At our Next Big Thing gathering, participants discussed this crucial difference. Both are effective pathways into spiritual community for seekers. But they are distinctive forms of community. This can be captured in 5 C’s:
The small group is gathered by an explicit covenant, which the group creates and intentionally adopts. Church socials should be free of sign-up sheets, petitions and pledges. Their purpose is spontaneous connection.
Every small group is bound by confidentiality — “whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” A church gathering, on the other hand, is part of the public life and memory of the church. What happened at the church picnic may become next week’s pulpit joke and coffee hour conversation.
3. The Chair
Small groups are marked by an “open chair” attitude. In principle, new comers are welcome, and some groups symbolize that by setting up an empty chair. At a social gathering that empty chair immediately will get used.
Every small group needs a “Chuck,” someone who asks the difficult question, who admits he doesn’t agree, who puts the Kleenex box on the coffee table and uses it, who crosses the room to hug someone in distress, who sings a hymn or reads a poem. Chuck is the guy who takes the risk. But at a social gathering, he might be “inappropriate.”
Small groups rarely work, meeting on-site at the church. Meeting off-site might be inconvenient, but it signals group commitment. Church socials usually happen on-site (unless your church building has a “no alcohol” policy).
These Five C’s distinguish a small group from a social gathering of church friends. We need both kinds of gatherings. Church socials build group spirit and welcome new friends. But small groups are where spirit grows into Spirit, and friends become ministers for each other.