Something is profoundly missing in today’s churches. While we may not be able to put our finger on exactly what the problem is, many of us have silently wrestled with suspicions that the type of life we read about in Scripture does not line up with what we’re currently experiencing in our ecclesial communities. There is a depth, a richness, a mystery that enveloped the early church. We can feel it as we turn the pages of Scripture; yet it is despairingly absent from our services. – Millennial Seminary Student, 2017
I teach a “Small Group Ministry & Discipling” seminary class at Cincinnati Christian University. Most of the students are millennials, and as we’ve discussed ministry in the class, I’ve noticed a fresh, although not necessarily unique or even new, perspective on the church, mission, and small groups.
I will share some of their insights that I gleaned from our discussion and the papers they wrote. I’ll make comments along the way, but mostly I want you to see what they say about these issues.
We spoke at length one day about a “fresh wind” that seems to be sweeping across our churches, the way we look at discipleship and ministry, and the way we do groups. When I asked the students what these changes look like, they had a hard time describing it; in fact, they said, they are not sure they, or anyone else for that matter, knows what it is. We’re in a state of flux. But one thing came across strongly: they love how the early church related to one another and to God. They are excited about the kind of authentic community and life-changing mission that church lived out in their everyday lives in their homes and in the marketplace. The question then becomes how that vision of the church from its beginnings can translate today.
Millennials’ View of the Church
These millennials are dissatisfied with much of what today’s church has become:
Rather than vibrant, Spirit-enflamed communities boldly proclaiming Jesus to a lost world and advancing the frontiers of Christ’s kingdom, it seems more common [today] to find large congregations of people who are bored to tears while watching professional worship leaders and ministers put on a once-a-week spectacle before returning to the “secular” realm with no real sense of how what they’re experiencing at “church” connects to the outside world in which they spend most of their time. This is not the type of life we were created to experience.
Another student put it this way:
The [early] church did not grow because of an amazing discipleship program, an amazing preacher, or the best worship experience they ever had. The church grew because they were devoted to each other and the teachings of the apostles, sharing in meals and prayer together.
The students regularly pointed to Biblical patterns of life together and to the values and principles the early church held dear, and they were much less excited about the forms, structures, and programs of churches today. One of our discussions centered on the early church’s adherence to the priesthood of all believers. That was not only a doctrine of the church, it was simply who they were: priests, co-workers with God, ambassadors, ministers of reconciliation. The students talked often in our discussions about ordinary believers in churches taking ownership of ministry, group leadership, and personal and group mission.
View of Small Groups in the Church
When we discussed what roles small group ministry plays in the church today, the student’s detachment toward programs was even more conspicuous. One student said,
We are not calling people to join a program, but to embrace a different vision for life. This will require us to reshape our assumptions about involvement, business, individualism, and organization.
The same student also said we need to redefine our goals as churches when it comes to groups:
Our traditional ideas of success must be rethought. What will define success in our small group ministry is not the number of groups that we have or the percentage of congregation members that are engaged in group life. Our indicators are the depth and extent to which individuals are experiencing and participating in the life of Christ through their experiences together.
The class discussed various strategic and tactical decisions a small group point person must make, and one of those decisions involved open versus closed groups. While we didn’t come to complete consensus on this (not that we had to), I though one student’s comments were insightful:
The downfalls to having open groups are nothing in comparison to telling someone, “No, I’m sorry, you cannot join our small group. We are full.” I would hate to get that message from Jesus when I die about member capacity in Heaven!
As I taught about the history of the small group movement, especially in America, we noted how the purpose of small groups in the church has changed over time. While small groups began outside the church to reach the “broken people of our society,” as small groups pioneer Lyman Coleman has put it, eventually small groups were utilized within the church to “close the back door”; that is, to be an assimilation strategy for the church.
We also discussed the stages of social movements in general, and I asked the students to assess where they think the small group movement is today. The three main stages are emergence, coalescence/synthesis, and bureaucratism. (See my article on social movements and the small group movement here.)
