Small group ministries are a normal part of church life in many churches today. Whether churches choose to call the ministry small groups, life groups, or community groups, the ministry is designed to get members and guests connected to the life of the church. The draw, especially in larger churches, is to make big churches feel small. North Point Ministries in Atlanta created their small groups because they felt “circles were better than rows” (i.e. Small groups impacted spiritual development more significantly than weekly services).
Last year, I worked at a larger Black church in the Chicago area. I wanted to help develop a small group ministry in the church. As the leadership thought through small groups in the African American context, I made an alarming discovery.
I read an excerpt from an interview referenced in a Christianity Today article. The interview asked a ministry team of a multi-ethnic church in Chicago about contextualized small groups. In it, the pastor of community life pointed out that “small groups aren’t as important to other ethnicities as they are to white people.” The church pastor agreed, saying, “White people rely on small groups to connect. Other ethnicities form community more organically…non-whites aren’t as eager to set up structures and systems like small groups.” Wait, what? Is it true? Are black people small group adverse? I felt like my research project doomed from the start. Then I remembered something.
Small Groups Before Small Groups
I grew up in a small baptist church in Georgia. Every Sunday morning, my stepfather would drive me and four groggy siblings to Sunday school at our church. The Sunday school met an hour before services started. It taught small classes of students ranging from pre-school to adult attendees. We sang the Sunday school anthem, “Onward Christian Soldier”, learned biblical narratives key to God’s redemptive story, and had graduation ceremonies akin to moving through the public school system. It was a rite of passage.
Once, a thriving institution, Sunday School attendance is declining in historically black churches. Some African-Americans feel that Sunday School is only for children. Others don’t feel they have time to attend Sunday School—many of which are held before services each Sunday.
Some black churches experience one of two problems. They: 1) have dwindling—or non-existent—Sunday School attendance numbers or 2) have a hard time establishing a small group ministry. Many larger churches have eliminated Sunday school, instead opting to go with the children’s church format of many contemporary, white churches.
Fighting Against Individualism
The church and community are ordinary means of grace through which God sanctifies believers. Somewhere along the way, many black churches have struggled to keep the communal DNA of historically black churches.
Scholar Dale P. Andrews notes: “The individualism endemic to the age of Enlightenment did not spare black religious life. Though black churches nurtured a communal form of care, American culture remained axiomatic to the often “unreconciled strivings” of African-American ‘double-consciousness’. Thus, black church emphasized personal salvation and religious piety under the impact of American individualism.”1
I believe individualism has taken a toll on small groups in the Black Church. Dwindling Sunday School numbers communicate the opposite narrative of Northpoint’s “circles are better than rows” philosophy. Because black church attendance has remained relatively steady (compared to majority culture contemporaries), it communicates “rows are better than circles.” Have any Black Churches figured out how to fight against this individualism?
I discovered at least one church that has figured out the small group code—Concord Church in Dallas, Texas. Dr. E.K. Bailey is church’s founder and is well beloved in the African-American community. He is known as the Godfather of Expository Preaching. Before all is said and done, he might well be known as the Godfather of Black small groups.
Today, Bryan Carter serves as senior pastor at Concord. The church has over 8,000 members and a thriving small group ministry. In fact, 50% of the church’s men and women are active in small groups. Concord has systematic small groups that help foster growth and development—proving that Blacks can connect in this way. Granted, Concord has a different approach from the small groups of majority culture contemporaries. For example, many of their small groups meet on-site, while many majority culture small groups gather in homes or off-site. But it works for them.
The former small groups’ pastor at Concord revealed the secret sauce in a 2014 interview. “For us, small groups are not an initiative,” says Concord small groups pastor Jeremy Williams. “It’s our way of life, it’s how we grow people.” That’s it. Small group ministry is a way of life. Concord sounds close to winning the fight against individualism Andrews addresses above. And close to the way the Black community has thrived socially in the face of decades of oppression and injustice. Not only can small groups work in a Black Church, but as we see in Concord Church’s case, they can thrive.
Next week, I’ll offer five keys to thriving Black Church small groups as takeaways from my research.
Next post in series: Five Keys to Thriving Black Church Small Groups
- Practical Theology for Black Churches: Bridging Black Theology and African American Folk Religion, Westminster John Knox Press, Knoxville, Tennessee, 56 (2002). ↩