I’m thinking about small group ministries that so many churches offer these days. Many seem to be based on good principles of mutual care, and some are based around the idea that the small group or cell is the basic building-block of the church. At one time I might have said that a church without a small group ministry is missing out on a critical element of church life. In my CLB, we were all about small groups, at least in the earlier days (they became more mechanized than organic nearer the end). I remember a lot of the cell church material as well, and the attempts at hybridizing the purer forms of cell church and the megachurch mentality. I wonder now if a church with a small group ministry isn’t sometimes an oxymoronic expression of community, an attempt to replicate in smaller units the thing that’s fundamentally missing from the larger context… but since it’s fundamentally a program, its makeup cuts across the formation of organic relationship and true community.
I’ve been setting aside a few things along these lines for the past little while.
For example, in a house church (implied by the small group / cell church comparison), there’s no building… but there are times when a building is a missional positive. Ben Sternke asks, The church is not a building… or is it? — he reflects on an older post on the subject by David Fitch. In such contexts, the building might be referred to as a “ministry center,” but I imagine that some care must be taken to not slip into an attractional mode.
Justin Baeder talks about Gathering-Centered Ecclesiology, what he describes as a post-congregational expression of church that sounds a lot like a network of simple house churches, and jives very well the years-old vision I’ve had for a structure of the local church in a city or region.
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That sounds ominous… but Philip must have gone browsing anyway. He quotes,
The earliest English translation of the Bible (from the Latin Vulgate) was by John Wycliffe in 1380 (and was handwritten). THIS bible does not contain the word CHURCH. Congregation was used instead (still not a correct rendition of “Ekklesia” in my opinion).
In 1611, the King James Version of the bible was completed. The translators were instructed to ensure that the translation would not contradict what was being done in the Anglican Church (King Henry the 8th had split from the Catholics in 1529). The “brief” to the translators of the KJV had 15 general rules that they were instructed to follow. The most significant with regard to our study of the word “Church” is rule 3 which states, “The Old Ecclesiastical Words to be kept, viz. the Word Church not to be translated Congregation &c.”
The point here being that the Greek word ekklesia, now commonly translated “church” had previously been customarily translated as “congregation.” Of course we know it means “assembly” and senses to this effect; I like the word “gathering,” where the “church” is gathered from the places where it is spread through the community, and they come together for their various purposes. “Church” in my mind is a word better reserved for “the church catholic,” the worldwide body of Christ. “Local church” is a linguistic convention that is functional to help make a distinction between the two. The word “church” itself originated from the Greek kyriake, meaning “of the Lord” — supporting its use as a collective noun for Christians.
It would appear that the popularization of the term “church” in lieu of “congregation” began with the 1611 KJV. The effect, to my mind, has been to blur the distinction between the local congregation and the larger organization of the church. For Henry VIII and his successors, this might be seen to have a political aim of associating each congregation with the larger Church of England… implying that the blurring of the distinction was intentional. It’s rather difficult to say if this was the case, of course… but the effect seems to be much along these lines. Nowadays, this leads to much confusion in reading the English Bible and the interpretations that follow, namely that difficulty with one local church expression is projected as difficulty with the Body of Christ as a whole. To the point, criticizing the organization of the local church is in many circles misunderstood to be a direct criticism of the Bride of Christ.
Perhaps we need some new language, or at least some more common convention in using what we’ve got more precisely. Obviously there’s much more here for further thought and analysis… anyone care to offer some ideas?