I Don’t Want a Small Group

barber shop chatSo, what happens and what is said in the barber shop stays in the barber shop. That is unless it is just too good to not share, then anonymity covers requirement of secrecy.  That is my disclaimer for sharing a conversation held within the tonsorial sanctum. Here is sort of how it all went down.  I was cutting the hair of a pastor of a mega church located a couple counties away from here.  He has a vacation house near the water up by Blaine, WA.  I was talking to him about church and directions and the conversation turned to small groups.  I told him that the church I attended was turning up their efforts at creating more small groups and as a person willing to take on more responsibility in the church, the campus pastor was trying to plug me in to small group leadership. Please pause to understand that I have listened to many a barber shop confession. They range all the way from silly to serious. The revelation from this honest man of God echoed freedom in my simple way of thinking.  He said, “We are doing the same thing, but you know, Kevin, I really don’t want to be in a small group myself.”  Yes! Someone finally said what I was afraid to say, and it was someone important. I felt free to finally say it; I don’t want to be in a small group.

Now I have cast myself in the role of the rebellious upstart. Indulge me for a few more moments,  I want to explain my way out of the hot spot here.  I actually love gathering together with small groups of people and I like to do it often.  I am an extrovert through and through.  Still, when I get together in small groups formed to meet weekly and study or move toward an expected outcome I am not energized.  Truthfully, I find the exact opposite is true.  I find myself drained and dreading the next meeting time.  When I go into a small group there is an implied commitment to ongoing attendance that is necessary is necessary mostly to keep the small group going. After all, it is a SMALL group.  The other thing is that most of the stuff they want to do just doesn’t really resonate. It doesn’t capture my imagination.  What I like to do in small groups doesn’t require a schedule or even an agenda.  I must admit it isn’t the fault of the small group. It is just my wiring.  I have had to make peace with the fact that I don’t fit in many of the molds cast for me and I am.

My wife is different. She likes small group meetings.  She looks forward to getting together and is usually down for whatever direction the group wants to go. Sometimes they study a book of the bible and other times they go through a book that everyone in the group reads.  Some days they just get together to pray for each other and each month they go out to a restaurant for dinner to celebrate the birthdays of the group.  She doesn’t like the study part.  It requires reading more information and responding to pre-written questions.  As a business person she is reading information all week long and responding to questions just as much.  She likes to take in more information by impartation.  She likes to hear and converse more than to study like for a test.

Small groups, in the common churched person understanding of small groups, are great for those who they are great for. They fulfill a human need, and a Christian need as well, of gathering people into intimate community. That being said, it begs the questions that is on everyone’s mind, “Why is it so hard to get small groups going?”

Dave Browning, lead pastor at Christ the King Community Church in Burlington Washington, often tells folk, “One size does not fit all.”  He has trained, equipped and released dozens of pastorpreneurs into the wilds of the nations who have gone forth to preach the gospel and plant new churches.  One of his desired goals is to equip and empower people who believe that God has called and gifted them in pastoral leadership.  Often times he is able to do that through multiplying churches.  The model he uses to accomplish this starts with the one person, called of God. That person then starts a small group. They grow that group, identify a potential leader for that group, then when the group becomes bigger they start another small group.  When multiple small groups are grown from the original they begin to meet monthly or so in a “cafe” setting.  The cafe is a little bit like a church, but mostly acoustic and usually held in a local coffee house or similar location.  The idea being to create a church made up of small groups rather than a church with small groups.  It is this nuance that makes a church gathering into a community.

What seems to be missing is the ‘cafe’.  I see churches all around and have friends inside many of them.  Most of the larger ones have a person on staff, either paid or volunteer, called a community life pastor.  The community life pastor equips and multiplies small group ministry from inside the congregation.  These churches all have small groups and most of them seem healthy enough and create that connection of community that we all need and hunger for.  Still it seems that the majority of effort from the community life pastor as well as from the pulpit pastor is applied to grow small groups, and the results of that are usually a bit disappointing.  If something is so good for us then why do we have to work so hard to try to get people to plug in?  I think that what seems to be missing from the landscape is this middle place that Pastor Dave called the Cafe.  Perhaps, since one size doesn’t fit all, two sizes aren’t quite enough either.

The cafe model is usually practiced inside a third place.  The idea of third place comes from author Ray Oldenburg who has observed that in the west we inhabit three places; (1) work, (2) home, (3) and the third place. The third place is the place we inhabit by choice. It is the center of our social life. Think Cheers or Central Park in Friends. My wife and I have labored to create a third place inside our business.   In this third place there is no barriers.  The third place usually reflects the personality of the community or neighborhood in which it is located.  The third place can and often does become a cultural hub where people engage in the open sharing of ideas and in general doing life together.  Think of Andy Grifith’s Mayberry barber shop and the discussion gathered around Floyd’s ill attempts to make Andy’s sideburns of equal length (ok, that’s a long stretch back for some of you).

I was once a church plant pastor.  It seems like another lifetime ago, but the good and the bad that I experienced in those years still are very close to my thoughts when I take the time to allow my mind to just drift wherever it will.  Because of that experience I am still interested, so I read a lot of stuff about church planting.  I read books and blogs from various experts in starting churches and the three stage model is encouraged by many church plant leaders and consultants.  While it makes sense in theory, in practice most usually bypass or at the very best only spend a moments time in the cafe model.  Once there is enough synergy to leap out the cafe is abandoned and a church if formed.  Since the church started out with small groups as a part of their DNA the quest is then mounted to create more small groups as the gathering grows.  Mid sized gatherings take place, but usually in a more churchy fashion or centered around the needs and tastes of children and youth.  Where is the acoustic cafe?

