Rethinking Church: Smaller is Bigger – #5 in the series

rethinking church smaller is bigger

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.

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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.

What do you think? Any ideas or “tweaks” to my theory?

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27 thoughts on “Rethinking Church: Smaller is Bigger – #5 in the series

      • Thanks, Carey.

        If you get a chance, please take a look at my Home page. I’m someone who’s convinced that organized, institutional church is far from the Lord’s thought and intentions. And when I say organized, institutional church, I include home churches, etc.

        My views don’t sit too well with lots of Christians, as you can imagine, but, after tasting the “organic” version of body life as I discussed in my post, I guess I’ve been “ruined” as far as anything else goes.

        I’d be interested in your take on what I say on the Home page

  1. I believe the church is to be led, aside from Christ the head of course, by a plurality of elders, who are to function as servant-leaders… not as some kind of “clergy” or salaried Pastor… and certainly not based on something like graduating from a seminary, which has been known to place into the “pulpit” men who are not even born of God.

    The leaders should arise from within the congregation and be appointed according to obvious gifting, FUNCTIONING within the context of practical, daily body life. This would be impossible, of course, in any sort of typical institutional church.

    • Hey Geno, thanks for the reply. I agree with 99% of what you’ve said. The only thing I’d put in the 1% category is the beginning of the last paragraph “The leaders should arise from within the congregation…” I agree in principle and think it’s the best/right thing in general. But I see (even biblically) where there are exceptions when circumstances warrant. For example, Paul appointed Timothy and Titus each to serve in an “elder” role (Ephesus and Crete, respectively) and they were not raised up “from within” the church. Now, hear me clearly… I believe this is the EXCEPTION… not the rule.

      The only reason I make the distinction is because if we hold to a hard and fast “rule” on that issue then we become guilty of imposing a criteria on the church family that is neither biblical (we’re never told it has to be that way), nor always healthy… and I might suggest are therefore doing the same type of thing our “institutional” brothers are being criticized from doing.

      I especially like your comment about “functioning” withing the context of body life. As a resigned Pastor of 20 years I see how that doesn’t happen in 99% of the cases, to the church family and Pastor’s detriment.

      FOLLOW UP: I’m curious why you say so strongly that a “home church” model is an “institutional” church? (not picking a fight here… I truly want to understand). Thanks!

      • Your points are well taken.

        The main thing I wanted to get across is that ministry and leadership must be based on God-given gifting and obvious ability to operate therein. From what I’ve seen, it tends to be based more on “political” reasons, such as someone being set up in some “office” or function because they’re the Pastors friend, wife or financial benefactor.

        Besides, where is the room and place for gifts to operate within the framework of “body life”? The Sunday service? The home group? The home group has the potential, at least, but I’ve rarely seen it happening. Home groups tend to be too much like Church, and after all, they ARE set up BY the Church to serve its agenda.

        I say that a “home church” model is an “institutional” church, because that’s what I’ve experienced. There is a “Pastor” or leader… likely someone who was never able to get into “leadership” in the organized Church… things are structured… certain things done in certain ways… etc.

        Also, “Pastors” I’ve been around in home-based churches seem even more controlling and “power-mad” than their institutional counterparts. Maybe I have just been unlucky?

        But I’ll acknowledge that a home church model surely has the potential to be organic and real. I just have not seen it.

        When I was in the Republic of Georgia, I believe the Lord simply led me into the realization of the dynamics of how it can work, probably in spite of myself. On second thought… surely in spite of myself.

        Finally, don’t be concerned about “picking a fight”. I am able to detect when someone is being contentious and you clearly are not. Besides, I’d rather bang out differences, maybe even with a few ruffled feathers, than wear a mask and go through pretense. I’m so TIRED of that.

      • Yeah, we are wanting to allow plenty of non-confined room for the gifts to truly work… not in a manufactured or cookie cutter way but in a very natural, Spirit-led manner. We are also hoping to keep a close adherence to a plurality of leadership. I have been a “Sr.” pastor for almost 20 years… and am done with that model. Too much responsibility for one man… even a very good hearted, incredibly talented, truly Christ-seeking man. And success in numbers can’t convince me that’s an untrue statement… The plurality of genuine biblical accountability helps protect against the possibility of “power-mad” (your term).

  2. Great discussion guys – I’m involved with Carey in starting a church so our discussion would be right in line with this. I don’t have much to add here. I agree with all the sentiments. I think many “institutional” churches have great intentions. Which makes it all the more scary that they have stumbled so much. Goes to show how people are rarely aware of their own corrupted world-views (me included). The even harder thing for elders is that they must repent of many errors in the process of giving ear to the truth of scripture. There are also many practical sacrifices (i.e. salaries) that may be required. My heart would be to share these truths with many other pastors/elders once godly fruit has been seen in our own groups and families.

    • The LORD is so faithful to bring us to the changes He desires in His good timing. In retrospect I’m somewhat amazed that it’s taken me this long to come to these conclusions. But then humility sets in and I realize that God, in His sovereign way, has gotten me here through a necessary process. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  3. So Geno – If not an “institutional” setting (home or building in your description) where and how does the church meet “organically?” Curious to hear more about what your vision/experience looks like. I can definitely see the same dangers for elders/pastors in homes (they are the same fallen men after all). What do you suggest?

