Original post at http://sacredise.com/blog/?p=1383
In the last two weeks, I’ve been exploring how our worship can move away from being an activity that is unrelated to our lives, and in which we worship alongside each other, rather than with each other. In the first post of this series, I suggested that worship operates on three “tiers” and that we need to connect the three in order to have a meaningful and transforming worship life. In the second post I explored what I would call the third tier – our personal worship. Now I want to explore the second tier – our life in small groups.
It seems to me that for most people who seek to follow Christ, the first tier, of the congregation, and the third tier, of the personal, are fairly regularly practiced, or at least recognised as important. However, it is the second tier which often causes problems. I have never encountered a church where more than about 40 – 50% of the congregation attend a small group.
Although some may argue that the contemporary cell movement has been an effective small group movement, I have some questions. In my experience cell groups are primarily a strategy to promote church growth, rather than an environment to nurture church (and individual spiritual) health. When groups are pressurised to constantly add new members, and then to “multiply” regularly, they may provide a less threatening point of entry into church life, but they don’t create a space of trust, assured confidentially, and mutual care that can lead to effective accountability and discipleship.
In many churches the small groups are on completely different journeys from what is experienced in congregational worship. Essentially, small groups like to be able to do “their own thing” without “interference” from pastors, Lectionaries, or other “authorities.” But, disconnected from a larger story, small groups run the risk of undermining the work that is done in Sunday worship, and of losing their power for accountability and discipleship.
But, there is another way, and it is to rethink small groups as part of a larger whole. If we begin to place small groups, Bible studies, cell groups, and even specialised ministry groups, within the context of our whole personal and communal worship life, a very exciting new picture emerges. When we see our small groups as just one of the three elements of a complete and healthy worship life, we gain a number of very powerful benefits:
- The in-depth study that a small group provides is able to align with the larger journey of the church’s worship gatherings, leading to a deeper engagement with the “work of the people” that is done on Sundays. We are able to ask questions that may not have been possible in church, and we can wrestle with what specifically connects with us and our group.
- Alone we easily fail to see places in our lives where we need to change in order to be more like Christ. But, when our small group becomes a place of caring, trusted friends, who share a journey toward Christlikeness, we are held accountable, we are called on our garbage, and we are offered the support, the accountability, the guidance, and the love that enables us to change in meaningful ways. This was the genius of the old Wesleyan class meeting in the Methodist revival.
- When our study is placed in the context of worship (instead of having worship as just one of the “four Ws”) we engage with one another and the Scriptures not just with our minds, but with our hearts, our bodies, and our imaginations as well.
For small groups to be really effective, they need to be more than just a discussion or a question and response time. Here are some quick suggestions:
- We can begin by gathering intentionally, with some ritual (however informal) guiding our coming together (for example: passing the peace).
- We can ensure that prayer filters through the entire gathering, instead of just at the start and the closing.
- We can include hymnody more intentionally. If singing is not possible (for whatever reason) we can recite the words of songs together, or listen to recordings while meditating on the words.
- We can include the reading and reflection on the Scriptures as part of the “flow” of the gathering, rather than in a separate “compartment”. Refreshments can become part of the meeting – like an informal love feast – rather than just a way to end the time.
- We can allow our content to be guided by the congregational gathering, rather than choosing to go on our own journey. There is something to be said for submitting to a discipline of study that is not determined by our own preferences or fascinations.
These are just a few ideas. In the future I hope to create a few small group liturgies that could guide such meetings in a way that makes them more like a part of a larger worship whole – so stay tuned for those!
What is your experience of small group worship? How does it connect with your personal and congregational worship? What has been helpful and what has been unhelpful for you? How can you more effectively integrate small group worship into your personal and congregational worship practice? I’d love to hear your thoughts!