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.
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.