A mini-odyssey with small groups (epilogue; 6 of 6)

The writing of this six-part “mini-odyssey” has in each case involved the categorizing action of selecting a check-box.  This might be considered a merely esoteric element, but the technically-blog-astute might have noticed my choices:

  • Organic church” (a crystallization of my topic in these six posts)
  • Assembly” (my thesis is that small-group assemblies have the same spiritual significance as large-church assemblies)

I could also have checked the box for “Leadership” or “Church tradition and practice.”  Disregarding the bit of blogger-wisdom that says you shouldn’t choose too may categories or tags at once, it would have been appropriate to choose all four of those and maybe “Inspiration,” too.

I’ve opted not to do much preaching/teaching here, so I haven’t talked about “Biblical or abiblical) doctrine.”

Nor have I gotten into the “Parenting” aspects, i.e., in a small group, what do you do with children in your living room floor or in a play room or spare bedroom?

Nor have I discussed particulars related to small groups in the “Amer. Rest. Mvmt. (Stone-Campbell),” although there is at least one particular worthy of note.

While it should be clear that I have been discussing relatively small versions of the “Gathering” or “Assembly,” and while I’ve been writing about the development and experience Organic/Simple/House church models in my life, I have also been intersecting, at least conceptually, with the broad idea of “Christian living.”  Perhaps the most glaring omission from my category selection, then, is “Christian living.”  I am coming to see the “Assembly” more as an organic component of Christian living.  Gatherings and associations with other Christians—by no means to be downplayed—are a vital component of “living Christianly.”  (So I’ve just added the appropriate checkbox to this post.)

What other aspects are there?  I haven’t gotten into the dynamics and phases of forming and sustaining small groups.  I haven’t appealed to scholars or gurus, nor have I cited scripture.  In considering the kinds of Christian gatherings I prefer, I haven’t discussed aspects that the small group does not typically incorporate well.  There is so much more to say (not that I should try to say it). . . .

A couple decades ago, I was a strong proponent of being at every meeting of my church (not to mention events and assemblies of other churches), being involved in lots of programs and special events, etc.  Now, my paradigm for Christian gatherings is, in one way of looking at it, more restricted and careful . . . but simultaneously broader and more liberating.

Enter my ever-increasing perceptions of, and distaste for, institutional aspects of “church.”  These days, in scanning someone’s church bulletin or hearing her talk about her church, I am likely, simultaneously, 1) to feel glad for the impressive “ministries” and the genuine attention to people and 2) to experience a sour stomach over the salaries and real estate and complexities and business-like protocols involved.

I am by no means unique in my negative feeling about churchdom.  Many people through the years have been put off by institutionalized religion, running the other way and often allowing it to block their relationship with God.  I feel some need to distance myself from those people in practice, although I presumably share much of their raison d’etre.  Put another way:  I feel their pain; I get their angst; I share many of their gut reactions.  I refuse to turn my back on Christian associations, though.  Rather, I want renewed emphasis on them.

I don’t wish to support institutional churches monetarily, but I don’t fault siblings who do.  I know local churches that do immense amounts of good for others through their offerings of money and time and skills.  I feel some inner longing to be a part of some of those activities (and who’s to say I couldn’t be?), but the whole package is more than my soul can currently bear.

I sometimes feel funny these days, not doing everything that “good Christians” do.  Decades of ingrained habits are difficult to break, and breaking them with some conscientious purposefulness still creates spiritual dissonance in me.  I don’t know, for instance, what is or isn’t sustainable—not only in my life but in the life my son will have in a couple decades (if the Lord doesn’t return first).  In the interim, I feel good about his inclusion in a high-quality children’s Bible class on Wednesdays, not to mention my own learning and positive associations in a study led by a knowledgeable, capable servant.

I even wonder if there will be some negative “witness” in my physical neighborhood.  That is a real possibility in this particular, southern town in which probably more than half of the population goes to some relatively conservative, “Bible-believing” church on Sunday mornings!  Could there be a weaker, “backslidden” (even the reference there betrays an institutional view of what it is to be a Christian) person nearby who notices my rarely “attending” somewhere on Sunday mornings, and to whom to the Romans 14 principle might actually end up applying?

