by David Briggs
Small groups build social ties among members, and increase commitment, including financial giving, to congregations.
But can they also have a darker side if congregations become so successful in developing prayer and Bible study groups that they lose focus on their mission to serve the world?
They can if churches are not careful to balance both needs, suggests a new study on small groups and civic engagement.
Individuals who participate in small groups at church are more likely to be involved with community service, social justice and advocacy activities and give money to a charity other than their congregation.
However, it does not follow that in congregations where a high number of people are involved in small groups, worshipers will be more likely to be involved in civic activities. In fact, individuals in such congregations are less likely to give money to charities outside the congregation, researcher Andrew Whitehead found in analyzing data from the 2001 U.S. Congregational Life Survey.
The findings show the "fine line" congregations must walk between being too inwardly focused at the expense of others, or focusing solely outward at the expense of building a strong congregation, said Whitehead, director of the congregational life survey.
In other words, as more of the church's energy and membership is committed to nurturing small groups, church leadership "needs to be sure these groups are looking outside themselves," Whitehead said.
He presented his findings on "The 'Dark Side' of Congregational Context: Small Groups and Civic Engagement," a study co-authored with LSU sociologist Samuel Stroope, at the recent meeting of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion in Turku, Finland.
There is conflicting evidence about the effect of small groups on increasing involvement in the community.
Some researchers note being involved in small groups in church can build leadership and organizational skills, expand social networks, expose people to different needs in their communities and strengthen a theological imperative encouraging service to others.
Others suggest such groups can limit outside service if the focus is almost exclusively on building networks within the congregation.
In the 2001 US CLS, 21 percent of respondents reported being part of a prayer, discussion or Bible study group.
Belonging to a small group at church was associated with greater civic involvement. Small group members were more than two-and-a-half times as likely to be involved in a community service or social justice activity associated with the congregation and about 50 percent more likely to be involved with social service or charity groups not connected to the congregation. They were also 48 percent more likely to give money to a charity other than the church.
It is a more complex story at the congregational level. In churches where there is a high level of small group involvement, individuals are no more likely to be involved in civic activities. In fact, individuals in such congregations are two times less likely to donate money to charities other than the church.
"The individual-level effect of being in a small group ... is less important if everyone around an individual is in a small group," Whitehead said.
And while such dense social networks within the church build strong social bonds among members, they can also lead congregations to focus inward if they are not aware of what is happening and take steps to integrate the needs of the larger community into their mission, Whitehead said.
It is not necessarily a difficult problem to overcome, he indicated. Church leaders can encourage small groups to put their faith into action. For example, a Bible study or discussion group may take on a service project that is an extension of their spiritual work.
When it comes to small groups, neither faith nor the responsibility to love thy neighbor can be taken for granted.