    • When I say “institutional”, I’m referring more to programmatic… set structure… doing certain things at certain times in a typical way… always learning and never coming to a knowledge of the truth… etc.

      I have no problem, per se, with meeting in a home, storefront or any other place including a McDonald’s or a park.

      EVERYONE says that Jesus is the head of THEIR church, and that He is free to move, work and do according to His purpose and pleasure, but is this a REALITY? From everything I’ve experienced, I simply must say “NO… Are you serious?”.

      All I know for sure at this point, is that when I was with those handful of people in Georgia who wanted to walk with the Lord in HIS way, and we made ourselves available, incredibly wonderful things went on. Often.

      Not only that, but the amazing dynamics of what was going on with us drew us much closer to each other and to the Lord. I cannot dial up any similar dynamic in my many years in “Church”

      • I find myself having to walk this path very carefully. I tend toward being reactionary and extreme at first any time I get a new conviction in place. I act before I truly understand… never good.

        Here’s some of my thoughts: Paul (1 Corinthians 14) gives outlines/rules if you will, to govern how the church and its wonderful variety of gifts were to function. Prophecies were to be restrained in a certain way as was the gift of tongues. None of it was for the sake of “control” or “structure” but for the sake of mutual edification. So… structure in an of itself is not the enemy. A biblical pattern for worship (from OT into the NT) involves some kind of structure – always… even if it’s simply – word, prayer, worship, individual ministry. HOW all those things happen seems fairly fluid to me, but if we don’t have some clear targets for our meetings they can devolve into chaos on one hand or mere unfocused get-togethers on the other.

        On the other hand, a “free for all” (terrible terms, but I can’t find a better one) seems to be as bad an idea as a rigid structure. Paul warns against such disorder in the same passage. We have to be careful that in our zeal to do things differently (and we think at the time “more healthily”) we don’t jettison things that are not in and of themselves bad, and could in fact be helpful.

        I’m working to find a right way of thinking about this balance between structure and freedom. Thoughts?

      • Seems to me that these are issues of the heart – which is the point. If we follow any structure but our heart is not in it, we are not worshipping in spirit and truth. With unity and humility, so many of these questions get answered. I think that fundamentally we have to agree on core issues of theology. If we do that, when someone’s practical life contradicts what they said they believed…we can come together in love and truth to address it and nurture growth. Nothing’s more organic than that :).

  4. Here’s some thoughts:

    Some of the most encouraging and rewarding times I’ve had are sitting in a group of 5-12 believers, and kicking around certain subjects, singing a song here or there, praying… both generally and specifically… you get the point.

    I, personally, have found the Lord’s presence and ministry to be much more real and alive in that kind of setting than a set pattern of opening song… announcements… worship time with the band… being told to “tell your neighbor that God loves them”… “special” song by a talented member or a group of kids… sermon… closing song… etc., or even in a church home-group.

    I know I’m describing this in an extreme, maybe even cynical way, but that’s church as I have basically experienced it. Frankly, it’s BORING.

    Another dynamic, already mentioned, is BEING the body, together, as believers make themselves available. Here in the states, I have experienced this SOME on my own, but not with others.

    • Understood Geno… I’d say what you describe is sadly typical and entirely too regimented. I agree with your sentiments there. The piece of “being” the body is the one I think most of us have a long road in learning. It doesn’t come naturally for us independent American types… but I see the hunger growing.

      • At the risk of sounding even more cynical, What will this hunger lead to? I’m afraid it will lead to workshops, retreats or seminars on “The 7 steps to BEING the Body of Christ”, led by Benny Hinn, with a price of admission, or should I say Love Gift.

        Let’s face it, we don’t like or want to “put ourselves out there” and risk being looked at funny, or laughed at, or maybe even being despised. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians:

        1 Thess 3: 1 Therefore, when we could no longer endure it, we thought it good to be left in Athens alone, 2 and sent Timothy, our brother and minister of God, and our fellow laborer in the gospel of Christ, to establish you and encourage you concerning your faith, 3 that no one should be shaken by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we are appointed to this. 4 For, in fact, we told you before when we were with you that we would suffer tribulation, just as it happened, and you know.

        Scripture is abundantly clear, that knowing and following God will bring about hardships and afflictions. We don’t like that, or we say we were persecuted when Aunt Bessie tells us to bug off when we try to “witness”.

        I believe the apostles and others since then minced no words about what it meant to be a disciple. They weren’t interested in “believers”, and neither was Jesus. We, on the other hand, will do anything to avoid painting a clear and accurate picture. It’s sort of like the false prophets, saying “Peace, peace” when there is no peace.

      • Agreed Geno. I have for a very long time been saying that we are not to be making converts, we are to be making disciples. There is a world of difference. True discipleship for us involves whole hearted devotion… and we Americans are not good at whole hearted anything.

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