Earlier this week I received an email promotion of Lovell-Fairchild’s DVD CONVERGENCE: RIDING THE SEA CHANGE IN U.S. CHURCHES
It seems to be sounding the death Nell of the small group era of church growth:
That change shows strongly in small groups, for 40 years the backbone of the church and in some 93 percent of US Churches (according to Beyond Megachurch Myths from Jossey Bass Publishers). The aging of small groups (“Group Movement Showing its Age,” Washington Times, 2-15-09) stands in contrast now to what younger seekers don’t like about them — including “reading assignments and Q&As” over relational learning.
As most of our Journal readers know (and many of the Crux readers as well), we have been concerned about the state of the church for a long time. In actuality, this concern even predates our getting into ministry and forming MCOI. Oddly enough, my essential concerns remained largely the same even as the church went through a variety of pop Christian trends. In my early Christian life the churches emphasis seemed to be in trying to figure out ways to get non-believers into its doors in order to let the pastor present the gospel. Even then Joy and I were round pegs in square holes. We knew lots of non-believers outside of church and were focused on leading them to the faith whether or not they ever stepped foot in church, let alone our particular church. It seemed to Joy and I that evangelism was something that was to happen outside the four walls of the meeting place. Education (learning the Scriptures and about the faith), edification (fellowship, caring for one another in the body, praying for and with one another) and empathy (providing for the physical needs of those within the church and even non-believers with whom you have contact) were the things that are to happen within the church.
Joy and I were aware that it was rare that non-believers darkened the door of many churches. A variety of programs and organizations were created, like Awanas, in order get area kids into the church and provide an opportunity to reach their parents when they came to Awana functions. There was some success but largely it was still church kids doing church programs. Small groups became the thing. But without actually training and discipling leaders, which is a slow long term proposition, how did churches tap into this new resource? Simple, publishers produced small group guides and then the individuals who hosted the group was a facilitator. The individuals in the small group did reading assignments and then would fill in the blanks in the workbooks and gather to discuss what they had read.
During that period, the founders of Willow Creek Community Church, acting on the idea that church’s role was to try to gather non-believers into the sanctuary and the professional staff would present the gospel, tried to find creative ways to get non-believers through the doors. They also became big proponents of small groups. Churches became more professional organizations and mega-churches started to become more the norm. There was little done in terms of discipleship, training layman scholars, or developing relationships. One could literally attend a church for years and not know anyone else other than by name and not be known by anyone on a personal level. Emerging types are largely rejecting this model. As the ad states:
In the words of Erick Goss, managing partner of Creative Trust Media and creator of the Convergence DVDs: “The former ‘What do you know?’ gives way now to ‘What is your life about? And Who are you?’ The shift is from teacher-student to shared spiritual formation.”
As we pointed out in our MCOI article An Indistinct Sound , the Emerging Church leaders are raising some valid issues. However, it seems to us that they are as out of balance as their predecessors. For example, the rejection of the “teacher-student” relationship is a rejection of biblical norms. Jesus pointed out in Matthew 10:25 He said that “It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master.” Often He is referred to as the teacher in the gospels and His followers were students or disciples. In Luke 6:40 He told His students, A pupil is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher. . By implication the more spiritually mature teaches the less spiritually mature. Just prior to this He makes a comment that addresses the very thing the Emerging Church is promoting, the consequences of trying to bring about spiritual growth through pooled ignorance (“shared spiritual formation”) when He said in verse 39, A blind man cannot guide a blind man, can he? Will they not both fall into a pit?
Feelings and emotions are certainly part of the spiritual life but they are not grounded on anything, change from day to day, easily mislead us and so must be grounded on something firm and unchanging. That is the word of God. Some may argue that Jesus was fully God and fully man and as God was the true teacher and we in turn can be taught directly from Him. This is an emotive argument, not a biblical one. Jesus handed off His role as teacher to His disciples. The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4:16, Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me. in 1 Corinthians 11:1 he writes, Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ. and in Philippians 3:17 he expands that out Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample.
The abandonment of sound teaching over the last 40 or more years has led to the abandonment of the perceived need of teachers. The work of learning from them (reading, study, answering questions) is giving way to relational and social interactions geared to make one feel more spiritual. Jesus is whoever you think He is as long as it makes you feel spiritually connected. Celebrating Ramadan (Islam) is just as acceptable as celebrating communion as long as it makes you feel spiritually connected. It becomes an uninformed contentless faith which proposes personal relationships and social change. But to what?
As I have said many times the questions they are raising should not be summarily dismissed but need to be addressed. The challenge for an “authentic faith” for which they claim to be seeking really is found in the First Century church. I have and continue to believe that any church which seeks to implement the values, views and practices of the First Century church will grow spiritually and numerically. It will be difficult because it does not offer a quick fix solution. The First Century church was birthed and grew in a pagan culture. It was fueled by relationships. Believers had relationships with non-believers in culture and lived their lives in such a way that it caused unbelievers to ask why they lived as they did (1 Peter 3:15). Non-believers became believers and moved into the fellowship of believers. They gathered regularly for four things, “apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. ” (Acts 2:42). Notice that fellowship and breaking of bread (horizontally relational things) are book ended by the “apostles’ teaching,” definitely a teacher-student relationship and on the other end, “prayer,” an outworking of our individual and corporate horizontal relationship with God. (In light of where culture is at today churches need a trained apologist on staff or at least easily accessible to work with on some of the issues of how to relate to non-believers.) The regular participation in these practices strengthened and prepared believers to go back in to the world and live their faith in a noticeable way which impacted, challenged and changed culture in a real and authentic way. These are the very things the Emerging Church claims they are seeking but which they will never achieve since they intentionally have cut themselves off from the very practices which strengthened and bound First Century Christians together. These biblical practices “converged” in the lives of believers, bound them together and made them a force to be reckoned with in their day. Anything less is a cheap substitute for a genuinely authentic faith.