Crowded Loneliness & Quiet Contemplation
Our fractured lifestyles pose new challenges for small group ministries.

Sam O'Neal, our colleague at Christianity Today International and the managing editor of ministry resources, recently participated in the small groups conference at Saddleback Church. In this report, O'Neal shares insights from two presentations. One highlighted the challenge small groups face in our culture, and the other presents an ancient alternative.

Last week, I had the privilege of representing Building Small Groups at the first-ever Purpose Driven Small Groups conference, hosted by Saddleback Church in sunny Lake Forest, California. Because the Purpose Driven folks were running the show, I've returned home with a great deal of useful information, almost all of it nicely packaged into acronyms and "pathways."

But I was most impressed by two presentations that drifted outside the Purpose Driven model. Both of them picked up the gauntlet thrown down by noted church consultant Lyle E. Schaller, who said: "The biggest challenge facing the church is to address the fragmentation and discontinuity of the American lifestyle."

Early Tuesday morning, Randy Frazee spoke on the call to community. According to Frazee, the average American family manages 35 separate relationships on a day-to-day basis - children, extended family, neighbors, government, school, friends, work, Starbucks employees, landlords, telemarketers, etc. And this is before that family gets invited to church, which usually adds another 6 connections - at least.

As a result, Americans are knee-deep in the unprecedented phenomenon of grouped isolation - what Frazee refers to as "crowded loneliness." We are in desperate need of meaningful relationships, yet too busy and too pulled to maintain them.

Even worse, our attempts to relieve our sense of isolation often contribute to our fragmentation. We might join a small group, for example. We'll get in contact with 3 to 11 other dedicated Christians and commit to meet and study the Bible every week.

But what happens? Those 3 to 11 people become another chunk of relationships that we have to manage - relationships that require phone calls, polite questions on Sunday morning, and Christmas gifts. That weekly Bible study devolves into thirty minutes of preparation, thirty minutes in the car driving to and from the appointed house, thirty minutes of genial conversation, thirty minutes of discussion, thirty minutes of prayer, and thirty dollars to pay the babysitter. In other words, our attempts to forge meaningful relationships often add up being "just another thing to do."