Robert Wuthnow, well-known sociologist at Princeton University, indicates that his research reveals a hungering for a sense of social connection in our country, but that current trends do not seem to satisfy. One indication of this hunger, Wuthnow insists, is the tremendous growth of the small group movement. These small groups take many forms including AA, growth groups, and therapeutic groups led by trained professionals.[i] The church has joined this endeavor as well, with Bible study and fellowship groups.
In fact, one of the fastest growing concepts in congregational life is that of the “cell church.” This is a congregation where the primary way of “doing” church is small groups meeting in homes during the week. On Sunday the members of the various groups come together for a mass celebrative worship service. Another growing configuration is the “Simple” or “Organic” church movement. There are many indications that these may become the dominant form of the Christian church during the new millennium.
While small groups often do an excellent job helping fill the spiritual, social, and psychological needs of many people, all indications are that they do not serve the same function and do not adequately replace the more civic-based community life. In addition, most churches do not fully recognize this hunger for community, and even when we do, many create a type of community that does not necessarily contribute to the common good of all people. Notwithstanding the fact that small groups provide many positive benefits , including increasing bonding social capital as discussed in the previous post, it should be recognized that small groups can draw people away from community and civic involvement rather than increasing that kind of engagement. It is therefore imperative that the church be intentional about creating bridging social capital as well as bonding social capital.
Do you have small groups in your church that bridge the gap between racial, social, and economic barriers? Does you church support ministries to the least, the last, and the lost, or do you build genuine connections with the least, the last, and the lost?
What kind of community are you creating? Are you only producing an enclave of “bonding” social capital or are you also producing the kind of inclusive “bridging” social capital that reflects the demands of the gospel?
[i]Robert Wuthnow, Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and the Quest for a New Community (New York: Free Press, 1994).