Dan Edelen has a provocative post up over at Cerulean Sanctum about small groups in the church. He notes that we’ve had Christian small groups for going on fifty years now and they don’t seem to have delivered on the promise to turn North American pew potatoes into genuine disiciples. By and large, we’re not more prayerful or mission-minded than we were before the advent of small groups.
Dan thinks a major reason for this is we approach small groups from the wrong perspective:
Part of the reason I believe that small groups have resoundingly failed to deliver on their promise is that no one seems to look at them from the right perspective. We never view small groups as aiding the church as a collective body. Our model is more based on the idea that we’re helping individuals plug-in on a more granular level.
But that’s the typical Evangelical obsession with the individual. Meet the individual’s need on a very intimate level and you’ll build a wildly effective church from that core. Forty years later, that failed mentality still prevails.
We’ve got to stop viewing the world through the lens of the individual and start thinking more about the corporate Body of Christ. If small groups are not translating into a better church filled with better people, then perhaps we need to start thinking about making our entire church a small group, the whole assembled mass of people. Rather than fragmenting our assembled community into small groups, perhaps we can find ways to translate what small groups do well to an entire church.
He notes (thank you!!) that sometimes things that worked perfectly in the first century won’t work today because the culture has shifted so dramatically. For example, down in the comments he suggests that the first century Christians spent time together pretty much on a daily basis?¢‚Ç¨‚Äùsomething modern life makes nearly impossible. What if that were a key factor in the success of the early Christian house churches? What sort of success would house churches and small groups have without it?
I used to be a big advocate for small groups, and in some ways I guess I still am. Historically, small groups have almost always been a part of that kind of church life (just think of the early monastic communities, the medieval B?É¬©guines and Brethren of the Common Life, English Separatist conventiclers, Wesleyan class meetings, etc.). Even so, mostly these days I’m an advocate for churches doing well the kinds of things the first Christians did?¢‚Ç¨‚Äùsharing a common life, bearing one anothers’ burdens, confessing their faults to one another, giving themselves over to one another in service.
The ideal, which I think would be much closer to the New Testament model anyway, would be to aim for churches that are small enough to do well what small groups are supposed to do?¢‚Ç¨‚Äùand then plant new churches when they get too big. Most churches in North America are already at about that size (say 100 or so active members) but are probably clueless about how to be intentional about fostering Christian community because they’re either stuck in survival mode, crippled by dysfunctional relational systems, spinning their wheels with extraneous programming, or chasing the latest ecclesiastical fad hoping to grow bigger than they need to be.
Where have you found vital Christian community? How did you know when you found it?