I had an interesting conversation with a fellow volunteer at the pregnancy resource center last night. We were talking about his church, a very large church in our area with its own schools, and how they were starting to emphasize small groups. I see this a lot, especially in large churches where the Sunday gathering is inherently impersonal because of the sheer size of the group. When you start to get several hundred people on a Sunday, it is easy to have little or no interaction with large numbers of the people you are “fellowshipping” with. That is fine for many people because we have been taught that the gathering of the church is first and foremost a “worship service”. In other words, I go to church to worship which is defined as singing songs and listening to sermon. The bigger the church, the less important fellowship becomes. I am simply a religious consumer who shows up at a worship supercenter to get my weekly fix and check off my religion box on my to-do list. Many church leaders seem to recognize this and small groups kind of fill in the “fellowship gap” but they also tend to be suspicious of small groups because they are not tightly controlled. A lay person leading a small group may say something wrong! So there is a real love-hate relationship between the institutional, traditional church focused on Sunday morning “worship services” and small groups.
Our conversation centered around stuff like where does the church start and stop? The initial question and one I think we hear a lot is: Are small groups “the church”? I flipped that around and asked “In what way are they NOT the church?” What exactly is it about a Sunday morning “worship service” that is Biblically the church in a way that a small group meeting in a home, especially one with the blessing of a traditional church, is not? In Acts 2:42 we see the four-fold functioning of the church in its earliest days: breaking bread, fellowship, the apostles’ teaching and prayers. Neither a normal small group nor a traditional worship service “breaks bread” typically in the sense of sharing a meal together but small groups generally involve more fellowship than a “worship service”, involve more Christians in the apostles’ teaching and in my experience always includes prayers, often by multiple Christians rather than just the pastor. So if anything I would go so far as to say that not only are small groups as legitimate an expression of “the church” as a traditional “worship service”, in some ways they are even more so. Now having said that, I think we need to stay away from putting expressions of the church into hierarchies where some expressions of the church are more valid than others.
The conversation then turned to elders, specifically at first how do the elders in the local church fit in with the small groups? We quickly moved to the issue of elders more generally. What is clear to me is that I really don’t fully understand Biblical eldership and even more so the church at large doesn’t even really think much about it. Who are these men? Why are they chosen and how are they selected? How do they function in the Body, what is their purpose and role? So much about elders is just assumed based mostly on our particular church tradition. Southern Baptists often have a single elder, i.e. the pastor, and a number of deacons, Presbyterians often have “teaching elders” and “ruling elders”, etc. It is assumed that Acts 6 is speaking of deacons and elders and that Paul’s admonitions to Timothy are specifically applicable to elders as opposed to all Christians. These are all assumptions that don’t stand up to scrutiny the more you examine them. The more I think through and try to live out what it means to be a follower of Christ, the more I realize how little I truly understand!
I really enjoy these conversations in real life, away from the world of blogging where it often becomes a “one-upmanship” contest. Real brothers in Christ having a serious conversation about the weightiest matters imaginable while we are ministering to those in need. What could be better than that?