Which Gospel? The Gospel of Community, Part 4 (Small Groups)

The fashionable remedy to the Biblical need for community is a program of small groups — and they are fast becoming a standard part of how everyone does church. Which worries me, because if everyone is doing it, it must not be very hard. And because if it was all that effective we’d be seeing churches and denominations radically changed — and we’re not.

Well, in some places it’s happening. But most places, small groups don’t accomplish all that much. They are vastly better than what they replaced — Sunday night worship, typically — but they aren’t all that effective in forming our members to be like Jesus.

In the typical church, small groups very effectively allow people to form friendships and support networks. These are very good things. They are not nearly enough. As a result, I’ve found myself intrigued by a series of posts by Brian Jones, pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, in which he criticizes the contemporary approach to small groups —

Why Churches Should Euthanize Their Small Groups (and what we should replace them with)
Discipleship Happens Everywhere
Church-Initiated “Small Groups” Begin From A Flawed Starting Point
Small Groups Are Springboards For Discipleship
The Small Group Movement’s Achilles Heel
How Small Groups Succeed
Would Jesus Join A Small Group In Your Church?
Form Follows Function

About every other post is by another minister whom Brian has asked to post disagreeing with Brian. What a great format!

In Form Follows Function, Brian describes his ideal group,

1. The people in that group would learn “how to” become disciples of Jesus the way the first followers of Jesus learned how to become disciples – by watching their leader do, not listening to him/her talk about doing.

2. It wouldn’t meet once a week (or every other week) for 1.5 hours. It would meet as often as possible, sometimes every day (Acts 2:46). You might actually say the people in the group would “follow” their leader around.

3. The leader of the group would actually know Jesus and obey his teachings, because he or she had spent a vast amount of time being shaped by someone who knows and obeys Jesus’ teachings.

4. 80% of “group time” would be spent reaching out to the lost, the poor, and the broken.

5. Discussion, questions and reflection would occur afterwards; it wouldn’t be the main focus of meeting together.

6. Like the first disciples, people in that group would expend vast amounts of personal time memorizing, verbatim, the exact teachings of Jesus (That’s how we ended up with our “gospels” isn’t it?).

7. Inevitably people in the group would start complaining: “This group isn’t deep enough for me. I’m not being fed. It doesn’t meet my needs anymore.” But the leader would have a ready-made answer: “Who told you this was about your needs and your happiness anyway? If you want to be “fed,” turn on Oprah. If you want to change the world, pick up your cross and stop whining.”

8. Every aspect of the group’s energy would be focused outward, on people in need, and not on the group of people itself. Why? Because that’s why the group exists – to unite people around fulfilling Matthew 28:18-20, and in the process teaching them to love God and one another deeply.

Brian concludes his series with a post titled “Alternative to the American Small Group” — which I will now shamelessly copy nearly in full —

1. I’d leave existing small groups in place intact. I wouldn’t change anything about them, but would begin teaching and encouraging the value of discipleship to get the leaders intrigued. As everyone has noted in this discussion, there are good things that happen in them that you wouldn’t want to disturb, at least for now.

2. I would pull together the most dedicated disciples in the church (staff and volunteers) to go out into the community with me for prayer, fasting, feeding the poor, working in prisons, scripture memorization, evangelism, etc.

3. After a while (6 months? 1 year?) I would pick the ones whom the others naturally gravitate towards and ask them to work closely with me for at least another 6 months or more. During that time I would pour myself into them on a regular basis, meeting with them out in the community to continue feeding the poor, evangelizing, praying, debriefing afterwards, following up on scripture memorization, etc. (of course, all of this could and should happen independently of me…I’m just sharing how I would personally approach it).

4. One by one, as I sensed that each one was ready, I would encourage them to begin replicating what I had done with other people outside and inside the church. I would encourage them to invite people to join them in what they were already doing.

5. The key would be that each “discipleship connection” would live or die, or begin and end, “out there” in the wild, not inside some home, in a circle, with people from the church. I would envision that these groups might actually be hard for Christians to break into since most of the people joining these discipleship colloquiums would come from relationships disciples would initiate “out there.”

6. Since most scholars believe that the Gospel of Matthew was fashioned as a discipleship tool, my goal would be to have each person I was pouring myself into memorize the five main teaching blocks of that entire gospel: Matthew 5-7; 10; 13; 18; and 23-25. I would quiz them, talk to them about what they were learning, and help them as they struggled to obey what they memorized. I would begin doing this the first time someone showed up to “follow me” as I followed Christ out into the world.

7. More than likely, because I’m naturally more structured, I would create a “checklist” or sketch of things I wanted to see replicated in a person’s life before they were “sent out” to go gather new people to repeat the process. In addition to scripture memorization and a sense from them that they’ve learned how to obey the Jesus teachings that they’ve memorized, that list would include behaviors like 1. Ministering to the broken like Jesus 2. Praying like Jesus 3. Evangelizing like Jesus 4. Teaching like Jesus and 5. Leading like Jesus.

8. From a church leadership perspective, this process would be utterly difficult to manage, which is a good thing. We wouldn’t want to screw it up. It could only be guided, and that by those living the life of discipleship and actually engaged in the process. The only thing that could be guided would be the leaders themselves.

