American culture contains constraints on churches that spell doom. Perhaps the most devastating result today is superficiality. In a superficial reading of the New Testament, leaders construct a church outwardly similar to the early church, but missing the key aspects that involve calling their people to sacrifice their time. The result is like a race car with all the lines and paint and tires but NO ENGINE! I've written on this problem before for my leadership class.
Superficiality - American church leaders tend to interpret the biblical picture of church planting in very superficial and non-demanding ways. They see leadership in a home church or small group as something that must not significantly interfere with typical bourgeois American middle-class living. American culture is placing increasingly heavy time demands on the modern family. Most American families are convinced they have to:
- work long hours;
- be available for any travel demands their careers may dictate;
- belong to sports leagues;
- keep their houses and yards immaculate;
- clean and care for their late-model cars;
- shop for the latest styles;
- maintain their hobbies;
- keep up with several weekly TV serials;
- take their kids to every sports league and activity available at school;
When we compare American living to the early church, we see a striking contrast. In the early church they were "day by day" having meals together and meeting near the temple and from house to house. (Acts 2:46) This expression suggests Christian community took up a very large part of people's lives. Deep community like that described in the New Testament requires significant time investment into relationships. We can't drive up to the McDonald's window and demand community be handed through the window!
I have already argued that the "one another" passages in the New Testament become a dead letter apart from heavy time investment. Likewise, the training needed to become competent as Christian leaders takes a great deal of time investment. Becoming a man or woman of God ready to lead a flock for him will certainly interfere in a massive way with materialistic and entertainment pursuits that so dominate the schedules of adult Americans today. Like the rich young ruler, many American church members must turn away in sadness at the New Testament picture of radical Christian living.
The result of the divergence between the radical commitment of the New Testament church and today's convenient approach, where only our leftover minutes are devoted to spiritual growth and community is superficiality. Church leaders try to patch together some form of community outwardly like that in the New Testament, but without the devotion and investment assumed in the New Testament. They feel they don't dare call on their people for their time (or, they realize whether they call on them for time doesn't matter, because they aren't going to get it anyway).
But simply introducing a structure involving home groups to a church is not going to produce New Testament-style fellowship, let alone a church-planting movement. Although such groups may superficially resemble New Testament house churches, the heart of the matter is missing—men and women of God sold out to each other and the non-Christian world in the love of Christ!
In superficial groups people who aren't really close at all try to act like they are close. Likewise, superficial groups may substitute a scripted approach to ministry for real ministry. Leaders are told what to say and do during a meeting and during personal encounters because they don't understand the Bible or other people well enough to respond to situations creatively and spontaneously.
People who are seeing each other in a personal setting for the only time that week, or even the only time in two weeks cannot be expected to know each other's needs or how to meet those needs. The demands of personal discipleship virtually always are too high for today's superficial approaches to home group ministry (unless personal discipleship is also redefined in superficial terms). But without effective, deep discipleship we see little prospect of multiplication, either of disciples or of home churches.
In my next post, we'll discuss Julia Duin's new book, Quitting Church--yet another expose of the amazing stampede away from church today by tens of millions of evangelical believers. No matter how many of these exposes I read, I'm still amazed to see how little response there is in the evangelical church. I've decided to finally write a book on the church, but I'm feeling discouraged as to whether anyone will be willing to read it.