Small church communities make a big difference in faith formation

Every week, in homes from as far apart as Pawleys Island to Clemson, small groups of Catholics  meet to learn more about their faith, make new friends and gain spiritual support in their daily lives.
The small church community, as they are known, is a  movement that grew from the very roots of Catholicism and Christianity. As the faith spread during the first century, many believers met in house churches. Members of these communities today feel they are carrying on that tradition, and say they value the opportunity to meet in small groups because it offers a low-pressure environment for faith formation.
“Some parishes are pretty impersonal. We see familiar faces at Mass on Sunday, but then we hardly have any contact with people the rest of the week,” Tom Strub said.
He and his wife Katie belong to a group at St. Francis by the Sea Church on Hilton Head Island.
“For us, church means involvement. We need to get to know others individually,” he said.
The community movement in the Catholic Church has been especially active since the 1980s, and some credit a 1988 book by Father Art Baranowski, “Creating Small Faith Communities” (St. Anthony Press).
Groups of six to 12 people gather regularly for fellowship and to learn more about the faith. Schedules vary, but most meet at least twice a month at private homes, restaurants, coffee houses or in parish halls.
One of the most common activities is studying the readings for the following Sunday’s Mass. They also read spiritual books, watch videos and DVDs, listen to guest speakers or study Scripture. Guests are welcome to visit and learn about the structure before committing to join.
Dr. Ron Naumann, one of the founders of the program at St. Francis, said he enjoys having a chance to learn more about Catholicism and engage in regular interaction with a supportive group of friends and believers.
“There’s no question that it’s been a big addition to my spiritual growth, and others in the groups will agree that’s the case,” Naumann said. “The groups become in some respects like an extended family, but unlike families we don’t argue very much. We support each other in any way that’s needed.”
Naumann said people in his community have brought food to members who were ill, and helped each other through crises ranging from serious illness to bereavement. Interaction is important, but it is not mandatory to speak up at every meeting.
“We’re all on our own spiritual journey, and no two people are at the same point,” Naumann said. “People get sort of nudged and speeded along on the journey, but only on their own pace.”
Bill Trecartin, a member of St. Francis by the Sea, first joined a group with his late wife while living in Tallahassee, Fla., more than 15 years ago.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for sharing outside the structure of the Mass, an avenue for all of us to share our feelings about Scripture,” he said.
Trecartin said people interested in starting a small faith community in their parish should obtain permission and support from their pastor first.
“There’s no doubt the presence of small communities in the parish strengthens the outreach to people and their integration in the parish,” said Father Michael J. Oenbrink, administrator at St. Francis by the Sea. “You’re trying to encourage members of the groups to see themselves as part of St. Francis, to increase their faith development and their interaction with others.”
Also on the coast, a thriving program is in full swing at Precious Blood of Christ Church on Pawleys Island.
More than 500 people take part in the communities based at St. Andrew Church in Clemson, which also include St. Francis Mission in Walhalla and St. Paul the Apostle Mission in Seneca.
The groups are especially important there because the parish encompasses more than 1,000 square miles, and it is sometimes difficult for members to feel connected to other Catholics, said Jane Myers, director of religious education at St. Andrew. Thirteen small communities meet regularly in homes or other locations, and eight more assemble on Sunday mornings.
“Focusing on the upcoming Sunday readings is important to us because that way, we have people throughout the community praying about those readings and reflecting on them,” Myers said. “When they hear them on Sunday… the readings really resonate with them.”
Myers said they also take part in an assortment of other activities, including prayer and community service. Myers and her husband Michael will offer a program on small church communities at the upcoming Fire at the Beach event in Hilton Head in September.
At Holy Trinity Church in Orangeburg, the “Sunday to Sunday” bunch meets weekly to read and discuss the Scriptures. Another group, Growing in Faith Together, reads books by theologians and Catholic authors, said Pam Phillips, who lives in the nearby town of Cameron. Phillips said she also takes part in small gatherings  that meet in Cameron, St. Matthews and other nearby towns during Lent and Advent.
“Being in the group renews our devotion because it makes us more aware of the community of Christians,” Phillips said. “It keeps us closer to God when we get together as a group and talk about our faith. God becomes more in focus every day.”