Sunday School or Home Groups?

Part #2: The real change

(Note: I am going to present some far out ideas in this article that I don't necessarily advocate. I bring them up to invite you to think through and talk through the issues.)

The real paradigm shift in this generation does not have to do with geography--home groups versus on-campus groups. It is a change I don't hear talked about too much; it is beneath the surface. But, it is a HUGE change. It is not about time or place; it is about definition: what is a group?

I have often said that a group is a micro-church. It is a microcosm of what it means to be the church. Most of what it means to be the church happens in, through, and around small groups. Most of the loving one another, caring for one another, serving one another, etc., happens in, through and around small groups. Small groups are  like a miniature church. Here is the $64 question: just how much like a "real" church is this micro-church?

Most of us have heard stories of large and powerful Sunday School classes that had their own budget, some of which would dwarf the GNP of small nations. Well, that is an overstatement, but legend has it that Mrs. Criswall's class at First Baptist, Dallas had a class budget in 7 figures. Anyone getting nervous?

What if someone suggested that people give part of their tithe to the micro-church's budget for class benevolence rather than to the real church's budget? Are you getting nervous?

What if this group decided to have baptisms at a swimming pool at a member's back yard and let Dads baptize their kids (Or, what about Moms baptize their kids--now we are going wild!). Is anyone getting nervous?

What if the group held the Lord's Supper and didn't even check with anyone--would that make you nervous?

Now, I am NOT inviting you imagine a situation where these activities went on with an attitude of rebelliousness or an uncooperative, independent spirit. I am imagining a situation where these kinds of things go on with the full knowledge and blessing of the church and its leadership.

Hard to imagine? If you take the term micro-church to its logical conclusion--and I am NOT saying you should--that is where you end up. If this small group is a microcosm of the church, it seems only reasonable that it could do everything a "real" church could do. In fact, it is a real church.

Now, before you start firing off emails to me, please hear me clearly. I am not advocating the position above. Here is what I am advocating: that you think through these issues. I can use the term micro-church in a rather generic way and it doesn't really matter because I am not in a position to define what it means for a particular fellowship. But, if you use the term, or a similar term, you might want to think through what you mean by it.

What is a church?

The church exists on several levels.

It exists at the universal, world-wide level. When Jesus said, "On this rock I will build my church," he didn't mean a local church. He meant THE Church. Billy Graham and James Dobson' serve on staff at this level. I sometimes call this the capital C Church.

It exists at the local church level. My dad used to say, "When the postman delivered the letter to the Ephesian church, he knew where to drop off the envelope." That may be a bit of an overstatement, but it does communicate the fact that there was some physical, literal group of people that represented the church locally.

The church exists at the small group level. Much of what it really means to be the church happens in, through, and around small groups. The Bible speaks of meeting in the temple courts and house to house. Temple courts were congregational style meetings, where house to house was a small group type meeting.

In Catholic ecclesiology, everything is about the universal, world-wide church, although, in their scheme, it is not invisible. It is very much visible in Rome. In this system, the local congregation is analogous to the arm on the body. You could cut off an arm, and that would be sad, but it would not essentially affect the life of the body. If a local church dies, that is sad, but it does not affect the life of the body, which is Rome.

In reformed (and Baptist) thought, we take a different approach. The local church is the center of the ecclesiastical universe and the level above that--the denomination, has limited  theological significance. It derives its legitimacy from its tie to the local church. This is why, in Baptist life, at every level, things tie back to the local church. At the Association, State Convention and National Convention level, local churches send messengers. There is no hierarchy from the National Convention to the State to the Association. No hierarchy; just cooperation. Baptists are all about voluntary cooperation.

In cell churches, the small group is center of the ecclesiastical universe. Other meetings are nice, but optional.

Here is the rub: as the local church is to the denomination in the catholic system (a branch) the small group is to the local church in the Baptist system (a branch). In the traditional Baptist thought, the group (Sunday School) in an organization of the church, along with other organizations. At the end of the day, any one group could cease to exist and it would not essentially affect the life of the body, which is the local church.

The cell group literature sees the group very differently. It is not an organization of the church; it is the church. Or, it is an expression of the church. It is a micro-church in the fullest sense of the word.

Is this biblical?

This raises two important questions: is it biblical and does it matter? First, is it biblical?

