Releasing our potential (Holistic Small Groups)
This is the second of a series of articles about NCD in The Salvation Army. Read the first article in the series.
It has been suggested that we should start something with the end in mind. You may recall the previous article identifying and celebrating something that is characteristic of The Salvation Army: Need-oriented Evangelism - The ability to acutely identify the needs of suffering humanity and respond accordingly. What a blessing!
You may also recall the previous article concluding with the question, “Where do we begin in order to increase the health of our corps?” Once again the NCD database brings some perhaps surprising revelations.
Could it be our leadership? Surely our structures! What about the extent to which ministry in corps is based on Spiritual Gifts? These guesses may be correct for your particular setting. However, the NCD international database has revealed a certain culture within The Salvation Army internationally, a culture that shows up in a similar “health profile” round the world. While it might not be true for each individual corps, when you add all corps in a division or territory together the culture emerges clearly. Part of this culture is that we generally always are in good health in the area of need-oriented evangelism.
Just as certain as this is, we also find that the area where there is most room for improvement (to put it in positive terms) is the area of Holistic Small Groups. However, if the end we seek is healthy, growing and multiplying disciples, small groups, leaders, ministries and corps, the NCD international database confirms that, for the Salvation Army as a whole, focusing on Holistic Small Groups will be one of the best places to begin.
The average Salvation Army Corps has heaps of groups, we hear you say. NCD seeks to measure the adjective (Holistic), not the noun (Small Groups). That is to say, it is not a mere measure of the quantity of small groups, but a measure of how holistic small groups are. The Salvation Army-based chart below reveals the relative difference between the most well developed characteristic Need-oriented Evangelism and one of the least developed, Holistic Small Groups.
What leads to an underdevelopment of Holistic Small Groups becoming a predominant culture within a denomination? Every denomination will have a minimum factor, so why not simply accept Holistic Small Groups as our minimum factor and continue with what we know. We think there are a few reasons we should not accept this reality:
- With Need Oriented Evangelism as a well-developed characteristic, our capacity as a movement to conduct evangelistic programs and lead people to Jesus is a natural expression of our faith. This expression answers the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, “your kingdom come your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. However it seems we are not as faithful in fulfilling the words of Jesus captured in Matthew 28 often referred to as the Great Commission, paraphrased as, “Make disciples (learners after my ways, apprentices of my life) as you go about your life, submerging these new disciples in the Trinitarian reality, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded.” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy) This is Christ’s mandate that calls for us to facilitate the discipleship journey for those who make faith decisions. As officers, we are limited in the number of people we can effectively disciple. (By virtue of the fact that there are only 168 hours per week, in which we are to sleep, eat, care for ourselves, our family, practice spiritual disciplines and develop a missional culture within the faith community for which we are responsible.) Small Groups provide the best environment in which people can be discipled.
- NCD research reveals that often the reason a person begins to participate in the life of a church is because of the maximum factor (Need-oriented Evangelism). Conversely, the reason they leave is because of the minimum factor (Holistic Small Groups). Hence just as we may have a large open door through which the lost, last and least enter, we will have an equally large “back door” through which “spiritual babes” exit.
- Pastoral Care is often cited as a key issue within any church. Effective pastoral care can be developed within holistic small groups. Having an appointed pastoral carer (often a role defaulted to the officer) necessarily limits the capacity of the spiritual depth of the church as effective pastoral care can only be provided to a limited number of people or to many at a shallow level. If we are serious about the development of our people entrusted into our care by God, a culture of improving the quality of Holistic Small Groups will play a significant role in sustaining a natural development of God’s people.
- At the risk of sounding trite, we are a holiness movement. One obvious expression of a group of people being active participants within a holiness movement is that there is holiness within relationships amongst God’s people. Holistic Small Groups facilitates the development of deep, meaningful, intimate, accountable relationships. It allows the holiness that God desires to be manifest not merely in the way we engage with our Lord and Saviour, but with those with whom we journey towards Jesus. Our deepening, authentic affection for one another, as disciples of Jesus, actually de-programmatises evangelism, as John so beautifully captures in John 13, “Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” Our desire to become increasingly holy as a holiness movement necessitates intentional focus on the development of a culture of holistic small groups.
- The Salvation Army has a ready disposition to take a need-oriented approach to evangelism. If we apply that “need-oriented" strength to small groups, what would it look like to have small groups that meet the needs of those spiritually immature, recently saved Jesus followers? What shape would small groups take if we applied the same amount of vigour and capacity towards the development of faith-growing small groups as we do towards evangelism? NCD would strongly suggest that we would end up meeting far wider and deeper needs than we do right now.
- Loving Relationships within corps around the world which have participated in the NCD process is generally fairly well developed, often sitting in the top half of church life characteristics. Metaphorically speaking, loving relationships measures the breadth of relationships across a church. By way of contrast, Holistic Small Groups measures the depth of relationships. For many people today, loving relationships can be found at the local sporting club, the local pub (bar) or even at the places in which people work. However, having depth of relationships brings relational transformation. Holistic Small Groups facilitates a depth of relationships that goes beyond superficial interaction. They allow people to experience a touch of the divine through his holy, faithful people.
Back to the original question… what prevents Holistic Small Groups becoming a predominant culture within The Salvation Army? Organizational research (both within the church and beyond the church) consistently reveals that the extent to which key influencers embrace and live out a culture directly impacts the extent to which that culture is expressed organizationally. An officer within the local corps is more often than not one of the most (if not the most) influential Jesus followers within the corps. Hence, the extent to which an officer embraces a particular expression of faith impacts its prevalence within corps life. Holistic Small Groups facilitate and depend upon a culture of intimate accountable relationships amongst participants. If an officer is not engaged in intimate accountable relationships, then this culture will be implicitly and explicitly transferred to others within the life of the corps.
I have heard trumours (cross between truth and a rumour) that years ago some cadets were taught at training college not to develop significant relationships with “corps folk” as these relationships will only be (necessarily) subsequently severed as the officer moves from the corps. This does raise the issue of how the frequent move of officers affects not only the development of small groups, but the health of a corps in general. This is a sensitive discussion. The appointment system is an integral part of army culture and many feelings get to play when it is discussed. Depending on who you listen to it can be either the greatest strength and blessing or a weakness and almost curse. Both can’t be right, can they? Usually we base our convictions in this area on personal experiences and anecdotal evidence, but is there a way we can move beyond feelings and look for empirical evidence? Can we say whether our culture of relative short stays for corps officers have any effect on the health of a corps, and if so, is this effect positive or negative? The next article in this series will address these and similar questions. Hope you can live with the suspense while you are waiting.
Liam is a co-director for NCD Australia, the National Partner for Natural Church Development in Australia and South Pacific. Liam is the leader of a local Salvation Army church planting church which has journeyed with NCD for over 12 profiles. In Australia he is primarily responsible for exploring the application of the principles of NCD to new expressions of the church (incarnational missions, emerging church, etc) and not for profit organisations (known as Organic Quality Management - O.Q.M.) Liam works in coaching, training and results debriefing with both Salvation Army Territories in Australia to raise up a culture of natural church development.