353: “Wherever two or more are gathered” … spirit and community grow. Why small groups are so powerful now.

A dozen of us formed a circle as the latest James Bond Bible study group began in western Michigan, this time at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portage.
    Why did I choose this particular church and this particular circle? The answer is — person to person connection. An old friend, Greg Mann, is a teacher at that church so I agreed to head west on a snowy Sunday afternoon to meet with his circle that, on one level, we might dismiss as so small and so isolated that it was hardly worth my time to trek two hours one way to spend one hour leading their small group.
    But, if you think it was a crazy effort — you’re missing entirely the power of “spiritual connection” (our core purpose here at ReadTheSpirit) and the power of small groups to transform American religious life.

    Here’s the bigger story about such a small group — and why it matters to you.

    Small groups are the future of spiritual connection. The future growth of spiritual media — book publishing, filmmaking, effective teaching — lies in the network of America’s hundreds of thousands of small groups. If you think this is just ReadTheSpirit talking here, then just wait until you see some of the major forces in American media moving toward small groups this year, including giants like National Public Radio.
    We’ve written countless stories about the dramatically changing shape of American religious life. What’s driving this historic change? Dr. Wayne Baker, the host of OurValues.org, spent years researching these shifting values and concludes that the fuel is a potent mix of deep faith and a passion for self expression. He’s not alone. Scholars David Roozen and James Nieman call it “expressive individualism” in the midst of our rapidly changing religious landscape.
    That “landscape” is vast in America! There are 335,000 congregations in the U.S.! Most are small — about 75 regular participants is typical (so some churches themselves are, by definition, small groups).
    Congregations are extremely valuable communities in the lives of millions of men and women. (Care to read more? This congregational data is summarized by the excellent Hartford resource site on religion in America.)

    But, why are small groups so hot in the midst of all this change? Why are so many people — including those of us here at ReadTheSpirit — working so hard to nurture small groups?
    The answer is that these groups most closely meet people’s personal needs. Businesses already understand this principle, often called “affinity circles” in the secular world.
    The opportunities are enormous in congregations — because more than half of active worshipers are not active in a small group, right now. (That’s data from the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, which interviewed 300,000 people in 2,000 congregations, including a broad mix of mainline Protestant denominations, black churches, Pentecostal groups and Catholic parishes.)
    The key to building small groups is meeting people’s daily needs and interests. (Dr. Baker’s “America’s Crisis of Values” actually charts this distinctive American convergence of values, compared with scores of other countries around the world. As Americans, we want “self expression” to connect with our deep faith — and we do that best in intimate groups.)

    So, back to that room in the Presbyterian church near Kalamazoo.
    Those dozen people ranged in age from teens to 70s. Some of them were leery of the violent James Bond they know so well from Hollywood. But the were daring to crack open the cover of a very unusual Bible study, written by Dr. Benjamin Pratt — all about how biblical wisdom is reflected in the novels of James Bond creator Ian Fleming.
    I passed out a dozen copies of a list charting Fleming’s “Seven Deadlier Sins.” These are the lethal temptations that Fleming explored in the Bond novels and Pratt explores in his Bible-study guide to Fleming’s work: “Moral cowardice, hypocrisy, self-righteousness, cruelty, malice, avarice, snobbery” — plus Fleming’s over-arching “eighth” sin, “accidie” (or sloth, a sense of powerlessness in the face of great need).

    I asked the group: “Looking at this list, please, and let’s talk about which of these temptations hit close to home in our daily lives. Can you each pick one to talk about? We’ll go around the circle. We’ll give each person a chance to talk. And, let’s start with you, shall we?”
    “Pick one?” said a man. “I could talk about several of these.”
    A woman shook her head. “Self righteousness. I have to talk about that.” Others around the circle were nodding with her. This was touching very close to our lives.
    Another woman slowly and with great deliberation said, “I have to start with moral cowardice. I struggle with this all the time.”
    Others were nodding with her.

    We were off and running.
    The spirit moved in that room.
    Around us, new-media connections moved as well. A local newspaper, The Kalamazoo Gazette, kindly published several different pieces on this new kind of small group. That included one story that the Gazette invited me to write for a popular Midwest Web site, M-Live, to which that newspaper contributes.
    That appearance on M-Live connected outward with Cook Partners, a group that provides ministry resources nationwide. Cook picked it up and moved the message onward and outward. (You can read more about these connections in the “What People Are Saying” page within the Bond site.)

    Spiritual connections.
    The truth is: For that one effort I made on a snowy afternoon, the circle we formed grew far larger than a dozen people in a room. Now, that includes you — as you read this story today.
    That’s a story of spiritual connection that we all need to share more broadly.
    In tough times, that’s truly good news.

(Today’s photographs by Amy Crumm.)

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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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