Community and Small Groups 5

The fundamental thesis at work in Theresa Latini’s new book, The Church and the Crisis of Community: A Practical Theology of Small-Group Ministry, is this: “The crisis of community [in late modernity] is a wide-open door for the church’s ministry in the world” (93). In other words, the crack-up of community we have witnessed over the last century or so creates massive space for the church to step in with a theology that expresses community: that is, a theology of koinonia.

Latini’s probes what a small group would look like if it were to assume the fundamental ideas of koinonia. Latini sees three major elements in the Christian theology of koinonia:

1. Gathering
2. Upbuilding
3. Sending

She thinks small groups can especially contribute to a church in the Upbuilding dimension of koinonia. But, small groups can help in Gathering and Sending as well. (This study is evidently not aware of the “missional small group” movement in a segment of the evangelical world.)

How do small groups “help” in your local church? Which of these three areas are most helped by small groups?

On Gathering: small groups are not synonymous with the gathering of the church; in small groups the intimacy of the family of koinonia can be experienced as real. Importantly, small groups tend to be “self-selecting affinity groups” while the genuine koinonia of the church can be experienced only if the small group is open to those whom God selects. The Holy Spirit constitutes koinonia, not us. “Perpetual homogeneity” contradicts koinonia. Ecumenism can be experienced in small groups too.

On Upbuilding: genuine growth is spiritual, as a result of the action of Jesus Christ through the Spirit. Inward growth needs to be the priority. This growth is Christlikeness, into the gospel’s life, death, burial and resurrection of Christ. One cannot demand or even expect growth to be a guarantee. A kind of growth appears as its opposite: the small group can learn to die as it sees its mutual service as participation in the death of Christ.

There is also mutual integration in worship and in confession and forgiveness. The unity of the small group is not uniformity but spiritual union with Christ in the Spirit. Small groups, so she argues, can be places of genuine confession and honesty as well as places of forgiveness.

She focuses here on service, worship and “dynamic excellence” (growth in change). One of the major features of a small group is mutual service to one another, but they should be integrally related to the worship of the church — and groups not connected are not proper.

On Sending: Jesus sends the church into the world: it lives in solidarity with the world and confesses (Christ) and witnesses to the world. Small groups can support members in mission to gain confidence and courage; they can practice compassion; apply Scripture to life. And small groups can learn to extend outside the church. I think she could have developed this one more.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://browardemergent.blogspot.com/ Steve

    Good post on community. “…and groups not connected are not proper.” Define, “connected.”

  • http://www.peace-dc.org Dennis

    I really like the point that “perpetual homogeneity” contradicts koinonia. Amen!

  • Fred

    How many churches started as small group Bible studies?

    Define “proper.”

  • http://bobcornwall.com Bob Cornwall

    Reading it now — a Neo-Barthian practical theology emerging out of Princeton. Sort of goes with Tony Jones’ Moltmannian Practical Theology of Emergent Churches!

    Reminder that small groups aren’t an entity in themselves, but have a broader purpose.

  • http://www.ajswoboda.com A.J. Swoboda

    “Perpetual homogeneity.” Wow. Brilliant term. Was that in the text? Or is that you Scot?

  • Patrick

    The statements with respect to “Upbuilding” are the ones that struck me the most. I was slightly confused with the statement, “One cannot demand or even expect growth to be a guarantee.” Are you saying that with respect to inward growth or with respect to growth of the small group? I am assuming the later.

  • Jim

    I’m not sure “sending” is part of community (biblical Koinonia). Sounds more like something all us mission minded folks might read into it.

  • Joel

    Well I’ve been attending a new church in a new town for a few months, and I’ve found that I’m really don’t like a small group settings with a group of people who I barely know. Sitting down with 12+ people, mostly strangers or near-strangers, for two hours for intimate discussion and sharing just makes me really uncomfortable. Every time I’ve gone to a group so far since I moved I’ve made an excuse to leave early because I found the experience so uncomfortable.

    It’s just my personality, not a problem with the people there. But I do feel like small groups tend to degenerate into people talking about their feelings and everyone agreeing vaguely “I need to trust God/do quiet time more.” I’ve only been in one group that was a real exception.


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