Applied Sociology: Is Making Community the Target of Small Groups a Mistake?

One of the areas that church leaders and seminaries would do well to read and train in the area of sociology, the study of how individuals and groups of people interact with one another, for three primary reasons:

  1. The church is a social system, or community, and a study of this field can provide valuable insights into how a church functions, how to build "social capital," how to recognize, evaluate, and provide solutions for social diseases, and how to bring about positive change.
  2. In order to understand how to reach people for Christ in a particular area or people group, it is important to understand how that particular people/people group/community functions, what its areas of deficiency are in which the gospel can provide an entryway and healing, reaching people for Christ, and what is appropriate and inappropriate for said people group. Anyone interested in evangelism or missions would do well to understand this.
  3. "Social Capital," the strong ties and good will of people towards one another/community has been on the decline for decades. Hence, lack of community is a major area of brokenness in our highly individualized, consumer-driven, mobile society.

    There are many implications for this. For instance, community often has to be created in order for the gospel to be spread widely in the US and other Western countries, unlike, say, in tribal societies, where chiefs can be converted and entire villages follow suit. Conversions of "whole households," as is seen in the first century world of the Bible, are more likely to happen in first generation immigrant communities in the US that are much more tight knit, than in urban settings.

    Furthermore, "group conversion" in suburban areas is only likely to happen in neighborhoods that structurally and culturally are intentionally built for community, or through common affinity groups such as sports teams. Even then, however, these "decisions for Christ" are often made individually, even if a conversion of one family in the group impacts another. 

    Community is attractive, and its appeal in outreach and evangelism is often underestimated, causing Christians to place too much emphasis upon individual witnessing and not enough upon the witness of, say, small and mid-sized groups in evangelism. We are much more attractive to seekers collectively, where God's love can be witnessed, than merely on our own. 

Ironically, however, community is most especially formed not by pursuing it on its own, but through the pursuit of profound common goals and experiences. Like happiness, community is a by product. In his book, The Sociology of Community Connections, author John  G.Bruhn writes, 

Jose y Gasset once pointed out that "people do not live together merely to be together. They live together to do something together" (Wrong, 1976, p. 78). The error, according to Wrong, lies in conceiving of community as an end in itself, apart from the activities and functions that bind people together, and apart from those values that constitute a shared vision of life. The achievement of community, he said, cannot come from pursuing it directly, but only as a by-product of the shared pursuit of more tangible goals and activities (Wrong, 1976). [bold added]

John G. Bruhn. The Sociology of Community Connections (Kindle Locations 324-327). Kindle Edition.

This is why making community the goal of, say, small groups, problematic. There is only so much of building a sense of community and closeness that can be achieved by sitting around and drinking coffee. Certainly, that is a step towards community, but after awhile, the conversations grow stale and people lose interest.

What binds a small group together? The pursuit of meaningful goals together. And there is probably nothing that binds a group together more than the pursuit and practice of mission as a group. There is no need to debate whether mission or community or spiritual formation or worship is "more important." Obviously, those with a missional theology definitely have a perspective on this. However, it can certainly be observed and experienced that mission may be the best catalyst of these other three. (See Alan Hirsch)

Think of this. When mission is pursued, and a small group begins reaching out to a particular people group or goes on a short term mission trip, the experience bonds the group together more than just about anything else that they might do. They become a type of community with strong relational bonds. The mission causes them to pray together, study about how to reach people for Christ, reflect and commune with God. And when they worship together, they have stories and experiences to share that bring praise and glory to God. God becomes the God of today, who is alive and active, not merely the God of history.

This example from small groups and how they bond and form community is hopefully helpful in illustrating the importance of understanding sociology for churches and church leaders.

What other applications of sociology do you see for churches? Do you agree or disagree that community is most strongly achieved as a by product, rather than as an end by itself? Why or why not?


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Comment by James Nored on August 26, 2014 at 1:31pm

Thank you, Ron! I appreciate you reading!

Comment by James Nored on August 26, 2014 at 1:21pm

No worries, Don. We are brothers in Christ! It is always good to be reminded of that, and thankfully it is Christ who binds us together, not perfect agreement. (I don't always agree with myself!) :) Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

Comment by Ron Furgerson on August 26, 2014 at 1:19pm

James -- Thanks for this thoughtful post.  I appreciate your insight.  Ron <>/p>

Comment by Don Morgan on August 26, 2014 at 12:38pm

James, I pretty much agree with this one, the small group concept can be an invaluable tool for reaching and teaching the community.  I don't believe that it should be the primary function of the church,  There is no replacement for the coming together on the first day of the week as a christian bod , in fellowship,  to pray communally to our God, To worship him in song and by sharing in the communion service and in teaching.  the fellowship of Christians one with another is invaluable in gaining the strength to go out into our community armed with the proper tools to share the gospel with our community.  So,  we agree almost completely on this one,  maybe we will find common ground down the road through the Grace of our Lord.  I came on a little strong in a couple of places last time we talked,  I am not that militant yet,  and I am actually considered to be a pretty good person.  Don

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