Being a subject in God’s kingdom is not about membership in one or more groups . . . any kind of groups—whether institutional, informal, simple and organically grown, or what-have-you.  Yet association with other believers is not only wise; it is strongly commended in the scriptures and downright beneficial.  So I continue to look for—and contribute to—worthwhile, smaller-group associations.

If you really believe, as I do, the Rx that small groups are better for most of us than large groups, at some point, you have to take a solid step forward into the Land of Discomfort.  Having awaited the arrival of my passport, I have received it . . . am currently ambling around gingerly on the shores of LD.  My visa has been stamped (with no return date), and I wasn’t detained in customs, although my baggage is noteworthy.  To force the metaphor further:  maybe, just maybe, the Ruler of this Land and all other lands will favor LD with a “Developing Country” status in the eyes of neighboring governments.  Trade agreements could follow.  (I’ll quit there.)

The point is this:  I am beginning to allow a mix of one semi-institutional cell group, a local, substantive scripture study and others assisted by technology, plus various, more organic small-group associations, to be church for me.

B. Casey, 10/10-20/2015

Simply following—a blog by Roger Thoman


A mini-odyssey with small groups (5 of 6)

Part 5 of this “mini-odyssey” continues with up-to-the-current-time anecdotes about small(ish) groups in my Christian journey.

Now in Arkansas for a time, we have committed ourselves to a regular, Wednesday night Bible study of substance.  During the first five weeks of our residency, we also made visits or partial visits to 10 churches (or small groups formed out of those larger churches).  We have so far had guests in our home once a week, on average.  The home visits involve important associations that I do not take for granted.

One comparatively large study group was attempting to tie Hosea’s forth-telling prophecies to 21st-century geopolitics.  I walked out of that one at a convenient moment.  (There’s only so much of that misguided muck that I can take.  I was doing really well to hang in there for 40-45 minutes.)  That group was not for me.

Another group used what I consider to a be questionable Bible “study” method.  (More to come on that in a few days.)  This seemed to be a really nice, genuinely caring group,  but, with more than 20 people, it was too large, and volume in the room made my ears hurt.

A dear friend invited me to a weekly a.m. men’s group.  After attending twice, I’d call this group an accountability and sharing group (not a study group).  Those guys already know a good deal about each other, having built trust over months and years.  The aims are good, and the love, genuine, but the chemistry isn’t right for me.

The cell group (which happens to be labeled a “community group”) in which we’ve settled, for the time being, is studying James.  The leader is very sincere and obviously cares deeply about both relationship and God’s expressions through scripture.  The way we spend time is not always beneficial for all, and the biblical interpretation is a bit uneven, but it is a good group with fine people.  We think we’ll hang in there and try to develop some deeper relationships.

A serendipitous, new association has occurred as a result of my attending a woman’s lecture on transparently telling one’s story (and listening to others’ stories).  The sister of a college friend happened to be nearby, and she reached out to me (in appreciation for being the only male to enter the room full of women!); our families are soon to meet for a meal.  A single meal shared, along with genuine reflections on life as a human disciple, can be an important Christian gathering. 

We have enjoyed meals with another college friend and his wife at a restaurant, and with other dear friends in our home.  We continue to gain from time with “senior saints” in their upper 60s and 70s, as well as friends closer to our age.

I am beginning to allow the cell group mentioned above, in addition to the more organic get-togethers, to be the core of my Christian associations.

Next:  Epilogue

Interjection: prayer in small groups (4 of 6)

The prayer that typically occurs in small groups has for decades been a frequent matter of dissatisfaction for me.

It’s certainly a mixed bag.  Some praying has been very richly meaningful, but for me, those instances have been too far between and mostly in the distant past.  There is always room for improvement and growth; I do believe a large part of the problem lies in me.

Today, I want to express resistance toward the pervasive “prayer request” method.  As well intentioned as it always is (attempting to show care for lists of “needs” for group members, “taking these things to God,” and keeping track of “what God is doing in our lives”), the listing commonly uses an inordinate amount of time, often seems shallow and one-dimensional, and in any event leaves me shivering and looking for warmth elsewhere.

