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Lyman Coleman: Small Groups, Remember to Reach Out

Decades before churches were even beginning to think of small groups as we know them today, John L. Casteel wrote a book called Spiritual Renewal Through Personal Groups. In his book, Casteel chronicled the stories of seven churches that dreamed of a new kind of church where people could really care for one another. I remember reading Casteel’s book when I was a student in seminary and thinking, “If it can happen in seven churches, it can happen in every church in America.”

Three Pillars of a Long-Gone World

When Casteel wrote his book, three guarantees held society together: (1) the extended family, (2) the guaranteed job, and (3) the secure neighborhood. Grandma and Grandpa lived next door. Jobs were for life and your family lived in a nice-and-modest neighborhood and attended the nice-and-modest church around the corner.

That world is gone—long gone.

Today, grandparents might come to see you at Christmas, Mom and Dad scramble to keep their jobs, and home security devices attempt to keep the neighborhood at bay. We “need” three cars, three-car garages, three bedrooms, two baths, a boat, a bike, an entertainment center with theater-quality video and audio, a vacation every year in the sun, and so on and so on. We’re swimming in debt and living one paycheck from financial disaster. And we’re running scared because we have no one to call on when soul-shaking fear and anxiety wake us up at 3:00 a.m.

The Church of Few Friends

I remember asking the leaders of a church in Dallas on a retreat to answer the question, “If you were going through a personal crisis and you needed four friends to drop everything and come to be with you to see you through this crisis, who would you call on?” One of the women said she would call on the sisters in her college sorority. A couple of the men said they would call on their army buddies. The pastor said that he would call on some classmates from his seminary days. A few admitted they had no one to call on.

When it was all through (after two hours) I asked the group, “Did any of you think of calling on the other members of this group?” The silence said it all.

“I Stand by the Door”

Today, the small group is encouraged in most church circles. Some churches have completely restructured the way they do church around small care units. (And many churches are small to start with, which is okay.) My challenge to pastors and to small group leaders is to remember the roots that gave birth to this movement. I rejoice as I see the growth in the small group movement in North American churches. But in all of this euphoria, I am concerned that we may have lost some of the passion that we had in the early days for people outside of the church walls.

One of the pioneers of the small group movement was an Episcopal priest named Sam Shoemaker. He got his start in the Oxford Group movement as a student in Oxford, England. They lived by a set of values that became known as the Oxford Group Rules. After Sam was ordained, the Episcopal Church appointed him to a church in the garment district of New York City. Father Sam immediately claimed every person in his parish for God and explained to the prostitutes and pimps on the street that he was their priest: “Please call on me if ever I can be there for you.”

After a few years, the Episcopal hierarchy moved Sam to the big church on Fourth Avenue in New York City called Calvary Episcopal. Father Sam immediately claimed everyone in this parish for God and started a mission around the corner for alcoholics, where a man named Bill Wilson found help. Bill found that he could stay sober if he was helping another alcoholic to stay sober, but the Oxford Group Rules were a little complicated, so Father Sam and Bill rewrote the rules. They called the simplified version the Twelve Steps. As we know, Twelve-Step small groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous have delivered millions of people (many to most of them from outside the walls of churches) from the bondage of their addictions.