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The Role of Small Groups in Church History

  • View of Faith: Faith is no longer a private affair, instead being discussed in such forums as afternoon talk-shows, Internet chat-rooms, coffee shops, even lecture halls. People can even find Jesus outside established churches.
  • Ministry Method: Ministry includes high-class productions, super-star preaching, entertaining music, expensive promotions, anything that will attract people to weekly services. In other words, the church has become a vendor of religious goods and services.
  • Role of Small Groups: Small groups play the role of assimilating those who come through the front door. Almost always the groups are highly programmatic and organized from the top down. Some of the more proactive groups might seek out God’s mission, but for the most part these groups serve as a tool to close the back door and connect people who happen to attend the same church.
  • Many churches are seeing results as they minister in this highly competitive environment. And many if not most of the small group models that are promoted and written about in books fit very nicely into this era of the church. Two comments at this point. First, there is value to providing good groups for people who come to church on Sundays, even if they are more programmatic in nature. I used to be highly judgmental of those who took this approach until I started leading in such a church where people were not ready for something more organic and relational. They needed the programmatic to get them started.

    Secondly, too often getting people into groups becomes the end of the small group ministry. Yes we say that we want things like discipleship, evangelism, etc. But there must be something more than the programmatic approach to group life that closes the back door. If people come to the church expecting spiritual goods and services and we develop groups to conform to these expectations, all we are doing is perpetuating the mindset of spiritual consumerism. People just consume our groups. Addressing this is challenging and we will be talking about ways to lead people beyond it.  

    #4—The Church in Missional Dialogue
    Not everyone believes that the church must compete with the world with the rules that the world provides. As opposed to a come and consume our small groups approach, there is a model of ministry arising that takes a participate in life approach. It sees the church on mission, penetrating and taking church to the ordinary stuff of life. This view of the church on mission requires a mental shift in our understanding of the church. Church is not something that people do one day a week. Church is something people belong to and take with them wherever they go. Church becomes a way of life, not just a meeting. Church can be held wherever two or three are gathered, not just in a building specifically set aside for religious purposes. 

    With this shift, people are not limited to attending fixed church activities; the church goes as the people go forth in life. Small groups are not so much about a program, regular meetings and curriculum as they are about relational life together, accountability, supporting one another and discipleship. As a result, the church invades schools, businesses, families, colleges, even the government. It infects all of life, not just the official “services” that happen at official buildings. 
    Here are some further characteristics of the church of the future:

    • View of Information: This kind of church realizes that the church cannot compete nor can it convince; therefore it seeks to demonstrate the Gospel in life by allowing God to move through its members. When others see the reality of life-change, the door is open for the Gospel message.
    • Influence: Because positions of ministry are not respected in society, personal relationships are the primary means of having influence on others. People will discuss their beliefs with friends.
    • Role of the minister: The minister’s role is no longer that of “doing the ministry” of the church but that of leading, equipping, and mentoring. The new goal is to mobilize others so that they can minister in their respective worlds.
    • Authority: The church does not seek to attain authority in the world. Instead, it understands that its only authority is found in weakness. This weakness leads the church on mission to depend upon the Spirit of God, because without Him, the people only look like fools.
    • Faith: Faith is understood to penetrate all of life, all the time. People are mobilized as faith missionaries or faith ministers to their respective ‘worlds.’ These ‘worlds’ include neighborhoods, places of employment, clubs, and any other activities where people have relationships with nonbelievers.
    • Ministry Method: The church on mission chooses, mentors, and releases people for ministry. It does this by building community in relational small groups and then helps people practice their gifts. In this way, the church becomes a body of people sent on mission.
    • Role of Small Groups: Small groups are viewed as holistic and missional. They are units to mobilize people for relational encounters with God, one another and the culture. In this way, they creatively morph to manifest God’s relational kingdom.

    What does all of this mean for how we lead the church and how we develop small groups? At first glance, this might look like an interesting take on the take of the role of the church in history. There is much more to seeing how groups fit in these four eras. If we don’t properly understand the social location of the church in our current culture, we are likely to adopt inadvertently approaches that don’t actually deal with the realities of the social location in which we live. Sadly, I find that many of small group models—even those that call themselves “missional”—fit nicely under the first three categories above. Many try to recover the apostolic ethos of the early church. Others seek to re-establish the church at the center. And more than a few opt for developing groups that compete with the pluralistic rat race of this life, trying to offer as good of a small group product as they can. The question that we face is this: how do we experiment with group life that will honestly deal with the era in which we live. That is the hope as we work together.

    We will talk soon,