An Email to a brother just starting out
When we first started I made a mistake that I’d avoid if I had it to do over. I assumed that all our folks (about the same number as you, incidentally) would automatically know how to do church in an open way. The fact was, though, that they had all been “trained” for so long to have somebody else do the meeting for them that they were clueless as to how to participate individually. They needed to be taught and released, but I wasn’t willing to do that, thinking that it was best not to be “the authority.” If I had it to do over, I would have explained things more fully and then stepped gradually away from the leader role.
Your role will eventually be as the resource for ministry. Most of us who have been in pastoral offices before are used to being the source of vision and ministry. To make the switch to simple churches will require a repositioning so you can be identified as a resource. It’s the equipping role similar to Jesus sending the disciples out on the preaching tour and rejoicing that they came back to report.
As for the groups, I’ve discovered that not all groups will survive. Imagine that! I don’t know why that was a shock to me, but it was. I also learned that groups don’t necessarily function best just because the members live close to on another, although I like the idea of proximity. I think it’s best. Still, it may not be practical to insist on it. Not all people get together with all people, if you know what I mean. As much as we think we should all get along no matter who we’re with, human frailty just doesn’t allow it.
Just let the groups form by affinity, while carefully reminding them that a closed circle isn’t biblical. They have to be confident enough in their relationships that they are always willing to receive new people. The challenges will come from a couple of directions. The socially awkward and clueless are always a challenge. They try, and fortunately strengthen, the patience of a group. Survival depends on the group understanding that learning to accept one another, our gifts and weaknesses, is not optional in the kingdom.
The problem-centered people are also difficult for groups. They’re the ones that want to make the group deal with their latest crisis every time they get together. Such people will take a group down quickly. A group facilitator will need to see that coming and suggest the problem centered person go out with one or two others for prayer rather than have the whole group be problem centered with them.
The group, for the most part, needs to be promise centered rather than problem centered. A group will need to have a preponderance of healthy folks in order to provide a good place for healing. If you have too many awkward and problem centered people in one place, the healthy folks will tire and need to bail out, leaving the host holding the bag. Just to let you know, the kinds of people I’m talking about often gravitate toward the pastoral gift—you have a target on your back, brother!
Another challenge will be the one who wants to lead the group like he (why is usually a guy) always has seen groups led: from the top down. There are lots of folks out there that want to be on the top of the hill. Leadership in these groups needs to be by HEIRarchy (as in fellow heirs) rather than hierarchy. You’re gathering together as friends who share the common bloodline of Christ. Heavy leadership and control isn’t really needed in that kind of arena. It’s like a group of friends deciding to go on a campout together. It’s not much different than that. I tell a “leader” in a small group that your job is to discern through whom the Spirit wishes to speak today, and presume that that it’s not you. That doesn’t mean that it won’t be he/she, but leaders ought to think in terms of drawing out others rather than taking the center stage themselves.
As far as starting out, I guess you may as well just encourage people to start meeting together. ALWAYS eat together when you do. I don’t know why, but that does so much for cohesion.
A word about eating together: KEEP IT SIMPLE. Meeting together isn’t about entertainment it’s about hospitality and sharing. That means everybody takes a turn at feeding everybody else. Everybody helps clean up. We find that weekly potlucks are harder than rotating the meal prep responsibility among the group so you only have to prepare once every few weeks. Use paper plates. Pass a bag for trash around the table to expedite the clean-up. Beans and rice. Soup and salad. Casseroles. SIMPLE is better.
Encourage the groups to share the Lord’s Table often, even making it part of their meal together—say grace over the breaking of bread at the start of the meal and give thanks while taking the cup at the end of the meal.
You could move about among the groups encouraging them and providing counsel as they see the need. I wouldn’t worry too much about how the groups proceed. Every group of people have their own needs and own pace. You could suggest a starting place and let them go from there. Some of our groups just pray for one another. Others have done a structured study through a book of the bible. Some have started with an ALPHA course, or some other video series. Some of the guys have done the Wild at Heart stuff. The sky’s the limit!
Abandon the thought that you have to have little blocks of worship, a few minutes for prayer, a special time for a one-way teaching. You may do all of those things, but they don’t all have to happen each meeting. Over time, all of those things will happen in the proper proportion. It’s an amazing thing to watch. The Holy Spirit is a wonderful leader.
One thing that may happen is that the groups will have trouble seeing themselves as “church.” For a long time we had what I tried to call “weekly reunions,” namely meeting on Sundays. Well, the groups tended to see that as church and the other meetings as “small groups.” I felt the groups needed to be released to be functionally autonomous, but voluntarily interdependent. To do that we had to reduce the number of big group meetings. These days we’re trying to reinstitute the larger gatherings, but the groups are quite content to be church without them. I’ve created a monster!!! We do get together but it often is more informal.
The communication links are pretty strong in a community of simple churches. Still, you could consider an internet discussion list for your members or explore the Online House Church Community that we use. (Email me if you’d like that address. Links can be harvested by spammers, so I don’t want that address listed here. Since you’re human, I’d be happy to send you the link. Just let me know.) That can help communications get out. Cyberspace is no substitute for face-to-face relationships, but communication is so important using any and all avenues is helpful.
I remind folks that meeting as brothers and sisters isn’t rocket science. We know how to do it, we just need to be convinced it’s not naughty and rebellious to do it as church. Best of luck. Godspeeed! Keep in touch. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
In His steps,