Small Groups Forge New Notions of Community and the Sacred

by Robert Wuthnow

Robert Wuthnow is a Century editor at large and a member of the faculty at Princeton University.

This article is adapted from his book Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America’s New Quest for Community, to be published in February 1994. Copyright © 1994 by Robert Wuthnow. Reprinted by Permission of the Free Press, a division of Macmillan, Inc. This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 8, 1993, pps. 1236-1240. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The small-group movement is beginning to alter American society because it is changing our understandings of community and redefining spirituality.

A vintage silver Porsche sits on blocks in the driveway across the street as its owner tinkers with the engine. Next door a man with thinning gray hair applies paint to the trim around his living room window. But at 23 Springdale something quite different is happening. About two dozen people are kneeling in prayer, heads bowed, elbows resting on folding

chairs in front of them. After this they will sing, then pray again, then discuss the Bible. They are young and old, men and women, black and white. A teenage girl remarks after the meeting that she comes every week because the people are so warm and friendly. "They’re not geeks; they just make me feel at home."

At the largest gothic structure in town several people slip hastily through the darkness and enter a small door toward the rear of the building. Inside there is a large circle of folding chairs. On the wall a felt banner reads "Alleluia Alleluia" (the two A’s are in red). Before long all the chairs are filled and an attractive woman in her late 30s calls the group to order: "Hi, my name is Joan, and I'm an alcoholic." "Hi, Joan," the group responds. After a few announcements, Betty, a young woman just out of college, tells her story. Alcohol nearly killed her. Then, close to death in a halfway house, she found God: "I thought God hated me. But now I know there is a higher power I can talk to and know."

These are but two examples of a phenomenon that has spread like wildfire in recent years. The activities are so ordinary that it is easy to miss their significance. Most of us are probably vaguely aware of small groups that meet in our neighborhoods or at local churches and synagogues. We may have a co-worker who attends Alcoholics Anonymous or a neighbor who participates in a Bible study group. We may have scanned lists of support groups in the local newspaper, noting that anything from having an underweight child to having an oversexed spouse can provide a reason to meet. But we may not have guessed that these groups now play a major role in our society.

Groups such as these seldom make the headlines or become the focus of public controversy. They are not the stuff that reporters care very much about. Few people are involved in small groups because they are trying to launch a political campaign or attract the attention of public officials. With the exception of a few lobbying groups, they are not trying to initiate public policy. Nor are they soliciting funds, selling stock, distributing products or earning a profit. They are simply the private, largely invisible ways in which individuals choose to spend a portion of their free time. In an era in which television networks and national newspapers increasingly define what is important, it is easy to dismiss the small group phenomenon entirely.

To do so, however, would be a serious mistake. The small-group movement has been effecting a quiet revolution. It has done so largely by steering clear of politics, business and the national news media. Its success has astounded even many of its leaders. Few of them were trying to unleash a revolution at all. They were simply responding to some need in their own life or in the lives of people they knew. They started a group, let people talk about their problems or interests, and perhaps supplied them with reading material. The results were barely perceptible. It was, like most profound reorientations in life, so gradual that those involved saw it less as a revolution than as a journey. It was concerned with daily life, emotions, and understandings of one's identity. It was personal rather than public, moral rather than political.

The small-group movement is beginning to alter American society because it is changing our understandings of community and redefining spirituality.

Community is what people say they are seeking when they join small groups. Yet the kind of community small groups create is quite different from the communities in which people have lived in the past. They are more fluid and more concerned with the individual's emotional state. The vast majority of small-group members also say their sense of the sacred has been profoundly influenced by their participation. But small groups are not simply drawing people back to the God of their fathers and mothers. They are dramatically changing the way God is understood. God is now less of an external authority and more of an internal presence. The sacred becomes more personal, but in the process also more manageable, more serviceable in meeting individual needs, and more a feature of group processes themselves. Support groups are thus effecting changes that have both salutary and worrisome consequences. They supply community and revitalize the sacred. But for some of their members at least, community becomes more readily manipulated for personal ends, and the sacred is reduced to a magical formula for alleviating anxiety.

At present, four out of every ten Americans belong to a small group that meets regularly and provides caring and support for its members. These are not simply informal gatherings of neighbors and friends, but organized groups: Sunday school classes, Bible study groups, Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step groups, youth groups and singles groups, book discussion clubs, sports and hobby groups, and political or civic groups. Those who have joined these groups testify that their lives have been deeply enriched by the experience. They have found friends, received warm emotional support and grown in their spirituality. They have learned how to forgive others and become more accepting of themselves. Some have overcome life-threatening addictions. Many say their very identity has been changed as a result of extended involvement in their group. In fact, the majority have been attending their groups over an extended period of time, often for as long as five years, and nearly all attend faithfully, usually at least once a week.

