Recently, I met a catechist who said she wished that there was more time for small group discussion in the programme she helps out with. She felt there was barely enough time to get to know the young candidates in her group, let alone allow them to discuss anything too deeply.
And only this morning, I met a woman who was reflecting that in an adult formation programme she took part in, she felt that she couldn’t express her true thoughts, because her small group leader ‘had all the answers’.
I think these examples betray two problems we come up against with this method of handing of the faith. As a leader, sometimes we are a bit afraid of small group discussion. We’re unsure that our catechists are formed well enough, or know the subject enough, to steer the discussion in a good direction. So we limit it to a token few minutes in the session. The main teaching is a lecture given by someone who we can 100% trust.
And as a small group leader, we can panic when someone starts spouting misunderstandings about the faith; we jump in to get things back on track, then find it much safer to dominate the discussion ourselves.
In both scenarios, we are not allowing enough room for the active participation of those we catechise. We all know that people learn when they are active in the learning process. A lecture is not going to cut the mustard. Even if it’s the essence of stunning, polished orthodoxy. Young people and adults both need time to express where they are currently, so that we can take this on board, and lead them to deeper understanding.
This requires great skill. We do need well-formed catechists who not only have deep understanding, but also good people skills. Someone who will allow people to say what they think without panicking, then perhaps drawing in others to come to a clearer answer.
At our recent Confirmation retreat, I saw the benefit of small groups really clearly. In our groups, we prayed together at the beginning and the end of our sessions. At the end of each day, the candidates met together to share their high moment, low moment and ‘God’ moment from the day. (Guess where we got that from – it could only be the archdiocesan summer camp in Kansas!) Small group time gave the candidates an experience of a small, intimate Christian community where they could be completely honest. And that is totally worth it. Even if your catechist doesn’t have a Masters in apologetics.
Someone said to me recently that small groups are like Purgatory for most adults. I am sure we’ve all had such purgatorial experiences. But when they’re done well, it more than worth the initial risk we take. Small group leader training is indispensable!