Because we behave as we believe, our worldview guides and informs our decisions and actions. Sometimes our view brings clarity, and at other times it can distort reality. A seemingly rational worldview can be true, partially true, or entirely false.
Today the church operates from the belief that a strong corporate gathering (as well as other programs) is the place to bridge the gap with those who do not yet have a relationship with Jesus. With that as our central focus we then use small communities/groups to keep those people connected to the church as well as funnel them into ministry participation.
This method has been used for a long time now so we should stop and have a look at how successful it has been. Let’s do that by looking at church attendance figures for Australia from 1950 until the last national census (the same tendency is evident in most western countries). We may be largely unaware of this statistic due to the emergence and notoriety of fast-growing mega-churches but, despite the existence of these large churches, overall church attendance in the west is steadily declining.
When this approach becomes more attractional it typically appeals to the needs or desires of those it is targeting and must deliver those needs and desires at a “price” the target group is willing to pay. If a person “buys into” this form of Christianity have they been allowed to be a Christian without being a disciple? My question: Is this religious consumerism? Dallas Willard calls it the “cost of non-discipleship”.
If on the other hand we go back to the first century people encountered Jesus at the side of wells, in cemeteries, in the country, in homes, on hill-sides or walking from town to town. From there they moved into small communities/groups. This way of connecting continued on for another few centuries and below is one author’s view of the results of this approach.
It wasn’t until the end of the forth centaury that we see a more institutional approach of Christianity that has effected our current view. I am not suggesting that Christ-followers should not meet together and grow together and worship together. But what I am saying is that for too long now we have been viewing things through institutional lenses to the point where we believe that disciples need the ‘institution’ more than they need a direct, close, Spirit-led relationship with Jesus.
The following diagrams expand on what I am saying here and show a different way of looking at discipleship as it relates to the essential aspects of a disciple’s life.
When Jesus began His ministry, His starting point was to make disciples. As these disciples grew in number they formed into small communities. Later in the history of the church, larger corporate gatherings and buildings began to play a bigger role.
Even though all three groupings have been a part of the historical development of the church, I believe Jesus had a reason for moving outside of the structured religious norm to begin something fresh and new. He established a pattern of making disciples who made other disciples, setting in place the potential for unlimited growth of His church worldwide. Disciples were grouped as the need arose and out of the rapid growth grew different forms of corporate gathering.