Part 3 of this “mini-odyssey” gives anecdotes about our small groups in New York state.
In 2008, our church (to which we were driving 72 miles one way) started some cell groups. We were for a short time members of one of these groups, but it met Sundays after regular church, lengthening an already long day that began about 8 a.m. and ended between 4 and 5 after grocery shopping and the long drive home. A less draining scenario may result when a larger church’s cell group meets on another day of the week, but Sunday seems to be the default for many groups.
I don’t remember what these groups were called, nor was there anything particularly noteworthy about the studies or discussions, but I do remember the good people, three of whom I keep in touch with here and there. The food was also good, but more important were the “connection cards” (business card size)—cards to encourage folks to come to a smaller, more intimate, non-intimidating group that offered real connection. I’m not sure anyone ever used the cards (I didn’t), but it was a step in a positive, missional direction, thanks to the deacon in charge of the cell groups program.
Hopeful, blue skies in a state with a lot of gray
In the fall 2009, we decided to begin a Bible study group in our home in rural, western New York.¹ We had no idea at the time just how much this small group would come to mean to us. It began with three very committed souls plus the two of us; saw a dozen others visit once, twice, or more times; and ended in mid-2013, when we moved, with a pretty solid group of 9-10 including ourselves.
We met on Sunday evenings from 7:00 till whenever, and that “whenever” was never before 9:30 and often was more like 11:00+. There was always serious, contextually focused and relatively academic (that is not a pejorative word!) Bible study. Food and visiting were always involved, and that kind of communion was almost always extended into the Lord’s-Supper kind of communion. Singing and worship were regular features, although not receiving as much focus as I had given those things in past lives.
It should be mentioned that the other members of this group were college students at the time; the fact that I was also teaching or conducting most of them influenced the dynamic some. More significant, I think, is the fact that these young adults—who were already getting a lot of Christian influence through that college and who had all been brought up to follow after God—were hungry enough for something (besides food!) that they were very committed to this group’s gatherings.
Now we were getting closer to the goal.
I would describe our NY home group as having characteristics of both the “small group Bible study” (and our study was pretty good most of the time!) and the “cell group.” It was also what I’d call a “house church,” although most of the group members also attended another church in the mornings. (Where is it written that you can’t belong in some sense to multiple church groups?)
. . .
And then there were two straight years of one-year contract jobs. During this time, we were attached to churches that did some good Bible study here & there but had no real semblance of small groups. Arguably, these churches were small groups, so no one would feel the need for a smaller group, but something was missing: not a lot was being shared among the individuals—beyond what is typical in larger, even more institutional churches, that is.
Next: An interjection on prayer in small groups
¹ There actually is a western New York that doesn’t have much to do with NYC, “upstate,” the Finger Lakes, or even the Adirondacks. Much of it is relatively poor and far less populated than you might think.
The rather extreme commute length on Sundays made the thought of centering on a small group in our home even more appealing. In 2010, our home group officially (I’m not much into official, so this factor wasn’t a huge one for me) became one of the larger church’s cell groups, and also sort of a house church. We no longer traveled 150 miles most Sundays; we began to consider this organically formed group to be our church.