BOSTON — As twilight falls, nine nattily dressed professionals sit at a table in the Park Street Congregational Church in Boston. They gather not to review church finances or hone a business plan, but rather to share spiritual insights.
"Let the spirit move freely among us tonight," says lay group leader Joe Viola, a doctor. "Now let's turn to Ephesians 3. What is Paul trying to say?"
Across town in a Methodist church, Barbara Ryther has started meeting weekly with 12 other church members in a small basement room full of old couches. She is studying the Bible seriously for the first time in her life and asking herself a classic Methodist question: "How is my spiritual walk?" Her pastor started the study this fall hoping to fill one class; he now has three.
The resurgence of small study groups, ranging from traditional Bible study classes to Internet theological sessions, is one of the most important recent developments in the spiritual life of American adults.
The trend, which often involves more commitment to systematic study, prayer, journal keeping, daily readings, and weekly sharing - could be a significant new sign of life and continuity in mainstream worship, say many experts. Some theologians worry, however, that the "fad" toward small groups could supplant the importance of shared Sunday worship and lead to a selfish "me-oriented" approach to religion.
In both mainline denominations and their sprawling evangelical counterparts, seekers are turning to this often neglected feature of churches and synagogues to deepen their understanding and faith. They are drawn by the intimacy of participatory Bible study classes, the stimulus of book discussions, the challenge and communion of the men's and women's groups, and a desire to understand how to minister.
In a recent Lilly Foundation-funded survey, Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow found that the "small group movement" has become a "significant phenomenon" in American religious life whose character in church groups "resembles the mood of early Christianity or that of the Israelites during their sojourn in the wilderness." More than 50 percent of small group members studied said "spiritual matters" had become "much more important" to them in the past five years, according to the survey.
AT the 2,000-member Park Street Church, for example, some 55 small groups have formed among baby boomers and the younger Generation X worshippers, often referred to as the 'buster' generation. In the United Methodist Church, the nation's largest denomination, the "Disciples" Bible study program started with a handful of participants in 1987. Today more than 500,000 members have taken the 34-week course, which stresses not only an intensive study of Scriptural texts and history, but also how spiritual wrestling can be a transformative element in the life of the worshiper.
"I felt a relationship with God as a Sunday School student, at the Jesus-loves-me-this-I-know age," says Ms. Ryther, who is a housing consultant and returned to her Methodist roots in 1989. "But I hadn't looked at that relationship intentionally since then. Now that I'm in my 40s, I feel a need for a mature relationship with God, even if it isn't always an easy thing to do."
Churches and temples have long encouraged small groups as places of social fellowship, Bible study, and, in recent decades, as places of refuge from the hard knocks of modern life. What has changed is the small group as an answer to an evidently growing need for depth and meaning.
"I used to be a country club Republican type who only checked into church on Sunday, and then checked out," says Mike Slemmer, a management consultant who meets Thursday evenings at Park Street. "But to grow and change I found I had to continuously work at it."
Small group members are often challenged to question some of their older concepts of God. Many groups grapple with stories, events, characters, and questions in the Scriptures, in ways similar, for example, to the recent public television discussions on the Bible's book of Genesis conducted by journalist Bill Moyers.
Many Christians and Jews are examining, for example, the meaning of the "covenant" between God and the Children of Israel - and asking what the responsibility of the serious believer is today.
Likewise, in the burgeoning "Jewish renewal" movement, small groups actively try to reclaim the Jewish tradition's insights into a living God, where such Hebrew figures as Moses, Abraham, and Jeremiah are viewed as teachers whose words and ethics speak clearly today. "Many religious Jews are leaving behind ... antiquated notions of God and returning their attention to God as the Force that makes possible healing and transformation," writes Rabbi Michael Lerner, who says the revered Rabbi Hillel summed up the approach of the small group effort in the words "...go and study."
Explanations for the small group surge vary. They range from the need for greater intimacy in a mobile society, to a desire among parents weaned in the secular culture of the post-1960s to share moral insights with their children, to a simple spiritual hunger among people for whom a "one-time" conversion is not enough.
"When you listen to people, the words they use to describe this are phrased in terms of family," says J. Bradley Wiggin, a professor of theology who participated in the Lilly study. "They say, 'This is my family,' or, 'The church is my family.' Nor can we forget that, especially among 'boomers, all the classic issues of life and death are arising to deal with."
Daniel Olson, a religious sociologist at Indiana University, finds a demand, particularly among a core of believers in liberal Protestant faiths, to reconnect with the traditions and memory of the church.
Nor, Dr. Olson says, can the need for a "safe place" to discuss spiritual experiences be discounted. "People need a place to talk about their lives in religious language and not be embarrassed. If someone went through a difficult experience, they may want to say, 'Maybe I'm kooky, but I really felt that God was right there with me,' and not have people laugh at them."
Some scholars warn against small groups as a panacea. Even advocates agree that without some structure, small groups become little more than "shared ignorance," as one put it. Also, if "small groups are all the church is, that's too bad," says Gabriel Fackre, a leading United Church of Christ theologian.
But at the Park Street church, one member says her view of Ephesians 3 has broadened past herself to recognize, "the importance of the church, and how powerful it can be if it is functioning correctly."
Moments later, Mr. Viola closes with a prayer and says, as friendly banter breaks out, "Don't forget, anyone that wants a Thanksgiving dinner is invited to my place next Thursday!"