Can Megachurch Small Groups Be Missional?

I’m always fascinated by what Leonard Sweet has to say, and his comments in this recent interview with Steve Gladen, Pastor of Small Groups at Saddleback Community Church, were no exception. Len suggests that “this missional component is huge” for the content of large church small group gatherings:

“The download today is not just ‘your baptism is your ordination into ministry’ [but] your baptism is your commissioning as a missionary. You have a ministry to the body [of Christ] and a mission in the world. So part of the mandate of every small group is, ‘How do we help you to understand what your ministry to the body is and what is your mission in the world?’ — because you were made for a mission!

“You don’t think that resonates with people? How else do you explain how many millions [of copies] of Purpose-Driven Life have sold now? ‘Purpose’ is Rick [Warren]‘s way of talking about mission.”

While I’m a firm believer that understanding ourselves (our gifts, passions, callings) is a key early step in the process of participating in God’s mission and contextualization, I’m concerned that Sweet is de-incarnationalizing [to steal a phrase from David Fitch] mission. Meaning: by over-personalizing or individualizing mission, it actually serves to separate mission from the ongoing work of Jesus Christ in the world.

Yes, we each have our own individual unique callings—and each church has a unique identity and ministry in the world—but those are all meant to be subordinate to God’s mission. So, it gets really confusing if we talk about “I have a mission, you have a mission, we all have a mission, kumbaya!” My Lord. There’s only one mission, ultimately, and that’s God’s mission.

Amen? Disagree? What do you think? Am I harshing on Len Sweet a little too much? (I love you, Len.)

  • Brian

    There are two issues, the mission of the church, and the roles of the believer. When the believer ignores the mission, we have a problem. We need to not only understand our gifting and calling, but connect it to the mission.

  • Mike Croghan

    Agree, but to some extent it strikes me as linguistic hair-splitting about words for which there is no broad consensus on their meaning in the first place. Bottom line: we’re always going to have to have a nuanced conversation about these things to find out what one another mean by them. At least for now. We’re a still a long way from a common missional vocabulary.

  • Neil Cowley

    So you worship mission, or how does this build up the body? Unfortunately, in reach and impact – Saddleback is smacking home runs. When they do something, Time magazine dedicates 4 page articles. Maybe instead of making up words, it’s better to get into the stream.

    • Steve Knight

      Oh, I’m in the stream, Neil! And just because Microsoft Word puts a squiggly line underneath it doesn’t mean “missional” isn’t a real word ;-)

  • Larry Bienz

    I sort of agree with you about Sweet. But I think he is de-incarnationalizing just a little bit, I don’t think he’s going too far down that path. But I will give you credit for a great word usage there.

    I interpret what you are saying in the following way: Our mission as a church body is only a part of God’s greater mission, and Sweet does not emphasize this enough in the language he uses. Rather, he seemingly speaks too much of our individual skill sets telling us what God is doing in our context, as opposed to finding what God is doing and seeing how our skill sets fit in with that.

    If I’m reading you correctly, I mildly agree with you that he’s leaning on the wrong side of the “missional scale,” in terms of being more individualistic. But only a little. It makes me wonder, what is the problem if we go too far to the side opposite of Sweet? I might not be making any sense right now. If Sweet is de-incarnationalizing, is it possible for us to over-incarnationalize? If so, how?

    • Steve Knight

      Len responded to me via Twitter yesterday and said, “Particularity and universality always go together. But you particularize in order to universalize: personal/communal-Me/We. Me needs We to Be … The church has not been teaching that.” So I agree, I don’t think he’s really that far down the path to total individualism. He just didn’t (in this particular interview) articulate that connection between the universal and the particular quite as well.

      And I think you’re right, if we’re going to caution ourselves about going too far toward individuality, then we also need to be careful not to universalize everything and leave ourselves out of the picture (with our individual skill sets, etc.). Good reminder, Larry, thanks.

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