With that in mind, we discussed at length the purpose of small group ministry in the church today. The students agreed that the movement is at the stage of bureaucratism, but the vital question is, what does that mean for the small group movement in churches today? One student wrote,
Groups that are developed for the purpose of holding people to a particular church congregation have missed the point of the local church. The point of the local church is not to gather people into its building like a country club, but to send people out like Jesus did with His disciples.
Another student put it compellingly:
Small groups are not a way to “close the back door” of the church. No, they are a way of bringing in the lost through the backdoor, side door, garage door, and maybe even through the window of the church.
The same student wrote about where he sees the small group movement going:
I believe that we are on our way back to seeing small groups moving and functioning outside of the church, in a missional way.
Where the Small Group Movement Is Today
Interestingly, many of the students believe the small group movement may be at a stage of re-emergence, which means that new—or perhaps ancient—patterns for small group life are emerging. These patterns are more holistic; less gimmicky; much more organic, dynamic, decentralized, and trusting; and more missional in nature. One student described the way they are developing groups in their church:
Small groups are the outposts in God’s mission where Christ’s love and life break forth into the world. Rather than simply being another among many different program offerings in a church’s menu, these communities are integral to the life of the Church; it is difficult to experience the life that Christ intended without them.
Small groups being “another among many different program offerings” was a huge topic of discussion in class. We talked about three types of churches: churches with small groups, churches of groups, and churches that are groups. One student said,
It is not enough to simply “offer groups.” Our church must be groups. Groups are where church life happens to the greatest extent.
Another put it this way:
A church with groups is consumer driven. It allows its members to pick and choose what they want and when they want it. It doesn’t promote community, but preference. A church that is groups focuses more on groups than it does corporate worship.
As a Boomer, I’ve found it interesting (and refreshing) to see how my millennial students view ideals such as Sunday-morning corporate worship, church buildings, and church programs. It’s not that they are against these things, but they are vehement that these structures are used wisely to carry out our kingdom mission, not to use them just because that’s what we do:
Our vision to become a growing network of Kingdom outposts boldly pushing the frontier forward will mean re-interpreting the modes and structures that we have accepted in the past. Rather than seeing Sunday morning as the center of church life, we must turn our perspective outward and work toward launching leaders outward into the wild with a burning passion to bring people into the triunited life that Christ has so gloriously initiated us into.
Mission in and through Community Is Vital
It’s hard to miss the recurring theme of mission in these students’ comments. Yet it’s not just about mission in the sense of serving our communities and evangelism. It’s broader than that; it’s small groups being the church, being the body of Christ inside and outside of themselves. I asked students to formulate their own definitions of small groups as part of their philosophy of small group ministry. Here are three of their definitions:
The idea of small groups being “kingdom outposts,” verbiage that reminds me of some of Scott Boren’s books, was discussed. One millennial student, particularly, has latched onto that vision:
In Christ’s Kingdom, every believer [is] tasked with taking the Gospel of Jesus out into uncharted terrain, pushing the frontier of God’s Kingdom forward, and bringing new territory under His Lordship. Small groups serve as outposts in this pioneering mission. As believers journey out into unknown land, they establish outposts; hubs and gathering places where fellow pioneers can come together to refuel, restock, and be equipped with what they need to carry the mission onward.
That student wrote in his Small Group Ministry Action Plan paper,
Our goal is that our baseline groups [more “traditional” small groups that meet in community to grow spiritually together and care for each other’s’ needs] would eventually mature and grow into innovation groups [more missional, organic types of groups]. This occurs when leaders and group members take ownership for the direction and form of their group, and start to think creatively about how to engage Christ’s mission together. The result is that the structure of their group adapts and changes into new and innovative forms that engage people in Kingdom community in nontraditional ways.
The truth is, none of this is about millennials. And I believe my millennial students would confirm that. The mission of the church is not to please the current generation. One day, not too far away, millennial pastors will be wondering what postmillennials think, and so on. At the same time, we who are older must learn to listen to the generations that preceded us as well as those who will succeed us.
Mostly, of course, we listen to the One who has always been and always will be. He calls us not to specific forms of ministry but to an entirely different way of approaching life: to live in communion with God and community with one another in such a way that advances the frontiers of God’s kingdom, just as the early church experienced!