Why do small groups or cell groups flourish in churches overseas, but sometimes struggle in the American church?
In churches outside of the U.S., a groups ministry can be the growth engine of a church compared to a strategy to simply “close the back door” here in America.
Many have concluded that small groups just don’t work in the American church because of the aforementioned disparity. If small groups are biblical, though, is it flawed-thinking to say “groups don’t work in the U.S.?”
What if the reason groups don’t work in our culture is because our culture has leaked into our churches?
With Acts 4:32-35 as our backdrop, allow me to share 3 Cultural Trends that Break IN-to Biblical Community:
1. IN-tellectualism – Valuing education and applying oneself to a lifetime of learning is not a knock on our culture. In fact, Hosea 4:6 says, “My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge.”
However, in our pursuit of knowledge, combined with an addiction to technology, we have become dysfunctional in our ability to develop and nurture healthy relationships. The “information age” has mutated into the “isolation age.”
As we have acquired more and more information we have placed a lower priority on relationships, which is the context in which we give and receive love. This cultural mindset has bled into our faith as well. We attend church to hear a worship band or a good speaker, but know very little about our brothers and sisters in Christ that we’re sitting next to.
Acts 4:32 says, “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul…” Does this describe our churches today?
It doesn’t say, “They all brought their bibles to the temple and took notes.” Nothing wrong with that (I actually do it myself), my point is that their lives were intertwined and tangled up together. It was a beautiful mess.
I love group life because it emphasizes the value of focusing on relationships, not the consumption of information.
2. IN-dividualism – America is the most individualistic society on the planet. We place a high value on individual autonomy and typically hold loose bonds with others.
In the 2010 U.S. Census,1 only 50% of Americans ages 25-54 live in the state they were born. That doesn’t even factor in people who moved to different towns and cities within their home state.
This increased mobility leaves very few scenarios where a person can walk into a church lobby and point to someone they went to high school with. These experiences of disconnection with friends and family leave us to focus only on ourselves.
We live for ourselves, unto ourselves. We drive into our two car garage and close the door behind us before we have to engage with any of our neighbors, who are also strangers. Our nights consist of television, movies and occasionally going out to eat.
Acts 4:32 goes on to say, “neither did anyone say that of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” There wasn’t individualism, there was collectivism.
Being forced to divide up resources equally with others is communism. Sharing from the love of God is biblical community. Groups not only foster the climate for compassion and caring, they give a people a practical opportunity to be aware of each other’s needs.
3. IN-dustrialism – Many Americans anchor their identity in their career. We have mixed up our self-worth with our net-worth. We sacrifice our family and need for relationship on the altars of greed and ambition.
In a recent report from Gallup,² the average American workweek is now 47 hours, with 18% of the population working 60+ hours a week.
We put all of our eggs into the career and cash baskets. Not only do we NOT desire relationship and community, we don’t even have time for it. People are so busy trying to make that extra dollar they don’t have time to be a part of church more than once-a-week on Sundays. Community and contentment have been replaced with climbing the corporate ladder.
In biblical community, nobody had to work 60+ hours a week to get by and people didn’t store up treasure for themselves alone. Acts 4:34-35 says, “Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet, and they distributed to each as anyone had need.”
Remember, in an agrarian culture, lands could be used to sow seed and grow crops, but in the end, those lands were sold to help others. The value of the collective whole was esteemed higher than the value of a person’s possessions or vocational status.
Groups create the opportunity for us to become aware of each other’s needs. Once needs are discovered, the relational proximity stirs our hearts to meet those needs as we are able to. This is what happened in the 1st century church as believers connected with each other from “house-to-house” (Acts 2:46, 5:42, 20:20).
Small groups release the values of relationships, collectivism and community that impede the cultural break-IN to biblical settings. I also believe these trends need to be confronted in preaching, teaching and through the model of leaders’ lives.