Americans Find Solace in Small Groups

by George H. Gallup Jr.
Senior Staff Writer

In a society viewed as fragmented and impersonal, the tendency of individuals to form small groups based on common needs and interests appears to be bringing Americans back together. The phenomenon is helping address one of the central requirements of our era -- the need for intimate and healing community.

In a major Gallup Institute survey* conducted for the Lilly Endowment in the early 1990s under the direction of Dr. Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University, 40% of Americans said they were involved in some kind of small group that met regularly, including 12-step programs and hobby-based groups. Sixty percent (60%) of those groups were related to faith communities. In his 1994 book Sharing the Journey, Wuthnow called the small-group movement "a quiet revolution" in American society.

A study conducted in the mid-1990s** for the Mind/Body Medical Institute of Harvard University by the Gallup Institute, focused on small groups in the context of religion or spirituality. This survey revealed that four in 10 Americans at some point in the year had taken part in a small prayer group or religious study group. Most met at least weekly (13%) or monthly (14%), while an additional 8% reported they had participated in such groups several times a year.

The same survey suggested that small groups do not appear to compete with regular church services, but instead may reinforce them. Higher-than-average participation in small prayer or religious groups is noted among church members and frequent church attendees.

Another Gallup study conducted in the late 1990s and designed by Wuthnow,*** discovered that small-group involvement brings positive results for many. In fact, as many as 61% of people who participate in prayer groups, Bible studies or other religiously oriented small groups said their experience had helped them to forgive others. Seventy-one percent (71%) said they had experienced healing of relationships as a result of their group, and 43% said they had worked on improving a broken relationship in the months just preceding the time of the survey.

* From the resulting book, "Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America's New Quest for Community," by Dr. Robert Wuthnow. The Free Press. 1994.

**Spirituality and Health, conducted for the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard University. Findings are based on telephone interviews with a representative sample of 1,000 American adults, 18 and over. Interviews were conducted throughout the spring in 1995.

***How Religious Groups Promote Forgiving, conducted for Robert Wuthnow. Findings are based on telephone interviews with a representative sample of 1,379 American adults, 18 and over. Interviews were conducted in January 1999.

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