Jumping back into my lengthy response to George Barna’s Revolution and lengthy list of qualities that “makes a church a church,” I’ll recap:
So far, I have listed the following characteristics:
- Apostolic Authority
- Biblical (“Berean”) Faithfulness
- Covenantal Relationships
Today and tomorrow the last two and then a finale to FINALLY put this series to rest.
Today: E is for Elimination of Social Boundaries
Yesterday I spent an hour with an 87-year-old man who told me stories while dabbing his eyes. We laughed a bit, he’d cry some more and I’d get choked up and then laugh a bit more. The hour flew by. For him, 1940 was ten minutes ago. The memories were thick as he told me about the 16-year-old hometown girl that he looked at a little differently when he came home from college. He smiled sheepishly as he described their sneaking off to get married on a whim as soon as she was eighteen. About how he was too afraid to tell her father what they’d done and how he spent his wedding night alone after he took her home. He showed me the picture that he carried in his wallet, a sepia-toned beauty. And with a catch in his voice he said, “That’s the way she looked when I met her and she looked exactly the same the day I buried her.” They were married 64 years.
Somebody once said that the church is the only place on earth where time and space intersect. With one glance, if we look closely enough, we will see multiple generations all in one place. If the church is particularly exceptional, we’ll see various races and backgrounds. The stories are thick indeed. Where else in our world does a forty-something young family man who comes from a broken home get to spend time with a friend who stayed married to the same woman for six and a half decades?
In an article for New Yorker Magazine, Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink! and The Tipping Point, writes an appreciative article about Saddleback Church and the power of it’s small group model. He cites sociologists, philosophers and The Purpose Driven Life” who make the same claim: The small group IS the church.
Now as a pastor who believes that small groups are so important that we are in the middle of trying to hire a pastor who will do little else besides usher guests to our church through a new member class and into a small group, I believe that the power of small groups is unmistakable. Especially in a place like Orange County ,California, which Robert Putnam (author of Bowling Alone) calls “a desert in social capital terms, (“The rate of mobility is really high. It has long and anonymous commutes. It’s a very friendless place…”) the need to connect with people who share friendship and interests and will encourage us to faithfulness in our Christian life is essential.
But that still doesn’t make the small group the church.
Because my small group would never include my an 87 year old man who has been married 64 years. It also would likely not include a single mom, Hispanic day laborer, an ipod-wearing, text-messaging teenager or the empty nester whose grown kids have moved back home. The truth is that my small group also doesn’t include the man who thinks that my sermons are too impractical, the woman who doesn’t think that I care enough about missionaries, the man who thinks that I have too little courage and too much concern for being liked, or a host of others who are not part of my little circle of connection and accountability but are really, really important to my life because they are part of my church.
My church, if it is truly a church, must always be bigger than me and those like me. The church is the committed gathering of those who are made up of every tribe and nation (Rev. 5), who are neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free (Galatians 3), who are not joined together simply because of proximity or social status or even such good and necessary things like friendship (virtually every first century ecclesia was that!), but who are joined together because of Christ across social boundaries.
The church to be the true church is to be a glimpse of what heaven will be like in all the diversity evident in creation and all the fulfillment of the new creation. This characteristic is not only a qualifier for my small group, but a challenge for my church. For the church to be the church, no matter how small it is, it must be getting broader.
P.S. My criticisms of the tendency to claim too much for small groups notwithstanding, the Gladwell article is a really helpful resource for anyone who wants to a) better understand the phenomena that is Saddleback Church and b) wants evidence for the impact that an effective small group ministry can have within a church. I highly recommend it.