A three-year national research project reveals how small groups are dramatically changing I communities and churches—for better and for worse.

In the driveway across the street, a vintage silver Porsche sits on blocks as its owner tinkers with the engine. Next door, a man with thinning gray hair applies paint to the trim around his living-room window. But at 23 Springdale, something quite different is happening. About two-dozen people are kneeling in prayer, heads bowed, elbows resting on folding chairs in front of them. After praying, they will sing, then pray again, then discuss the Bible. They are young and old, men and women, Black and White. A teenage girl remarks after the meeting that she comes every week because the people are so warm and friendly. “They’re not geeks; they just make me feel at home.”

A few miles away at the largest Gothic structure in town, several people slip hastily through the darkness and enter a small door toward the rear of the building. Inside is a large circle of folding chairs. On the wall, a felt banner reads, “Alleluia Alleluia” (the two As are in red). Before long all the chairs are filled, and an attractive woman in her late thirties calls the group to order. “Hi, my name is Joan, and I’m an alcoholic.”

“Hi, Joan,” the group responds.

After a few announcements, Betty, a young woman just out of college, tells her story. Alcohol nearly killed her. Then, close to death in a halfway house, she found God. “I thought God hated me. But now I know there is a higher power I can talk to and know.”

These two cases are so ordinary that it is easy to miss their significance. They are examples of a phenomenon that has spread like wildfire in recent years.

Most of us are vaguely aware of small groups that meet in our neighborhoods or at local churches and synagogues. We can scan a local newspaper and find support groups available for anything from underweight children to oversexed spouses. We may have a coworker who attends Alcoholics Anonymous or family members who have participated in youth groups or prayer groups. Perhaps we attend one ourselves.

At present, four out of every ten Americans belong to a small group that meets regularly and provides caring and support for its members. These are not simply informal gatherings of neighbors and friends, but organized groups: Sunday-school classes, Bible-study groups, Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step groups, singles groups, book discussion clubs, sports and hobby groups, and political or civic groups. Those who have joined these groups testify that their lives have been deeply enriched by the experience. They have found friends, received warm emotional support, overcome life-threatening addictions, and grown in their spirituality. They have learned how to forgive others and become more accepting of themselves.

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Many people say their identity has been changed as a result of extended involvement in a small group. In fact, the majority have been attending their groups over a prolonged period of time, often for as long as five years, and nearly all attend faithfully, usually at least once a week.

Groups such as these seldom make the headlines or become the focus of public controversy. Few people are involved in small groups because they are trying to launch a political campaign or attract the attention of public officials. They are not staging protest marches or picketing in the nation’s capital. They are, for the most part, off in the wings when others are clamoring about abortion rights or attempting to challenge the Supreme Court. Small groups are the private, largely invisible ways in which many individuals choose to spend a portion of their free time. Hence, in an era when the mass media increasingly define what is important, it is easy to dismiss the small-group phenomenon.

To overlook this trend, however, would be a serious mistake, for the small-group movement has been effecting a quiet revolution in American society. Its success has astounded even many of its leaders. Few of them were trying to unleash a revolution at all. Rather, they were responding to some need in their own lives or in the lives of people they knew. They started groups, let people talk about their problems or interests, and perhaps supplied them with reading material. The results were barely perceptible. The most noticeable were the addictions that people recovered from and the occasional suicide that was prevented.

The far more common happenings were the ordinary words of encouragement, the prayers that people spoke, their remarks about good days and bad days, and the cups of lukewarm coffee they consumed. What happened took place so incrementally that it could seldom be seen at all. It was, like most profound reorientations in life, so gradual that those involved saw it less as a revolution than as a journey. The change was concerned with daily life, with emotions, and with understanding of one’s identity. It was personal rather than public, moral rather than political.

