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The Role of Small Groups in Church History

The church at the center is the church of Christendom , the era that began with Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 declaring Christianity a legal religion in the state of Rome. For the next 1,650 years, the church lived within the friendly confines of Christendom, where it held influence, authority, and the respect of the people. My intent here is not to condemn the shift from the apostolic movement era to the era of Christendom. My point is descriptive in nature. I want us to understand how groups operated in that era and how often we fall into the trap of trying to develop groups that fit that era better than they do our own today. 

During Christendom, Christianity was a cultural establishment, a marriage between the church and the majority culture. This marriage came in two basic forms. First, the establishment of state churches created governmental Christianity. This was the predominant model embraced by European Catholicism, German Lutheranism, British Anglicanism, and Swiss Calvinism. Second was social Christianity, which developed into the American form of Christianity. The state did not officially endorse any particular church; instead, denominations arose that were independent of the official government. The collective form of these denominations comprises Protestantism, which has been historically equated with Americanism. This is why so many Americans claim to be Christians even though they have not attended a church service in years.

The points below delineate the meaning of the church in the middle of society.

  • View of Information: The church was one of the most respected institutions in society. Therefore, the church’s role was to inform, advise, and teach people about how to live. The people then would take this information with them as they went about their daily lives.
  • Influence: The Kingdom of God was viewed geographically, so when the impact of a Christian nation expanded, the impact of the church expanded. The church sought to expand its influence by erecting new buildings which people would come to for worship. This practice carried over into the missionary movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.
  • Role of the clergy: Clergymen were often the most educated, articulate, and respected men in society. They had traveled, they read, and they could teach. At the same time, they often played the role of a chaplain, in that they pastored those who came to them. For instance, a Baptist pastor often saw his role as pastoring the Baptists within a certain geographical setting.
  • Authority of the church: A church grew in its authority as it grew in size, thereby increasing its ability to influence the agendas of society.
  • View of Faith: Faith was a private affair, characterized by “personal conversion” and personal baptism. When a church did get involved in social issues, it did so at the expense of faith by trying to promote the well-being of the social structure.
  • Ministry Method: Church was viewed as a place where certain things happened. Church became a building on “1st and Main” where official services were held, led by official leaders.
  • Role of Small Groups: Small groups are primary used to educate people through the study of the Bible. The groups are not missional in nature instead they are “come if you want” groups for those interested. Often these groups are for insiders and they are called “Bible studies.”

Some might argue that this analysis of Christendom is too harsh. In some ways, they are right. Many people were saved and became vital parts of the Kingdom of God through this model of ministry. I am among those people. Many great institutions were created under this ideology. Thank God for what He has done through His church! And I am thankful for what I have learned in Bible studies. But this era is part of our history, not matter how much people try to return to it. 

#3—The Church in a Pluralistic Context
The authors of the book Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, write about the shift of church from a Christendom worldview to a pluralistic worldview by telling about an experience in 1963 when the Fox Theatre ran picture show on Sunday night. They write, “Before the Fox Theater opened on Sunday, we could convince ourselves that, with an adapted and domesticated gospel, we could fit American values into a loosely Christian framework, and we could thereby be culturally significant.” 

Whether or not the exact date of the shift occurred in 1963 matters little. The fact remains that the church is no longer at the center of society. It has been marginalized and set alongside every other element of society, forced to compete for the attention of individuals who have to choose between the myriad options that bombard them every day. The church finds itself competing for time, influence, and power. The goal is to do church in such a way that it provides spiritual goods and services that have enough quality that people will come and support their agenda. Here are some characteristics of the church today:

  • View of Information: There is no dominant or single respected source of information. All sources of information are viewed as equally credible, depending upon how different people view life. The newspapers, internet, paparazzi, television talk shows, fashion magazines, and cable all compete with the Gospel of the church.
  • Influence: The church competes for influence with cultural icons like rock stars or basketball players. These cult-like heroes have more influence on what is seen as right or wrong than do church leaders.
  • Role of the minister: Ministers are no longer the most educated or articulate leaders, even in small towns. They are relegated to the role of “spiritual” experts and are not viewed as having any knowledge about real life.
  • Authority: Often churches have sought authority by adopting the practices of business marketing and promotion. Other churches have tried to compete by embracing the practices of the entertainment world. But it is impossible to compete with Madison Avenue or Hollywood.