Wanting to know more people and become more “invested” in church at the age of 24, I reluctantly joined a small group.
I was post-Bible college, living in Chicago, trying to establish my role as an adult. I joined a hip urban church that had gorgeous stone architecture, uncomfortable wooden pews with lumpy cushions, and stained glass windows. I loved the gritty mix of lawyers and street people who filled the pews each Sunday. The choir sang from the back of the sanctuary, providing an other-worldly sound. The acoustics, with all that wood and stone, were perfect.
I longed to be a part of a church like this. It was a far cry from the plain Jane, suburban Baptist church of my childhood. This church was socially conscious and intellectually liturgical. This fit my identity – as a hip urban Christian. I wanted to belong to this church, to be a part of it.
But I knew no one.
Each Sunday I would slip, virtually unnoticed, into the pew. After the service, I would sneak quickly away and walk home, my insecurities preventing me from joining the coffee hour in the basement. I am an introvert by nature, and definitely not a group joiner. Belonging has never been a natural part of my life. Still, in this case I wanted to be more than just a visitor, so when they mentioned small groups, I was relieved. This was my way in. I could do this.
Our small group met in people’s city apartments. We were an odd mix. There were a few young couples and a few singles. We were urban dwellers – some suburban transplants. We all went to the church, but, besides that, we had very little in common. In our introductory moments, we kept throwing out bits of information, but no one jumped on them. They each died a slow death of silence.
The church asked each group to meet for 8 weeks then review the progress of the group. So we stuttered along during those first meetings. We quickly realized that there were no veterans in the group. We had all joined to get to know people in the church, but we were silently disappointed that every one of us was in the same boat. We were all newcomers. Nobody was connected or knew how to be.
We did the typical small group things:
We Bible studied.
For eight weeks, we repeated the pattern. And it was okay. We all thought it was just fine. The food was great.
On week eight, when I was hosting the group in my little one-bedroom apartment, someone reminded us that we needed to have that conversation. We were supposed to talk about how the group was going, and decide whether or not to continue. No one wanted to go first. We all stared at the ground. I played with the styrofoam cup I was holding, quietly shredding the edge.
Finally, one man spoke. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe it’s me.”
We all looked up, startled. He flushed and averted his eyes. “Well, I don’t think this is what I expected.”
“Me neither,” gushed a girl who seemed like she had been holding her breath. “I wanted to know more people in the church. I thought we’d meet lots of people.”
The conversation continued, all of us nodding and breathing deep sighs of relief. It was like a strange, awkward, prolonged break up scene. “It’s not you; it’s me.” None of us wanted to continue. We were unanimously relieved, and slightly embarassed. My small group decided to break up.
One by one we left the apartment, friendlier than we’d been for eight weeks.As I shut the door to my apartment, I felt a sense of relief, but also failure. How could you break up with your small group? Was that even allowed? Was God ashamed of us?
I look back on that experience and wonder what went wrong. Why hadn’t we bonded? We had the commonality of Jesus. We all wanted belonging. Yet, we didn’t find it. That one small group failed experiment was enough to turn me off of the process altogether, as fashionable as it has become.
Are small groups successful? Some certainly seem to be. But, for me and for the others in my group, it was a bitter pill to swallow and an experience I don’t long to repeat.
I’ve thought that perhaps that this type of group bonding needs to happen more naturally, more slowly. Perhaps we just had a bad mix of people or it was the wrong time in my life. But generally I’ve found that the most rewarding relationships in my life are not forced or assigned.
It is true that loving Jesus provides great commonality among believers, but it is not always instantaneous. Spiritual bonding that goes beyond surface niceness requires time. It can develop gradually out of shared laughter and out of the little quirky things you find in common. Sometimes, it does not happen at all.
I have no great lesson in sharing this sad break-up story other than to say – I’ve been there. If you’ve ever felt the odd man or woman out – you aren’t alone. If you’ve felt you don’t fit in, know that there is great community to be found inside the walls of church, but it doesn’t happen quickly and it won’t happen every time.
For some of us non-group introverts, we need a gentle hand. We just need one friend, not an assigned group. We need time to know each other, to bond and to trust.
I know. It happened to me.