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Nonetheless, this powerful movement is beginning to alter American society, both by changing our understandings of community and by redefining our spirituality. Its effects cannot be calculated simply at the individual level. What is important is not just that a teenager finds friends at a prayer meeting or that a young woman finds God in Alcoholics Anonymous. These stories have to be magnified a hundred thousand times to see how pervasive they have become in our society. They must also be examined closely to see that what is happening now has never occurred at any previous time in history. Small groups are not only attracting participants on an unprecedented scale; they are also affecting the ways in which we relate to each other and how we view God.


Providing people with a stronger sense of community has been a key aim of the small-group movement from its inception. There is a widespread assumption that community is sputtering to an undignified halt, leaving many people stranded and alone. Families are breaking down. Neighbors have become churlish or indifferent. The solution thus is to start intentional groups of like-minded individuals who can regain a sense of community.

And small groups are doing a better job than many critics would like to think. The communities they create are seldom frail. People feel cared for. They help one another. They share their intimate problems. They identify with their groups and participate regularly over extended periods of time.

Yet the kind of community small groups create is quite different from the communities in which people have lived in the past. These communities are more fluid and more concerned with the emotional states of the individual. Some small groups merely provide occasions for individuals to focus on themselves in the presence of others. What’s more, the social contract binding members together asserts only the weakest of obligations. Come if you have time. Talk if you feel like it. Respect everyone’s opinion. Never criticize. Leave quietly if you become dissatisfied. Families would never survive by following these operating norms. Close-knit communities in the past did not, either.

But times have changed, and small groups, as we know them, are a phenomenon of the late-twentieth century. There are good reasons for the way they are structured. They reflect the fluidity of our lives by allowing us to bond simply but to break our attachments with equivalent ease. If we fail to understand these reasons, we can easily view small groups as something other than what they are. We can imagine that they substitute for families, neighborhoods, and broader community attachments that demand lifelong commitments, when, in fact, they do not.

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Not only are small groups Fostering a new sense of community, these groups are also affecting how we conceive of the sacred. A majority of all small-group members say they joined because they wanted to deepen their faith and that their sense of the sacred has been profoundly influenced by their participation. But small groups are not simply drawing people back to the God of their fathers and mothers. They are dramatically changing the way God is understood. God is now less of an external authority and more of an internal presence. The sacred becomes more personal but, in the process, also becomes more manageable, more serviceable in meeting individual needs, and more a feature of the group process itself.

Interestingly, churches are among the primary proponents of the small-group phenomenon and its “user-friendly” deity. Nearly two-thirds of all small groups have some connection to churches or synagogues. Many have been initiated by clergy. Many devote their meetings to studying the Bible or to discussing other religious texts. Most include prayer. Embarking on a spiritual journey is a common theme among members. Some would argue that this trend is indicative simply of a thirst in the human heart for a relationship with God. But why now? Why has the small-group movement become the vehicle for expressing spiritual thirst? Why not churches? Or religious television? Or individual devotional readings and meditation?

The standard, though inaccurate, answer is that the churches have become weak—people want to know God but find no guidance when they attend religious services. The small-group movement is thus a way of revitalizing American religion, stemming the tide of secularity, and drawing the faithful back to God before the churches slide into oblivion.

But the standard answer is wrong on two counts. The small-group movement is flourishing in American society, not because the churches are weak, but because they are strong. People do not join groups simply because their hearts tell them to. They join because groups are available, because they have direct exposure to these groups, and because someone encourages them to attend. Groups are available because churches and synagogues sponsor them. Members of the clergy initiate them as part of an explicit plan for the future of their church or synagogue. They enlist leaders, create mechanisms for recruiting members, purchase study guides, and provide meeting space. In this sense, the small-group movement is an extension of the role that organized religion has always played in American society.

