One Plants, Another Waters, and Then...?
by James Rohrer

Copyright (c) 2017, James Rohrer. Dr. Rohrer is Editor in Chief, Sage JPC and HME, University Research Reviewer, Walden University.

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This essay is motivated by the observation that Christian small assemblies are formed, sometimes grow into networks, then seemingly evaporate in just a few years. Some plant, others water, and then what? Is God bringing an increase? Or is he not blessing our efforts?

The internet is full of enthusiasm for house churches and small groups of various types. Some denominations have awakened to their imminent disintegration and decided that perhaps aggressive church planting of the nontraditional type is the answer. For now, they embrace bivocational pastors and not constructing a meeting house, but I wonder if the secret agenda is for new plants to gain enough members so that they can send money to denominational headquarters. Bureaucrats deserve to eat, just like anybody else, so there is no reason to fault them for being strategic. Some are so persuasive about the ‘new’ style of church planting that they become private consultants, hawking their wares to all and sundry.

But does it work? How would we know if all this smoke has a sustainable fire within it? The only indicators I can think of are the five-year survival rate of small groups and the propagation rate (how many new small groups were seeded by an older group?)

Ask the consultants for numbers like this and you might get a brush-off. Or you might be accused of bean-counting. Or you can ask again after five years, if you can find the consultant. He might have disappeared before the chickens came home to roost. More likely, they did not come home, so the consultant had to find a different pitch.

China is the answer. Look at the growth of the Chinese house church movement. Illegal and underground, yet clearly God brought an increase. If they can do it, we can do it.

Not wishing to be a wet blanket, i am still compelled to point out that thirty million Chinese House-church Christians is still a small fraction of the population. God only promises that we will be a remnant. When everyone is a Christian, as in Christendom, then perhaps no one is a Christian.

The Christian small group has great appeal, theoretically and experientially. However, nothing lives forever, and this includes organizations and groups. Perhaps the natural lifespan of such groups is short. Our society is mobile. Families relocate. Children grow and want to be with their friends in the big youth group offered by a traditional church. Some people may have been using house church as the transition between regular church and golf. No doubt, some founders simply aged in place until they could no longer hold it together. This seems natural and acceptable, if seeds planted sprouted eventually.

Is this happening? If the entries in the HCC directory could talk, what would they say? We are alive and well? We propagated then we died? We are like coral reefs, empty shells left behind in the directory? Are we like the stone heads on Easter Island, standing in mute testimony to a lost history?

Call me a bean-counter, but the absence of factual evidence about life cycles, survival rates and trajectories is killing me. My heart tells me not to worry about it, Jesus is the head of the church and he runs things his way. But my head says maybe we are missing something, something that would make us better planters and waterers.

Consider this bit of history. When the Schwarzenau Brethren migrated to America, they scattered after disembarking. Whatever happened on that ship convinced them that they needed some space from each other. So they scattered. A few years later, some of their people tracked down each family, met with them, prayed with them, and left behind a house church. Apparently these devout folks had not spontaneously formed house churches. After being reignited, they stayed in touch with each other. But each was independent. And they were pietistic, relying heavily on the inner word and the Spirit.

So far so good. But strange ideas popped up and were adopted. A semi-monastic community split off, precursors to the Shakers. Celibate. Very devout, but a dead-end.

Perhaps in reaction to this, the Brethren created a denomination. The Annual Meeting become very powerful. Now called the German Brethren, or the Dunkards, they were still noncreedal, but they demanded strict adherence to procedures, such as baptizing three times forward. The TroeltschianTrap snaps shut again. The cycle runs like this: freedom, flakiness, rigidity, reform. Action leads to reaction which leads to another reaction. Is it a cycle or a dialectic? Call it what you will, a traditional church has a role to play in some times and in some places. It can be an anchor. As such it can drag us down into a dead orthodoxy. But it could also pull us out of the illnesses that can strike small church groups.

Consider this idea. Maybe our need for relationships between small groups is matched by a need for relationships between small groups and larger local institutions. We do not have to become the sole property of a particular church. However, if we are supportive of them, perhaps they will endorse us. A flow of curious visitors might result. The independent Christian small group need not be so independent that it becomes a competitor and an enemy to traditional churches. Instead, we can be little parachurch ministries. This would require that we reach out to the bigger churches with genuine respect for the role they play. For some Christians, the traditional church is the best option. We can acknowledge that truth without surrendering our own special truth.

But I am still curious about small group success rates.

copyright 2017, James Rohrer