This “mini-odyssey” will be no epic tale. It will give a few anecdotes about small(ish) groups that have been part of my Christian journey.
Small groups have at their heart a notable horizontal/relational component, at least in concept. They also tend to animate my inner world in one way or another. In other words, this will be about looking outward and, to a lesser degree, looking inward.
From Texas to Delaware
In the first church I was part of as an independent adult, there were Bible study groups. I helped to start and lead one of the groups, and was a part of three such groups there. A young adult Bible class of a couple dozen folks was particularly well structured, intentionally delving into texts more deeply than most; some relationships from within that larger group spawned smaller groups. The Sharing and Caring program, incidentally also led by the same middle-aged couple as the Bible class, helped to encourage various types of visiting in homes. Although I would not appreciate aspects of that program today, it absolutely spurred me to invite people into my home, and I remember a few of those visits. One friend remembers a late-night E.R. visit aided by friends from within this group. Another friend sat in a chair in the corner of my living room, next to the stereo, and comfortably, relationally remarked, “Good discussion, good music, and good friends . . . it doesn’t get much better than this.” It might be worthy of note that these strong remembrances are more than a quarter-century old.
Another church was fairly decrepit during my short time there and would probably not have had the young-enough, healthy people to populate more than one small group, and I only remember one visit in a home. At the same time, Christian friends from another church became fast friends, and there were several visits in each other’s homes. At the time, there was no thought of “small group” with these friends, yet it was an important Christian association in which life was shared, to some extent.
In the next church, I started a Bible study group, led some, and was a “mere” participant in one or two. There were LIFE Groups (an acronym for Love In Fellowship Extended), but those groups could not be classified as small, nor did they aspire or attain to any of the relational goals of contemporary small groups/cell groups.
In youth land, I was asked (and eventually pleased) to play a group leadership role, including worship with a smallish group (ranging from 10 to 20). The gatherings were in living rooms, included food and discussions and studies of both the natural and structured types. Very small groups of 3-4 teenagers were also begun, and I had the opportunity to work, relate, serve, and teach in that milieu. I remember a lot of drives home to their houses and some good talks. At least one relationship persists to this day, now 15-20 years later. Various groups of teenagers constituted the best, most viable and sustainable small group experience I had had to that point.
Some of the above groups were more purposeful and of higher quality than others. Only the larger teen group worshipped, as far as I can recall. I suspect that I would now find much of the study material lacking or off-track from a contextual standpoint, despite its being very purposefully structured to engage teenage hearts.
Greater Kansas City
It wasn’t until Northland Mission Church in 2002 that I was a part of what I would now call a “small group” or “cell group.” It wasn’t all that different from the earlier Bible study groups, but there had been a bit of a progress in terms of what the group was about and how it was conceived.
That group was pretty good, but an even better group was formed from within the River of Life Church in North Kansas City, MO. Both groups met bi-weekly. By then I knew I was looking for a smaller, more serious group that more or less became church.
The driving distance was an issue, in both cases: I was either 30 minutes or an hour away, respectively, from the meeting place. There was a somewhat enhanced sense of connection, and yet the physical distance limited that sense.
I don’t remember a single Bible study or topic or heart-wrenching conversation of any type from these two groups, but I do have a residual study guide or two, as well as a few remaining acquaintances and connections (nothing that could be called “friendship,” really). One of the groups was quite a nice sub-family, and I felt a sense of belonging. Something was beginning to happen in my heart; I know that because I wrote and dedicated a song to two small groups that I was beginning to consider my truest Christian family.
Next: Groups in Colorado and New York