There’s a certain stigma about Christians today that drives many nonbelievers (and even some genuine believers) away from the church. They believe we’re a “house of hypocrites.” They think we’ve turned worship into a rock-and-roll stage and light show. And no matter how hard we work to change public opinion, there will always be someone standing on their soapbox, screaming at passersby to “Repent!”
Scott Cooper plans to expose the truth about all of this.
After a failed documentary turned Scott into a laughingstock in Hollywood, he relocates his family back to his hometown in Georgia so that he can work on a documentary about why Christianity has become so unpopular—or so he thinks.
Turns out the film’s producer, Ballard Nelson, doesn’t really care about the integrity of the film. He just wants to cash in on public opinion. And that means sending Scott undercover to pose as a believer in the hope that Christians will let their guard down around one of their own.
Scott isn’t comfortable with that decepton. He doesn’t mind exposing the truth, but he wants to do so with people’s consent. Unfortunately, he also doesn’t have any other options. Nobody else will hire him. And he and his wife, Mary, are broke.
So, he takes the contract, joins a small group and sets out to find the truth behind Christianity.
In college, Scott mistook a Christian girl’s kind actions for romantic interest. That, combined with his overzealous family members, gave him a negative view of Christians. So, when he starts his undercover work for the documentary, he justifies lying because he believes it will ultimately tell the truth. However, as Scott gets to know the members of his small group, he realizes that his perception of Christians has been wrong. (More on that theme in Spiritual Content.)
A babysitter comforts Casey (Scott and Mary’s daughter) when she is scared to have them leave the house. A boy who lives in the slums of an impoverished city shows Scott a sunset and says his city is “beautiful.” A family decides not to have an abortion despite a risky pregnancy. A former army medic saves the life of a pregnant woman.
Scott initially thinks Christians are just hypocrites claiming moral superiority, but he gradually realizes they are actually broken people saved by God’s grace who just want to share that grace with other broken people. He apologizes for his actions and sets the record straight.
Mary, his wife, also realizes her perception of Christians has been off. She starts to notice that the women in their small group don’t try to hide their flaws. They are humans who make mistakes, just like her. And while Mary doesn’t believe she deserves grace, one of the women points out that none of them do. Eventually Mary realizes that grace isn’t about good actions but rather about a good God.
When their friends realize they have been manipulated and lied to, they are understandably hurt. However, they also realize that Scott himself was manipulated, and decide to forgive him after he apologizes.
Several people go on a mission trip to Guatemala to help Sam, a man who works with local boys and teaches them about Christ. Sam explains that his mission is to love these children, feed them, play with them and teach them about Jesus from a young age so that they won’t grow up into angry men who hurt others.
Cori, Scott’s field producer, admits that she quit attending church because it felt ingenuine. She didn’t like that many Christians seemed to abuse God’s grace as their own personal ticket to heaven. She hopes that making this documentary will help many Christians to rethink their actions and motives, leading to true repentance and change. However, making the film actually causes Cori to rethink how she perceives Christians, and she decides to give the church another chance.
We see several negative Christian stereotypes portrayed onscreen. A guy named Chaz, for instance, is a narcissistic and self-righteous man who uses his position in the church to promote himself. Other scenes invite laughs at the expense of painfully earnest believers and self-absorbed ones as well: a woman says she simply prayed for her baby to sleep through the night and it worked; the group prays for a cat to be healed; a couple humble-brags about how he’s moving to the inner city because he’s already reached everyone in their neighborhood for Christ.
However, we also see stereotypes crushed. Many of the Christians portrayed here are genuine in their faith. They pray, study God’s Word and do life together. When Mary goes into early labor and is rushed to the hospital, the women from her small group show up to offer their support and pray over her and her baby. When the men go on a camping trip together, Deke (one of the small group members) says that he likes being in nature because it reminds him to pause and be humbled by God’s creation. He tells them all that in the grand scheme of things, they are all insignificant, but that God loves each of them individually in spite of it.
The homes of several Christians are decorated with crosses. Casey says a prayer at a funeral service for her pet rabbit.
Scott says his family used to “administer religion like a suppository,” and we see some extreme examples of how his relatives would try to force religion on him through fear tactics and prayer. (His grandmother even prays for him to be saved from the “demons” inside him.)
A drag queen explains in an interview that even though he is fond of Jesus, he’s been told that in order to know Jesus, he would have to give up his lifestyle, which he isn’t willing to do. Another interview shows a man pretending to be a demon.
A camera is hidden inside a cross necklace. Scott decides to go by his first name, Roman, because it sounds more “churchy.” Mary tells Scott he looks like a Mormon. People joke about the difference between “divine intervention” and “luck.” Mary worries about creating bad karma. A man stands on a soapbox, wearing a sign that says ,“No gods before me,” handing out Bibles and screaming as passersby to “repent.” A video shows burning crosses and people holding signs that say “God hates you.”
[Spoiler Warning] After Scott and Mary lose their newborn baby due to medical complications, Scott becomes angry since he was on a mission trip in Guatemala instead of home with his family. He doesn’t understand why God didn’t answer their prayers. However, he and Mary soon learn that following God doesn’t mean there will be no suffering. In fact, we’re told the opposite—that we will suffer—but that God’s grace will heal us. And they realize that they have been experiencing God’s grace through the people in their small group. This understanding of how grace works leads them to both accepting Christ as their Savior.
Scott and Mary embrace and kiss several times. (She also sits on his lap once.) We briefly see a man in his underwear. A woman’s cleavage is exposed when she leans over. A teenage girl wears a crop top and short skirt.
