At this point it is helpful to consider the impact of group dynamics and how this idea plays out in our own model, or way of “doing church”. Group dynamics are not an especially religious phenomenon; as they extend beyond churches and into organizations of all shapes, sizes and purposes. When we use the term group dynamics, what we are referring to here is primarily the differences between people’s interactions and relationships when they are placed in groups of different sizes. In other words, how people act when they are in a group of seven people will be different from how people act when they are in a group of one hundred people.
Large Groups = Family Reunions
The first of the three different group types is the large group. A large group numbers more than 50-60 participants and is comprised primarily of tertiary relationships. In our context, our Sunday morning worship assembly is a large group; where the primary purpose is to worship God together as a large family. There is very little, if any, personal sharing that takes place when this group meets. Specifically, our interaction and relationship development is limited to the few minutes prior to and immediately following the worship time.
In order to understand the social dynamic, it might be helpful to think of this group as a family reunion. At traditional family reunions we have the opportunity to catch up on what’s been going on in our lives, reminisce about fond memories and departed loved ones, share a great meal together and even create a few new memories. It’s a great time, a time that none of us would ever trade. But there are limits to what we do together. This is very much what our Sunday morning worship is like.
One of the misunderstandings of large groups in the church context is that everyone should be close, and able, to minister to everyone. That is an expectation that cannot be met and sets people up for disappointment and disillusionment with church; because it is not congruent with the purpose of the large group on Sunday mornings—which is to worship, encourage one another and be edified by the Word of God being presented.
Medium Groups = Thanksgiving Dinner
The next group is the medium sized group. A medium sized group will generally number between 15-50 people. These groups are comprised primarily of secondary relationships. In the context of our church our medium-sized groups are primarily going to be bible classes on Sunday morning and Wednesday evening. These middle-sized groups are usually, depending to a large extent on the group leader, successful at providing a non-threatening environment where people can share on a surface level. People can get to know everyone in the group by name, talk about things like the weather, their hobbies and maybe even their families. It’s an opportunity to experience social fellowship, acceptance and sense of belonging. And in the context of our bible classes, it gives people the opportunity to ask questions and share thoughts and opinions about the text or topic being discussed, which the large group does not provide.
If the large group is like the family reunion, then the medium sized group is like the family that gets together at Thanksgiving. Your spouse, children, grandkids and perhaps a sibling might all be present. Because of these relationships, we will generally share on a much more personal level than with our second cousins at the family reunion. But because of the size of the group and the relationships present there is still a ceiling or limit to the level of closeness that we might be willing to share.
Small Groups = Dinner Table
This brings us to small groups. These groups generate primary relationships and generally number between 5-15 people. It is in these primary or small groups that relationships are deepened and intimate or personal sharing takes place. Referring to the family illustration, this would be your immediate family with your spouse and children. When your immediate family sits down together for supper (at the dinner table) there is very little that is off limits in terms of where our relationships will allow the conversations to go. If we are functioning as healthy family units then the kids will feel open to share what happened at school that day and how it made them feel (good or bad). Similarly, Dad will feel comfortable griping to Mom about the person at work that is being difficult. And Mom will have no problem sharing the personal struggle that she might be having with her sister and mother. These are representative examples of what small groups are like—members of the group sharing life together and thereby practicing the “one another” passages. This is different in content from the Thanksgiving meal family. And it is certainly different from the Family Reunion group.
A Summary Diagram of the Small, Medium and Large Group Types
In the church setting the small group goes beyond surface interaction and social fellowship to a spiritual fellowship. In small groups people can begin to fulfill biblical mandates such as “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2) and “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). The small group is the context where those things are lived out.
The point is not that small groups are inherently more valuable or more biblical. Each has their place in the Church and presents their own unique value. And this is why a small group ministry is essential for our ability as a Church to effectively live out the biblical expression of the church as a family. Having this ministry built into our structure provides a stable and consistent opportunity for us to collectively practice the “one another’s” and thereby fulfill our Vision to be Jesus’ family.