But the small-group movement has not grown simply by meeting the needs of its individual members. Its very existence depends on the changing structure of the American family and the community.

The dramatic growth of the small-group movement can be explained only by considering the social context in which it has arisen. Ours is a highly fluid society. Many of us lead anonymous lives. We no longer live in the same neighborhoods all our lives or retain close ties with our kin. The small-group movement has arisen out of the breakdown of these traditional support structures and from our continuing desire for community. We want others with whom we can share our journeys. The phenomenon extends even beyond this desire, tapping into our quest for the sacred itself.

Providing people with a stronger sense of community has been a key aim of the small-group movement from its inception. There is a widespread assumption that community is sputtering to an undignified halt, leaving many people stranded and alone. Families are breaking down. Neighbors have become churlish or indifferent. The solution is thus to start intentional groups of like-minded individuals who can regain a sense of community. Small groups are actually doing a better job than many of their critics would like to think. The communities they create are seldom frail. People feel cared for. They help one another. They share their intimate problems. They identify with their groups and participate regularly over extended periods of time.

But there is another sense in which small groups may not be fostering community as effectively as many of their proponents would like. Some small groups merely provide occasions for individuals to focus on themselves in the presence of others. The social contract binding them together asserts only the weakest of obligations. Come if you have time. Talk if you feel like it. Respect everyone's opinion. Never criticize. Leave quietly if you become dissatisfied. Families would never survive were these the operating norms. Close-knit communities in the past did not operate this way. My argument, then, is that small groups are both providing community and changing our understanding of what community is. In view of all the accounts that have depicted Americans as lonely, self-interested individualists suffering from isolation, disrupted families, a lack of friends, a difficulty in establishing intimate relationships, and the demeaning anonymity of large-scale institutions, the small-group movement presents a rather different picture. The large number of people who are involved in small groups, the depth of their involvement, the extent of their caring for each other, and even the degree to which they reach out to others in the wider community all suggest that the social fabric has not unraveled nearly to the extent that many critics have suggested.

In short, small groups are a significant feature of what holds our society together. And their prevalence means the society does indeed have mechanisms to hold it together. Small groups draw individuals out of themselves, pull them out of their isolated personal lives, and put them in the presence of others where they can share their needs and concerns, make friends and become linked to wider social networks. Small groups provide a way of transcending our most self-centered interests, tempering our individualism and our culturally induced desire to be totally independent of one another. The attachments that develop among the members of small groups demonstrate clearly that we are not a society of rugged individualists who wish to go it entirely alone, but are a communal people who, even amid the dislocating tendencies of our society, are capable of banding together in bonds of mutual support.

Nevertheless, we must also understand that the kind of community generated by small groups is clearly different from that which has characterized families, neighborhoods, ethnic groups, and tribes throughout most of human history. Small groups differ from families in several basic ways. The members of small groups are seldom related to each other biologically. They thus do not share the imagined heritage, destiny or physical traits and personality characteristics that unite individuals who are related by blood. Most families are also economic units that bear legal responsibilities for their members’ shelter, clothing, education and medical support, and these economic responsibilities generally extend over long periods of time, usually for at least several generations. Small groups clearly do not function as families in this respect. Their members seldom incur any financial obligations on behalf of other members or the group as a whole.

Neighborhoods, ethnic groups, and tribes differ from small groups in other important ways. The community provided in these settings generally has an important physical dimension. People live in the same area, see each other informally in the course of their everyday lives, and identify themselves by way of certain buildings, streets, parks, culinary customs or distinctive clothing. The social unit is primary in the sense that an individual can live in only one neighborhood or be a member of only one tribe.

There is also a sense of inevitability about such identities. Adults may have chosen their neighborhoods, but throughout much of history they have lived in the community of their birth, and their ethnic or tribal identity was ascribed to them, rather than being chosen at all. Small groups are by comparison far less associated with physical proximity and decidedly more purposive, intentional and voluntaristic.

So when people say they are finding community in a small group, and even when they describe their group as a family, they mean something quite different from the connotations that words like "community" and "family" have had in the past. Whether they recognize it or not, their sense of community now means something over which they themselves have a great deal of control. They have chosen to join one particular group, rather than any of the dozens they might have been exposed to, and they may be involved in more than onecertainly if their involvement over a lifetime is considered. Moreover, their dependence on the group is far more likely to involve emotional care than physical or economic support, and this care may be given quite sporadically. The encouragement received in a group certainly can be powerful. But it is still limited to an evening a week. Compare that to the continuous byplay that takes place among families who share the same dwelling.

