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SMALL GROUP WORSHIP HELPS GIVE A SENSE OF COMMUNITY

September 21, 2000

AMHERST - The scene at first seemed ordinary, a handful of adults gathered in a nondescript living room where a pile of toys had been stacked against the window. Then the prayer and singing started, followed by a discussion of personal mentors and the consumption of tea and Oreo cookies.

Indeed, the Christian meeting in Elizabeth and Barrie Tan's living room was emblematic of what some see as part of a quiet revolution taking place in similar living rooms throughout the country.

The Tans have been involved with home fellowship groups in Amherst for 17 years. The group meeting in their house has been gathering once a week for a year and a half with about a dozen core participants and a steady stream of friends and visitors who come less regularly.

"The focus is on worship, prayer, getting to know each other and getting to know the Bible," said Elizabeth.

The growth of small groups like this one is viewed by some academics as an important shift in how Americans create community. Robert Wuthnow, a Princeton University sociologist, studies small groups, a phenomenon he says spread like wildfire in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In his study, based on a $100,000 Gallup poll he commissioned, Wuthnow found that four in every 10 Americans were involved in some sort of small group, including book clubs, 12-step programs, and hobby organizations. Fully two-thirds of those small groups, however, are affiliated with a church or synagogue, he found, and account for about 60 million Americans.

The cumulative influence of these small gatherings is at least as important to understand as the political system or the economy, he wrote in a 1994 book called "Sharing the Journey." Wuthnow says the small group movement is changing how we think of community as well as redefining how Americans think about the sacred.

The groups, which usually meet in homes, are remarkably stable, with the average length of participation among members five years. According to Wuthnow, the number of people involved in small groups has remained steady since he conducted his survey six years ago.

Chris Weigel, pastor of Maple Ridge Church in Amherst, which is affiliated with the Christian & Missionary Alliance, says he made a conscious effort to establish home fellowship groups within his congregation of 70 about a year ago. Two groups are now meeting; one gathers at his home, the other at the Tans' house.

Elizabeth Tan says she notices that as people get older, they have to make more of an effort to create a sense of community.

"Hanging out with other people has to be more intentional," she says, citing the pulls of work and family obligations.

Childcare duties, which take place at the house of a couple living several blocks away, are rotated among the members of the group. The rest of the adults gather to pray, sing hymns, and share personal thoughts and experiences.

One woman, Sue O'Connell, 42, said she is drawn to the small group because she wants to get to know members of her congregation on a more personal level and she wants them to know her.

"I don't want to be just a faceless person in a crowd," she says. "The older I get, the less new people I meet. It takes some work to meet new people. But the whole point of a church, as I see it, is that you work on your relationship with God and your relationship with other people."

Tan says her home fellowship group attracts young people because she tends to be less dogmatic in her faith than other lay leaders might be. She likes to think of herself as the facilitator of the group, preferring to let each member speak independently to the topic at hand for any given evening.

Weigel, 46, the pastor, runs the group that meets in his home a little differently. He puts less emphasis on singing and prepares handouts for each week. He also relies more heavily on the Bible. He sees the need for home fellowship becoming increasingly important as the size of a congregation grows.

"As the church grows larger, you want it to grow smaller at the same time," he says. "People will come to church for a number of reasons, but people will stay in church for relationships."

Wuthnow wrote in his 1994 book that small groups let people create a sense of community in a fluid society where traditional ties such as family and stable neighborhoods are loosening. At the same time, they address a deep yearning for the sacred, he says.

The downside of this movement, he says, is that the ties that bind in gatherings such as home fellowship groups are less demanding than in well-functioning families and the close-knit communities of the past. Even though people share genuinely intimate aspects of their lives, some small groups merely provide occasions for individuals to focus on themselves in the presence of others.

Weigel, the pastor, says home groups are for many an entrance to religion and deeper ties to a community, whereas churches or gatherings of large groups can intimidate people. Homes, he says, are nonthreatening.

Bob Dyer, cell pastor of the Faith Christian Center in Bedford, N.H., a Pentecostal congregation of 500 members, says about three-quarters of the members of that church meet in homes between Sunday services.

The church cell groups have about 15 members, he said, and if they grow much beyond that, the idea is to split them in two. Much of his work involves teaching pastor skills to cell members.

Cells are also important to keeping people active in church, said Dyer, especially because large services can be impersonal.

"A message heard on Sunday morning lasts about till Sunday afternoon," says Dyer, "but lessons learned in cells can last a lifetime."

Dyer says he draws up outlines of lessons the groups can use as the basis of their weekly meetings, but they have a good deal of autonomy. He has disbanded some cells, though, because he felt their concerns strayed too far from the mission of the church.

Brian Fleming, the senior associate pastor at the Maranatha Christian Church in Williston, Vt., says 50 cells of between four and 15 members each have formed since 1996.

Part of the attraction also has to do with the fact that his church serves a large geographical area and home cell groups make it easier for people to participate in the life of the church more often.

"Instead of driving 40 minutes to church on a Wednesday evening," he says, "they can go next door or across the street.

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