The Bible contains, at best, hints about a formal ecclesiastical structure. Christians, especially since the reformation and the free church movement, have organized themselves in a wide variety of ways. I don't believe there is any one model of organization that can claim an air-tight congruence with the New Testament text. Presbyterians and Catholics and Seventh Day Adventist and Baptists all point to the Bible as the source of their ecclesiology. Wise people are humble enough to say if we have this many points of view coming out of the same  Book, the Book is not that clear on this point.

It is interesting that this small-group AS church (as opposed to small group as organization OF church) model is the dominant model of church life that we are propagating all around the world. Southern Baptist missions at the dawn of the third millennium is all about starting and nurturing church planting movements. These churches are not professionally led, congregational style churches with youth groups, buildings and Sunday Schools. These are house churches. The International Mission Board has found it far more effective to reproduce small, lay-led house churches than to start a movement of congregational style, professionally led churches.

So, before we pooh-pooh this idea of small groups AS churches, we ought to take a look at what God is doing through these kind of churches all around the world. 

Does it matter?

Some might see this as a rather obscure theological issue that doesn't make much difference, but I think differently.

The key issue in the growth of any organization is ownership. If people feel ownership, they tend to take care of things. People don't wash rental cars. Where would you rather live, in a neighborhood full of owner-occupied homes, or in a neighborhood full of rentals. With owner-occupied homes, people tend to take better care of them. Companies with some kind of profit sharing system tend to get greater buy-in from their people.

When a bi-vocational pastor feels he "owns" a church--that is, he is the steward, or manager of the church, not the owner in the technical sense--he has incredible motivation to work to keep his baby alive and healthy. When a Sunday School teacher feels ownership of a class as his class, his responsibility, his calling, his dominion, he has incredible motivation.

The best teachers all feel this way. Mediocre teachers, in contrast, feel like they are helping out with a larger organization and they are a cog in the system. They just come in to deliver a lecture, or lead a discussion or cover the material. They do not feel that they are the shepherd, the pastor of this micro-church.

It is this aspect of ownership that creates all the motivation to stay up late, pray, give, serve, cry, pray and sweat for a group. People do that when they feel ownership.

We will get quality work out of laymen to the degree that Sunday School teachers and small group leaders see themselves as shepherds of groups, pastors of micro-churches, and not merely helpers in the Sunday School program.

Won't this result in chaos?

One might predict that if we give ownership of the church at the micro-church level to laymen, and we buy into what might be called the autonomy of the local Sunday School class, that chaos will follow.

Roland Allen's critic's predicted a similar thing when he wrote the ground-breaking missions book, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church. Allen argued that you cannot have spontaneous expansion unless you relinquish control.

"We fear that it [the spontaneous expansion of the church] is something that we cannot control. And it is true. We can neither induce nor control spontaneous expansion whether we look on it as the work of the individual or of the church. ‘The wind blows where it will,' said Christ. - If we cannot control it, we ought to rejoice that we cannot control it. For if we cannot control it, it is because it is too great, not because it is too small for us. Therein lies the vast hope. Spontaneous expansion could fill the continents with the knowledge of Christ: our control cannot reach as far as that. We constantly bewail our limitations: open doors un-entered; doors closed to us as foreign missionaries; fields white to the harvest which we cannot reap. Spontaneous expansion could enter open doors, force closed ones, and reap those white fields. Our control cannot: it can only appeal pitifully for more men to maintain control."

Roland Allan The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church

My dream is that we would see the spontaneous expansion of the church lived out at the micro-church level. My dream is that what is happening world wide on the mission field would happen here, in America, where we sent the missionaries from. My dream is that we would witness a "Class Planting Movement." that is analogous to the Church Planting Movements that we see overseas. But, here is the rub. These must be Church Planting Movements. They cannot be tightly controlled, professionally managed Sunday School systems. They must be micro-churches that unleash the entrepreneurial spirit of ownership that we see in Church Planting movements.

Everything has a price. And, I believe Roland Allen is right. If we want to see the spontaneous expansion of the church, we must give up control. We cannot have spontaneous expansion and stay in control. We can only beg pitifully for more men to maintain control. 

We don't all have to agree on this. The Bible says, "each one should be fully convinced in his own mind." I would encourage you to think through, pray through and talk through this issue.