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The standard view is also wrong in suggesting that small groups are stemming the tide of secularity. To be sure, they encourage people to pray and to think about spiritual truths. Nevertheless, they do little to increase the biblical knowledge of their members. Most of them do not assert the value of denominational traditions or pay much attention to the distinctive theological arguments that have identified variants of Christianity or Judaism in the past. Indeed, many of the groups encourage faith to be subjective and pragmatic. A person may feel that his or her faith has been deepened, but in what way is largely in the eye of the beholder. Biblical truths may be more meaningful, but the reason is that they calm anxiety and help one make it through the day.

The deity of small groups is a God of love, comfort, order, and security. Gone is the God of judgment, wrath, justice, mystery, and punishment. Gone are concerns about the forces of evil. Missing from most groups, even, is a distinct interest in heaven and hell, except for the small heavens and hells that people experience in their everyday lives.

Indeed, it does not overstate the case to suggest that the small-group movement is currently playing a major role in adapting American religion to the main currents of secular culture that have surfaced at the end of the twentieth century. Secularity is misunderstood if it is assumed to be a force that prevents people from being spiritual at all. It is more aptly conceived as an orientation that encourages a safe, domesticated version of the sacred. From a secular perspective, a divine being is one who is there for our own gratification, like a house pet, rather than one who demands obedience from us, is too powerful or mysterious for us to understand, or who challenges us to a life of service. When spirituality has been tamed, it can accommodate the demands of a secular society. People can go about their daily business without having to alter their lives very much because they are interested in spirituality. Secular spirituality can even be put to good use, making people more effective in their careers, better lovers, and more responsible citizens. This is the kind of spirituality being nurtured in many small groups today.

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The small-group movement is thus the latest in a series of cultural realignments. At the start of the eighteenth century, American religion underwent its first period of realignment. The state churches that colonists imported from Europe were disestablished. Denominational pluralism, later protected by a constitutional separation between church and state, was the result. During the nineteenth century, a second major realignment took place. The hegemony of a few Protestant denominations was undermined. Faith became more democratic and more thoroughly American. New denominations proliferated, congregational autonomy and diversity were strengthened, and Catholics and Jews gained a place alongside Protestants. Now, at the end of the twentieth century, denominational structures are waning considerably. Increasing numbers of people have switched from tradition to tradition to tradition. Clergy are under increased pressures to compete with other congregations for members. And the basis of competition has altered significantly—from doctrinal or liturgical distinctions to programmatic appeals.

Small groups provide greater variety and allow greater freedom in selecting the religion of one’s choice than ever before. They make faith more fluid, championing change itself and creating modular communities that can be established and disbanded with relative ease.

Hence, small groups are effecting changes that have both salutary and worrisome consequences. They supply community and revitalize the sacred. But, for some of their members at least, these communities can be manipulated for personal ends, and the sacred can be reduced to a magical formula for alleviating anxiety.


Overall, the small-group movement cannot be understood except in relation to the deep yearning for the sacred that characterizes much of the American public. Indeed, a great deal of the momentum for the movement as a whole comes from the fact that people are interested in spirituality, on the one hand, and from the availability of vast resources from religious organizations, on the other. As a result, small groups are dramatically redefining how Americans think about God.

We can imagine at the outset why this redefinition might be occurring if we remember that there is often a close connection between how people understand their relationships with each other and how they approach God. Religious traditions in which an intimate, emotion-laden relationship with God is valued are quite likely to emphasize the importance of intimacy in human relationships as well. At present, therefore, it would not be surprising to find that small groups oriented toward the intentional cultivation of caring relationships might also be interested in helping individuals cultivate such relationships with the divine as well.

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It is, however, the intentionality of these relationships that is worth considering, not whether they emphasize caring. Most small groups that have anything to do with spirituality do not simply let the sacred emerge as a byproduct of their time together. Instead, they prescribe activities for growing closer to the sacred.

