Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America's New Quest for Community

Wuthnow, Robert. Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America's New Quest for Community. New York: The Free Press, 1994.

Sharing the Journey reports on the findings of a national research project on small groups and spirituality, housed at the George H. Gallup International Institute in Princeton, and led by Robert Wuthnow, noted sociologist of religion. The three year study "included both an extensive opinion survey of the American public and in-depth case studies and personal interviews with more than a hundred members of a dozen selected groups in various parts of the country." The researchers concluded that nearly half of the American public is involved in the small group movement. They define the movement as encompassing groups as diverse as the 12-Step groups, Bible study groups, special interest groups (such as hobby or sports groups), and self-help groups. People who are involved in small groups do not differ significantly from those who are not, making small groups very diverse. Small groups also appear to be capable of great stability over time. Among other services, small groups help their members to feel spiritually nurtured by "by demonstrating love, by nurturing intimate relationships, and by giving people an opportunity to tell their stories." More small group members become active in their communities over time than do people who are not active in small groups. At the same time, the authors caution that small groups have a tendency to reduce God to an interpersonal kind of entity, erasing what centuries of theologians have called attention to in the "mysterium tremendum," or in descriptions of redemption triumphing over sin. Small groups also have a tendency to reduce respect for diversity into the relativization of religious belief. By providing a space for members to tell their own stories in the midst of the fluidity of contemporary U.S. culture, small groups nurture a narrow definition of community as something that can be chosen at will and that can nurture identity, without grounding it in any of the more traditional aspects of community (geographic centeredness, intergenerational membership, diversity of belief). In this way small groups help their members to cope with U.S. culture, without actively confronting its shortcoming. The researchers conclude that the small group movement needs to be challenged to help its members define community both more deeply and more broadly, and to use its rich resources towards transforming the U.S. into a "better society." (MH)