Book review: Do Small Groups Work?

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Anna Creedon, Do Small Groups Work?, (London: SCM Press, 2021)

by James Butler, MA lecturer, CMS

Small groups seem to be key to many of the models of church planting, discipleship and evangelism that are being suggested as means of church renewal. It is therefore great to see some focused qualitative work being done to ask the question of whether they work. Of course, the question of whether something “works” is an interesting one, and for Anna Creedon “working” means transformation from engaging with the Bible. Her research is based on participant observations and focus groups with three small groups from different Church of England churches.

This book is part of the SCM Research series and is based on Creedon’s doctoral research. This immediately indicates that the intended audience is those engaged in more formal academic work and theological training. As a result, it spends quite a bit of time reviewing the field, defining terms and introducing the methodology. For someone opening this book to explore practical questions of small groups, this will feel like a slow start and they may want to focus on transformation in chapter two before turning to the exploration of data from chapter five onwards.

The first chapter introduces small groups and chapter two examines accounts of transformation through Scripture, biblical hermeneutics and theology. Creedon compares terms such as formation, change and transformation and lands on a definition of transformation as “an ongoing process of change whereby individuals and communities come to more fully resemble Jesus Christ and glorify God by the power of the Holy Spirit, in anticipation of the future transformation of the whole creation” (p.34). Chapter three explores previous research into small groups and chapter four is quite a detailed methodology, which finishes by introducing the three small groups.

Having set the groundwork Creedon turns to her data, beginning with the focus group reflections on transformation identified in chapter two: transformation is a process, the importance of personal choice and openness, the importance of relationships and mutual support in the group, the importance of engaging together and hearing different views, and the way those views brought challenge. What felt lacking from the chapter was examples of change that her participants had experienced. This is clearly a challenge in qualitative work, but it meant that the change talked was often about their understanding rather than her category of change to resemble Jesus Christ.

Chapter six, seven and eight explore the three key themes identified by Creedon in three small groups: expert, challenge and the use of materials. Each chapter engages in careful reflection on where she saw these themes in each group. This is the real strength of the book, and presents issues, questions and experiences which will be familiar to those who have participated in a small group.

The final chapter explores the implications of the research for small groups. She suggests that, given the way relationships and support are often seen as the primary purpose, the groups should be more explicit about their purpose in relation to transformation through engagement with the Bible, and agree this ahead of time. She also notes the importance of expertise, suggesting that careful consideration needs to be given to both the way the groups are led and the material selected. She concludes, “It has become clear that the role of the small group leader is one of significant responsibility and importance.” (p.166) Overall, Creedon’s careful and detailed attention develops key reflections on the practices and leadership of small groups, but the focus seems to move away from the nature of transformation. Too much attention is given to effective Bible study without demonstrating clear connections to her definition of transformation. In fact, if the key question is whether small groups work, it wasn’t clear whether the answer was yes or no.

The strength of this work is the questions it raises about the small group and transformation, and its careful reflection on the nature of small groups. It is therefore an important text for those researching small groups, and for those teaching and training small group leaders.

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