One of the issues that one is confronted with when speaking of small church communities like house churches is the tendency for people to immediately relate it to their experience of “Bible Study” groups. This can indeed be a frustrating experience for the one doing the communication, since naturally human beings easier understand a concept by relating it to something that they may already be familiar with. I got the sense of this problem again during our most recent public seminar event “A Different Kind of Christianity”, and I think an attempt to explain what the goal of discipleship via small communities is.
Many Christians have simply assumed that the purpose of a meeting of Christians is to primarily listen to “the word of God”, which is typically a sermon based on some biblical passages. As a result, even when Christians meet in small group settings, it must be defined by the necessity to “look into the word” – aka read the bible. Hence whenever one speaks of home meetings – the mental picture is people gathering to follow a Bible Study manual.
There are many reasons why this has become the standard expectation
The Protestant Reformation came along with it the abundant availability of the bible, and based on the theology of Sola Scriptura, the expectation that every Tom, Dick and Harry must be able, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to read and interpret it of their own accord. So, a personal ability to read and interpret the bible oneself became the goal. This was of course an overreaction to the Roman Catholic church’s attempt to make the Pope the only person qualified to interpret scripture.
Again, the Reformation now put the bible and in particular the sermon at the center of church life. The great Reformer Martin Luther called the church a “Mundhouse” – a mouth house or speech house due to the prominence of hearing the word preached in church. John Calvin placed much emphasis on “orthodoxy” – correct teaching – and was prepared to go to the extent of having “heresy” – false teaching – punished via death, despite Jesus’ own teaching and example to the contrary on enemy love. In the psyche of the Protestant Christian then, Christians meeting without reading scripture is a misnomer.
As a result then, even when we try to create smaller gatherings, the goal has been typically to see this as an opportunity to make Christians more bible-savvy. Any attempt at discipleship then gets filtered through this lens as well. Any other thing else is seen as a secondary benefit.
What’s Wrong With These Assumptions
There are many things problematic about these assumptions and here I mention a few without going into too much detail.
Early Christianity thrived without everybody having a copy of the bible to read. There were no printing presses to churn out copies of bibles for each one. Social historians state that in the 1st and 2nd centuries, only 20% of the population could read, and only 15% of could write. And that’s not even talking about Christians. So I’m not quite sure that they would have been singing songs like “read your bible, pray everyday”. And yet we have so many historians speaking glowingly of how these communities of Christians defied their the world with their way of life as a community and towards their society.
Most modern Christians do not even envisage suffering as being part of their calling, much less have a proper theology that prepares them for it. But early Christianity suffered untold hardship and persecution, but this rather increased and not decreased their numbers. This is because by their theology and way of life, it became expected that persecution would follow.
Western Christianity (as well as Christianity influenced by the West) has elevated the individual to quite unbiblical heights, making the individual and their personal relationship with God the center of Christian life. This then has led to an explosion of material and teaching for individual personal Christianity (even to the point of reading the New Testament, originally written to communities, with individualistic eyes), and very little resources on how to be a community of the Lamb. This is in contrast to early Christianity, which placed the church community at the center of Christian life, and enjoined the individual to work and make sacrifices for unity and love to be manifest in each community. When Paul is asked a simple matter of whether to eat meat sacrificed to idols, he takes 3 chapters to explain the paramount importance of Christian community over individual rights (1 Cor 8-10).
For a long time, the bible has been read as a flat book, where every part has equal importance. As a result, the distinctive nature of the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus and how that should change how Christians view everything has been lost in many Christian traditions. Despite the fact that the word “disciple” appears 22 more times than the word “Christian”, most Christians simply assume that discipleship is for the “uber” Christians, not for them. So even when reading the bible, modern Christians don’t tend to see Jesus as a person in whose footsteps they must follow, but only as the savior of their sins whose only purpose was to die on the cross.
What Should It Be About Then?
If the purpose of small group gatherings is not to create “bible scholars” out of us all, then what exactly is it for, and what should be happening in such gatherings?
Let me first state here (before I’m accused of anything untoward) that I do believe in the importance of the bible and its authoritativeness for Christian life. I read the bible regularly and have a growing library of books from theologians and scholars whom I read often (besides a very long wish-list on Amazon). But I believe that small group gatherings have the enormous potential to form us into disciples of Jesus in ways that large gatherings cannot, and running them with the same mentality as large ones is an exercise in missing the point.
Small gatherings should be used to focus on the activity of applying the lessons learnt from teachings about following Jesus, both in community and as individuals. For example it should be a time to share the challenges of work and living in our neighborhoods, so we may think through them and learn together what is the Jesus way of dealing with such challenges.
Small gatherings should be a place for creating bonds of fellowship through actually eating together regularly. I even recommend having communion at such gatherings instead of/alongside the larger ones. There’s a good reason why the NT, especially the Gospels are littered with stories of eating in people’s homes, whether its Jesus or the early disciples.
In developing countries like ours with high levels of illiteracy, as well as multiple ethnic and language groups, small gatherings should become places where these voices can be heard and teaching further disseminated. In larger settings, there’s the tendency only to focus on the subject matter at hand i.e. worship and sermon. In smaller ones, we learn to focus on people. Some try to overcome these kind of language barriers by having translations of the sermon, but in my experience that tends to be a distraction, is fraught with mis-communication and ultimately buys into the Protestant prioritization of the sermon/bible as the only means by which people encounter Jesus.
Expanding on the point above, if a church truly sees itself as fulfilling the biblical mission of bringing the Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave or free, rich or poor, social elite or social outcast together, then small gatherings serve as an excellent, biblically-inspired tool to practicalise this integration. It enables making room to listen to life from the perspective of the other, be they the richer or poorer person, be they from the other ethnic group or nationality. Let us remember that the church is, as Scott McKnight puts it “a fellowship of differents” – a kingdom community of many shades of people, gathered under the headship of Jesus Christ and showing the world that despite it’s attempts at division and strife, Jesus offers a new hope of a community of unity and love in diversity.
Small gatherings should be seen as a means of moving us beyond our comfort zones and to teach us the value of hospitality that was expected and common amongst early disciples. This should involve sometimes causing small groups to meet in homes of less fortunate members once in a while, learning to cope with situations of unpreparedness to receive guests, encouraging us to actually know where each member lives and seeing what ways we could meet needs when they arise in each other’s lives. Modernity teaches us to put up a nice facade before others, but discipleship is meant to force us to open up, sometimes in uncomfortable ways. That way, we learn to really consider those who are part of our small groups as Jesus regarded his disciples – family.
The bible will definitely be a resource to us in doing things the ways I’ve described above as we seek to discover Jesus in this process of discipleship. But in this way we actually learn to pursue Jesus, not the bible.
For those who have such gatherings alongside large church meetings, it might be time evaluate why exactly we have these kinds of gatherings. Most places which have had such gatherings have ended up abandoning them, or stifling them of all life, making them repetitions of what larger church gatherings do. If we intend them to be places of fulfilling God’s mission of discipleship and community, then we must totally re-orient our mind and attitude towards such groups, and empower them to function properly. If not, then don’t make a pretense at having such small group gatherings, because they become more of a source of confusion and dissatisfaction than they should be.
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