In many cultures, it would be unthinkable to engage in activities with the explicit purpose of discovering the sacred. Divine providence, grace, and the inscrutability of God would be emphasized instead. God would seek out the individual, like Yahweh capturing Moses’ attention through the burning bush. But it would be less likely for the individual to set out to find God—and certainly unthinkable that deep spirituality could be found by following a set of prespecified guidelines or steps. Such quests are, of course, quite common in American culture, and they have been throughout our nation’s history. Nevertheless, the small-group movement elevates the degree to which such activities are planned, calculated, and coordinated.


Another way small groups are redefining the sacred is by replacing explicit creeds and doctrines with implicit norms devised by the group. Throughout the centuries, religious bodies have devoted much of their energy to hammering out doctrinal statements. They have sent representatives to church councils to debate the wording of creeds, and they have formed organizational structures around varying concepts of ecclesiastical authority. Making things explicit incurred huge costs, to be sure, including much sectarian strife and even religious wars, but believers assumed that it was important to know specifically what was right and what was wrong. The small-group movement is changing all of that.

Group members still have a sense of the importance of knowing what is right or wrong, but their groups seldom study religious history or formal theological statements. Rather, they discuss small portions of religious texts with an eye toward discovering how these texts apply to their personal lives. Personal testimonies carry enormous weight in such discussions, but these stories are also subject to group norms. These norms include implicit assumptions about whether one can be instructed directly by God, whether it is important to read the Bible to receive wisdom, what the role of intuition is, and how prayer should be understood.

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In a very real sense, the group can become a manifestation of the sacred. Its members feel power within the group. They feel closer to God when they are gathered than when they are apart. They are sure the deity approves of the way they meet. They may be less sure that people can find God apart from the group. The group, then, encourages people to think about spirituality, but in the process it channels their thinking so that only some ideas about the sacred are acceptable. Spirituality becomes a matter of sincere seeking and of helping each other, all the while respecting whatever idiosyncratic notions of the sacred one’s peers may develop.


When i say that the small-group movement is effecting a quiet revolution in American society, I mean that it is adding fuel to the fires of cultural change that have already been lit. The small-group movement may be providing community for people who feel the loss of personal ties, and it may be nurturing spirituality in an otherwise secular context. But it is not succeeding simply by filling these gaps. It is succeeding less because it is bucking the system than because it is going with the flow.

None of these observations should be construed to suggest that the small-group movement is in any way failing its members. Social institutions seldom do much more than help populations adjust to a changing environment. They solve day-to-day problems and work with envisioned realities, but they do not change reality as fundamentally as visionary leaders would like to think. The individual who finds God is no less blessed; the person who recovers from an addiction is no less important. But from a broader perspective, the same forces that have created these needs are at work in shaping the groups that help respond to them.

So, where does the small-group movement go from here? Despite the various criticisms already raised, its social effects have been largely beneficial. In responding to social and personal needs, this movement has been able to grow enormously. Consequently, it is now poised to exercise even greater influence on American society in the next decade than it has in the past two decades. The resources are there: models have been developed, leaders have been trained, national networks have been established, and millions of satisfied participants are ready to enlist their friends and neighbors. What it will do with these resources is yet to be seen.

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Indeed, the movement stands at an important crossroads in its history, a turning point requiring it to choose which of two directions it will go. It can continue on its present course, or it can attempt to move to a higher level of interpersonal and spiritual quality.

Given the movement’s success over the past two decades, it can easily maintain the status quo, drawing millions of participants by making them feel good about themselves and by encouraging them to develop a domesticated, pragmatic form of spirituality. Or it can focus less on numerical success and more on the quality of its offerings. By doing so, the movement may find itself challenging its members at deeper levels—to make more serious commitments to others who are in need, to serve the wider community, and to stand in worshipful, obedient awe of the sacred itself.

Paul Brand is a world-renowned hand surgeon and leprosy specialist. Now in semiretirement, he serves as clinical professor emeritus, Department of Orthopedics, at the University of Washington and consults for the World Health Organization. His years of pioneering work among leprosy patients earned him many awards and honors.

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