I was recently invited to sit in on a small-group faith formation session at a parish in my diocese. It was everything you could hope for, truly a picture of what is best in the revival of the Catholic faith today. It was also – in its very goodness – a sobering reminder of how easy it is for good intentions to alienate the faithful and destroy parish life.
First let’s talk about the good, and this group was 100% good:
When I arrived, I was greeted by the friendly, well-organized group facilitator. She had no idea I was coming that evening, and in true mystery-shopper fashion, I didn’t say anything like, “Hi, my name’s Jen and I critique parish faith formation programs for a living.” I was just a visitor turning up at her group. She made sure I had the study materials I needed, and she had us all introduce ourselves so I’d get to know the other members.
The facilitator tag-teamed with a thoroughly prepared, eminently knowledgeable lead instructor. His role was to take some fairly obscure history, scripture, and doctrine, and turn it into a lesson the whole class could understand. He did a top-notch job. The facilitator in turn moderated group discussion, making sure everyone had a chance to participate, but that the group didn’t veer off track. There was a palpable sense that everyone in the room was excited to be learning about the faith and growing in their relationship with God.
The group discussion was about more than just academics. The members discussed their experiences with evangelization, their own perspectives on how to live out the Catholic faith, and the questions and difficulties they were having. What does “Catholic” look like in my personal everyday life? This mixed-age, mixed-background group of disciples and seekers weren’t looking for textbook answers. They were serious about learning to practice the Christian faith.
It was excellent. Afterwards I told the group leaders how heartening it was to have spent the evening with such a sincere, faith-filled group of fellow believers. That’s the good part, and as I said, it was 100% good.
Now for the perilous part: This group would have been an absolute disaster for 90% of the parish.
Why do I say that?
What made this group excellent was that it perfectly met the needs – intellectual, spiritual, and social – of the dozen or so members gathered. By definition, then, it could not be the group that met the needs of everyone else.
Death by Small Group
As I drove home, I thought about the everyone else. I knew, as I considered the typical range of personality, interest, and spiritual maturity that is common in any parish, that no parish small-group program could be successful if it tried to find the One Perfect Format.
Time and again I hear about parishes trying just such a disastrous program: Hey, here’s this program-in-a-box, and it’s perfect for everybody! We’ll have small groups! Our parish will be renewed!
It turns out people don’t box well. Some parishioners participate, but dropout rates are high. Those who don’t stick with it are accused of being elitist, or lazy, or too busy with less important things. It never occurs to the organizers that some parishioners have already moved beyond the program’s core focus, others aren’t ready yet, and still others simply can’t make the scheduled meeting time.
What does an effective Small Groups approach look like?
There’s nothing wrong with deploying group-in-a-box ministries as one part of a total parish renewal effort. But it must be understood that any single small group can only serve 10-15 participants effectively. So if your parish has 1500 members, that’s 150 different mini-communities you need to have deployed, unless you’re planning to leave some members excluded from parish life.
There are commonalities among your parishioners, so more than one group might be, say, studying the same book, but meeting at different times of the week. There are also vastly varying spiritual needs. Some parishioners need a gentle, help-me-not-be-afraid introduction or re-introduction to the Catholic faith. Others needs to be pushed, hard, to use their immense gifts in the service of the Lord. Some will be thirsty for intense prayer; others can’t process the faith except through the physicality of human interaction in the works of mercy.
Practical needs vary, too. Some parishioners will only be able to attend if there is eldercare, childcare, an ASL interpreter, or a barrier-free facility. Some will need a format the allows for frequent absences due to out-of-town travel or swing shifts. Some can meet only during the day, others only on the evening, others only on the weekends.
Contrary to popular belief, this diversity of spiritual and physical needs doesn’t begin at age eighteen, either. To assume that birth date is the sole distinguishing characteristic of Christian children is to commit a gross act of spiritual violence against the human person. Kids need a variety of choices in spiritual formation, just like adults do.
But everybody – everybody – in your parish needs a small community. Human beings literally cannot socialize in large gatherings. You’ll notice that even when we get together at large events, it’s with just a handful of others that we actually socialize.
That’s because we can’t physically hold a conversation with fifty or a hundred or five hundred other people. We cannot be spiritually nurtured and supported by “friendship” with 1,000 of our closest pewmates. A healthy parish, like the one I visited, makes the creation and on-going support of small-format parish gatherings a top priority.
Copyright Jennifer Fitz 2014