Part 3 of 5
Last week, we discussed the role of house churches in decentralizing the Church in America, “taking ground” for Christ on every street, apartment complex and condo building. The New Testament speaks frequently of both house churches (“the church that meets at their house”) and city-wide gatherings (“the church at/of ____”). Despite the allegations by advocates for house churches and brick-and-mortar churches, contending that the other is deeply flawed, there is an important role for both.
Regardless, traditional church as we know it here in the U.S. is well-entrenched and not going away – nor should it. Therefore, the question becomes how can churches do a better job of expanding their footprints? How can churches combat tendencies today to become “skyscrapers”, bringing people in to a single structure that occupies a small parcel of land for a short time?
The Importance of Decentralizing
When the work day is done, a skyscraper empties, people get back in their cars, commute home and close the garage doors behind them. Churches look much the same, with empirical and statistical data showing fewer Christians break that mold and share the gospel with coworkers, friends and neighbors. Most view church as an activity rather than a lifestyle, squeezing it in between obligations to provide and care for their own families. Christians, like non-believers, work hard all week to earn enough to pay the bills and run themselves ragged with baseball and cheerleading practices after work and on weekends, leaving little time to fulfill their biblical role as the embodiment of “church”.
While it is difficult to argue with “providing and caring for my family”, there is cause for concern when so many churchgoers today use that as an excuse for abdicating their responsibility to live out the Great Commission on a weekly, if not daily basis. It begs some sobering questions:
- Do people think their Christian neighbors seem different or are just like everyone else? Some studies suggest most see no distinction.
- If the kids and grandchildren of Christians follow suit and do little to serve and share the gospel with their neighbors, then where does that leave the future state of the church and our nation?
- The Lord put us in our communities for a reason – how many opportunities are we missing to fulfill His purposes in the lives of those around us?
In light of those questions and the reality that church gatherings in buildings will (and should) be a fact of life, what kinds of structures can churches put in place that would encourage and facilitate more evangelistic engagement? In other words, given how efforts to attract and retain members are contracting the Church’s collective footprint, are there any conventions that pastors would find palatable for bringing “church” out into the surrounding streets without resorting to subdividing into house churches?
We’ll talk about one of those ideas today and a couple more next week…
“Taking Ground” through Neighborhood Groups
Many people responding to last week’s blog post refer to house churches and small groups interchangeably. However, there are significant differences. Small Groups are formed as part of established churches, whereas house churches are churches unto themselves. Small groups are typically heavy on fellowship and light on teaching, whereas house churches typically involve more intensive Bible study. Few members of a church participate in Small Groups, whereas house church is a church so all participate. Small groups usually replicate the church’s “skyscraper” mentality, gathering and scattering – just on a smaller scale.
However, there is a way that brick-and-mortar churches can approximate the decentralization and reach of house churches while keeping its current model intact. Many churches are experimenting with turning their small groups into Neighborhood Groups. Neighborhood Groups, if functioning properly, look much more like house churches than small groups in terms of intentionality about:
- Commitment to reach that neighborhood with the gospel
- Seeking opportunities to serve neighbors in distress
- Inviting neighbors to attend (because it’s not designed as a worship service, Neighborhood Groups are a more appropriate venue for non-believers than traditional or house churches)
- Deeper discipleship in preparation for evangelism
To that last point, Neighborhood Groups overcome a disturbing dynamic we’ve observed in working with thousands of churches. Churches that pull away from discipleship typically simultaneously retreat from local missions – and vice versa. Discipleship and missions go hand in hand – a church not preparing members to share their faith know any compassion efforts would bear little fruit, and likewise churches who rarely deploy members into ministry provide them fewer opportunities to witness. The Bible makes that same connection between “growing” and “going” in the Great Commission (“to make disciples”) and in Acts 1:8 (to “be a witness”).
How to Turn Small Groups into Neighborhood Groups
There are a number of best practices for transitioning small groups into Neighborhood Groups:
- Define “Neighbors” Literally – Intentionality requires focus. For purposes of a Neighborhood Group, it will be more effective in reaching a community if it defines “neighbors” as those living on the street where the group meets or near each respective member’s home. Jesus defined “neighbors” more broadly to include everyone everywhere. Nothing here refutes Jesus’ definition; however, when a Neighborhood Group views “neighbor” in that larger context it may miss out on its responsibility, collectively as a group and individually, to reach those right outside its back door.
- Seek Out Needs – Even in wealthier communities where needs are not so obvious, people have issues. Rather than poverty, there is alcohol abuse, spousal abuse, rocky marriages, parenting problems, depression, poor health, and a host of other opportunities to rally around neighbors. Many of us are reluctant to ask neighbors personal questions, afraid we may be asked the same questions in return. Airing dirty laundry to those in the house next door is a scary proposition – you’re stuck with your neighbors. However, Christians should be vulnerable and willing to disclose their weaknesses, otherwise neighbors may never see the strength of Christ in them. Like we mentioned earlier, Christians who try to give off an impression of perfection look just like every other neighbor. Neighborhood Group members should step forward to find out how people are really doing – getting beyond the facades. As you unveil your issues and ask about theirs, you may discover they overlap, giving you the opportunity to lead them to that same hope you found in Christ. Remember that unlike you, non-believers may have no one to confide in – they don’t have the benefit of a church family and may not feel comfortable sharing with anyone else. You may be the closest thing to “church” they’ll ever experience.
- Avoid One-Time Events and Gimmicks – Much has been written in recent years about the dangers of transactional assistance for the poor, one-and-done interactions that feed the perception that Christians are merely fulfilling an obligation rather than genuinely concerned for their welfare. The same principle applies to Neighborhood Groups. Walking to the door, knocking on it and handing neighbors a “Blessing Bag” takes courage but will have no sustained impact if there’s no follow up. Similarly, a neighborhood barbecue is a wonderful outreach but only if it is followed by additional events or connections. Neighborhood Groups must resist the temptation to which nearly all churches have succumbed – “checking the box”.
- See Itself as the Neighborhood’s Church – Neighborhood Groups should act as a house church in this respect. It should be first on the scene when trouble strikes a family. It should become a support group for neighbors facing life’s most difficult challenges. Rather than simply inviting non-believers to church, Neighborhood Groups should connect with them frequently while respecting their desire for (and right to) privacy. All communities should look and act like a loving, supportive family – but most don’t. Neighborhood Groups can overcome those divides – with residents serving as de facto “pastors” of that neighborhood.
- Use Tools to Manage its Relationships and Activities – A task as important as being the “church” of a neighborhood deserves the same level of coordination seen in brick-and-mortar churches. Meet The Need has software (at no charge, of course) that empowers Neighborhood Groups to track the needs of local families and communicate them to the larger church body (if the Neighborhood Group can’t meet all of them). At a church-wide level, envision the power of a “heat map” showing the pastor of a church its footprint – the locations of all its Neighborhood Groups and the pockets (and types) of needs in each neighborhood – across the city.
It’s Your Turn
Have you ever been part of a small group that truly acted as a Neighborhood Group? How did that externally-focused label or mentality affect its reach and impact?