Those of us who regularly attend church are aware of the benefits it brings to one’s life—a network of support, overall better health, a sense of wellbeing.
But for the un- and underchurched, religious institutions can appear to be, in Wendell Barry’s words, “a hodgepodge of funds, properties, and offices, all urgently requiring economic support.”
When churches were pretty much the only game in town, most folks didn’t question this trade off. In return for your economic support you received a certain set of benefits.
Today there are more options. Yoga studios. Meditation centers. Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday.
Is there anything churches can offer that people can’t find somewhere else? I think there is. Small group spiritual direction.
Okay, so it’s not that you can’t find opportunities for small group spiritual direction elsewhere. As a practicing spiritual director, I’m certainly prepared to offer direction to groups.
But I’m willing to bet that for most spiritual directions, the bulk of their practice is with individuals and not with groups.
It’s a different story for a congregation with a spiritual formation focus. In fact, congregations are particularly well-suited to offer group spiritual direction.
Many congregations have been offering small group ministry for quite some time. We know the drill. Just check out Christianity Today’s www.smallgroups.com or the UU Small Group Network at www.smallgroupministry.net.
Here are some specific things congregations can offer (according to Heather Webb, author of Small Group Leadership as Spiritual Direction):
The broader church can provide theological grounding, support for leaders, a network of resources, and a place to fulfill other aspects of a [person of faith’s] life in community.
I doubt that there are many spiritual directors (or even spiritual centers) that can offer these things to the same extent as a congregation.
And Robert Wuthnow, author of After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s, notes that while for some people, “formal institutions inhibit spiritual practices,” especially “people who feel uncomfortable participating in them,”
Religious institutions can also be supportive, providing both the resources and the encouragement that people who are interested in spiritual practice desire.
Even the smallest congregation can offer a critical mass of people out of which groups can be formed for spiritual direction.
Add to this the potential variety in theology and spiritual practices one might find in most progressive congregations, and you have a lot of raw material for building a first-rate small group spiritual direction program.
The only thing that might be lacking is more diversity than the theological or spiritual kinds. Sure, there’s age diversity, and maybe some class diversity. Certainly gender diversity as well as more and more diversity in sexual and affectional orientation .
But racial and cultural diversity? Definitely a growing edge for most congregations.
(One way to bring more diversity into small groups would be for congregations to take the small groups into the larger community. I’ll have more to say about that in a future post.)
On the whole, it’s good to remember that congregation-based small group spiritual direction gives individuals “the freedom to grow,” as Wuthnow says, as well as “a community, which keeps [them] from feeling alone in [their] spiritual journey[s].”