Book review: Joe M Easterling, Big Things Start Small

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Joe M Easterling, Big Things Start Small: How Small Groups Helped Ignite Christianity’s Greatest Spiritual Awakenings, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2021)

by Simon Baigent, Pioneer Mission student, South London

Subtitled How Small Groups Helped Ignite Christianity’s Greatest Spiritual Awakenings, Joe Easterling’s debut publication claims to be the first to document, in a systematic fashion, the ways in which small group gatherings have summoned, sustained and been seeded from times of revival.

After briefly taking in Old Testament household spirituality, Easterling whisks us through the early church to monastic communities and Augustine. He then fast forwards to twelfth century pre-Reformation groups – Waldensians, Lollards, Hussites and Anabaptists – before settling to look in more detail at the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ four “major awakenings”: the first Great Awakening, the second, the Laymen’s, Welsh and Korean revivals, and what he terms the “mid-twentieth century” revival.

Following discussion of each of these periods, we are presented with a summary table listing the types of small group that were a precursor to each awakening, those which ensued from it, the major proponents of small group meetings, notable leaders and ministries that emerged, and (perhaps the thrust of Easterling’s work) what the key features of these groups were. These features, which the author would entreat us to rekindle in our contemporary groups, are (spoiler alert!) Bible study, fervently focused prayer, personal holiness, worship in song, an outward reach and a “latitude towards logistics” (meaning that a group’s demography and structure should simply arise from its context). So, we find ourselves calling into clubs, classes and conventicles, in campuses, freight cars and coffeehouses.

Easterling wears his heart on his sleeve, and there is a clear North American Evangelical slant to the writing, which is bookended with his desire to see a reversal of the spiralling decline of the church in the States. Awakenings in Britain and Europe are recounted principally as a prelude to the contemporary US context. The key figures mentioned in the Korean revival are Western missionaries. Christian resurgences in other nations are out of scope, as are other growth movements such as South American Liberationism. White American Evangelical texts form the bedrock of the bibliography. The importance of the “social gospel” is acknowledged and gently dismissed. But it’s a good read – a research piece in an accessible style.

There is a fresh take here for students of Evangelical history, and there is (as both back cover endorsements note) an obvious encouragement for churches to continue with small group meetings. Mind you, those hungry for renewal in their contexts, and frustrated by the constraints of their incumbent ecclesiology, are probably meeting and praying with likeminded people already. But a reader struggling with the impossibility of fitting all Easterling’s recommended elements into a 90-minute group might have liked some practical advice – which is not this book’s aim. So, while it may be true that too many of today’s church groups are focused on their members’ felt needs, we would need to do our own work to find ways of (for example) doing deep Bible study where literacy is low and few in the room have English as their mother tongue – or implementing honest personal accountability in a cross-cultural context with a sensitive safeguarding framework. We seem a long way from the world in which Wesley’s disciples could “peer in” to one another.

There are countless books available to those seeking inspiration from Christianity’s great awakenings, as indeed there are for those looking at ways of doing small groups well. Whether Big Things Start Small has enough new material to appeal to either market is a concern. Let’s hope that a volume that binds the topics together doesn’t fall between two bookstalls.

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