Sunday, February 9, 2014

Small Groups in the Four Eras of the Church

As a part of the work I do with churches, I often contextualize pieces for the leaders with whom I interact. The following is a letter to one of these leaders that discusses how small groups strategies must be developed to fit the social location of the church.

Dear Pastor Jerry,
As you move forward in the coaching and consulting, there are things that I will want to share with you that take things a bit deeper than we will have time to process in our monthly coaching sessions or during the days that I am with you during the consultation visits. I could just point you to some books on these topics, but I want to contextualize some key principles so that you can process and apply them to your situation more easily.

In this first letter, I want to talk about church strategy, small groups and the social location of the church. I know that this sounds like a mouthful, but as you develop groups, it's important to realize a couple things before diving into strategies. First, small groups form a natural way of conducting healthy living and they have always been a part of the church in some form or fashion. Anyone who tells you that small groups are new or that their small group strategy is the magic pill for developing groups should be ignored.

My second point relates to the role that small groups have played in different eras of the church. This quick survey will help you see how the current social location of the church has a direct impact upon how people view the role of the church, the role of small groups, and the strategies that we implement.

In very broad terms, we can identify four eras, or social locations, of the Western church over the last 2000 years. While these four eras developed chronologically, you will notice that there is some overlap between them.

#1—The Church as an Apostolic Movement
During the first three centuries of the church’s life, the people of God developed as an organic, relational, loosely-affiliated, viral movement. There were no church buildings, no seminaries, no publishing houses. They did not even have the New Testament. They just utilized homes like the foundation of the one excavated in the picture below.

Here are a few reflections about this period:
  • View of Information: The core of the message of the church was what Paul called “foolishness to the Greeks” and a “scandal to the Jews” (1 Cor. 1:23). The Gospel message was radical and life transforming, but far from popular.
  • Influence: Records say that the influence of the church was based on the way they lived, not upon trying to attain clout in order to influence those in power.
  • Role of the clergy: While there are various views on how clergy roles developed in the early church, almost all historians of the church agree that the burgeoning church movement was led by teams of people who rose up out of the life of the church.
  • Authority of the church: The church possessed no official authority in the broader culture. In fact, the early church often grew greatly during times of persecution by those in authority.
  • View of Faith: Faith was expressed through baptism, which was a public display of walking away from their previous religious alliance and stepping into a new one. This often came with great persecution.
  • Ministry Method: The early church depended very little on specific programs of ministry or methods of organization. Their ministry was manifest through their way of love, through their way of loving one another and the world.
  • Role of Small Groups: Small groups were the church as all churches were organic house churches that lived in community and shared the message of the love of Jesus through their relationships.
Many point to the apostolic movement as a model that can be mimicked and repeated in the modern-day church. While this may be true first generation Christians in cultures that have not been exposed to Western society or Western church models, the church in the West cannot revert back to some ideal church model—if one actually exists—and act like we have not been shaped by the church of the last 1700 years.

#2—The Church at the Center
I grew up attending the church that my father and mother attended. It was a church typical of the rural South, one that resembled the church in the picture below. Membership averaged around 100 people; weekly attendance was about half that. The church was called Foote Baptist Church because the Foote family had donated the land in 1908. Because the church was the only public building, the neighborhood was called the Foote community.

Across the country, people have similar stories. A church’s steeple was once the tallest man-made point for miles. A church served as the community center, not only for worship, but also for things like town meetings, social gatherings, and school. One summer, my wife and I drove across western Kansas for vacation. As little towns surfaced on the horizon, I saw large grain silos and farmhouses surrounded by wheat fields. The most prominent features, however, were the church steeples that rose above the tree line. That architecture spoke loudly. The buildings were the tallest and most beautiful around, yet none of them were new. They stood as witnesses to the time when the church sat at the center of cultural life.

Such stories are also true in large cities. Look behind the new construction of steel and concrete and you will find cherished places of worship like First Baptist Church in Dallas, People’s United Methodist in Chicago, and Park Street Church in Boston. In fact, when People’s United Methodist Church was erected in 1924, its spire reached 568 feet into the air and was the tallest building in all of Chicago. It sat across from Chicago’s city hall, symbolizing that the church watched over the life of the city. Architecture points to much deeper aspects of the church at the center. The church played a central role in the culture during this period.

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.
  • 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,



Andrew Mason said...

Scott, you're back! I thought I missed the rapture :)
Amazing history here. I obviously see the church in the pluralistic context as the most common expression today. We really need to move the concept of small groups BEYOND just closing the back door. I think the lead pastors are the key to this though. Do you see other ways to do this?

Scott Boren said...

Andrew, You are funny. Yes I've been away, mostly doing a lot of thinking and reading—retooling myself for the next season of writing. I find that I have to take a break and think from time to time.

With regard to your question, a big part of this is the vision of the lead pastor. If the lead pastor thinks about the church within the pluralistic approach then groups will have to fit within that model. Of course there is a lot more to the issue. When I coach churches, most of my initial work is spent on getting the leadership team on the same page with regard to what they are trying to accomplish through groups.

Tim Kniffin said...

Excellent stuff, Scott. I'd love to hear more about how you see this model being played out currently. I'm very much interested in implementing your ideas in our local church in seattle.

Scott Boren said...

I've written about this to some degree in my book MissioRelate and also in the Both/And tread on my blog. If you want to talk on the phone about this some, we can set up a time.