By Rev. Canon John Hill (Presbyter, Anglican Diocese of Toronto), APLM Council Member
The risen Christ instructed his disciples to “Go . . . and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them . . . and teaching them to obey everything I commanded you” — but he made no mention of using small groups.
Yet the gospels tell how Jesus himself formed a small group of disciples to share his mission of planting the seed of God’s coming kingdom. This is the prototype for the Church’s work of making disciples — even though it didn’t appear to be a raging success at the time. The Twelve spent three years with Jesus in daily dialogue, hearing his teaching, sharing in his work — and arguing with him about his risky plan to take the mission to Jerusalem. And then they watched in horror as he was arrested and condemned to death; this was the death of all their hopes. It was, in effect, their ‘baptism into his death’.
But this grief-stricken and traumatized little group was transformed when Jesus appeared to them risen from the dead. The time they had spent together with him on the road, and even his shameful crucifixion, became luminous with a glorious new meaning, and their story became the very foundation of a courageous new movement that would change the world. Small-group practice can have huge consequences when it is transformed by the paschal mystery!
This new movement was itself shaped by a small-group practice which we now call the ‘house church’ — gatherings of disciples in private homes to break bread in remembrance of Jesus. (The earliest recognizable ‘church building’ was simply a remodelled private dwelling.) And yet this small-group Jesus-movement spread so rapidly that by the time of Constantine, ten percent of the population of the empire had become disciples!* Only in the fourth century, after the ‘Peace of the Church’, did purpose-built gathering spaces become the norm, to accommodate the growing movement.
But this transition from small groups, whose members could encourage one another in faith, to large public gatherings dominated by clergy, eventually changed the culture of the Church. As Christianity grew to become the dominant religion, the membership of the Church ceased to be a company of disciples and became instead a ‘Christian society’. Anyone who truly aspired to discipleship had to join a religious order whose member shared both a discipline and a common life — another form of small group.
By contrast, the Church of Christendom was typically suspicious of small groups and spiritual enthusiasts. But the eighteenth century English cleric John Wesley broke the mould, becoming both an enthusiast and an evangelist to the masses outside the established Church. Those who responded to his preaching were formed as disciples through his ‘method’ of Class Meetings: small groups that provided the support, accountability and love they needed to grow and mature in ‘holiness’. However, when this ‘methodist connexion’ of voluntary associations within the established Church broke away to become another ‘mainline’ denomination, and circuit-riding preachers were replaced by local clergy, the institutional goal of ‘church growth’ outweighed the goal of ‘holiness’, and Class Meetings died out. The result was a relatively short-term numerical growth, but also a decline in the ‘holiness’ needed to sustain missional vitality. This led to the subsequent decline in numbers and vitality that has characterized all the ‘mainline’ denominations from the mid-twentieth century until today.**
Another notable method for making disciples has been the ‘Base Ecclesial Community’, developed in the second half of the twentieth century within Roman Catholic parishes in Latin America. Small groups of parishioners meet regularly for Bible study; they choose their own leaders, and make their own decisions about the form their discipleship should take. Base Communities constitute yet another rupture with the Church of the past which was allied with wealth and power; they demonstrate a new commitment to a “preferential option for the poor”. The Church’s traditional message, from the Conquest onward, was that people should accept their lot on earth and wait patiently for their reward in heaven. Through these Base Communities people get a different message: that the God of justice has acted throughout human history on behalf of the poor and oppressed, and that the Church of the poor is a sign of God’s will for the world.
Gospel-Based Discipleship is an important example of small-group practice among indigenous peoples across North America, breaking the mould of the colonial mission churches and cultivating indigenous forms of discipleship in its place. When Christians gather for any reason, their first activity is reading together three times the gospel appointed for the day and pausing after each reading to share their responses, thus placing the gospel at the centre of all their deliberations and actions. This growing spiritual movement shifts authority from the authenticated interpreter to the presence of Christ in the midst, speaking by the Spirit through the voices of those gathered.
If the Church is ever again to become a community of disciples, small-group practice will undoubtedly need to play a part in that development.
*Rodney Stark: The Rise of Christianity, page 10.
**Charles Edward White: The Decline of the Class Meeting, Methodist History (July 2000).