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.

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