In one small group, there were four listings of the same items in the same 75 minutes:

  1. “Let’s go around the room and have everyone share a prayer request.”
  2. Leader prays for each item in order.
  3. (After Bible study) “Let’s remember [reiteration of each item on the above list].”
  4. Leader prays again for each item in order.

I kid you not:  four times through the same list!  I don’t think that’s what “pray without ceasing” means.  Since God is in fact God, I doubt He needs to hear the re-petitions.  For my part, I need and want more from praying than a listing of needs that corresponds exactly in number to the number of people in the room.

Can’t I have two needs?  (What would that do to the decorum?)

Does everyone has a need that ought to be shared?  (Save us from the kindhearted but out-of-place requests on behalf of Sue’s daughter’s friend from school whose aunt has a sick puppy.)

Aren’t there greater, more comprehensive matters that demand address to God?

Where the “prayer request” method is used, may I suggest that it be acknowledged that God hears the items when they’re being shared the first time.  It may not be necessary to mention each one in order again.  Alternately, a specific prayer could be spoken immediately after each matter is disclosed.

Now concerning the voicing-aloud . . . any prayings in small groups are by nature relatively informal; even Christian groups that limit women’s roles may be able comfortably to explore including men and women in the praying aloud.  Yet it is not necessary to “go around the room” in a perfunctory manner that obliges everyone.  Not everyone needs to pray aloud every time.  The method/pattern that seeks to be inclusive may end up discouraging genuine engagement if it forces the unwilling to speak.

No matter the numbers of people or methods employed . . . please, please can the prayers be

  • more “natural” (yet retaining reverence, which is an absolute),
  • deeper,
  • more inclusive of Kingdom matters, and
  • more pervasively cognizant of God in all His majestic identity, as well as His abilities?

In a small group, it seems that prayer might be explored and experienced to a greater extent than in larger groups.

Next:  Current Arkansas small groups

A mini-odyssey with small groups (3 of 6)

Part 3 of this “mini-odyssey” gives anecdotes about our small groups in New York state.

New York
In 2008, our church (to which we were driving 72 miles one way) started some cell groups.  We were for a short time members of one of these groups, but it met Sundays after regular church, lengthening an already long day that began about 8 a.m. and ended between 4 and 5 after grocery shopping and the long drive home.  A less draining scenario may result when a larger church’s cell group meets on another day of the week, but Sunday seems to be the default for many groups.

I don’t remember what these groups were called, nor was there anything particularly noteworthy about the studies or discussions, but I do remember the good people, three of whom I keep in touch with here and there.  The food was also good, but more important were the “connection cards” (business card size)—cards to encourage folks to come to a smaller, more intimate, non-intimidating group that offered real connection.  I’m not sure anyone ever used the cards (I didn’t), but it was a step in a positive, missional direction, thanks to the deacon in charge of the cell groups program.

Hopeful, blue skies in a state with a lot of gray
In the fall 2009, we decided to begin a Bible study group in our home in rural, western New York.¹  We had no idea at the time just how much this small group would come to mean to us.  It began with three very committed souls plus the two of us; saw a dozen others visit once, twice, or more times; and ended in mid-2013, when we moved, with a pretty solid group of 9-10 including ourselves.

We met on Sunday evenings from 7:00 till whenever, and that “whenever” was never before 9:30 and often was more like 11:00+.  There was always serious, contextually focused and relatively academic (that is not a pejorative word!) Bible study.  Food and visiting were always involved, and that kind of communion was almost always extended into the Lord’s-Supper kind of communion.  Singing and worship were regular features, although not receiving as much focus as I had given those things in past lives.

It should be mentioned that the other members of this group were college students at the time; the fact that I was also teaching or conducting most of them influenced the dynamic some.  More significant, I think, is the fact that these young adults—who were already getting a lot of Christian influence through that college and who had all been brought up to follow after God—were hungry enough for something (besides food!) that they were very committed to this group’s gatherings.

