Yesterday in the Attractional and Missional thread, long-time reader nhe wrote this:
Our church is pushing hard toward an Acts 2/gospel centered small group ministry, but that is flat out NOT GONING TO WORK if our messaging from up front is not regular/explicit gospel - that has been our problem - I'd argue that is the biggest reason why well-meaning churches stay attractional without even knowing it.
I think he’s so right. And I was so grateful for his comment, because it sets up nicely this piece that I’ve actually been meaning to write for a few months now.
My thesis is this: Small group programs don’t succeed apart from a consistent, determined gospel-driven nurturing of the value of community in the weekend worship service.
More and more church leaders are waking up to the reality that the church small groups push isn’t working. The number of people conducting a quote-unquote “successful” small groups program is quite small. Only recently are national leaders admitting this.
But it hasn’t stopped hundreds and hundreds of smaller churches aspiring to be like the big dogs from adopting the big dogs’ blueprints for small groups, in the well-meaning (but sometimes desperate) hope that the right format will transform their congregation into a tighter-knit community.
And if it’s not the right blueprint, it’s the right leader. As I peruse ministry job boards, aside from the ubiquitous ads for worship leaders, I’m seeing more and more churches looking for a spiritual formation pastor or a community groups pastor, and nearly all of them require applicants have previous success directing “successful” small groups programs at large churches. The implicit belief appears to be that if you don’t have a vibrant small groups program, all you need is the right leader to make it happen.
And all of this ignores the basic truth that if you don’t have a congregation who cares about small groups, it doesn’t matter what kind of program or leader you throw at the need, your congregation isn’t suddenly going to care about small groups.
But the evangelical church’s hunger for the magic bullet is insatiable.
I believe that you can have the most successful church in America’s small group format headed up by the best small groups pastor money can steal, but if the culture of your congregation is such that they have never shown much interest or desire to meet in community groups, it won’t matter. Or you’d better give that program and that pastor plenty of time (years, in some cases) to plant seeds and cultivate growth in this area.
The logic is simple but somehow evasive for so many pastors. If week in and week out you are feeding your congregation a steady diet of self-help, of personal improvement, of application for someone’s walk with Jesus as their “personal” Lord and Savior, you may not exactly be stirring the desire in them to be connected to other believers. If your preaching is consistently of the “How to Win at Work” or “How to Be Your Best You” variety, you are only feeding and coddling the insidious individualism of the average evangelical churchgoer and the consumerist culture he is the product of.
Your weekend service has a direct effect on how your congregation thinks and acts.
It’s supposed to. Right?
You trust that all the time and energy and preparation poured into your worship service is impacting lives and being used by God to mature them.
So do the math. If, despite the different programs and leaders you’ve thrown at the small groups gap in your church, you still can’t get people interested in small groups, it might be time to rethink the message your weekend gathering is sending and the sort of impact it is having.
We should be rethinking this stuff right now anyway. Maybe REVEAL doesn’t call for repentance (I think it some cases it does), but surely, at the very least, it calls for rethinking. When the original Worship Evangelism advocate looks at the data after more than a decade and says the seeker church movement hasn’t done what it thought it was doing, maybe it’s time to rethink some things.
There is no quick fix. This is one big reason why church plants are booming right now. Pastors feel stifled by the intimidating prospect of turning a luxury cruise ship 180° so they find it easier to start a church from scratch. For those committed to turning the ship, it will take a long time, a singleminded tenacity, and a new set of values. It requires an investment – a longview – that in many cases is diametrically opposed to the spirit of the vending machine values of the stereotypical megachurch.
Preach hard on the cost of discipleship, on the call to community, and adhere to that hard preaching in a long obedience in the same direction. Reconstruct the aim of the worship service toward adoration of God, dismantling the celebration of man so prevalent in many attractional models. Dig in, commit.
If we want to cultivate disciples, if we want to alter the DNA of our churches to better reflect the reconciliation of the gospel, the investment will be worth it.