Once, in my former job, I was a part of a discussion on our church’s small group program. One article ––”Cell Biology for the Church: Why Small Groups Don’t Multiply”, which is available at ChurchLeaders.com –– was passed around an read by those involved in the discussion.
Overall, it is an interesting and informative article. The first point that the author makes is that there are five elements that every small group needs (“genes” in his metaphor):
- Core Beliefs
- Expected Behaviors
His point is that whenever he visits a small group that isn’t multiplying (growing in numbers so that they eventually need to split), he usually find that it is missing one of these core elements. The author doesn’t have the space to examine all of these core elements, so he limits his discussion to two of them: “Missing Values” and “Mediocre Mission”.
It’s in the latter section that he says something that I find wrong and deeply troubling.
Small groups generally gather for (1) Bible study; (2) prayer; or (3) some shared interest. However, these groups often suffer from a genetic abnormality—they have a myopic mission gene (short-sighted mission). Let me illustrate by sharing my visit to a local Bible study group.
I rang the doorbell at 7:00 and was greeted by the host. After some small talk, we made ourselves comfortable in the living room. At seven minutes after the hour, the host called for a prayer (open parenthesis) and we bowed our heads for 20 seconds or so. Then we opened our Bibles and began a lively discussion on Romans 12, which is a litany of Christian behaviors. To be fair, we discussed how we felt about these practices and which ones we had difficulty with. By 7:45 we had finished, shared prayer requests, the host asked one of the participants to pray (close parenthesis), and we adjourned for refreshments. The conversation turned to local events and an upcoming church event, and I was home by 8:30.
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything problematic here. But the group actually suffers from a myopic mission gene. They’ve subconsciously concluded that they exist for the group’s sake. The church doesn’t exist for itself; it exists to do the works of Jesus (John 14:12): to heal, cast out darkness, and share the Gospel. When a group suffers from a myopic mission gene they spend their time edifying and educating themselves to the exclusion of the ultimate purpose of the Church.
In the last paragraph, he writes, “They’ve subconsciously concluded that they exist for the group’s sake.” I agree that this in itself can be problematic. It’s what he writes next that bothered me.
He says, “The church doesn’t exist for itself; it exists to do the works of Jesus (John 14:12): to heal, cast out darkness, and share the Gospel.”
Here’s a group that had a lively discussion on a passage of the Bible. And yet he says that this isn’t what the church exists for. The church doesn’t exist to grow spiritually from a study of the Word! That’s his implication. As long as we’re strengthening Christians by the study of God’s Word, we’re missing out on doing the real work of the Kingdom of God.
This view is not uncommon. Deep preaching and good Bible studies are, at worst, seen as a distraction; at best, they are seen as the preparation for evangelism or service. I find this view especially prevalent among those who are focused on church growth or who believe that the primary purpose of the church is do works of social justice.
(To avoid any unnecessary arguments about this, let me say that I think a congregation should aim to grow and should be engaged in good deeds in its community.)
But I’m concerned about how easily people divide Christian growth and edification from the mission of the church. The mission of the church is not just evangelism or social justice. Every church should aim at maturing the believers in its midst, not just adding new members or serving the poor.
Consider what Paul says in Colossians 1:9-12:
9 For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God,11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.
Paul clearly sees it as part of the work of God’s Kingdom to mature believers. Nowhere in this passage is evangelism mentioned as the end result of these prayers and efforts.
Where does the Bible teach that everything a church does should be devoted to social justice work or evangelism? Since when is it bad for a church to focus on maturing its believers?
Maturing believers is as much a focus of the church as evangelism or mission work.
I’m not denying that evangelism and outreach are important elements of the mission of the church. But they aren’t the only elements. A small group shouldn’t feel guilty for spending time in serious discussion of the Word of God. They should embrace it, since it is likely to have a greater long-term benefit on the church than many other activities.
The Word of God transforms us into the type of people who evangelize and serve. Deep preaching and Bible study are not the enemy of evangelism. They are, when done properly, the driving force of evangelism in the church. For this reason, studying the Word of God should not be ranked as less important than evangelism. It is the best motivation and preparation for the evangelism, and it strengthens the believer itself.
This underscores another reason I find this author misguided: not only is the mission of the church to mature believers along with evangelism and ministries of mercy, but maturing Christians are more likely to evangelize and serve the poor. If they aren’t, then they aren’t maturing. If they are in Bible studies and not maturing in their faith, then the problem isn’t that they are studying the Bible, but that the Bible studies are effective. (That could be due to a bad Bible study, or the person attending the study could be ignoring the Word or be not letting the Word of God transform his life.)
Years ago, when I was first starting out in ministry, I was brainstorming a lot about how to set up evangelism programs in our ministry. I was also teaching through the Gospel of John in the ministry’s Sunday morning class. About half-way through John’s Gospel, it struck me: the Biblical program of evangelism is the continue spiritual strengthening of believers. Spiritually mature Christians evangelize; they serve; they exhibit the unity and love that Jesus said would be his witness to the world (John 17:23).
This is the basis for true evangelism in the church, and a good Bible study shouldn’t be seen as less important than evangelism or disconnected from it.
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