A friend of mine, Derek,Archer, a staff pastor at CTK in Bellingham WA, said to me, “What if we could start 50 cajoncajon churches?  What would that look like?”  He is generally a brilliant man so it is no surprise he may be on to something here.  First of all I should probable let you in on what he was meaning by cajon church. A cajon is a rhythm instrument that gives off many of the sounds associated with a drum kit.  It is built of a smallish box that is sat upon by the musician.  The volume coming out is enough to be heard in a small room but not so much as to drown out acoustic instruments or vocals.  It fits well in a setting without electronic amplification.  Sounds like a good recipe for a cafe style gathering..

I kind of want to take a stab at redefining what seems to me, from the outside, to be the role of the community life pastor. Perhaps there needs to be some new names hung on some different job descriptions, but for right now I want to take this one on.  I know it is risky and might even come across offensive since I am sure that these ideas have already been thought of.  It is just that, from where I have been sitting (usually second row back to the left of center, right in front of the loud speaker) the role of the community life pastor is to connect people with small groups. They try to identify, equip and deploy small group leaders with the apparent results as I have already described them.  My perception from my second row seat is that this is a church-centric model.  What I mean is it seeks to connect with people who already attend the church and connect them together for community with each other outside of the church in the small group. Perhaps the community life pastor might be better suited working from the community in, rather than from the church out.  There are third place options all around just begging to be inhabited by a bunch of mission minded Christ Followers.  What we need are the newly redefined community life pastors.

I want to take a side road here and explain that I believe I have a proper definition of church as ecclesia, or the people.  It isn’t the building or even the local organization or organism. Those are all tools of the ecclesia to bring about God’s Kingdom.  When I use the word, church, in this setting I am referring to an identifiable group of people who identify as christian and who have a location where they engage in faith practices of worship and instruction.

To further define this redefined role, I want to switch the camera angle from inside the church looking out to outside the church looking in.  I might even want to take the word community and make it more like neighborhood.  Each church that I know of has several neighborhoods represented within its area of influence.  Neighborhoods have boundaries. Most of the time they are invisible but often times they are visible.  A senior community, a low income housing project, a housing tract or a trailer park can all be communities.  Each community has a different ethos, feel and faces issues unique to itself.  Perhaps a neighborhood might in a broad brush sense reflect a specific aesthetic, taste or style.  Some of these neighborhoods face different socio-economic issues.  Some of them are bound together by elementary schools and divided by major roadways or natural barriers.  However they are divided up and mapped out, they are all different enough to warrant an individualized approach.  This new version of community life pastor may start inside the church to identify and deploy leaders, but rather than focusing on getting people to engage in a small group around this leader he or she would focus at least some of their energies matching leaders with neighborhoods.  These leaders might actually live in that neighborhood, be part of what makes up the whole.  Within that context they would begin to identify needs and best practices to engage in what particular forms of ministry would impact that community for The Kingdom.

I don’t really want to define to closely the boundaries and barriers that make up a neighborhood too closely, but I would put a bit finer point on the care and concern for the neighborhood.  Back when I was officially in the ministry there didn’t seem to be a shortage of people who felt they had a ministerial call on their lives.  The difficulty I faced was that there seemed to be a limited way in which to engage those calls inside the context of faith practices we did as a church.  I don’t think that there is a lack of gifted and called women and men to become “pastors” to the neighborhoods.  I think there is a lack of definition and a call to arms. I want to holler out, shout a bit, maybe shake things up while raising up an army willing to live, do life, and let Christ live through them in the neighborhoods in which they have been strategically placed.

So, what would we do with 50 cajon churches?  How about 50 cajon gatherings in neighborhoods all through our church’s area of influence?  Rather than a stepping stone to be disregarded once we are safely past, could this mid sized gathering in the neighborhood and for the neighborhood actually attract those in the neighborhood?  How much more could it do so if it were to focus all of its efforts to enhance, relieve, and promote a good living environment in an area large enough to include yet small enough to be known in?

Back to small groups.  There are many good things about small groups, but there are some drawbacks and these become barriers to gathering people together in community.  One is commitment. Many people today, and especially people involved in church life, feel over committed. People perceive, and usually correctly, that attending a small group is an unspoken or spoken sigh of commitment.  In the cafe like gathering of Cajon Church an absence doesn’t necessarily effect the dynamic.

Another  drawback to the small group is the level of intimacy.  Choosing to become a part of a small group is choosing an like getting married to someone you know little about.  I don’t want to uncover my soul to someone I barely know. There is no way for me to know if my heart will be received, respected and protected.  It is a chance that many people are not willing to make.

The final drawback that I want to go over is information.  Doug Murren frequently posts in his blog that people today are on information overload.  The internet provides gigabytes of information on a daily basis.  Satellite and cable news bring the world to our eyes and ears every evening.  DIY shows on TV show us how to convert a couple of old trash cans and a worn out washing machine into an aircraft carrier.  Information bombardment is a deafening and startling campaign of shock and awe.  Most small groups gather around learning a certain book or following a certain Bible study.

To quote from Doug Murren’s blog once more, only about a third of our people show up in church on any given Sunday.  I can’t help but think that if there were neighborhood gatherings that were welcoming, engaged and involved we might see some of our congregation connecting in community more than a little over a dozen times each year.   Rather than working from the inside out, maybe we can begin to work effectively from the outside. in.  By practicing faithful presence in the neighborhoods, prayerfully walking the streets and looking to meet the unique needs that are within arms reach we can make a tactile and practical way for our fellow Christ Followers to be involved in another avenue of wholesome community while drawing in those who are interested in seeing if the claims of Christ are real.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s