This is part one of two.
When I was in Seminary taking classes on World Missions, one thing my professors stressed was if we wanted to bring the Gospel to other cultures, we needed to be sensitive to those other cultures. We had to focus on principles that would be cross cultural and never bring American idioms into foreign cultures. The principles were biblical, so they would be true in both cultures, but the methodologies must always be flexible and sensitive to the culture. American methodologies don’t necessarily work in other countries, and vice versa.
In my early years of leading a Small Group Ministry, somehow I forgot what I learned in Seminary. When I began small group ministry, I read all the books on Cell Groups, Meta Groups, Small groups, and anything about community in general. All those books from churches around the world and in the United States, taught generally the same methodology—start a group, go a certain amount of time and then birth or split into multiple groups. The phrasing might have varied, but the focus was the same –divide the groups and multiply into new ones. In essence, the books all advocated building community for a short period of time, and then disrupting that community so more groups, and thus evangelism, could happen.
For years I tried to teach that, push that, beg for that to happen; all with the same results – a very small percentage would heed my leading. My goal was for the groups to multiply, but all they did was divide – against me! Now, it could have been an issue with my leadership; but when I talked with the people in other churches, they were having the same problem. Even when I talked with the people in the trenches of the churches writing the books on small groups, I would hear about the same type of problems I was experiencing. What sounded good on paper, wasn’t working out in the day-to-day life of small groups.
Even knowing all this, I continued to try to make it work, because that’s what books said to do. But then, an old tape that was in my head from Seminary kicked in. What was the principle and what was the methodology being used? Where were these methodologies coming from? I started doing some research and realized most of the American small group influence was coming from Korea, China and Columbia. In those areas, their methodology was working and working well. But bringing what worked in their culture into an American culture wasn’t cross-cultural; just as I had learned (and forgotten) in Seminary. The principle wasn’t wrong, but what I learned the hard way was (at least for me in a Southern California culture) the methodology was. The principle was evangelism. They birthed groups in order to see evangelism happen. There is nothing wrong with that! Who doesn’t want to see evangelism happen? What I found to be true was “how” to do that makes a big difference. I want the same principle to happen here at Saddleback Church—evangelism and aggressive evangelism at that! But that methodology just was not working for me. Why was this such a struggle for my church, and the American church in general?
In order to answer that question, I needed to look at what I had been learning about my culture. In doing thousands of Spiritual Health Assessments, I learned the majority of people scored low on the purpose of evangelism. It just wasn’t a strength in comparison to the other four biblical purposes (fellowship, discipleship, worship, and ministry) found in the Great Commission and Great Commandment. Consistently, most people scored the lowest on evangelism.
Another thing I learned in looking at our culture was “community” (community as in Biblical fellowship) was in a fractured state. Family social foundations have seen two major cracks happen. One is the reality that adult siblings are now living greater and greater distances from each other, making family gatherings much more difficult, if not non-existent. Take me for an example; I have three brothers and a sister. Each one of us lives in a different state. Getting together as a family takes a lot of planning and traveling for everyone. As a result, it doesn’t happen as frequently as we would all like.
Another issue attacking the family foundation is divorce. Like it or not, divorce has lasting impressions on the children. We are in our third generation of this rippling effect, sending people looking for “community” that the family system lacks. When you look at these three factors, it is no surprise that very few of the people in my ministry were willing to give up the sense of community they had found within their small groups. And yet, all across America, Small Group Point Leaders are dying on the hill of believing in a principle, but totally missing the correct methodology for their culture.
Let’s all agree, we want to do evangelism in our small groups. Let’s also agree that if birthing groups out of groups is working in your culture, that’s awesome! Let’s also agree, that if it’s not; we need to figure out how to accomplish evangelism in the context of small group life in a way that’s a cultural fit.
Tomorrow will continue the exploration of the cultural impacts on small group ministry. (tap here to view)