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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Roland Allan The Spontaneous Expansion of
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
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
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