Small Groups and "The Least of These"

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There is a segment of the "small group" movement that bothers me and I'm not sure if it should. See if you can pick up on it below and tell me what your take is.

SYMPTOM #1: I attended the highly-touted missional community conference VERGE 2010 this weekend in Austin and there were some wonderful speakers and great thought-starters. In all, one of the best conferences I've ever been to. But I noticed one thing: I would guestimate that 75% (or more) of the attenders fit this exact demographic: male, white, college-educated. An only slightly smaller percentage also used Macs, wore Rob Bell glasses and drank Starbucks, but we won't get into that. What's more, every expert-in-the-field speaker was male and either White or Asian.

SYMPTOM #2: This is now the third church I've worked for that has a heavy concentration of what I'll call "people on the margins" — homeless, addicts, non-heterosexual ... you get the idea. It also has a heavy concentration of less-than-educated white folks. Not bad people, just not what you'd call "intellectuals".

THE PROBLEM: Every church I've ever seen missional small groups work in (I mean really work in) has fit the "symptom #1" crowd. Rarely, if ever, have I seen small groups really work amongst the "symptom #2" crowd. That bothers me because if I read the Gospels right, "symptom #2" people were precisely Jesus' kind of people. I recognize that most of the CRC probably falls into the former crowd, but I think we really need some thinking on this.

For instance, I heard Hugh Halter (a highly respected "missional" guy) at VERGE say that anyone who didn't want to do their "TK Primer", which is an intensive, missional 8-week study would be advised that there were other churches in town that might be better suited to them. One of the first churches listed on his website is "Scum of the Earth Church", a great church in urban Denver that reaches out to "symptom #2" people. And I know, rationally, that small groups and missional communities are just a model and that, theoretically, they would work for anyone who is willing. But practically, its hard to sit in a small group where 3 people with masters degrees are trying to have a conversation with 2 people who didn't graduate high school.

I know — I've done it! It's hard to get homeless people to show up to a once-a-week small group because they often spend the night fending for their lives or running from the police. And if the answer is that we need to start splitting people up based on socio-economic levels, we might as well throw in the towel. So I'm honestly confused — how do we rectify a system (missional communities/small groups) that is great, but rarely works for "the least of these" with a Savior who prioritized "the least of these"?

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Participant

Wow Mark, super tough for sure.
I know what you mean by the two camps. Wouldn't it be nice to see the Acts 2 church in action and what that looked like. I'm not sure, but I thought I read or heard somewhere that Tim Keller's church is like that. I can't imagine Wall Street folks hanging with the street people in a small group kind of way. But I think that's what's happening. I think I'll check into that a bit more. That's a good one to kick around though.

Mark,
Very astute observation. Sadly "missional" is being too often captured by the cool, hip, well-educated crowd, which results in it being branded for what it is not. This does not mean that those you describe in Symptom #1 should not be missional, but when that is all that is promoted then there are problems. (BTW-I'm white-male, educated, use a Mac and an iPhone, and wear Rob Bell glasses.)

We have struggled with this at our church. We are sitting on the edge of the inner city and the suburbs and we are a church led by over-educated white people. We had a 10-week series last fall on ministering to the poor and we struggled repeatedly with all of the material that we found on this subject. Most of it focused on how middle-class white people could do something nice for the poor. There is little out there about how people from different economic backgrounds can sit down together and learn from one another. As we practiced this alternative approach, we found that those who are labeled as under-resourced don't want our nice handouts. They actually want relationships.

But this is challenging because we have been told in the while. middle class, Christendom view of church that when we minister to people that we go to them with a predetermined plan of how we will minister to them. To address the issues that we raise, we need to learn new skills and quite honestly, few have recognized this need much less have developed any resources that can equip us.

Guide

 One resource that might help is When Helping Hurts. I think it does a good job of explaining why we are ALL poor, and why sometimes when the "haves" try to help the "have nots," they are actually hurting themselves and those they are trying to help.

Part of the Kuyperian part of the CRC tradition is also to minister to those who create the structures that are partially responsible for making others poor.  They are the ones you guys don't seem to want to minister to.  To be sure, they are a tough, self-sufficient and know-it-all bunch, but they need the gospel as well, even though they don't experience that need.  But we know them: they are us and others like us.  

The problem is that amongst ourselves we do not talk about our involvement in and responsibility for some of the oppressive structures.  It is easier to restrict out Bible studies to personal, churchy and "spiritual" topics.  But if we were to set up groups intentionally  addressing such structural issues,  we might not feel as comfortable as the above descriptions of white collar groups suggest. 

I realize that Evangelicals have always avoided that strata, probably because they don't have the necessary insight and they are afraid of them.  I like to think of the CRC as more than Evangelicals in this respect, but maybe that was so in the past only?