Small Groups and the Mission of God

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Alan Hirsch (with Christianity Today)

What does the term missional mean to you?
Well, that's one of those very difficult terms because it's so widely used. But for me, it primarily refers to a church that organizes itself around the mission of God, or the misseo dei, which refers to God's involvement in the world—his redeeming it to himself. In The Forgotten Ways, I say that it's not so much that the church has a mission, but that the mission has a church. So when I think of the term "missional church," it's in that order—that a church has somehow bonded itself or identified itself as a primary agent of the mission of God in the world.

What about the term organic?
Of course that one has been made famous by Neil Cole, but organic for me is the idea that human organizations—just like living systems—are made up of very complex structures, and they have a life of their own. It's a term that's in contrast to a more mechanistic view of organization. So when I refer to organic systems, I'm thinking of a type of leadership and organization that is closer to the rhythms and structures of life itself.

An organic church goes with the natural flow of things. It doesn't try to perpetuate its life beyond what it's meant to be, which is different than most organizations. Most organizations tend to assume that once they've been started, they need to be perpetuated continually.

In a general sense, how have you seen small groups fit into missional churches, or into communities with a more organic structure?
It's interesting, in a number of the situations I know of where you've got very large churches beginning to adopt the movement ethos laid out in The Forgotten Ways, almost inevitably they see their small groups as a leverage point for a number of things. Discipleship, for example, can be best facilitated in a small group—if it's well done—as can the idea of mission. Also, missional capacity and missional reach are very much higher in a small group than in a large building that requires people to come to you.

But I think the big switch for us will be to stop thinking of small groups as prop-ups to the "real deal," weekend-based church. In reality, small groups are major elements of the church. In fact, they are themselves churches. And that's the big switch. When people are able to see small groups as churches in and of themselves, therefore fully capable of doing all the functions of an ecclesia, then the revolution is on.

But if we keep them as just back-ups to keep people associated with a large church, then I think all we will do there is facilitate community and Bible study and prayer, but there can never be a multiplication movement at that point, because mission isn't featured. Discipleship doesn't really cut in very deeply there.

Speaking of The Forgotten Ways, you mention six elements of missional movements that have been present in your research. They are: 1) the profession that Jesus is Lord, 2) disciple making, 3) a missional/incarnational impulse, 4) an apostolic environment, 5) organic systems, and 6) communitas instead of community. Which of these elements connect the most with small groups?
First of all, "Jesus is Lord" is the central element around which all of the others gravitate. It's the idea that our experience of God is qualified through Jesus, and that comes to us through the form of monotheism as a claim over our lives. So that becomes a central, pivotal piece.

Disciple making is a pivotal element of all movements. In fact, it's my suggestion that this is the most critical piece other than the profession that Jesus is Lord. That's because disciple making is where the belief that Jesus is Lord plays itself out through the individual and the community. Quality control, and the embodiment and transmission of the gospel are all played out there, as well.

The element of "organic systems" may also be interesting to small-group leaders. One part of this element that I mention in the book is the difference between reproducing and reproduce-able. One of the problems with the larger church as we know it is that it's not very reproduce-able. It takes an incredible amount of money, a type of leadership that is very rare—the whole thing is a relatively rare phenomenon, really. But that's not true of small groups.

Then there is the idea of communitas. This should be interesting to small groups because communitas represents a kind of community that develops in the context of a shared ordeal or challenge that calls people out of a normal understanding of themselves. They are centered around the kind of experiences that turns friends into comrades. Often our sense of connection and reliance on each other is minimal, and what a communitas will do is restructure the relationships between people and help them experience and interact with each other in a fundamentally new way. In essence it means putting the adventure back into the venture.

I'd like to look specifically at the disciple-making element for a moment. You mentioned in the book that disciple making is a crucial, pivotal element in the process. What makes it so important?
It seems to me that if we fail to make disciples—that is, people who can become like Jesus Christ, which is a very simple definition of discipleship—if we can't get that right, then in doesn't matter what else we do because there will be a fundamental weakness in our ministry. The lack of disciples will always undermine any effort beyond that. But if we succeed in developing and creating an environment where people really can become more Christlike, it seems to me that the movement is on, and everything else will have a substantial basis along with it.

The problem is that we are being discipled every day by our culture, and it's done very profoundly and very well—and I say this with a background in marketing and advertising. There are billions of dollars going into advertising, which is not just selling us products. There's much more of a religious dynamic going on. So if we as a church or a small group don't disciple in the way of Jesus, then the culture gets to have the primary say. And I have to say that, despite our best efforts, the culture is winning at this stage.

In your book, you echoed a statement by Neil Cole that basically said the bar has been set too low in most modern churches when it comes to disciple making. Can you explain that a bit further:
Yes, what Neil says in effect is that we need to raise the bar on our expectations for disciple making and lower the bar on our expectations for church. And I think he's right. I mean, that's exactly what the early church did, and it's certainly what the Chinese church is doing. In a martyrdom movement, you're raising the bar extremely high. People are going to die, and the churches teach them how to die well.