Now we were getting closer to the goal.

I would describe our NY home group as having characteristics of both the “small group Bible study” (and our study was pretty good most of the time!) and the “cell group.”  It was also what I’d call a “house church,” although most of the group members also attended another church in the mornings.  (Where is it written that you can’t belong in some sense to multiple church groups?)

. . .

And then there were two straight years of one-year contract jobs.  During this time, we were attached to churches that did some good Bible study here & there but had no real semblance of small groups.  Arguably, these churches were small groups, so no one would feel the need for a smaller group, but something was missing:  not a lot was being shared among the individuals—beyond what is typical in larger, even more institutional churches, that is.

Next:  An interjection on prayer in small groups

¹ There actually is a western New York that doesn’t have much to do with NYC, “upstate,” the Finger Lakes, or even the Adirondacks.  Much of it is relatively poor and far less populated than you might think.

The rather extreme commute length on Sundays made the thought of centering on a small group in our home even more appealing.  In 2010, our home group officially (I’m not much into official, so this factor wasn’t a huge one for me) became one of the larger church’s cell groups, and also sort of a house church.  We no longer traveled 150 miles most Sundays; we began to consider this organically formed group to be our church.

A mini-odyssey with small groups (2 of 6)

Part 2 of this “mini-odyssey” gives a few more anecdotes about small(ish) groups that have been part of my Christian journey.

In 2005, having moved to CO for more graduate school, there was a large group of “young marrieds” in the church to which my wife and I attached ourselves.  One of the staff ministers and his wife led a very serious, intentional walk through marriage-related topics that required some commitment and confidentiality.  I remember some of those discussions (as well as my own inability to commit fully, due to grad school requirements), and I still have those materials.

In comparison to many other groups, there was a ratcheted-up sense of intimacy in this one, yet the group was in most ways one of the standard grouping of regular, weekly programs—programs that are part-and-parcel of 99,999 of every 100,000 churches.  This group was in one analysis a sub-church, but its ability to function as church was limited by the overlaid structure.  In other words, no participants in that group would likely have felt that it was their church, despite their commitment to, and openness within, the smaller, more focused group.

Was good accomplished?  Of course.  Was the good as significant as it could have been, had this group’s identity been conceptualized differently?  I think not.  

There was a retreat in mid-summer once, and that time helped some of us grow closer.  But I wish this group had become a self-contained, discrete unit on the level of “church” — meeting together with heightened intentionality, based on shared commitment and pursuits, regular communication, and devotion to God’s desires.¹

Also during our time in Colorado, a few men and I met at 6:30 a.m. on Thursdays for some devotional, meditative reading in the lectio divina tradition (no longer an interest of mine), and the lead minister of the church gave me a key to the building in recognition of this group’s organic arising and my taking the lead.

Still another important point along the way—more significant for my purposes in this series—was our opportunity for serious training, along with two other couples, toward cell group leadership.  We began a cell group with two other couples and a single male, meeting bi-weekly for nearly a year . . . while four of us also continued in another small group, the latter of which functioned with somewhat less transparency and incorporated somewhat less serious Bible study (but with very good hospitality and a sense of belonging).  Relationships from both these groups continue to this day.

The effectiveness of all these small groups was notable, but the potential was also limited because the groups were cogs in the wheel of regular church “stuff.”

Next:  New York groups

¹ In expressing this wish, I do not preclude the possibility that some of the people experienced more of those benefits than I.  Nor am I intending to rule out that being a part of a small-group “church” means you can’t also be a part of a larger “church.”

A mini-odyssey with small groups (1 of 6)

This “mini-odyssey” will be no epic tale.  It will give a few anecdotes about small(ish) groups that have been part of my Christian journey.

Small groups have at their heart a notable horizontal/relational component, at least in concept.  They also tend to animate my inner world in one way or another.  In other words, this will be about looking outward and, to a lesser degree, looking inward.

