Review Essay: The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities

Review Essay on:  Lee, Bernard J. and D’Antonio, William V. et al.  2000.  The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities. New   York: Paulist Press.

Lee and D’Antonio et al’s book was the first national study of small Christian communities (SCCs), documenting their growing number and importance.  These facts alone should interest Church leaders and social scientists, but especially those involved in small Christian communities and evangelization.  Through a rather comprehensive multi-method approach, the authors provide both a descriptive statistical account of SCCs, semi-rich qualitative data via interviews with SCC members, and participant observation of actual SCC activity.  Given that others have reviewed these data however (CARA, 2000 and Gautier, 2002), this review will concentrate only on Bernard Lee’s critique of SCCs found in chapter five – “Perspectives and Portents: Theological Interpretations and Pastoral Recommendations.”  First, I question Lee’s notion that SCCs are functional equivalents of monasteries for containing religious virtuosi, suggesting this analogy is inadequate in that SCCs function more like Wuthnow’s special purpose groups (SPGs).  Secondly, I claim that Lee’s “wanting more” from SCCs is sociologically naïve and indicative of the seemingly ever constant and growing attitudinal and behavioral gap between professional ministers and ordinary laity.

1.  Small Christian Communities are Similar to Special Purpose Groups:

Lee begins chapter five by offering the metaphor of margins as a means to locate SCCs in the larger Catholic Church.  Lee notes that “margins are always on the page, always frame the text, and anything written in the margins inevitably conditions how anyone ever after reads the text” (p.118).  When a person reading a book begins scribbling in the margins he/she feels that “something else needs to be said,” and that is exactly what Lee thinks many SCC professional ministers feel.  The marginal person straddles two worlds, and with a foot in each he/she can compare one to the other or the center to the margins.  For this reason, the center (the Church) needs the margins (SCCs).

Lee substantiates SCCs’ marginal status in two ways.  First, by noting how the former Pope John Paul II hesitated in completely embracing SCCs, even though he spoke approvingly of SCC activity in Redemptoris Missio (51). Rome, in other words, has expressed reservations about liberation theology and small basic ecclesial communities ever since the 1970s.  Second, by pointing out that “SCCs do not have a structured, legitimated ecclesial location or a specified relationship to parish or diocese.  They have no juridical character.  The fact that some bishops and pastors are supportive and welcoming does not create a juridical home for the SCC (p.119). Given Rome’s position and the fact that SCCs have no juridical home, Lee concludes that SCCs are “both marginal and of towering importance” (p. 120). 

Given their marginal status, Lee argues further that SCCs are ecclesial contexts for religious virtuosi.  Religious virtuosi are those members who carry within them greater energy, enthusiasm, zeal, and commitment to the organization than the average member.  As Lee puts it, “these are the people who are up for a larger commitment and involvement than the normal life of the community either regularly offers or expects” (p.69-70).  They create a certain collective effervescence, that spills over into the larger social organization.  Historically, monasteries and religious orders were social places for these enthusiastic virtuosi, but with Vatican II calling all Christians to that same perfection and enthusiasm, Vatican II “removed an important ideological support for celibacy and thus for religious life” (p.70).  Lee therefore believes that SCCs may be functional equivalents of monasteries, offering an alternative communal space for religious virtuosi.

Lee draws on SCCs’ marginal status and their having no juridical home to support his likening SCCs to monasteries.  But this claim is overdrawn, and I argue instead that SCCs are actually more similar to what Robert Wuthnow (1988) calls special purpose groups.  Partly because there are sociological studies showing (Finke and Wittberg, 2000; Weber, 1922; Collins, 1988) that the Catholic church has been able to maintain its institutional success throughout the ages, including our own post-vatican II era, due to its’ ability to retain sect-like tendencies of religious virtuosi via convents and monasteries (Protestants have not been able to do so) and partly because SCCs have not been around long enough to have earned a sectarian-like status or reputation – at least not yet.  Organizationally, then, equating SCCs with special purpose groups (SPGs) is a better fit.  So what are SPGs and why are they a better fit?

Sociologically, SPGs are different from both sects and churches – falling somewhere between these two religious organizational types.  Dissimilar from sects in that SPGs are non-intensive whereas sects are “intensive.”  SPGs demand time and energy but for only one “special purpose” (prison ministry, home bible study, Christian drag car racing, etc.) and therefore are “non-intensive” in that one’s time, money, and social life are not overly extracted from its members as is done in sects.  On the other hand, SPGs are dissimilar from churches in that they are small whereas churches are large.  Consequently, SPGs are more demanding than churches (in that churches require only Sunday Mass attendance), but not as demanding as sects which extract much familial and social time from its members.  Theoretically, SPGs function like SCCs then in retaining sect-like tendencies from spewing outside of the church’s boundaries while at the same time not being too greedy of members’ resources.  SPGs, it could be said, combine the best of both worlds; like churches they require non-intensive commitment, and, like sects, they are small in size (see figure 1 below).

