This is yet another post in my personal study and thinking about what church structures best produce the type of growth and Christian life described in the New Testament. Other posts are here, here, here, and here.
I’ve always found it thought-provoking that just after the numeric explosion of the fledgling church (Acts chapter 2, Acts chapter 4), the LORD Himself brought about events that dispersed the large group (Acts 8:1). I say it was the LORD because the persecution spearheaded by Saul of Tarsus was no surprise to God. It was His tool. Because of persecution the believers scattered across the world, spreading the gospel message as they went (Acts 8:4). What has gotten me curious is the possibility that God scattered the church because He knew it would BEST thrive and become able to accomplish His purposes for it in smaller groups rather than in larger ones.
Once scattered, the church became an “underground” movement, especially in the Roman empire. Life and death hung in the balance for first century believers who remained true to their faith in the risen Christ. Out of necessity these believers gathered in smaller, not larger groups. It was to these small groups that Peter, James, John, and the newly “born” Apostle Paul (the same Saul who started the persecution) began sending their letters of instruction.
And what did they instruct them about?
Most of their letters include a section of doctrine (truth), followed by a section of application. And every one of them makes that application by lacing their instruction with “one another” phrases. For example: “love one another” (Romans 12:10), “live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:16), “Bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), “admonish one another” (Colossians 3:16), “encourage one another” (1 Thessalonians 4:18), “exhort one another” (Hebrews 3:13), “confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16), and many, many others like these.
As I’ve been thinking through the issue of church structure, I’ve had to go back to these scriptures countless times and I’ve had to ask one simple question,
What environment/context BEST enables Christians to carry out these ‘one another’ instructions?
Bigger or smaller?
You tell me.
- How likely is it (not to mention how possible is it) for you to be personally encouraged, admonished or exhorted in a large group meeting (translation: a typical church service)? Those things may occur as you listen to the Pastor’s sermon, but that’s only one person doing the “one another” commands. Aren’t we all supposed to be obedient to them?
- How likely is it that YOU are going to carry out those instructions in a large group setting?
- There may be individuals who take these “one anothers” seriously and attempt to carry them out at a large church service, but there is hardly the time or place for intimacy on any level, which many of the “one another” commands require.
- When is the last time your church worship service included a time of “confessing sins” as part of its practice? That’s what I thought…
I understand that all of these “one another” commands don’t have to happen on a Sunday morning. I get it. Agreed. Roger. No argument.
Small group programs, Sunday school classes, and individual discipleship relationships can fill in the “one another” gaps left by the large group meeting. Sure. But how widespread is that idea really practiced?
The average large church is doing really, REALLY WELL if 40% of it’s regular attenders are involved in a small group or Sunday school (statistically that’s a very high number). Forty percent. The percentage of people actively involved in a personal discipleship relationship is even lower. Even so, it’s likely that most of those people are not deeply engaged with others, even within those groups or relationships.
Are the “one anothers” happening there? Sometimes. Maybe. Many times not.
What’s the problem with the small group or discipleship programs at most churches, then? I think it’s exactly that – they are programs. The people involved are forced (by whatever means – age, geography, season of life, schedule, sign-up sheets, etc.) into a group or relationship where they are expected to get close with another believer for the sake of growth, accountability, and discipleship.
But relationships can’t be manufactured like that. Can they? There has to be something more organic to it, something more natural, more Spirit-led.
Smaller groups ARE the answer… a step in the right direction. But only if they are able to happen more organically (naturally).
My convictions have changed
I now believe differently about the organization of the church than I have in the past. I’ve given over 20 years of my life to the typical, large-number model of church and I loved it (for the most part). I believe the LORD used my efforts, grew His people, and blessed many through that service (myself included).
But I believe that large-group model does not consistently provide what Christians truly need to grow in their faith in a way that is vibrant and lasting.
I’m moving toward what I’m referring to as a “home church” model (for lack of a better term… any ideas?).
I’m not out to start a movement. I’m not out to destroy institutional churches. I’m not out to tell anyone that the way they are doing church is “wrong” or “sinful.”
All I’m saying is that my conviction is that smaller is bigger.
- Bigger in individual Christian growth.
- Bigger in effectiveness (in discipleship and evangelism).
- Bigger in genuine accountability.
- Bigger in supportive, Christ-honoring relationships.
- Bigger in glory to God.
I’m pretty sure (though I reserve the right to change my mind) that I’ll be in small, house centered church groups the rest of my life. I believe that because the focus in such groups is not on “church growth” (translation: “Get more people in here!”) they have a better chance of developing the kind of relationships that foster true accountability and deep growth. Such churches will tend to be filled with members who are desiring a deeper commitment to the LORD and to each other as members of the body of Christ. At least the percentage of people with that “spiritual DNA” will be higher. And if that’s the case, a more “organic” type of relationship, growth, and faith is possible.
It’s all theory right now... based on my thinking and experience, shaped by the Word of God. I’m eager to see how it all pans out.