Big city church (4): The deadly passion for small church

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We’re now going to turn to the reason why the longing for small church, for the sake of intimacy, is a terrible and destructive ideal.

Firstly, it doesn’t understand the nature of church.

The church is not a community seeking to create intimacy; it is a community intimately united to Christ, and only then to one another.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“[Jesus] stands between us and God, and for that very reason he stands between us and all other men and things. He is the Mediator, not only between God and man, but between man and man, between man and reality… The call of Jesus teaches us that our relation to the world has been built on an illusion. Al the time we thought we had enjoyed a direct relation with men and things. This is what had hindered us from faith and obedience. Now we learn that in the most intimate relationships of life, in our kinship with father and mother, brothers and sisters, in married love, and in our duty to the community, direct relationships are impossible.”

What this means is that a healthy church is one that understands that what matters most is not whether we feel united to one another (what Bonhoeffer described as the ‘romantic feeling’) but whether we realise that we are united to Christ, and hence to one another. Our relationships don’t need to be experienced to be real  – they are concrete already, because between you and I stands Christ, and we are united to one another in him (a mediated rather than an immediate relation).

The implication of all this is that if you find yourself worshipping in church next to a bunch of people whom you do not know, you ought to rejoice. For in that moment the gospel is most clearly expressed: that we are bound to one another not because of friendship, class, hobbies, but in Christ. We are already related in a way far deeper than any friendship we might construct, a relationship which does not need to be forged but discovered and expressed.

Secondly, it doesn’t understand the nature of, well, us.

In the 1960s, a sociologist named Edward T. Hall observed that we (that is human beings – people) express ourselves relationally in 4 different ways according to context. In the intimate space, we share our lives with another in undying friendship or in the intimacy of marriage. In the personal space, we build tight and open communities of 3-5. In the social space (ideally around 20) we discover new interests and meet new people. In the public space, we orient not around one another but a third party, a coordinating thing.

One of the key insights of this model is that our experience of belonging is mediated differently in each space and, particularly, does not require the same kind of intimacy to function. When I’m waving my flag at a rugby match (public space) I don’t feel the need to know what’s going on in the head and heart of the person standing next to me to feel I ‘belong’; the same occasion would feel immeasurably more awkward and alienating if there were only two of us (intimate space).

Leonard Myers has applied Hall’s observations to the life of the church in his book The Search to Belong. Crucially, Myers points out that there are different relational expectations of small groups as opposed to Sunday church and, if taught correctly, different ways to experience belonging.

As an aside, Myers’ arguments raise some confronting questions about the size and capabilities of our church small groups. These groups, in most churches, tend to be around 10-12 people. At that size, it is too large to function as one of Hall’s personal spaces (where genuine sharing and engagement takes place) and to small to be a social space (where new connections are made). Perhaps this explains why our groups struggle to be places of any more than superficial sharing while at the same time being almost impossible ‘front doors’ into the church for newcomers. For this reason, the EU at Sydney Uni has been experimenting with ‘small groups’ of up to 25. At Barneys, we’ve launched a midweek small group cluster for new workers called ‘Central’ to attempt to explore the ‘social dimension’.

Whatever your strategy, according to Myers, you need intimate, personal, social and public spaces, and you mustn’t treat them the same.

And the most crucial insight for me: the church service is not social space. It is public space.

Church – I’ll use this as a shorthand and hope you’ll trust that I believe church is about much more than Sunday – church is the space in which we gather shoulder to shoulder in praise of our great and mighty God, and exhort and inspire one another to new living in that praise. It is the space where we gather, not around one another, but around the Lord Jesus Christ and his Word.

And the beauty of this is that Sunday church is almost endlessly extensible without losing the thing that makes it church.

We see this worked out in Acts:

Acts 2:42   They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching  and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread  and to prayer.  43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  44 All the believers were together and had everything in common.  45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.  They broke bread  in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,  47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.  And the Lord added to their number  daily those who were being saved.

The people gathered house to house in a deep expression of fellowship. In this I suspect that we would want ensure careful caveats on Bonhoeffer’s teaching. But they also met in the temple courts, courts which could hold thousands at a time. And we know that thousands came, including three thousand men in one day (implying a larger number of women and children).

How could they cope with that? What would it have done to the sense of intimacy? Surely there would be no sense of belonging!

Or would there?

You see, adding thousands is only a problem if we think of church as social space, the space in which I make and find friendships, the space in which I am united with the others in that space by our intimacy and knowledge of one another.  It’s when we project the demands of social space onto Sunday church that we kill church. We demand that it must not grow (or must not grow by much).  We move to churches with smaller services and burden them with our demands that the church service be my social space.

But this leaves us with a few questions.

What causes this misplaced projection? And where do I find intimacy, the place where I belong?

But that is another post.

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2 thoughts on “Big city church (4): The deadly passion for small church

  1. I heartily agree that our “small” groups are too big!! My experience of church as an adult has often been deeply isolating and frustrating because the churches strategy of pastoral care is “put them in a room with a smaller number of people and everything will be fine.” Well, it isn’t!! There are still too many people even to have a functional conversation let alone intimate relationships which will foster peer-to-peer discipleship (let alone the intimacy I crave, along with all normal people).

    The relationships I’ve had in/through church which have more closely resembled this have been 1:2:1 or 2:1s, nowhere near the size of the groups which have been the ‘official’ or ‘structured’ or ‘systematised’ approach…

  2. This is really interesting! I’ll have to give that book a read because I’m not convinced why the weekly service should be public rather than social.

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