The reason these considerations are terribly important is that the basic fabric of society depends on how individuals structure their relationships with one another. This is not to say that economic wherewithal or political arrangements are unimportant. But community always lies at the intersection of individual needs and institutional structures. If small groups are altering the ways in which we conceive of community, their impact may well be greater than even their most deeply involved members realize. The changes at the individual level may seem overwhelmingly positive. Person X says she has been cared for, encouraged and strengthened to make it through the day. That is all to the good. But in the process we must also be mindful of what she is not saying. She is not saying, for example, that she plans to devote her life to this group. She is not saying that she will alter her career plans for the group. She may make small sacrifices for other group members, but if she finds the group burdensome or unfulfilling, she may extricate herself. And, in talking about how she can share her innermost feelings with these strangers and feel supported by them, she is saying something that her grandmother would have found difficult to understand.

By their own accounts at least, members of small groups frequently say they joined because they were interested in deepening their spirituality, and many of them say this quest has in fact been fulfilled. Their faith has become a more important part of their lives, and they have found others with whom they can pray and share their spiritual interests. I would go so far as to say that the small-group movement cannot be understood except in relation to the deep yearning for the sacred that characterizes much of the American public. To be sure, there are individuals and types of groups for whom this generalization does not apply. But a great deal of the momentum for the movement as a whole comes from the fact that people are interested in spirituality, on the one hand, and from the availability of vast resources from religious organizations, on the other hand. Small groups have been championed by many religious leaders as a way of revitalizing their congregations. And there is evidence that small groups do encourage people to become more active in their congregations. Yet the more important fact, in my view, is that small groups are also redefining how Americans think about the sacred.

We can imagine at the outset why this might be the case if we remember that there is often a close relationship between the ways in which people understand their relationships with each other and the ways in which they approach God or some other conception of the sacred. I do not mean, of course, that the one necessarily serves as an exact template for the other. But societies organized around the authority of kings and lords, for

example, are certainly more likely to employ figures of kingship and lordship in metaphoric ways when they try to speak about God than societies organized in different ways. Similarly, religious traditions

in which an intimate, emotion-laden relationship with God is valued are quite likely to emphasize the importance of intimacy in human relationships as well. At present, therefore, it would not be surprising to find

that small groups oriented toward the intentional cultivation of caring relationships might also be especially interested in helping individuals cultivate such relationships with the divine as well.

It is, however, the intentionality of these relationships that is worth considering, not whether they emphasize caring or not. In many cultures it would be unthinkable to engage in activities with the explicit purpose of discovering the sacred. Divine providence, grace and the inscrutability of God would be emphasized instead. God would seek out the individual, like Yahweh capturing Moses' attention through the burning bush. It would be less likely for the individual to set out to find God—and certainly unthinkable that deep spirituality could be found by following a set of prespecified guidelines or steps. Such quests are, of course, quite common in American culture, and have been throughout our nation's history. Prayer and the reading of sacred texts, for example, are prescribed ways of drawing closer to God. Nevertheless, the small-group movement elevates the degree to which such activities are planned, calculated and coordinated.

Most small groups that have anything to do with spirituality do not simply let the sacred emerge as a by-product of their time together. Instead they prescribe activities for growing closer to the sacred. Books are studied and prayers are recited, sometimes in unison, and generally according to a formula indicating what is appropriate to think about and to say. Study guides spell out a sequence of steps that people can follow in order to find God or to know the will of God. The notion of discipline itself becomes more important because seekers are supposed to exercise control over their time, thoughts and, increasingly, even their feelings as they embark on the quest for God. Being disciplined in ones spiritual life is regarded as a good thing, just as being disciplined about ones health habits, weight, physical exercise, mental health and use of time is a good thing. The sacred comes to be associated with the process or activities by which it is pursued. The object after which one seeks may remain somewhat mysterious or intangible, but group members know clearly that they are on the right track because they are following a rational set of procedures.

The sacred is also being redefined by the small-group movement's emphasis on achieving practical results for everyday living. The image of a spiritual journey might suggest that seekers are on their way to the promised land—perhaps the heavenly realm that believers enter after death, or perhaps a millennial kingdom that will eventually replace the present world. The dominant impulse in the small-group movement, however, is to emphasize the joys of the journey itself. Seekers often have no idea where they are headed, only that they are on the road. Thus the important thing is to cope with life as fully as possible from day to day. The signs of spiritual growth follow naturally from this logic. The signs of the sacred are all pragmatic. They reveal themselves in feelings of peace, being happy, and having a good self-image. The sacred, above all, works. It helps one get along better on the job, to behave better with one's family, and to feel better about one's self.

Coping more effectively with everyday life is, of course, a desirable aim. But the contemporary redefinition of spirituality falls short on two counts.

All too often it serves more to comfort people, allowing them to feel better about things as they are and helping them to be happy, than to challenge them to move significantly beyond their present situation, especially if such movement involves definite sacrifices or discomforts. Rather than encouraging them to seek higher goals, it can thus inoculate them against taking the risks that may be necessary for true growth to emerge. It adapts them to the demands of everyday life, rather than providing a sense of transcendence that casts an entirely new perspective on everyday life itself. It also makes the individual the measure of all things.