9. At some point there would be so much action, talk, and incredible stuff happening that many of the people who were in a “regular” small group would naturally gravitate over to the lifestyle of a disciple and join the emerging movement. Over a few years time there would be very few of the Americanized types of small groups left, and at some point they would simply run their course (though Christians would be free of course to start any kind of group they felt nurtured their walk with Christ). Those who simply wanted to “fellowship” would still have a long list of groups, teams, events, etc. to pick from, which would still serve an important function in the church community.

10. Within a few years a church would have a small growing army of people who…

…had experience regularly doing what Jesus did on a week in week out basis
…memorized every teaching block in the Gospel of Matthew
…learned how to obey, point by point, each teaching they had memorized
…had practiced and gained proficiency ministering, praying, evangelizing, teaching and leading like Jesus
…were naturally replicating themselves in the lives of others outside and inside the church
…and it all would happen “out there” instead of inside the hairball of the church’s infrastructure

Now, I just love this, and here’s why —

* I would find participating in a discipleship connection this way extremely scary and threatening. And I doubt I’d be very good at it. (I’ve never been able to memorize anything. I know my wife’s cell number, birthday, and our anniversary, and that’s about it. And these were learned at great personal cost.)

* It seems remarkably like how Jesus taught discipleship.

* It takes the spiritual disciplines out of the closet and puts them in the world, which is where Jesus needs them to be.

* It defines community in terms of service and self-sacrifice, that is, in living as Jesus lived.

* It goes against all conventional wisdom, which is where good ideas normally reside.

* No one has to cook or get a babysitter.

* The closest, deepest friendships are formed working side by side on a project that both people feel passionately about. Common experiences, common passions, and common purposes bind people much more tightly than banana pudding and three-bean casserole.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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4 Responses to Which Gospel? The Gospel of Community, Part 4 (Small Groups)

  1. Alan says:

    What is described here is almost exactly what happened in the Crossroads-related campus ministries in the 1970's. In fact it is so similar I have to wonder if there is a common connection somewhere.

  2. Jay Guin says:

    Uh, Alan, you have me a little worried here. I mean, I lived through some of the Crossroads stuff and really don't care to go back to it.

    On the other hand, I can't get too excited about the "mainstream" idea of do 5 acts every Sunday and God will be thrilled.

    We need to find a way to push each other to deeper servanthood (a much better term that "discipleship," I think, "discipleship" having been so abused by so many) without pushing into legalism or cultism.

    And I think a critical step is to avoid the heresy of "do this or go to hell." Rather, serving as Jesus served is serving out of love for those being served. After all, God didn't threaten Jesus with damnation to get him to take on the form of servant.

    This requires a radically different style of preaching and motivating — with far more emphasis on testimonies and stories and come-with-me leadership, rather than "Show up for Tuesday night visitation or go to hell."

    We have to be rigidly, strictly disciplined about not turning our zeal for service into a zeal for legalism. And we have to carefully guard against the temptation to feel superior to those Christians who don't join in. Arrogance is wrong in all places and in all its forms.

    Done right, those in the congregation who take on this kind of training would be seen, not as arrogant, super-Christians, but as humble servants of the community, and among the most loving, caring members we have.

  3. Alan says:

    We need to find a way to push each other to deeper servanthood (a much better term that “discipleship,” I think, “discipleship” having been so abused by so many) without pushing into legalism or cultism.

    I wouldn't characterize my experience in a Crossroads-related campus ministry in the 1970's as legalism or cultism. I saw plenty of problems along those lines in the late 80's and 90's, but not in the 1970's. Of course I can't speak for every ministry, just the ones I personally experienced.

    You quoted Brian Jones saying:

    I would pull together the most dedicated disciples in the church…

    There is an inherent danger with having a core group of dedicated, highly productive Christians in the midst of a congregation who are not on board with that. A feeling of superiority develops, a disrespect for those not "with the program." That danger is more acute and has greater implications when the dedicated group is full of young, recent converts. Zeal without knowledge can lead to serious problems. In the case of the Crossroads ministries, and subsequently in the churches these people started, that led to the problems that followed in later years.

    Done right, those in the congregation who take on this kind of training would be seen, not as arrogant, super-Christians, but as humble servants of the community, and among the most loving, caring members we have.

    Perhaps, with the lessons learned from the Crossroads / ICOC past, someone could go down this road and avoid the pitfalls. I guess what I'm saying is, if you try it, go in with eyes wide open.

  4. andy says:

    Well, I only know from my own experiences, but I think my group fits somewhere in between the ideal and your criticisms. We've had times when we weren't very productive, but on the other hand we've managed to grow, split, and help people become real disciples. At the very least we manage to meet certain needs of those who come in, but most of our regular members have gone beyond simply coming for a social hour — they've become some of the most active members in a church that disparately need more people to step up on a regular basis.

    Also, from a practical standpoint, our church isn't in the "Bible Belt" and has to serve a much larger part of the metro area (which has really bad traffic, even on weekends) than most suburban churches. The only way to get a large portion of members meeting with other Christians any time other than Sunday morning is to have something like a small group.

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