From Texas to Delaware
In the first church I was part of as an independent adult, there were Bible study groups.  I helped to start and lead one of the groups, and was a part of three such groups there.  A young adult Bible class of a couple dozen folks was particularly well structured, intentionally delving into texts more deeply than most; some relationships from within that larger group spawned smaller groups.  The Sharing and Caring program, incidentally also led by the same middle-aged couple as the Bible class, helped to encourage various types of visiting in homes.  Although I would not appreciate aspects of that program today, it absolutely spurred me to invite people into my home, and I remember a few of those visits.  One friend remembers a late-night E.R. visit aided by friends from within this group.  Another friend sat in a chair in the corner of my living room, next to the stereo, and comfortably, relationally remarked, “Good discussion, good music, and good friends . . . it doesn’t get much better than this.”  It might be worthy of note that these strong remembrances are more than a quarter-century old.

Another church was fairly decrepit during my short time there and would probably not have had the young-enough, healthy people to populate more than one small group, and I only remember one visit in a home.  At the same time, Christian friends from another church became fast friends, and there were several visits in each other’s homes.  At the time, there was no thought of “small group” with these friends, yet it was an important Christian association in which life was shared, to some extent.

In the next church, I started a Bible study group, led some, and was a “mere” participant in one or two.  There were LIFE Groups (an acronym for Love In Fellowship Extended), but those groups could not be classified as small, nor did they aspire or attain to any of the relational goals of contemporary small groups/cell groups.

In youth land, I was asked (and eventually pleased) to play a group leadership role, including worship with a smallish group (ranging from 10 to 20).  The gatherings were in living rooms, included food and discussions and studies of both the natural and structured types.  Very small groups of 3-4 teenagers were also begun, and I had the opportunity to work, relate, serve, and teach in that milieu.  I remember a lot of drives home to their houses and some good talks.  At least one relationship persists to this day, now 15-20 years later.  Various groups of teenagers constituted the best, most viable and sustainable small group experience I had had to that point.

Some of the above groups were more purposeful and of higher quality than others.  Only the larger teen group worshipped, as far as I can recall.  I suspect that I would now find much of the study material lacking or off-track from a contextual standpoint, despite its being very purposefully structured to engage teenage hearts.

Greater Kansas City
It wasn’t until Northland Mission Church in 2002 that I was a part of what I would now call a “small group” or “cell group.”  It wasn’t all that different from the earlier Bible study groups, but there had been a bit of a progress in terms of what the group was about and how it was conceived.

That group was pretty good, but an even better group was formed from within the River of Life Church in North Kansas City, MO.  Both groups met bi-weekly.  By then I knew I was looking for a smaller, more serious group that more or less became church.

The driving distance was an issue, in both cases:  I was either 30 minutes or an hour away, respectively, from the meeting place.  There was a somewhat enhanced sense of connection, and yet the physical distance limited that sense.

I don’t remember a single Bible study or topic or heart-wrenching conversation of any type from these two groups, but I do have a residual study guide or two, as well as a few remaining acquaintances and connections (nothing that could be called “friendship,” really).  One of the groups was quite a nice sub-family, and I felt a sense of belonging.  Something was beginning to happen in my heart; I know that because I wrote and dedicated a song to two small groups that I was beginning to consider my truest Christian family.

Next:  Groups in Colorado and New York

Revised thoughts on “church” gatherings (4 of 4)

These erstwhile opinions come from an 18-year-old letter I wrote to a now-dear friend, describing some of my “church values” at the time.  They were originally penned with a view toward a joint “church venture” that never happened.  In re-reading the letter, I found that most of the thoughts were ones I continue to affirm.  However, there are now a few differences, based on life-roads traveled, differing situations, and presumably greater insight. This final installment will offer three distinct, extracted  paragraphs, with new/revised commentary following each.

Things I would now say differently (first, the original quote; then, the current comments in italics)

I should note that I could become concerned with the lack of reverence if [certain] ideas were taken too far, but like so many other areas, we should deal with what we need now.  What we need is less formality, more personal-ness, more genuine encounter with God.  In my view, we are not generally hurting for a concept of reverence for God.  No one with whom I’ve been well acquainted has ever felt that God is just one of the guys, on our level.  If we ever get to that point, it would then be time to shift, ministering to what we would then need.  We would need more teaching on and experience of God’s otherness, His transcendence.