Figure 1 :                                                         Involvement





                empty cell




     Special Purpose Group


SPGs provide ways for the local church to catch the attention of prospective members because they are small and focus on one issue.  SCCs and their focus on scripture and prayer is one of those ways – arguably one of the more “intense” Christian ways compared to other SPGs (e.g., Christian drag racers).  Nevertheless, most SPGs can revitalize the parish because, as Wuthnow shows, commitment is not entirely a function of personal values and beliefs as most social scientists assume – commitment “is also a function of the vast infrastructure of SPGs that makes available the activities to which people become committed” (1988: 122).  In other words, when there are groups to join then people get involved.  People do not necessarily get involved because they believe and are committed to, for example, group prayer and bible based faith sharing, but because there is a group at the parish to join that does those things.  SCCs’ focus on scripture, prayer, and small group sharing, therefore, make them more like SPGs than the sect-like monastic or religious orders which are more demanding of members time and resources.  In other words, marginality and having no juridical home does not make a sect-like monastery.  Indeed, one could argue that a lot of parish activities (other types of SPG activity – Wuthnow discovered more than 800 religious types) are marginal and have no juridical home.

2.  “Wanting More” from SCCs

Lee also wants “more” from SCCs because he is not satisfied with the level of activity in SCCs.  He repeatedly suggests that SCCs are too closed in on themselves, too individualistic, too inward looking, too narrow, too preoccupied with internal concerns, and not involved enough in Christian social action.  I find his “wanting more” from SCCs to be sociologically naïve and indicative, again, of a professional just not being satisfied with regular lay peoples’ beliefs or Christian action.

When Lee questions whether small groups can be motivated to serve the wider community as well as their own members (200: 141), he is being eccelesiologically narrow in forgetting that most SCCs are parish based (60%).  Even though Lee mentions several times how SCCs are linked to the parish, he seems to ignore that fact when giving them a poor grade (wanting more) in terms of social outreach.  I would ask, why can’t SCCs link up with the Christian Service Commission of the parish to develop its social outreach rather than make that a central aspect of their identity as a small group?  Moreover, maybe SCC members are already contributing to the Christian Service dimension of parish life without necessarily doing so as SCC members?  SCCs being linked to parishes are the main ecclesial reason why SCCs don’t have to do everything in that it is the parish that is expected to ensure that the various dimensions of church life are being implemented (worship, religious education, Christian service, stewardship, and evangelization – Dulles: 1983), not any one segment of the parish.  In other words, Lee is ecclesiologically narrow because he does not develop the link between SCCs and the parish-at-large, specifically with the parish council and commission structure.  Perhaps Lee does not do this because the Lilly funded study did not collect data on that particular link or because he just might discover that social outreach is being done by SCC members through the parish structures.  In other words, Lee wants “more” from the SCCs, not from parishes to which they are linked.  Yet we know from sociological research done at the parish level, especially since the 1990s (Warner: 1993), that this is where much vibrant religious activity happens.  One of the organizational geniuses of the Catholic Church is its’ network of local parishes, and if SCCs are not integrally linked to a parish then they risk becoming truly sectarian as well as losing their potential ecclesial influence in the process.  One SCC or SPG cannot do everything, but organized together under one roof called a parish much can be done.

Part of Lee’s problem is also revealed when the modern issue of time is considered.  The sociologists Zerubavel, for instance, believes that we live in a highly rationalized “temporal order” and therefore time is a most effective principle of differentiation, keeping separate private and public spheres and, more to the point, that this rationalizing of time is a functional necessity today.  As he states it: “With increasing functional and structural differentiation within individuals’ webs of social affiliations and the growing bureaucratic split between “person” and “role,” maintaining the partiality of the involvement of modern individuals in each of the various social roles they occupy becomes a necessity (1981: xv).

Rational temporal orders are necessary then because today’s social order assumes that people can only be partially involved in most social arenas and only espouse limited commitments.  So SCC members are in a temporal tug-of-war between Lee asking for more time and commitment and society’s rational ordering of time.  If Zerubavel is correct about society’s temporal order, then why do church professionals keep asking for “more” from their members?  The tremendous effort it takes to get people involved in SCCs in the first place should tell us something about the time famine most ordinary lay people experience.  So it is unrealistic and naïve, in my opinion, to critique SCCs by saying they are not doing enough.  Sociologically speaking, Lee’s critique reveals his sectarian impulses and his naivete.  He wants SCCs to be “greedy organizations” (Coser: 1974), but most ordinary laity cannot afford such time and resources.

I agree with Lee’s overall sense that people are seeking community and that communities should not become simply life-style enclaves (Bellah, et al: 1985), but church professionals should also heed Putnam’s work (although debated – Ammerman, 1996; Fine, 2004) which indicates that even though there is a decline in social capital or social connectedness in the last thirty years, it is in the mainline churches where “arguably the single most important repository of social capital in America” is to be found (Putnam: 2000: 66).  In other words, what I think might be the situation with Lee and his critique of SCCs is the ideological trap many church professionals fall into – not being able to take the role of the other toward oneself (Mead: 1934), in this case, taking the role of ordinary SCC members.  There is a massive literature on the attitudinal and behavioral gap that exists between church professionals and ordinary laity (Dinges, 1983; McSweeney, 1980; Hadden, 1970; Flanagan, 1991; Stark and Fink, 2000), showing over and again how out of sync many church professionals are with ordinary pew-dwellers.  Lee wanting “more” from SCCs places him in this category in my estimation.  Professionals have an uncanny ability to communicate to the ordinary pew-dweller (mostly non-verbally) that they just are not “good enough.”  There always seems to be a “but” at the end of their lectures and Lee appears to be no exception.

In the end, this is an excellent and groundbreaking book.  Theoretically, the book’s major weakness is Lee “wanting more” from SCC members in that he would like to see SCCs transformed into more sectarian-like greedy organizations.  Methodologically, the book’s major weakness is the lack of data collection on the link between SCCs and the local parish, and therefore an important focus for future research.  That cannot be considered a negative critique, however, because as with SCCs, a single study cannot do everything.



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