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When Less is More

small group

There’s an underground spiritual movement in the United States that has grown so quietly over the last few decades that you may not even know you’re part of it.

To find out if you’re part of this secret network, just answer the following question: “Are you currently involved in a small group that meets regularly and provides support and caring for those who participate in it?” If you answered “yes,” congratulations. You are part of the small group movement. More than 40 percent of Americans belong to such small groups, reports Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow. Do you?

It hardly matters why you meet. The last installment of “The Spiritual Search” was about recovering alcoholics and drug addicts (myself included) who find care and support in small groups that blend Buddhist meditation and the Twelve Steps.

But there are all kinds of groups—men’s groups, women’s groups, couple’s groups, cancer support groups, grieving groups, book reading (including the Bible) groups, prayer and meditation groups. Many of them are part of larger religious congregations, but others were started by the members of a church or other organization that became disaffected and started their own independent gathering.

In fact, that’s how most new religions and religious denominations begin. A small group, or sect, splits off and forms a gathering that may or may not turn into a sectarian movement. Take Debra, a Catholic and a feminist alienated by the church’s refusal to ordain women. She meets every other Sunday evening with a small group of women. They begin with a potluck dinner, and then celebrate a home-grown liturgy of prayers, songs, discussion, and communion. “Liturgical structures on Sunday are not working,” she said. “People are turning to groups where they can speak their own spirituality out loud and be supported in that.”

A Catholic priest I know put it this way: “Stuff can happen in a living room that can’t happen in the cathedral.” “In much of the world, the church is organized in small Christian communities. Their model is the twelve apostles gathering around the Lord—a group that was small enough to be in the same boat.”

Actually, we are all in the same boat.

Most small groups are not interested in starting a religious revolution. But they are, according to Wuthnow, redefining spirituality. “They are dramatically changing the way God is understood. God is now less of an external authority and more of an internal presence,” says Wuthnow, the author of Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America’s New Quest for Community. “The sacred becomes more personal, but in the process also more manageable, more serviceable in meeting individual needs.”

So, tell us your story. How do small groups help you cultivate a spiritual connection in your life? Have they replaced “organized religion?”

Don Lattin is the author of five books on religion and spirituality in America. His latest, Distilled Spirits, Getting High, then Sober, with a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk, is available on the Kindle ( or in a hardcover edition from University of California Press.

Don Lattin

Don Lattin is a veteran journalist and the author of five books on religion and spirituality in America. His national bestseller, The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America, won the 2010 California Book Award for nonfiction. His most recent work, Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, With a Famous Writer, Forgotten Philosopher and a Hopeless Drunk, is a memoir and group biography of writer Aldous Huxley, philosopher Gerald Heard, and Bill Wilson, cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Lattin’s stories have appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle, where he covered the religion beat for two decades. He lives on an island in the San Francisco Bay with his wife, Laura, and his dog, Bella. Visit him at

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