A recent CNN blog by Dan Merica claims that 68 percent of the religiously unaffiliated say they believe in God. With numbers like these, the potential for the unaffiliated to experience a religious affiliation in a new way is on the positive side. Through understanding the current makeup and trends in American religious life, we can find solutions to engage those who have never participated, have left, or have lost desire in religious participation. We must rethink our structure and strategy to engage those who currently do not belong.
This structure is not merely about small groups programming, but a paradigm and cultural shift from the previous ways of “doing” church. It is a new lens through which to offer an experience. The implementation of structures to support and sustain a small group paradigm within the spiritual community can go a long way in supporting a sustainable and growing congregation. The aim is not to suggest small groups are a cure-all, but a paradigm for looking at the way ministry is expressed through a new lens. By developing an organization that can meet the needs of some of these 68%, we might provide a place for them to engage.
People are as different as the stars in the sky or the sand grains on the beach. So are their understanding and views of God. The traditional church and the way it provides for a changing population is just not working anymore. In his book Organic Community, Joseph Myers opens with a story of a woman, an artist, returning from facilitating an artist workshop. In the story, the woman expresses concern over one aspect of the workshop. She was excited that ninety percent of the people in attendance were there to learn through expressing and sharing. Yet her thoughts were on the other ten percent who were expecting to be handed a checklist and how-to list rather than engaging in the learning itself. This story points to the idea that the majority of the people are wanting to learn through sharing and exploring rather than being told what to do.
This paradigm is about promoting exploration and experience. By exploration, we allow people to come together to explore their feelings and thoughts of God and that relationship. It is an intentional structure that provides a safe environment for people to become authentic, where they might explore their understanding of God and life. The organization provides a structure that supports small groups in this exploratory process.
Professional or collegiate sporting events, concerts, rallies, or charismatic churches engage large numbers of people. Large events are not needed to provide powerful experiences for people. Smaller, more intimate gatherings can also provide powerful experiences that feed people. We can learn from large charismatic denominations or more introspective denominations; large gatherings of outward expression or smaller groups with inward retrospection. We can look past the theological debate and anchor into the experience that attracts and feeds people. Today we are facing a society of social media and technology for people to remain connected, albeit through satellites. In such a society, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to engage in a face-to-face way that nourishes some of the basic human needs.
Spiritual communities must open to shifting and moving with the changes in present day society to support and fill these needs of experience and exploration. A small-group structured organization has such possibility. With the focus on the people rather than the institution, and developing a fluid structure that deepens this paradigm into the very DNA of the organization, the attachments to precious programs can dissolve and an ever-evolving organization can emerge. The sacred cows (sacred programs) must be identified and allowed to dissolve to engage people in deep exploration and experience. Bruce Sanguin suggests dropping the ‘g’ from the word Kingdom to make it Kin-dom. This subtle but powerful shift can set the tone for a new paradigm.
There are plenty of encouraging books and resources to support the development of a small groups program. However, it is less about a small groups program, and more about a fundamental paradigm shift in the way the ministry functions. It is a cultural shift from “providing” to “allowing.” It is a movement from “determining the best for the church” to “embracing the best for the people.” It is a letting go of control in determining what is right for people and allowing the people to determine and decide what is best for them. It is about structuring in such a way that people can create, develop, and get what they need to fulfill their spiritual development and deepening understanding of God, self, and that relational embodiment. A small group paradigm is not the only answer, but it allows us to more easily shift direction in an exponentially fast-moving world.