ActivateConventional Wisdom: Small groups are a place where intimate relationships are formed.

Reality: Small groups are a place where new friendships are formed.

Have you ever had to deal with the pink elephant in the room? Or the 800-pound gorilla? You know, the thing that everyone knows is there but no one wants to acknowledge?

We’ve come to think of Big Idea #3 as the pink elephant in the room of small groups planning. We all know, deep down, that it is true, but it is so ingrained in conventional small groups wisdom that no one wants to acknowledge it. After all, if it’s said out loud, groups as we know them might cease to exist. Well, the time has come. We are going to step out on a limb here and give voice to the truth we’ve all been avoiding: Small groups are not the best place for intimate relationships to form. There. The elephant and the gorilla may now make their exits as we explore this seemingly blasphemous comment.

On one level or another, we’ve all bought into the widely accepted theory that small groups are a place where participants can get deeply personal with one another and find lifelong friends. This thinking is what leads most churches to set up a small groups structure where individual groups meet anywhere from 18 months to the Second Coming of Jesus. The groups need time, they argue, for members to truly bond and become intimately involved in each other’s lives. Their goal is to nurture soul-baring relationships.

Unfortunately, this mindset doesn’t just show up in back-end planning. Most churches go so far as to promise their attenders that they will find meaningful, intimate relationships with fellow Christians if they join a group. But if we step back and take an honest look at what actually goes on in healthy small groups, we have to admit that this isn’t what happens at all. Too often, we find the exact opposite. In the end, promises of close friendship at the outset lead to less spiritual growth, more frustration and fewer people signing up for your church’s small groups.

Small groups are not the place for your people to form intimate, meaningful relationships with one another. Instead, they are a place to form new, basic friendships. It’s important for us to make another point here that, while controversial, we feel is also quite freeing. In saying that small groups are a place for friendships and not intimacy, we are not lowering the bar for our small groups in any way. When it comes to spiritual formation, both friendship and intimacy are necessary in helping us become more like Jesus. Small groups are most effective for helping people make godly friends, not for helping them form intimate relationships within the context of the group. They may ultimately form intimate relationships with people they’ve met in a group, but that will happen outside of the system.

Searcy, N., & Thomas, K. (2010). Activate: an entirely new approach to small groups. Ventura, CA: Regal Books.