To be honest, I didn’t have much experience with hosting a church small group until B. J. and I married.  And I really did not think it was that difficult: people sign up, you provide food, they come to your house.  I never considered the ins and outs of small group dynamics, never wondered how hospitality could be a spiritual discipline.  When you are a teacher, of course, the group always comes—whether you have snacks or not.

But hosting a small group of mostly college students tested my limits on what I was willing to give to my church.

You are there every time.  You go over budget on your groceries to feed these people.  Your eyes grow wide at the 19-year-old man-boy who eats three, four bowls of your chili.  You let people linger even when you need to be in the English building at 7:30 the next morning.  You welcome people with open arms when they come early every time and you are still vacuuming. (You learn to give thanks for this one in particular and you start leaving the door unlocked.)  You let yourself mourn when no one comes to your meals (because there will be many nights—not just a few—when no one comes).   Your numbers will dwindle.  You make the same, sometimes-forgotten feast again the next week.

You do not know your own bitterness or your own capacity for self-pity until you agree to lead a small group for your church.  But this is what you sign up for, when you offer to lead a small group.

What we don’t talk about when we talk about small groups is that leading them can be painful.  An infant small group can make the leaders feel the middle-schooler lunchroom anxiety they thought they’d long left behind.  I think we overemphasize all the good things that leading a small group can do.  We forget to remind people that 80% of the group’s early meetings will feel empty, that your numbers will probably split in half after that first week.  In fact, all new small group leaders should hear these words like a catechism: Your group’s first meeting is likely the opposite of what the group will grow to be.

And then they need this catechism, too: One day your group will die, because all small groups pass away in time.  Only you can determine if it will be a good death.

Our little small group is so comfortable right now, so exactly what it needs to be for these people and for us.  I’m trying to give thanks for this season of comfort, but I do think about the death sometimes…

I wonder if I will be able to predict it, if any of us will predict it, and if we will let it pass away willingly.  You love the group and you desire that it will have a good death.  You wish for an Ars moriendi for your carefully carved-out community.  But people in a college town especially will move on.  You will move on one day.  Perhaps whenever we start a small group, we must be willing to see that it is always moving towards its death.    Some groups will last several years, but I dare you to give me a group that maintains even three-fourths of its original membership for a decade.  There isn’t much comfort in this, I suppose, but  I wonder if it’s secretly formative: we learn quiet death and messy resurrection through the ebb and flow of small group life. 

This is what we don’t talk about, when we talk about about small groups.