Ballard implies that he is trying to have sex with an intern in his office. He also flirts inappropriately with Mary. Some women in the small group tease that Elyse (who is married to Shane) has a boyfriend. However, they quickly explain it’s a joke and that they are all committed to their marriages.
When a young Guatemalan girl (who has been forced into prostitution) is about to be raped, Scott and Shane tackle her would-be rapist. Shane gets punched several times in the face (and we later see his badly bruised and cut eye) before someone jumps on the man’s back and chokes him until he passes out.
Sam is approached by a gang leader, who is angry that Scott and Shane interfered with his prostitution business. He is punched in the throat and hit with a gun before the girl’s brother (who used to work with Sam) is told to shoot Sam. Sam tells the boy to do what he has to do but reminds him that the gang will continue to use and abuse both him and his sister. So, the boy runs away instead of killing him. The gang leader chooses not to kill him, but hits and kicks Sam a few more times before leaving.
Mary experiences extreme labor pains and falls to the ground, hitting her head hard on the pavement.
Someone says that the woman who used to own Scott and Mary’s house died from choking on a peppermint and wasn’t found until a week later. We also hear a story about someone who died while hang gliding.
A woman tells a boy to hold his hand over a lighter and then compares the pain from the burn to hell. Someone carries an assault rifle. People talk about killing and eating rabbits. We are led to believe that a snake ate a girl’s pet rabbit. A man smashes a glass object.
We hear two uses of “h—.” The s-word is almost uttered (preceded by “bull”), but it is blocked out by a man slamming his hand down on a table. God’s name is misused four times. Someone says, “Dang it.”
Scott drinks shots in an airport bar. Scott and Mary drink wine, and Scott gets drunk. People drink at a restaurant bar. Scott assumes someone is drinking champagne but learns it’s actually grape juice. A man says he used to drink at bars. Someone mentions beer.
A woman says she needs more cigarettes, and we see an ash tray full of her cigarette butts. Someone jokes about getting high on kerosene; we later see someone else pretending to drink it. A man takes oxycodone for pain relief. A man spits repeatedly, and it can be inferred that it is caused by chewing tobacco.
Ballard manipulates Scott by reminding him that nobody else will hire him, and by offering him a large amount of money to make the documentary. Scott uses hidden cameras to capture the footage he needs. Among this footage are several clips of Shane making off-color jokes about race, special needs, murder and more. And while Shane always utters, “Sorry, Lord,” after making these jokes, Ballard edits the movie to make it look like Shane is being serious.
Furthermore, this cut of the film embarrasses Scott and hurts his friends, all of whom come out looking like the epitome of hypocritical Christians. When Scott confronts Ballard about it, Ballard says that religion is fake, and he angrily criticizes Christians for using God as pass for bad behavior.
A rabbit urineates on a woman. A man passes gas. Someone says he needs to “poop.” A man’s gross eating habits are exaggerated. A man lifts his shirt to show a nasty rash on his back.
A man falls asleep during church. Mary reads a harsh critique of Scott’s previous documentary out loud, showing how far he has fallen in the eyes of Hollywood. A pregnant woman is scared about complications since her first child was born premature. Later, when she goes into early labor, she panics, despite doctors and nurses reassuring her. A girl is scared by a large snake.
As Scott searches for the truth about why the influence of Christianity is dwindling, we run into several stereotypes about Christians that feed into his pre-existing belief—such as the soapbox preacher and the woman who claims that her baby sleeping through the night is a “miracle” from God (a prayer clearly intended to be mocked in the context of the film).
That said, Small Group also shows us believers with genuine faith in action. When Sam gets attacked in Guatemala, Chaz says it’s because the gang doesn’t follow Jesus. However, Scott (who doesn’t even believe in Jesus yet) realizes that Sam’s faith in Jesus is actually what saved him. It was the remembrance of how Sam treated his would-be killer with kindness that stopped the man from taking Sam’s life. We also see Sam as he works tirelessly to save countless boys from a life of violence, cruelty and hate.
Furthermore, even though they don’t understand it at the time, Scott and Mary realize that the fact their baby lived until Scott was able to return from Guatemala to hold her and say goodbye was a miracle in and of itself.
There are some content concerns that families should be aware of. You would think that in a Christian film, God’s name wouldn’t get misused, but it does. We also hear a couple of other minor profanities. Shane’s colorful humor, while meant to be funny, can also be insensitive at times.
The loss of Mary and Scott’s newborn daughter is tragic and heartbreaking. And for any family that has lost a child, especially if it feels like their prayers went unanswered, this plot point could bring up painful memories. Not to mention the fact that early on, Shane asks Mary if she even wants to go through with a difficult pregnancy. (She rebukes him sternly for even suggesting the possibility of abortion.)
And then there’s the violence that Scott and the others witness and experience in Guatemala. Luckily, this film stops short of murder and rape, but only just.
Ultimately, this film doesn’t paint Christianity as a lifestyle that guarantees earthly happiness and freedom from hardship. In fact, it pretty much does the opposite. When you follow Jesus, you still face the same troubles that everyone else does—such as the loss of a newborn child—and you may even face additional criticism since many nonbelievers think we are hypocrites.
But Small Group reminds us that God offers us grace to heal those wounds, He can also bring us peace and joy even amid pain. And He uses us to extend that life-given grace to others, despite what skeptics and cynics might believe about our faith.
Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and indulging in her “nerdom,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything she loves, such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.