Now, in 2012, I still become concerned with the lack of reverence in Christian talk and gatherings — and yes, I’m one of the those that are still appalled when professing Christians use names for deity carelessly, thoughtlessly.  Speaking of God carefully and reverently is a mere baseline, but an important one.  The ubiquitous, pop-culture abbreviation “OMG” is telling.

One difference I would note now is that, based on my current experience, I don’t think we need much more informality or any more personal-ness.  Those longings were from a different place, a different time.  Since 1994, most believers I contact do indeed seem to have moved on; some almost do seem to manifest a feeling that God is on our level, or, to re-appropriate a now-popular, apt, denigrating cliché, that “Jesus is my boyfriend.”  These days, we probably need LESS personal-ness, in general; it depends on the particular setting whether one would need less or more formality.  We do still need more of a sense of God’s otherness and transcendence, in my opinion.

~ ~ ~

Spoken acclamations/”God” talk.  I would like to incorporate into regular Christian gatherings some relaxed time for progress reports on individual lives . . . how God is working for you and for me.  These comments would naturally lead into unplanned honorings of the Lord–spoken acclamations of praise which would lead into other forms of worship.

The above paragraph now bothers me on two levels:  

  • “God talk” that drew me in 18 years ago now tends to repel me.  The whole “personal testimony” think is just so much foaming at the mouth, most of the time.  I used to cheerily chime in, “Well, whether God did X or Y or not, it surely wouldn’t hurt to give Him the credit!”  These days, I’m probably less inclined to speak out with phrases like “God’s goodness has really been shown in X” or “Praise God for that!”
  • (Confession time now)  Although I don’t particularly aspire to being a walking “testimony” as many evangelicals would think of that, I do miss the time that I felt God was more active in my life (whether He really was or not).

~ ~ ~

More than “not having any qualms” about worshipping with instruments, I personally worship unabashedly with them.  I don’t need them, I don’t think, but I seem to tune into worship music that effectively uses instrumental accompaniments.  Such music tends to affect me powerfully and with a newness that I can also find, albeit more rarely, in “a cappella” music.  At this point in time, and in the context we’re discussing, I not only believe that instruments aren’t wrong.  I believe that they are right and should be used.

Any die-hard CofCers among my readers (there are a few of you left!) 🙂 will be instantly aghast that I wrote that 18 years ago — maybe back when you thought you knew me better.  I was hiding more of my scruples then! .

However — and this is a BIG however — I have since come about 317 degrees around the circle.  I don’t often use instruments in group worship times anymore and frankly don’t care for any loud sounds in worship as much as I once did.   My aversion ranges from the pipe organ, which I’ve pretty much always detested, to over-zealous “worship bands” hopped up on testosterone.  I continue to believe, essentially, that the use of instruments is basically neither here nor there, speaking biblically or theologically.  Practically, however, when there are too many instruments all at once, or when the ones used are too loud, they grate on my nerves, not to mention that — and PLEASE get this — they can easily distract, and they can easily inhibit participation from the congregation.  In many churches, “worship bands” have become masters rather than servants, and I often find myself longing for simpler music in worship — a cappella, or maybe with one or two acoustic instruments at a time.   The thoughtful reader may note that my preferences viz. instruments also have to do with my preferences viz. church size!

As always, thank you for reading.  Please feel free to comment or send feedback on the back-channels, as some of you do regularly.  

I’m within 15 of the milestone of 900 total blogposts.  At that point, I plan to lay down the blogpen for a month or so, taking a summer sabbatical.

On “church” (3 of 4)


These opinions come from an 18-year-old letter, written to a now-dear friend, describing some of my “church values” at the time. Some of this material pertains to the large-group celebrations, i.e., periodic gatherings of multiple cells or small groups, assembled as one large group.  The initial thoughts on worship conceivably would pertain to any Christian gathering.

