Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Small groups, church programs and activities

The proliferation of programs within the church and the multiplication of roles a pastor takes up, other than preaching it seems, is a bane in the modern Evangelical church. The reaction to this trend which serves to minimize the preaching ministry of the church, is to go back to the Scriptures as to what Scripture teaches pastors are supposed to do, and then to jettison most if not all the accumulated programs and activities that are clearly not listed in Scripture. Now, this stance is something I have sympathy with. While pastors doing administrative work might be necessary in some cases, that is not what the pastor should be primarily doing. The reason for the election of the first deacons in Acts 6:1-6 was so that the Apostles did not have to serve tables, and in so doing divert their time away from what they were called to do. Ministers are to preach the Word and administer the sacraments, shepherd the flock and be in prayer. That is their calling, and not balancing the church budget and filing paperwork.

That said, I have come to realize that perhaps the jettisoning of all programs and activities might just be an over-reaction. Humans are people of habit, and not having programs and activities might result in spiritual lethargy setting in for those who are used to structure. Also, structure when implemented correctly help to correct problems which may arise within the church if the situation is left to take its natural course.

One particular activity I have in mind is the small group, or "cell group" or "home group." Now, yes, I know the history of the small groups in German Pietism with its idea of the ecclesioae in ecclesia, or "small churches within a church." John Wesley of course took his idea of the conventicles from the Moravians, a branch of German Pietism. In that kind of understanding of small groups as being ecclesiolae in ecclesia, the understanding is that the church is where one goes to hear the sermon and partake of the sacraments, while the real business of discipleship and learning the Scripture and caring for other believers is done in these "small churches." Those of us who believe that the institutional church IS the church will certainly find lots of problems with this understanding of "small groups." But we must avoid the genetic fallacy and outrightly condemn all versions of small groups just because of its checkered history.

The question here is this: What happens when there are no "small groups"? Well, what happens is that you have people coming into the church and sometimes they get overlooked. Church members stick in their cliques and if you don't really know people and are not extremely extroverted, you will sortof get left out. (And if you are an older single person in a family-oriented church, you will DEFINITELY be left out!) Since there is but the church service, the idea is that people can come together and meet each other whenever they wish. Occasionally, they just might have church events, of which all who attend are informed of said events. But, I will ask, if you are not one of those extroverts and you don't have the thick skin to crash into an event in which you don't really know people, why would you want to go to said church event? Just because the church informs anyone that they have an event does not mean that the person will feel he is invited to the event! Imparting of information is NOT invitation! He just might think it is for all the other church members who are in the "in" group(s) in church.

The problem with having zero structure is that chances are, some people are going to fall through the cracks of social interaction. Now, in the pre-modern social setting, such is irrelevant since people knew each other in a village. But we are not living in pre-modern society! Individuals in the modern world are fragmented and alienated individuals. The challenge of the church is not just to proclaim to them the Gospel, but to show them how to live as believers in community. The modern church does not have the "privilege" of having the members and visitors of the church being in the same social setting. If we are to try to build up the church as community, then how can we just "let nature takes its course" and focus merely on preaching and Bible study?

The forming of small groups therefore is a way for people to come in and get to know people. Shorn of Pietist ideas, small groups are great for people to come together for fellowship and even Bible study (which in Reformed circles could be led by ministers and elders and pastoral interns). And since they are not mandated in Scripture, they should be optional.

Now of course, some people might then claim that the solution is to have small churches so that we wouldn't have that scenario in the first place. That of course is another discussion altogether, but succinctly, my reply is NO.

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