Thinking Out Loud

May 26, 2011

Small Is Big: Exploring the Simple Church Concept

As churches of all size discover the ‘small group’ or ‘cell group’ concept, many choose to call what they do ‘home church’ or ‘house church,’ the latter term heretofore reserved for entirely different.  So Tony & Felicity Dale, longtime pioneers and advocates for the other kind of house church, have chosen to go with the term ‘simple church’ to describe their efforts and their vision. 

The full title of the Barna Books paperback is, Small is Big: Unleashing the big Impact of Intentionally Small Churches, and is itself a revision of a title from two years earlier, The Rabbit and the Elephant.  (A gratis copy was provided by Tyndale House.)   Unlike its oft-confused counterpart, a true simple church is a freestanding model lacking nothing in terms of resources that a larger church might have to offer, though with obvious downscaling of programs and amenities such as nurseries, youth ministries, worship bands, etc.

Having said all that, toward the end of the book, the authors relate ways in which simple churches and megachurches are in fact sharing resources, and how megachurch staff are studying the intimacy and community of the microchurch to see what might be learned. 

But in another section, where there is discussion of people exiting larger churches missing the diversity and excitement of the larger crowd, they refer to a period of ‘detox’ while withdrawing from the large church experience.  Personally, I think the language might have offered a better term, because whether or not the authors intended it, there is the implicit suggestion that there is something ‘toxic’ from which the former parishioner must be cleansed.

The authors’ experience and knowledge of this movement both in the UK and the USA is probably quite unrivaled. As I read it, I thought of people I know who are doing this very thing, and considered that this could be a ‘calling card’ of sorts to fully explain what they do to anyone curious.  This book defines both the blessings of this rapdily growing type of church experience, as well as the pitfalls and dangers of beginning incorrectly.

One of my concerns about the house simple church movement has always been that it tends to attract those from the charismatic end of the larger evangelical spectrum.  Several times here, the language used to describe their gatherings talks about ‘prophetic words’ and ‘moving in the gifts of the Spirit;’ terms that are familiar enough to many of us, but equally unfamiliar to, for sake of illustration, Baptists.  And I suppose that if the simple church movement is really going to sweep across a broader or more mainstream Evangelical landscape, I’d like to see people doing simple church in a way that, for sake of illustration, a Baptist would be comfortable attending. 

Or maybe I’m wrong on that altogether.  Perhaps the simple church movement is in fact a movement in a slightly more Charismatic direction; that in the absence of structures and programs and hierarchies, dependence on the Holy Spirit has to be elevated.  This is reinforced when you consider that if you were to attend a simple church with Tony and Felicity, one of the first two things you might notice is that no one individual is in charge and there is no prescribed ‘order of service.’  While the worship might consist of a few songs you know, there is also spontaneous worship and what we know as ‘sermon’ is often replaced by a much more interactive time of people sharing insights into God’s word, and linking testimonies to teaching.

There are some aspects of Small is Big that reiterated material I had already covered in books by Michael Frost and Frank Viola and Wayne Jacobsen, and reinforced many things I already believe.  But if the simple church concept is new to you, I would suggest (a) read the book, as it is a complete encyclopedia of everything you need to know about this subject; and (b) find out if there is a simple church meeting somewhere nearby and make arrangements to attend.

It might be the closest you get to experiencing what the early church in Acts experienced.

April 19, 2010

ReChurch: A Book About Healing, Restoration and Renewal

After more than a decade of writing about the lives of others, author Stephen Mansfield looks at his own experience, and in the process delivers what must certainly be his most significant book to date.

ReChurch:  Healing Your Way Back to the People of God is aimed directly at the all-too-common condition in which individuals find themselves estranged from a local church they love, and had found a place of service.   The book is also written in such a way that it functions on another level for pastors who find themselves in this identical situation.

If the book offers one thing — and it certainly offers much more — it is empathy.   Mansfield has been there personally and also offers the examples of history as well as Biblical stories of people who know what is like to be wounded, or to be outcast.

I’m reminded of an experience I had in the Syrian Desert.  I was speaking with an Arab friend of how foreign the desert is to me and how — raised as an Army brat in Germany and now living in Tennessee — lush hills and flowing rivers are more to my liking.  My friend took humorous offense and began extolling the glories of the “desert under God.”   Waving his arms in what I am sure were ancient ways, he said, “There is as much life in the desert as there is in the sea, but you must know where to find it.”

I cannot judge whether he was right about the physical desert because I have worked hard to spend as little time there as possible.   I am sure, however, that he is right about spiritual deserts.  In other words, during our dry and painful spiritual seasons, there is much life to be found, be we have to find it in places we have never considered before, digging for it in ways we have not yet tried.

Using a masterful economy of words, he allows also that sometimes we are victims of things beyond our control, while at other times we form recurring patterns in our journey.   He also avoids situations where want to lash out at those who have ambushed us, realizing that God may have had a part in all that happened; all the while recognizing that these choices may run counter to our natural instincts:

I grew to hate sermons on forgiveness, even my own.   They convicted me, true, and I did the things I was asked to do to deal with my offense and hurt.  But it seldom worked and I soon came to understand that there was a stronghold in my soul.  It seemed as though my inner life was coated with Velcro that trapped hurt and offense and held it tight.   Though I thought of myself as a fairly loving person, I could never let the impact of being wronged go.  I fed it.  I fantasized about it.  I even used it to fuel my intensity in sports or my efforts to rise in the world.  Because I could not let what offended me go, I used it as fuel and this only caused it to attach more firmly to that Velcro of my soul.

Relate?  I know I do.   The final chapter, “Coming Home,” deals with the recovery process, using covenant theology as a way of rethinking what the Church is and what should guide our decisions to reconnect.

ReChurch is available in hardcover from Tyndale under the Barna imprint, and in the foreword, George Barna shares his own personal experience with all that this book entails.   My one regret is that the book was so concise that I have liked to dwell longer in some of its subjects rather than the 166 digest-sized pages; however this work is really a pivotal, transitional title for Mansfield, and I’ll grant him a very high recommendation, on the condition he promises to write more of the same.

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