On worship

I toss around in my mind the models of worship we have briefly discussed on a couple of occasions:

a)    God is beyond; worship leaders must bring Him down to the people.
b)    God is beyond; worship leaders must take the people up to Him.
c)    God is present; worship leaders must facilitate celebration of the Presence.

I think I’ve stated those relatively accurately.  I find some validity in each.  Personally, I would lead with various emphases/philosophies at various times.  If pressed to choose, I suppose I, like you, would choose the third option.  In the first, we could easily become irreverent.  In the second, the worship leader’s bearing too quickly becomes that of a cheerleader, prodding and poking people up through the spiritual “drop ceiling.”

I would work incessantly, if necessary, to completely eradicate the idea of a “worship service.”  As you well know, though the Biblical concepts of worship and service are related, they are distinct.  I worship, and I serve, but only in a very limited sense do I serve God when I worship, and I’d better not be worshipping those humans that I serve.  Service to others is service to God (Matt. 25).   Worshipping, though, is reserved only for God.

On the large-group “celebration”

The larger assembly should occur less frequently, I think, and it should be planned to a greater extent, since spontaneity would not be as effective or as feasible in a large crowd.

No pews, by the way!!  Been there, done that, and I don’t like them.  Such churchy furniture isn’t natural.

The main praise and worship session would be orchestrated by those with a demonstrated heart for corporate worship.  The entire leadership team would need to buy into the idea that large group, celebratory worship is important as both a means and an end in itself.  Worship is not to be thought of as a mere prelude to a speech or to the altar call!

The group would be ushered into a consciousness of the Presence as fully and as often as possible.

Sermons would be rare in my ideal assembly.  Teaching tools would be brief comments by any of the leaders, prepared dramatic sketches, and videotapes of movies, etc., as well as the worship music.  Teaching, though, would not be the primary goal in the celebratory large group worship gathering.  This is a time for joyful identification with the body at large, and it is a time for recognizing the God who has united us all.  What has He done for us?  Sing about it!  Who is He?  Worship Him for being His stupendous self!

I believe that the age-old argument over the supposedly conflicting priorities of vertically- and horizontally-oriented assemblies should never have occurred.  The simple fact is that we should concentrate on loving the Lord first, and then our relationships with fellow man will fall into place.  Further, and most relevant to this nearly completed document, is a truth that I have learned in my years of worshipping:  there is no more edified state than that which emanates from sincere hearts truly worshipping the Lord together.  When we truly worship, we will have meaningful relationships with each other, and we will be built up!

To be continued . . .

On “church” (2 of 4)


These opinions come from an 18-year-old letter, written to a now-dear friend, describing some of my “church values” at the time.  The bulk pertains to what I called “Assembly as a Small Group,” followed by some material about large-group celebrations, i.e., periodic gatherings of multiple cells or small groups, assembled as one large group.

On the activities of the gathered (small) group

One home assembly might be filled with my thoughts, my music, music I shared from my collection of other artists’ work, and reactions and reflections on all that from the whole group.  The next assembly might begin with a bunch of songs in sing-along fashion, moving right into an extended time of prayer.  And the next might be a group reading of Revelation, stopping from time to time for comments about the awesomeness of God.  I don’t believe that there is a God-originated list of five acts of worship, I hope you know, and resultantly, I would not feel the need to incorporate all of the traditional five, or all the eleven or twelve we might come up with, for that matter, into each assembly.  There might be no reading or instruction in one session, only praying in the next, and only music in the next.

The formula for spending of time would evolve over the life of the small group.  To some degree, the wants of the group would be translated into how it spent its time.  Generally, at least half the time spent should be unplanned, I think.  Large slices of time would be devoted to praise and worship music and to spoken praying.

I would personally share [contemporary] music as I felt it appropriate.  Not always “on task” but sometimes just to share something God produced through me.  I would be careful to qualify these sharings as just some of the things that worship leaders can do.   Others in the group would regularly be invited — both on-the-spot and with preparation and planning — to share their worship thoughts.  Poems, songs written by others.  Visually artistic creations.  Readings (both scripture and non).  Just thoughts from the heart in no particular artistic form.  Anything that is meaningful to a soul in his/her walk is fair game.

