Dear Father Joe: My parish is starting some small faith groups and really pushing everyone to sign up. What’s the point of joining a small faith-sharing group?
All over the country, a movement is really taking shape in the form of small faith-sharing groups. We’ve been getting a lot of questions about the value of and need for this practice, so we’re going to talk about it here and now.
Small faith-sharing groups meet a very practical and human need: the need to belong. In a large parish, there is always the danger of getting “lost in the shuffle.” In a small parish, there is always the challenge of being the “new person” or outsider.
For both of these and for most situations in between, there is the blessed opportunity of small faith-sharing groups. This concept puts you in touch with a manageable number of people who will help you grow in knowing and loving God and each other. There’s nothing like looking around a congregation and seeing people who know you and whom you know will support you.
There is also the bond of shared interests. For every person in the parish, there are topics that are of more interest than others. Some people like to study the Bible, others like to look at sacramental theology. Some want to study the Mass, others would pick work-related topics or a book group. Whatever your primary interest, you can either join a group that focuses on it or start one.
Beyond the practical reasons we’ve hit, there are also the incredible spiritual reasons – we need to commit to something spiritual. It’s a core component of who we are as Christians. And we do that with others – every time Jesus sent out disciples or apostles on a mission, he did so in groups. Even the great St. Paul of Tarsus made sure he was always with someone: first Barnabas and then Silas.
We are communal creatures: we were made by a community of love called the Trinity and because community is our origin, we’ll always find life and direction within a community better than we will on our own.
Here are a few ways that being faithful to a small group can help us:
Participation in small groups can help us tell our own story and learn from it. St. Pope John Paul II wrote a bit about this in the late 80s and early 90s. He talked about how we, as followers of Jesus, need to tell our stories to each other. We hear each other’s stories and help each other refine them. I remember when I was chaplain at Lansing Catholic High School (Go Cougars!), we had a young man who was preparing to give a witness to other students on retreat and, in order to get ready, he shared his testimony with some teachers and students in a small group. It was amazing. However, at one point, he talked about believing that, “Even though I don’t really have any gifts to offer people, God still loves me.”
When he finished his talk, the group gently (or at least as gently as high-schoolers can be) guided him into seeing that he had part of the truth, but not the whole thing. Through sharing what they saw in him, he was able to see that God not only loved him, but that he also had many gifts to offer, as do we all.
Participation in small groups can keep us from self-deception. The fact is, you and I have this amazing flaw: we love to be right, more than we love to be made right. Because of that, we find that we can justify just about any given choice or thought, given a long enough time line. A small group can help us break through the walls of what we want to be true so that we can lovingly walk in the land of truth itself. It is often in sharing our thoughts and ideas that we see the truth affirmed or falsity challenged and we are always better for that.
Participation in small groups can help us realize gifts and talents we didn’t know we had. When I was younger, I had a fish tank in my bedroom. I fed the fish every day and cleaned the tank every week. It was the darndest thing, but I swear, those fish never seemed to grow: they were always the same size.
However, I went away for a week on retreat and when I came back, I couldn’t believe how big they had gotten. I was shocked to see how much they had grown, but here’s the obvious truth: they hadn’t grown much in one week. Because I saw them every day, I never noticed how much they were growing. It’s the same with you and me. We know ourselves, somewhat. We grow weary of our internal struggles and, if we aren’t careful, we will begin to limit and define ourselves in ways that aren’t healthy. A small faith-sharing group can help us see the truth of ourselves and can help us grow in seeing how invaluable we are to Christ and his bride, the Church.
I want to close by offering what I feel is one of the most important reasons to join a small group: time.
Time is a limited commodity and, frankly, most of us use it badly. We commit to things that are temporal and will pass away, and waste so much of our precious energy growing in everything except love and knowledge of Christ. We unintentionally teach our kids that Church comes after sports and social obligations, and then we are surprised when they grow up and live the lesson we taught.
By committing to a small group and being faithful to that obligation, you are declaring to yourself, your schedule and all who know you that you have faith as a priority in your life. A declaration like that will always bear good fruit.
Enjoy another day in God’s presence!