But in our culture, we tend to reverse that. We deliver all the goodies up front, and then we wonder why people don't become disciples. My question is: Why would they? What's with all that stuff about "death to self"? Why should I change, and why should I volunteer for all that heavy lifting when I've got my snout in the trough right now?

So how can we raise the bar for a typical American small group? How have you managed that in your own experience?
What we've done to make sure that discipleship is taken seriously is embed within the covenant of each group a certain set of practices. The problem with most communities of faith is that they are confessional. They believe in the Great Commission, they believe in discipleship—they're saying the right things. But they don't address behavior.

So what we did is develop a set of practices designed to produce embodied values in the lives of our group members. And we called those practices TEMPT—Together we follow, Engagement with Scripture, Mission, Passion for Jesus, and Transformation. How each unit or group engaged in these practices was entirely up to them, but it had to be observable that they were practicing them.

The nice thing is that it was all non-professional ministry, of course, because small groups don't require preachers and sound systems and all that kind of stuff. We wanted to diminish the reliance on the professional class of ministry. I'm a deep and profound believer in the ministry of all believers, and so we wanted to empower our people and wean them away from a dependence on the church.

It's ironic. When you "do church" well, you create dependency, because then people can't reproduce it themselves. We had to break that. We had to communicate that all disciples carry within themselves the potential for world transformation. We wanted to communicate that you have the power to do this, so don't outsource it to other people. That's the Faustian bargain at the heart of many churches—that people outsource their primary gifting, calling, and function to the institution, to the professionals in ministry.

How can small groups avoid contributing to this dependency?
Small groups can play a tremendous role in moving out of the dependency, but they have to move from being Bible studies and prayer groups to being mission agencies. And they need to take seriously the idea of a common set of disciplines that begin to form them and shape their culture—not just a common set of beliefs that everyone agrees on for life. You have to get at their behaviors.

In The Forgotten Ways, it seemed to me that your idea of communitas is defined almost as a lack of safety, or a lack of comfort.
That's part of it, yeah.

So how can that be achieved in a middle-class, American small group? How do we make people feel unsafe and uncomfortable here?
Well, it doesn't have to be all danger, although I do believe that risk and adventure are important for us. We go and watch it in the movies all the time, partly because we've outsourced it to the movies. But deep down in the human heart is a desire to do something of note—to test oneself, literally. But we've lost the art of it.

And so I think our churches and small groups need to take on tasks and functions with a very real possibility of failure. We need to do something where, unless we find each other and all work together, we're going to fail. We need to put ourselves in situations like that and see what happens. There's going to be failures, of course, but we need to try. Because when people find themselves in those situations, their very relationships with one another are restructured.

Can you think of an example?
Yes. Think about a small group of 20 or 25 people that adopts a rubbish dump in Mexico City—a place where a community of people are literally living off the rubbish dump. And that group says: Over the next 10 years (take it over a long time, not a short-term project) we are going to spend a significant part of our holidays and unpaid leave, and every one of us is going to go down there and help the people build a little village. We're going to get those people off that rubbish dump. We're going to bring whatever expertise we have to go and do this thing. We're not just going to send money; we're going to go there and do this thing ourselves.

I promise you, if a small group does that, they will be different people in 10 years time. Now, that might sound like a lot, but a group from where I am in Southern California could easily do that. And it doesn't have to be that ambitious. I know of a group that adopted their local park in a similar way. They cleaned it up, they set up barbeques and played volleyball—they were creative.

But the main thing is for people to just get out—and I say this with all love and respect—just get out of the house. It's too safe in our houses. We need to start inhabiting the places where other people inhabit. If you can pull off "church" in a third place, in a place where people go to spend their spare time, you will be forced to contextualize your message and get away from the bad three-chord choruses and stuff like that.

Because often our small groups in our houses are run like mini-churches, aren't they? We do the same thing we experience on Sunday, but it's just bad. We have a mother and son combo on the guitar, and the Bible study is never quite as good as the pastor's sermon. It's a back up. It's just mini-church done badly. I mean, are there other ways to worship God than singing songs in public? Surely there must be, for goodness sake. God can be worshiped in all ways, so go find them.

Is there anything else you'd like to mention to small-group leaders and point persons in terms of what we need to learn or unlearn as we go about our ministry?
Let me just say that all of this is very hard for anyone in the West to hear, because we've become so blinded to our own potential. We take part in the institution of church, and we're knocked out by it. But my study of movements has shown me that every Christian carries the potential for world transformation. Even the youngest person or the youngest Christian has within themselves a power beyond belief. It seems that God continually takes the most unlikely people in China, for instance, and uses them to literally transform villages and towns.

So my encouragement to people is to trust what God can do through them. It's more than what we've been told to believe.

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