I’d like to experiment with [dramatic sketches].  I realize as I write that I’ve seen very little casually produced drama that was really impactful in my view, so I’m not sure how much drama done by us in the group could be used in the regular gatherings.  Personally, I really like to act, and I’d like to develop in that area.  I think an occasional prepared skit would be a terrific addition to the small group assemblies.  And “reader’s theater” types of drama could perhaps be done more regularly as a means of getting everyone into the act (pun intended) on the spot.

Praying might well be the most important component of worship.  It is the time when the heart pours itself out to God.  It can be individual, even when a group is gathered together.  And perhaps it should primarily be individual (there are only a couple of N.C. examples of “public prayer”).  But the out-loud group praying is something I have a few well-defined thoughts on.

I don’t prefer the “chain prayer” method.  I think that contributes to a ritualistic mentality.  Not everyone should be constrained to pray aloud all the time.  Rather, the atmosphere should be one of conversation.  Conversation with the Lord, in this respect, should be just like conversation with a human:  words are alternately exchanged by the parties to the conversation, as thoughts come to mind.  We stop to listen when we sense that the other person has something to say, and we talk when we believe we can contribute something of value and meaning to the conversation.

VCR/Snatches from movies.  I like that idea and had not considered it much before the last few months.  Popular movies (those in good taste!) can be tools that communicate a strong relevance and up-to-date-ness, I think.  Without opportunity to show a cut from it, I once used “Pretty Woman,” which on one level is in questionable taste, to highlight God’s grace.  I saw Edward, the millionaire, as God, who instilled a new identity into Julia Roberts (she was a hooker).  He made her what she was, regardless of her past, regardless of her lack of understanding, and though she was totally undeserving.  Of course, that particular analogy breaks down when the temporary nature of the arrangement is considered (Edward left after a week), but during the relationship, Julia Roberts really had become “pretty,” and you could see it all over her face.  The grace received had changed her inside out.  Just an example . . . .

To be continued . . .

On “church” (1 of 4)

Take this, you whippersnappers who think you know what a computer is for.  I’ve saved this particular computer-generated document for 18 years.  (Plus, I’ve never had a computer virus, ever, and I exclusively use PCs.)  🙂

I have this 18-year-old letter, written to a now-dear friend who was at the time thinking of moving back to my area to plant a new church.  Although I’m pleased that some of my ideas evolve relatively freely as time passes, I’m equally pleased to find that I was feeling and valuing many of the same things 18 years ago.

What follows are some of the salient points of that old letter, which described some of my “church values” at the time.  The bulk pertains to what I called “Assembly as a Small Group,” followed by some material about large-group celebrations, i.e., periodic gatherings of multiple cells or small groups, assembled as one large group.  While I would articulate most things in this letter roughly the same today, there are some differences, and I will save the things I now see substantially differently for last.  Here goes….

On the size, place, and nature of (small) group meetings

I, like you, believe that smaller groups should be church.  The most dynamic assembly occurrences should be in small groups.  In the words of Paul R. Smith, whose book I am reading, “When someone asks me if we have small groups, I respond, ‘We are small groups.'”

The room should be large enough to hold 20 or 25, though I think the optimum small group size is 8-15.  Chairs/couches for 10, at least. . . .  Floor space for the rest, with prop pillows and such.  Homey.  Family style.  Comfortable.  The room should not give the air of affluence (leather sofas and brass ornamentation, expensive art work might not be advisable).  Perhaps a plain, old converted garage with two or three ordinary sofas and a few chairs.  Lots of light, too!

I want to facilitate an atmosphere in which (1) God can touch lives–ENCOUNTER, and (2) people can be in touch with other people.  If things are stiff and cold, very little of either can occur without great personal fortitude.

Spontaneity is important.  Spontaneity is something to be worked at, pursued, developed.  It probably wouldn’t happen immediately, but I believe in it.  The dynamics of the early church gatherings, from the sketchy info we have in the N.C. writings, seem to have involved free sharing of words from the Lord, songs, prayers, etc.

I like the idea of meeting on Sunday nights.

To be continued . . .