Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow, in his 1994 study "Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America's New Quest for Community," found that roughly one-fourth of Americans were involved in some type of small group. In my own research on baby boomers, I found an increase in the number of people involved during the 1990s: One-third of the people we interviewed reported being in a small group in 1988-89; by 1995-96, the figure had increased to 43%. Many of them belonged to more than one group.
|Among many people who have participated in small groups, there seems to be a deepening of commitment and a serious quest.|
Small groups attract because they extend opportunities for sharing, intimacy, and support. People bond with each other over shared concerns, and for many Americans recently, this bonding has emerged as they've talked over their feelings about the wounds and worries of life. The groups have become settings for therapeutic language that allows people to think of themselves as revisable--contributing to an old and cherished theme in American culture, the notion that a person can "start over."
But do such groups have a lasting impact on people? There is reason to ask. Many people move in and out of these groups frequently. The conversation holding the groups together is subjective, introspective--perhaps even self-absorbed. It often lacks spiritual depth. There is community, yes, but of a narrow and limited sort. The question is not easily resolved. Religion, it seems, always has its light side. Shallow, flaky, tacky--that's everyday American religion. And if this is said about organized religion, then it must be said about small groups catering to popular themes about fragile selves.
Actually, it appears that many people involved in small groups do stick with them long enough to benefit. Many do, in fact, "start over," get their lives together, and understand themselves in new ways. Evangelical Christians recognize the power of the small group to bring about and reinforce change in people's lives; they have created their own version of recovery groups for this very purpose.
It is understandable why this is so. Participation in a small group amounts to more than just personal experience. People hear the stories of others in similar circumstances, and in so doing they become incorporated into a broader narrative about life's dilemmas, possible resolutions, and hope for the future.
For example, Sara Wellington, a single mom in Ohio, says: "In the small circle of women with whom I meet at the Lutheran Church, I discovered that I was not alone in my frustrations trying to raise two children, work, and make ends meet. Our stories were all similar, and just being together we found common hope and promise. We shared faith and belief in God."
Religion works that way: It is deeply personal, but when people come together they grasp anew how they fit into a larger drama.
Sara Wellington, again, is a good example. Raised Lutheran, she was inactive for 20 years. Now she is exploring her Lutheran heritage. She has met other women in the small group involved in other types of church activities. She has begun to read books on Christian symbols and liturgy. She would like her children to know more about their religious heritage.
Religious and spiritual practice--actually engaging in prayer, Bible study, worship, religious celebration--is important. Aging boomers especially, who 10 or 15 years ago led the way in creating small groups, are now more likely to be practicing what they have learned and refocusing small groups around the larger meanings of faith. They're assuming greater family responsibility, taking up social-justice causes, and volunteering with charities.
Talk is less about "recovery" and "journey" and more about "partnering" with others to get worthwhile things done in the community. Small groups working with other such groups appears to be on the rise as well: In Los Angeles, for example, recent research reveals growing numbers of coalitions across faith traditions trying to bring about social change.
Across the country, I've observed a mix of small groups combined with larger social networks and religious structures. The Internet is making this possible--Generation X pastors share sermon ideas and discussion-group strategies; special-purpose groups coordinate around particular causes. People recognize the need to cultivate a shared spirituality and to restructure religious organizations in a manner that will better express people's convictions.
The power of small groups is not limited to empowerment of their individual members. One person I spoke with some years ago told me that the really exciting things happening in his church all occurred in the basement. He spoke of a "religious upstairs" and a "religious downstairs," and held out hope that the ideas taking shape down below would in time reach upward.
We may have yet to see just how important small groups can be. Their long-term significance could lie in the potential to transform old, and often crusty, religious organizations into sustainable spiritual dwelling places.