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Simple Churches: Q&A with ACU’s Kent Smith and Harding’s Marvin Crowson


The Christian Chronicle recently discussed the simple church movement with Kent Smith, a domestic missions expert at Abilene Christian University in Texas, and Marvin Crowson, domestic missionary in residence at Harding University in Searcy, Ark. They were asked the same questions in separate e-mail interviews. Here are the questions and their responses:
Question No. 1: What do you see happening in Churches of Christ in the area of simple churches (house churches, cell churches, organic churches, or is there a better word?) as a means of domestic missions?
Smith: A quick note about definitions: Many names are being used to describe the trend toward church forms that are simpler and more focused on relationships.
The term “cell church” has normally been used to describe churches with the “cell-celebration” model, that is, they emphasize both a large weekly gathering, usually in a church building, and weekly small groups in homes. Over the past couple of decades a number of our churches have adopted this approach.
By contrast, the simple/organic/house church movement emerging in North America is made up of faith communities small enough to meet in a living room, a coffee shop, or the break room at work. In many cases they are now growing into networks that cooperate for God’s purposes in their own community and beyond.
I believe many factors are feeding the growing interest in simple church networks in our fellowship. American Christians are recognizing that they now live in one of the world’s largest mission fields, where less than one person in five will attend church next Sunday. This awareness is fueling interest in approaches to outreach that bring church to where people are actually living and working. A number of our congregations are exploring ways to support domestic missionary efforts both in their local areas and in more distant North American cities.
The longing for simpler, saner ways of living, for deeper friendship and true community, and the quest for a faith with the power to transform lives . . . these widespread yearnings by American people in general are felt by people in our fellowship as well. They contribute to the growing interest in simple churches.
Especially significant in the past few years has been the rising number of young leaders in our fellowship who are committing to train as missionaries for North America and who see the missionary value of simple approaches to church.
Crowson: Several years ago many churches saw a need and began to use small groups in homes as a way to build close relationships, increase communication, discuss the Word and better meet individual needs of members. For many it was very profitable. Some felt more comfortable inviting their friends and neighbors to their homes and their associates responded by accepting. Many have been asking “why can’t church be like this?”
These simple fellowships of believers don’t need a name like house, cell or organic church. Just call them by the Bible terms used in the book of ACTS. The Lord added daily to this group of believers as people were saved. This is the way “church” was for at least the first 150 years of its existence and some are today looking for its sincerity, simplicity, priesthood of all believers and focus on “people” and being the church of Christ 24/7, 365.
Question No. 2: How big a trend or movement is this in Churches of Christ and why is this occurring? (Are we behind the curve on this movement?)
Smith: Several things are happening. Christians are opting to start new house churches spontaneously all over the country. Early researchers are struggling to put accurate numbers to this grassroots movement, but it seems to be growing. These churches are largely made of Christians seeking new ways to follow Jesus authentically.
At the same time a number of missionary trainers who know what is happening in church planting movements outside the Western world are seeing many of those principles beginning to prove effective here. These simple churches are often primarily composed of new believers, and people returning to faith after years away.
In this area of missionary outreach through simple church networks, churches of Christ are breaking important ground in places like New York City and central Mexico. As a missionary approach, it represents a significant part of the new domestic works on the field and those being planned presently.
Crowson: Who knows? How do you count these people without a reporting tracking system? All I know for sure is more and more people are talking about it and I consistently get calls about books, literature, web sites and “how to” training programs.
While not talking exclusively of the Church of Christ, but the whole “Christian” church in America, George Barna’s research predicts within about 25 years about 1/3 of those who call themselves Christians will be part of these small group type churches.
If I remember correctly, the Southern Baptist Convention has recently set up a whole new section to support this movement.
It’s getting too expensive to buy land and build buildings and pay staffs especially in large metropolitan cities so other alternatives are being looked at. Some, not just youth, would prefer for most of their contributions and use of time and talent go directly to missions, benevolence, meeting people needs instead of land, bricks and mortar and staffs.
Denominational and sectarian walls seem be crumbling as followers of Christ seek to be together in simple faith, hope, and love. I believe we are at the beginning of a new restoration movement across America.
Question No. 3: Where is this occurring among Churches of Christ (i.e., New York, Dallas, Memphis, etc.) and is it just houses or apartments or are folks convening in places such as coffee shops?
Smith: I am aware of missionaries from our fellowship who are planting simple churches on the West coast, in the Midwest, in the Northeast, across the South and in Mexico — and there are no doubt many of whom I am not aware.
These simple churches can — and do — meet virtually anywhere people gather.
However, because they are far less focused on church as event, and more on church as a family, they are liable to meet in various groupings at different locations throughout a week. For example a group might all meet together in a home on Sunday, the women around a table at a coffee shop on Tuesday, the men gathered to help a member move on Saturday, etc.
Crowson: YES, all and more. Some are beginning to go to where the people are instead of asking the people to come to them.
Question No. 4: Is the future of the church in living-room settings, or is this just one means of ministry?

Smith:
According to George Barna and other religious demographers, this is a major trend that is gaining momentum. I don’t know of anyone seriously suggesting, though, that more familiar church forms will disappear. We will doubtless continue to need all kinds of churches to reach the vastly different kinds of people on our continent.
Crowson: One means of ministry. For the foreseeable future there seems to be a trend in very large churches in big buildings in cities. At the same time some prefer small intimate groups.
Church and denominational loyalty is not so highly valued today as in previous generations and times. We will probably see a lot of different forms tried as we try to meet people’s increasing spiritual needs during rapidly changing generational values and world views, political, economic, religious and social upheavals.
Question No. 5: What are the potential drawbacks, if any, to this kind of ministry? Should there be concerns about long-term stability and viability?
Smith: Simple church is demanding, with the responsibility for growth and ministry resting squarely with each member. In the absence of strong commitment to the Lord and each other, these families, like all families, may become dysfunctional. Partly for this reason, it is important that there be a wider network of fellowship and community to provide balance and resources—much as we see in the earliest churches.
No amount of structure can ensure long-term stability and viability for the church. On this point, a short stroll through the magnificent—and empty—cathedrals of Europe is instructive.
The church grows mature and stable, according to Ephesians 4, as it is supported by its Head, and as each part does its work. The first three centuries of the church—to which we all owe our faith—suggest that simple structures can be sufficiently stable and viable for the long term.
Crowson: Every “system,” “model” has its drawbacks. Churches of Christ are not keeping up with population growth and are closing their doors all over America so it doesn’t seem like o ur current systems and models are currently meeting all the spiritual needs. Man-made forms designed to encourage and fulfill spiritual functions are only useful so long as they actually help fulfill the intended function.
I wonder if long-term stability and viability are the chief criteria or should they be replaced with Matthew 25 and 28 values and behaviors, and a desire to become known as the people of Christ because we obviously love like He loved.
Question No. 6: Any other comments?
Smith: Blessings in your work!
Crowson: George Barna and his book Revolution is not the only person saying we are in a time of cultural, learning, behavioral and reasoning changes that will impact religions, churches, learning organizations, governments and businesses with a similar magnitude as the “enlightenment and age of reason.”
Another recent book dealing with secular trends, Megatrends 2010 by Patricia Aberdine also forecasts a ground swell of spiritual interest and other ways of thinking and acting that will affect churches and every aspect of our lives.
July 1, 2006

Filed under: Dialogue

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