The Tradition Called ‘Church’

by Rick Shrader

Christian churches must pause to ask why those young people, many of whom were reared in church-going families, failed to find genuine community and fellowship in the church. We should neither sacrifice authentic fellowship nor indulge in what some call ‘‘koinoniaitis.’’  Fellowship cannot be treated as an end in itself, but rather as a means of growth in grace.   –Michael Scott Horton

It seems church has fallen on hard times. I mean specifically Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night. Even though many polls have shown an increase in church ‘‘activity,’’ the service itself, especially the more traditional type of service, is less interesting to today’s Christian life style. What has happened instead is that alternate forms of worship have popped up all over our cities. The most popular form is the small group prayer or bible study.

George Barna (Christian researcher) recently wrote, ‘‘one of the hot ministry strategies in the church market today is that of establishing an extensive small group ministry. Depending on which guru you follow, you may be pursuing ‘growth groups,’ ‘cell ministry,’ ‘cluster groups,’ ‘the metachurch,’ or any of a dozen other new ‘models’ offered for church consumption.’’ That is an interesting statement coming from a member of Bill Hybel’s huge Willow Creek Community Church (which produces a curriculum for small groups called Willow Creek Network). Much of the popularity surrounding the small group concept comes from the megachurches that have grown while using this tool.

There is a vast amount of literature available for anyone wanting to start a small group ministry. One supplier announces, ‘‘This Small Group Ministry System is the only system available that addresses all these needs–and more. Think of it as a one-stop shopping approach.’’ One church, adopting a small group curriculum says that they will be ‘‘decentralized so that evangelism, discipleship and shepherding will be taking place in large measure in the groups.’’ I commend them both for their spiritual purpose.

In many cases the small group has replaced the normal church service, especially the Sunday evening and Wednesday evening services. Some books even admonish members to leave the normal service and begin their own ‘‘home church’’ during the same hour. It is not unusual today to hear someone say, ‘‘the church is fine and I attend, but in order to grow, evangelize and have fellowship, I need a small group setting.’’ And the truth is that many times the traditional churches have failed in these areas while the small group has succeeded.

I am not anti-small group. I have participated in some and encouraged others to do so (though never instead of the church service). But I have a few thoughts about the phenomenon as we see it today as well as about the traditional church service.

1. There is a small group described in the New Testament and it is called the ‘‘church.’’ Sometimes this group was small and met by a riverside (Acts 16:13) and sometimes it was large and met in the open places (Acts 3:1). The first such group had 120 and met in a room (Acts 1:15). Though we find disciples together in other settings, there is no doubt that ministry was carried on in these groups called ‘‘churches.’’  I spent most of my young life in large churches of several thousand and I worked in a church of about 30 while I was in seminary. I found that the personal growth factor is not so much the outward surrounding as it is the inward surrender!

2. Whatever the group is called or whatever its size may be, if it supplies the attending saints with biblical necessities for Christian life, it is also obligated to take accountability for those saints. If a small group ministry actually takes the place of the larger church ministry, it needs to function like a church (ordinances, officers, etc.) or it is not fulfilling the New Testament pattern or requirement.   I personally don’t understand the person who wants to get all of his spiritual food from one source and then come to another source to go through a weekly ritual merely out of duty. Then, membership, ordinances and accountability are diminished to the point of legalism.  The New Testament knows of no such arrangement.

3. ‘‘Corporate worship’’ may be more of an Eastern phenomenon than Western. We are constantly finding (see, for example, Bruce Alina, The New Testament World) that our individualistic mind-set is very contrary to the World of the New Testament. To us, corporate worship means the gathering of individuals who come to share their own thoughts. To the Eastern mind, corporateness is a solidarity that binds the individual to the family, group or nation with a definite loss of individualism. I would suggest the same thought lies behind the word ‘‘church’’ in the New Testament.  I am saying that we, in the western world, are too quick to abandon the corporateness of our church services because to remain is to give up individual prerogatives for the sake of a larger group that is somewhat unlike ourselves.

4. Decentralization into smaller entities may be a passing cultural phenomenon. Even Barna admits, ‘‘But if small groups are the panacea that many seem to assert, then why are there fewer people in small groups today than there were one year ago?’’ He then gives a graph that shows a drop of adults involved in small groups from 25% in 1992 to 17% in 1993 (Ministry Currents). Some large churches (including the one where I grew up) have totally abandoned the small group concept because it declined quickly in popularity. Some have noted areas of divisiveness that caused its quick demise.  I think one reason for this drop is because many have reached out to one specific ‘‘target group’’ (in my opinion, a practice foreign to New Testament ecclesiology), especially ‘‘Boomers’’ and simply rode the wave until it fell out from under them.

5. Our Baptist history has a rich heritage of forming informal congregations of all sizes that meet people’s needs. Perhaps we forget that it was non-Catholic, non-Protestant churches like ours that made ‘‘corporate worship’’ what it is! Our churches were the ones to shed the clerical robes of the minister for ordinary dress. Our churches invited everyone to participate in the singing rather than to be sung to. We have no priests that pray for us but rather believer-priests that lead us in prayer. Our sanctuaries have no altars or lavers but simple pulpits from which to speak. And our churches were the ones to invite people to open their Bibles and read for themselves to see if ‘‘these things were so.’’

So what are we to do if God blesses such corporate worship that the size multiplies? I say stay together and unified or start new churches! When we have small groups (and all churches do to some degree) such as Sunday School classes, group meetings or bible studies, they must be to supplement the body, not to sever it. They must encourage corporate worship, not divorce it.

Perhaps it is time also to take a new and loving look at the dignity of our church services. Are we relevant? Are we spiritual? Are we perceptive of people’s real needs? Do we worship God? I have always loved the church service regardless of its size. God has blessed my heart in all types of services. I love the corporate meeting of the whole church family. God made me part of her through baptism. And what God has joined together, let us be very careful about putting asunder.