The authors define a small group, somewhat traditionally, as a “microcosm of the larger church.” They define the purpose of small groups in a few different ways, all quite similar. In their view, small groups exist to address two basic needs: “to be known and to be connected to something bigger than ourselves.” And later, “make the primary goal of the group spiritual growth, and then create authentic community as the context for that larger purpose” (emphasis mine).
This seems somewhat contradictory though. They seem to be saying that the “larger purpose” of the group is the spiritual growth of the individual. In other words, the purpose of the group is to address “two basic needs” the individual has. How can the individual’s needs or spiritual growth be the “larger purpose” of the whole group? This doesn’t make sense to me.
Later they say it a bit differently: “the point of a small group is transformation” (emphasis theirs), later saying that “transformation usually happens during difficult times.” From this, I would conclude that small groups’ primary purpose is individual spiritual growth accomplished by struggling together.
Spiritual growth is certainly possible this way, but it still seems to lack anything like a “larger purpose.” Even if we defined that purpose as the spiritual growth of all individuals in the group, it’s still wouldn’t be “larger.” “Larger purpose” as I understand it must be bigger than the group, even bigger than the sum of its parts.
To this end, I think the purpose must be defined in relation to God and his glory. The purpose of the small group is not the growth of the individual(s) but about the glory of God. Of course, God is glorified in people who are transformed into the character of Christ. Yet it also happens among the individuals, in the relationships between them, in the gritty conflict and reconciliation that goes on between people, not just within them personally. In fact, transformation isn’t visible apart from relationships. This is the “larger purpose” of the small group, being a context of committed relationships, where God’s power is seen in the conflict, reconciliation, and love among his people (“they will know we are Christians by our love” and all that). We must define the appropriate end (God and his glory) and not stop shy of it (at personal spiritual growth).*
I imagine the authors would likely agree with my nuance. They see conflict as an important aspect of small group life. I agree completely when they say, “Conflict has a purpose. It is not something to be avoided.” However, the chapter focuses almost exclusively on conflict between the facilitator and other members of the group. I haven’t faced a lot of conflict in my group personally, and I’m sure addressing this sort of conflict is essential. However, I think the chapter should have also addressed how to mediate conflict between others. Mediation is addressed in passing in the accompanying appendix, but I think they could have offered valuable advice beyond the appendix’s outline. This chapter already dealt with probably the most complex ideas of the book, but I think this addition would have been valuable.
That said, I must add a personal note. The chapter on conflict challenged me beyond my small group context to think hard about addressing conflict in my life. It convicted me in my attitude toward others and toward conflict when I read, “I’m not very close to that person so it doesn’t matter anyway” and “bringing a conflict to someone shows a deep level of respect for that person.” I was forced to admit that I didn’t have much respect for a few people and that I didn’t care much about those relationships, but I knew that I probably should anyway. With these words echoing in my heart, and with God’s gracious shove, I resolved some conflict that had been brewing for a while. I’m thankful for that. With these sorts of counterintuitive admonitions about conflict, I think the authors give us good reason to believe that conflict and reconciliation are essential for being transformed into the people of God, for his glory.
*Lewis makes this point in his essay, “First and Second Things” in God in the Dock.