Lyman Coleman and I were sitting in his living room, enjoying glasses of iced tea and chatting about the history of the small-group movement. I asked the Serendipity founder and small-group pioneer where he thinks the movement is today. I was shocked by his answer. "'Small groups' means nothing anymore," he said matter-of-factly. It's not that he's bitter. It's not that he's given up on small-group community. It's just that over the years he has seen the term take on meanings that are miles from what Coleman and his cohorts intended when they first invested in the small-group movement decades ago.
We are wise to learn from our past as a small-group movement. "Those who cannot remember the past," said George Santayana, "are condemned to repeat it." This is far from a new concept. The psalm writer Asaph determined to teach the "hidden lessons from our past. . . . We will not hide these truths from our children; we will tell the next generation" (Psalm 78:2–4). I believe the pioneers of the small-group movement can teach quite a bit to small-group adherents today. So let's bring some of the lessons from our past out of hiding.
The Emergence of the Small-Group Movement
To start from the beginning would take us all the way back to creation or at least as far back as Jesus' small group, but you've probably already read and heard about all that. (If not, I'd recommend reading Biblical Foundations for Small-Group Ministry and Community 101.) So let's start in the last century, as the contemporary small-group movement developed.
According to Frank Lincoln Fowler III, the first use of the term "small-group movement" goes back to the 1920s and 1930s, when Calvary Episcopal Church in New York City "utilized several principles central to the eventual proliferation of the small group movement in the church." The next several decades, however, showed little growth of groups in the church. Instead, there was a strong development outside the church in organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous and parachurch groups such as the Navigators.
"In the early days," Coleman says, "the small-group movement was primarily an underground movement. The established church didn't want anything to do with it. Also, small groups were often an alternative 'watering hole' for those who had become disenchanted with the established church or had been turned away from the church because they didn't have their lives together." Coleman recounts easily and passionately how the idea of small groups was tested in parachurch ministries and other places in the 1940s and 50s, and how it developed through the antiestablishmentarianism of the 1960s at national training labs, Faith at Work conferences, and retreat centers.
An early experiment in small-group community in the local church took place when Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., began in 1946. Elizabeth O'Connor, a member of this pioneering church, chronicled the church's beginnings in her book, Call to Commitment.
In this book and other writings from those involved early on, it's obvious that this movement was not about forms, structures, or numbers; it was about a paradigm shift in how the church viewed itself. It was revolutionary in nature—an attempt to restore the dynamic community in the New Testament church. These pioneers wanted to demolish the "edifice complex," transform the insider mentality of many churches, and get away from a purely knowledge-based form of the Christian life. Two major themes in these early days of small groups emerged: (1) commitment (to Christ and one another) and (2) the giving away of one's life, which involved a strong sense of calling and personal surrender.