Friday, May 4, 2012

Is small always beautiful?

Three separate blogs caught my eye this week, all of them touching on an important missional issue. Can the church be effective when its primary expression is the small group rather than the major celebration?

Eternal Echoes told the story of a chapel congregation which felt it had become too small to be viable. Their building is to close and members will join other churches nearby. 'They are dying well, and they will rise well, they are looking to a different future, and I believe that God will use them', said the minister who knows them.

In another post, a pioneer minister who has been working in a large new housing area and has established a missional community there, began to wonder if God was 'de-churching' him. The regular gatherings in the community centre just don't seem to be working. ’We seem to be making a move away from traditional forms of gathering', he said. 'No matter how sexy we make church as a gathering exercise, for worship or discipling, it doesn't seem to engage the un-churched 20-30yr olds I am working with. However, very small groups, and one-to-one mentoring does seem to provide people with a good context to explore discipleship, but the "big wing" of yesteryear appears to have largely become alien and unsettling'.


And finally to Jonny Baker. In Church as Network Jonny helpfully describes a church made up of small groups which naturally form into networks. But the key to this, he says, is that each group needs 'one or two people who also connect to people in the wider network in another small group'. This is vital he believes if small groups are to avoid existing in a bubble, or remaining comfortable in their homogeneity. We need 'to be intentional about connecting with difference rather than just sameness'.

This move towards the small group is not simply a result of decline, although in some contexts may be, but a reaction to a significant cultural shift, and coincidentally perhaps, a rediscovery of what it meant to be church in the first century. But small is not necessarily beautiful if it is isolated, unaware of other streams and traditions, separatist and unable or unwilling to grow. So my blog reading this week has left me with some haunting questions:
  • How small does a church have to get before it is no longer viable? A building may no longer be viable, but does that ever apply to a group of believers? I guess context is key here but Jesus seemed happy to think small (Matthew 18:20).
  • If the pioneer minister and Jonny Baker are right and small groups, often made up of those who would naturally relate to one another, are the future, what does that do to our understanding of church?
  • If larger, regular gatherings of church 'don't seem to engage the un-churched 20-30 year olds', do traditional forms of gathered church have a future, outside the larger, less regular celebration? Are student-focused congregations an exception to this rule?
  • Can any of this 'networked small group' thinking really exist outside the larger conurbations?
  • How will they grow? Traditional cell church principles would suggest they split and replicate, but why do so few small missional communities seem to achieve this? We still have a significant number, which have existed for years, but have never really grown or been locally replicated.
  • And the big one for me (because I am actually very attracted to fresh expressions of church which are simple and often small), how can all of this be sustained? We can't afford to employ a minister, even part time, for every small group or missional community. We need thousands of small churches, connected through networks, if we are to engage a significant proportion of the millions of un-churched people in the UK.
Lots of questions, not least about catholicity and apostolicity, and not many answers; but they are questions we need to face as the shape of church begins to change and the rate of that change, I suspect, accelerates in the next generation. It would be good at least to be riding the wave, rather than falling off it.

In what felt like a prophetic moment at a national Fresh Expressions gathering last year in Oxford, Rowan Williams predicted that the focus for the next generation would be the small group or cell. He talked about the need to be intentional in linking those groups together through relationship and friendship. Alongside that though he welcomed a renewed emphasis on festival and celebration. Holding those two poles in tension will be essential in the mid 21st century church. You can hear what he said here. As ever, he was one step ahead of most of us.


  1. Really, REALLY helpful post. Great to have the confusion and doubt in there too. For the record, the injection of the 'missional community' idea into my own post 'alt worship/em church' group has resulted in three new communities being born in the last year, to add to the two we already had. But what happens at 'the centre' is still contentious - it seems only people with children (biological or spiritual) want a front-led service on a Sunday. Have been wondering about adopting the name 'network church' for what we're becoming, so THAT'S a coincidence!

  2. Very thought-provoking. I wonder whether once one has absorbed the culture of the long-established traditional churches for several years it becomes difficult to think of even Fresh Expression missional communities as something different in kind to what one has become familiar with. It's hard to get out of the mindset of 'thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore' and realise that now there are so many totally unchurched people in the community at large, the old model will not just carry on working as normal. If you want to see how truly missional communities interact and develop into churches, perhaps you need to look away from our own context and see how it works / has worked in countries that don't / didn't have a Christian heritage, where pioneer (mostly western) missionaries have gone out and planted churches in totally non-Christian or extremely debased Christian cultures. I think particularly of work among tribal groups in S E Asia and Latin America, and of the 'underground' churches in present and former Communist countries. Although those cultural contexts are / were very different from ours, perhaps they could have more in common with that faced by UK missional communities working with totally unchurched people than the rapidly disappearing semi-Christian culture in which mission-minded traditional churches have largely operated in the past, where most people had had some kind of basic encounter with Christianity through family, school and/or Sunday School / Church Youth Club and where there was a pool of lapsed / fringe Church members with whom they already had a bit of common ground. I know this is a very crude generalisation, but my main point is that there may be lessons to be learned (both positively in terms of what has worked elsewhere and negatively in terms of reasons why churches fail to survive / grow) by consulting both historians of overseas missions and those working as pioneer church planters today.