At one time theologians argued that the chief purpose of humankind was to glorify God. Now it would seem that the logic has been reversed: the chief purpose of God is to glorify humankind. Spirituality no longer is true or good because it meets absolute standards of truth or goodness, but because it helps me get along. I am the judge of its worth. If it helps me find a vacant parking space, I know my spirituality is on the right track. If it leads me into the wilderness, calling me to face dangers I would rather not deal with at all, then it is a form of spirituality I am unlikely to choose. To be sure, there are significant exceptions to these patterns. Small groups sometimes challenge their members to undertake painful processes of spiritual growth. But the more common pattern seems to be a kind of faith that focuses heavily on feelings and on getting along, rather than encouraging worshipful obedience to or reverence toward a transcendent God.

The most general way in which small groups are redeeming the sacred, therefore, is by replacing explicit creeds and doctrines with implicit norms devised by the group itself. Throughout the centuries religious bodies devoted much of their energy to hammering out doctrinal statements. They sent representatives to church councils to debate the wording of creeds, and they formed organizational structures around varying conceptions of ecclesiastical authority. Making things explicit incurred huge costs, to be sure, including much sectarian strife and even religious wars, but believers assumed it was important to know specifically what was right and what was wrong. The small-group movement is changing all that. Group members still have a sense of the importance of knowing what is right or wrong. But their groups seldom study religious history or formal theological statements. Rather, they discuss small portions of religious texts with an eye toward discovering how these texts apply to their personal lives. Personal testimonies carry enormous weight in such discussions. But these stories are also subject to group norms. These norms include implicit assumptions about whether one can be instructed directly by God, whether it is important to read the Bible to receive wisdom, what the role of intuition is, and how prayer should be understood.

In a very real sense, then, the group itself can become a manifestation of the sacred. Its members feel power within the group. They feel closer to God when they are gathered than when they are apart. They are sure the deity approves of their meeting as they do.

They may be less sure that people can find God apart from the group. The group encourages people to think about spirituality, but in the process channels their thinking so that only some ideas about the sacred are acceptable. Spirituality becomes a matter of sincere seeking and of helping each other, all the while respecting whatever idiosyncratic notions of the sacred that one's peers may develop. Moreover, God becomes a relational deity who somehow needs to be triune in order to have heavenly companionship.

The small-group movement is at least as important to understand as the political system or the economy. Those who are involved in small groups often claim that these groups have influenced how they think on political and economic issues—for example, raising their interest in questions of peace and social justice or, in the case of conservative religious groups, generating ire about abortion and gay rights. They also know there is far more to group life than these issues. The people with whom one relates form a primary means of identity. The fact that one is able to tell stories about one's life makes these groups far more significant than the fact that one is a Republican or a Democrat. In the telling of personal stories, one gradually becomes a different person, an individual whose identify depends in subtle ways on the feedback given by other members. Those who are not in groups themselves can well imagine the importance of such processes. Many of these people have themselves been in groups in the past, have participated in informal networks that functioned in the same ways, or at least have experienced families, classes and work groups that served as primary sources of identification.

In my view, the small-group movement is now at a critical juncture. To date, its social effects have been largely beneficial. It has provided caring and support for millions of Americans who were suffering from addictions, personal crises, loneliness and self-doubt, helping them to put their lives back together. It has been a source of vitality for many religious organizations, providing reasons for people to join these organizations and to start thinking about their spiritual journeys. The movement has skillfully deployed its resources to reach virtually all segments of the population. It has probably exacerbated some of the problems associated with individualism in American society, but at the same time it has tried to encourage people to care more deeply for others. To be sure, there are some worrisome signs having to do with the ways in which it is redefining community and spirituality. But its failings reflect more on broader trends in our society than on the movement itself in responding to social and personal needs, the movement has been able to grow enormously. Consequently, it is now poised to exercise even greater influence on American society in the next decade than it has in the past two decades. The resources are there: models have been developed, leaders have been trained, national networks have been established, and millions of satisfied participants are ready to enlist their friends and neighbors. What it will do with these resources is thus an important question for its members and leaders to consider.

The small-group movement must choose which of two directions it will go. It can continue on its present course, or it can attempt to move to a higher level of interpersonal and spiritual quality. Given its success over the past two decades, it can easily maintain the same course. It can draw millions of participants by making them feel good about themselves and by encouraging them to develop a domesticated, pragmatic form of spirituality. By helping people feel comfortable, it can perhaps even expand its numbers. The other option will require it to focus less on numerical success and more on the quality of its offerings. Besides comforting its members, the movement may find itself challenging them at deeper levels—to make more serious commitments to others who are in need, to serve the wider community, and to stand in worshipful, obedient awe of the sacred itself.