- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

Not long ago, the book “Simple Small Groups” landed on my desk.

Back in the 1970s, small groups — then known as “home groups,” “shepherd groups,” “kinship groups” and so on — were the rage in American churches. Word had gotten out about how Seoul’s Yoido Full Gospel Church had mushroomed to 7,000 members, thanks to the partitioning of believers into pods of 10 or so people.

What was radical at the time was that Korean women were allowed to lead these groups — quite the example for evangelicals around the world who weren’t letting women lead much of anything.

These groups, which operated like midweek Bible studies with a dash of worship and prayer for peoples’ needs, were fairly new in American Christianity, but they took off like wildfire. They were the church growth movement du jour for 25 years, as the expectation was that nonbelievers would join these home-based (and nonthreatening) groups, then migrate through the church doors at some point.

It never really worked.

By 2000, I noticed small groups were running out of steam. The pastor at the church I was attending was heard to say that he could not find qualified leaders, so he was letting groups die a natural death as soon as their current leaders got burned out.

So when I saw the book on small groups, I called author Bill Search, leader of community groups at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky., to get the status of the small group movement. His first response: It’s aging.

“I’m in my 30s,” he said, “but the major voices in the movement are in their 50s.”

But he says small group involvement has never dropped, pointing to major churches that ditched Sunday school programs to concentrate on home-based groups.

“Churches like Northpoint [an Rev. Andy Stanley] do Sunday morning worship and small groups and that’s it,” he said. No midweek Christian aerobics, no Sunday night meetings; in today’s more streamlined church, one attends the main church on Sundays and a home group on a weeknight.

“[Small groups] are the closest thing to the electricity of the early church,” he said. “Paul wrote his letters to basically small groups run amok. They give you a sense of being part of a family.”

He wrote his book to support small groups in their efforts to draw in people, bring them closer to Jesus and then reach out to other people.

“Some people come there for spiritual formation,” he says. “Others are there for friends. You run the gamut.”

Small groups are user-friendly in today’s culture of rebellion and distrust of any organization — they are hierarchically flat, home-based, approachable and personal. Churches are even hiring staff to build small groups, he said, adding that some seminaries offer master’s degrees in the topic.

What he’d like to see in groups are situations where people can be honest about their struggles along the lines of James 5:16, which exhorts Christians to “confess your sins to one another.”

“If we don’t confess to each other and hear people affirm us, in the process we lose a sense of forgiveness,” he said. “If we confessed what we really struggle with, that’d be electric.”

Julia’s Duin’s “Stairway to Heaven” column runs Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

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