“Something is profoundly missing from the purpose of small groups in today’s churches. While we may not be able to put our finger on exactly what the problem is, many of us have silently wrestled with suspicions that the type of life we read about in Scripture does not line up with what we’re currently experiencing in our ecclesial communities. There is a depth, a richness, a mystery that enveloped the early church. We can feel it as we turn the pages of Scripture; yet it is despairingly absent from our services.” – Millennial Seminary Student, 2017
I teach a “Small Group Ministry & Discipling” seminary class at Cincinnati Christian University. Most of the students are Millennials, and as we’ve discussed ministry in the class, I’ve noticed a fresh, although not necessarily unique or even new, perspective on the church, mission and the purpose of small groups.
I will share some of their insights that I gleaned from our discussion and the papers they wrote. I’ll make comments along the way, but mostly I want you to see what they say about these issues.
We spoke at length one day about a “fresh wind” that seems to be sweeping across our churches, the way we look at discipleship and ministry, and the way we do groups. When I asked the students what these changes look like, they had a hard time describing it; in fact, they said, they are not sure they, or anyone else for that matter, knows what it is. We’re in a state of flux. But one thing came across strongly: They love how the early church related to one another and to God. They are excited about the kind of authentic community and life-changing mission that church lived out in their everyday lives in their homes and in the marketplace. The question then becomes how that vision of the church from its beginnings can translate today into the purpose of small groups.
Millennials’ view of the the purpose of small groups
These millennials are dissatisfied with much of what today’s church has become:
Rather than vibrant, Spirit-enflamed communities boldly proclaiming Jesus to a lost world and advancing the frontiers of Christ’s kingdom, it seems more common [today] to find large congregations of people who are bored to tears while watching professional worship leaders and ministers put on a once-a-week spectacle before returning to the “secular” realm with no real sense of how what they’re experiencing at “church” connects to the outside world in which they spend most of their time. This is not the type of life we were created to experience.
Another student put it this way:
The [early] church did not grow because of an amazing discipleship program, an amazing preacher or the best worship experience they ever had. The church grew because they were devoted to each other and the teachings of the apostles, sharing in meals and prayer together.
The students regularly pointed to biblical patterns of life together and to the values and principles the early church held dear, and they were much less excited about the forms, structures and programs of churches today. One of our discussions centered on the early church’s adherence to the priesthood of all believers. That was not only a doctrine of the church, it was simply who they were: priests, co-workers with God, ambassadors, ministers of reconciliation. The students talked often in our discussions about ordinary believers in churches taking ownership of ministry, group leadership, and personal and group mission.
The purpose of small groups in the Church
When we discussed what the purpose of small groups ministry plays in the church today, the students’ detachment toward programs was even more conspicuous. One student said,
We are not calling people to join a program, but to embrace a different vision for life. This will require us to reshape our assumptions about involvement, business, individualism and organization.
The same student also said we need to redefine our goals as churches when it comes to groups:
Our traditional ideas of success must be rethought. What will define success in our small group ministry is not the number of groups that we have or the percentage of congregation members that are engaged in group life. Our indicators are the depth and extent to which individuals are experiencing and participating in the life of Christ through their experiences together.