15 Trends In New Convert Care

15 Trends In New Convert Care
David Drury

A group of new Christians is meeting on a Tuesday night to work through a passage in the Bible. They’ve been going through this book for some time now. They discuss what God might be saying to their church from this passage. They are not a small group Bible study. One of them is the primary teaching pastor for their church who is taking notes through the whole meeting, working up an outline (not a manuscript) of what the church will discuss together that Sunday in what they call progressional dialogue preaching.

Several Parachurch workers gather together in Eastern Europe for a retreat. One of them begins to train them in what seems like a way to pray. After a few minutes everyone notices that the knelling and bowing gestures involved in the prayer are identical to the way every Muslim prays 5 times a day. Before they can express their concerns the leader reveals that this way of praying was first developed by the Coptic Christians in the early church, and was adopted by Arab Muslims later. The group enters back in to the prayer time with a deeper connection to Church History.

A church with around 3,000 in attendance reorganizes its entire discipleship and small group department in order to divide people into different neighborhood groups. They’ve heard of a church in Texas doing this and that Willow Creek and many other churches are radically changing their small group ministry because of this model. Instead of driving 30 minutes across town to do a Bible study with people they only see across the huge auditorium on Sundays, they start doing life with their neighbors and having more informal connection times with them whether they go to their church or none at all. Housing development associations begin to almost look like a Church extension program.

These are just a few of the varied current trends in new convert care or spiritual formation. The spiritual formation discussion no longer revolves around the perpetual question: Sunday School or Small Groups? The experiences and debate now run the gamut between reinstituting traditional forms for older generations all the way over to practicing ancient and sometimes bizarre looking spiritual disciplines in order to grow closer to God.

Spiritual formation, like worship and preaching, is always a moving target. However these days spiritual formation seems to be moving in many different directions at once. It’s hard to get a pulse on where everything is headed because every other thing seems to be heading in the opposite direction of the last thing. So as of 2005 (which I point out because it could be radically different by 2006) here are a few places Christian Spiritual Formation seems to be going, not as a group, but as small pockets discovering what it means to be the church and make disciples.

The Postmodern Monastic Trend.

This fall Christianity Today did a cover story on this relatively fresh trend diving deep into the old waters of monasticism. These 21st Century monastic communities are still somewhat diverse, but most all of them contain some element of poverty, inner city living, communal dwelling, shared property, service in the community, and vows of celibacy (or at times just old-fashioned monogamy). The movement is small but noticeable and gaining influence. See Christianity Today Cover Story from the September 2005 Issue.

The 24-7 Prayer Trend.

The English birthplace of the Methodists, the Salvation Army and the Beatles has given birth to yet another movement taking the world by storm. The 24-7 prayer movement is an international youth-culture movement that is calling people around the world to pray in community at all hours of every day all year round. Prayer rooms and boiler rooms are springing up everywhere from Australia to Germany in locations as diverse as Church storage rooms to hedonistic night clubs. Emerging churches are trying to catch the wave and some super-churches are noticing too. See: Practitioners: Voices Within the Emerging Church edited by Greg Russinger and Red Moon Rising by 24-7 Prayer founder Pete Greig and Dave Roberts

The Neighborhood Community Trend.

Pantego Bible Church in Texas decided to scrap its traditional small group program and instead build community completely limited to and focused on each of the sprawling suburban developments where most of its members lived. In short order the neighborhood community model was birthed and the Pastor of that church, Randy Frazee, has gone on to become the apologist for the model. Willow Creek even signed on to the concept, hiring Frazee on as a teaching pastor and champion for their own transition in this direction. As we’ve send before, when Willow decides to do something they often become the neck that turns the head of evangelicalism. Many are looking to South Barrington to see what to do next. See: Making Room for Life and The Connecting Church by Randy Frazee.

The Proxemics Trend.

Joe Myers is on a mission to tick you off and make you think in the process. And he’s doing a good job if you’re a small group’s pastor. One of the few speakers who intentionally whips his audiences into a near mob-like condition, Myers is challenging many of the community life doctrines of the last 25 years. Myers says that small groups are not necessarily the most effective way to build community.

And they rarely if ever provide the intimacy that is promised. They are often unhealthy means of growth and should be a minor part of the overall church program. Myers instead pushes a balanced form of spiritual formation proxemics which suggests human beings need multiple sizes of groups in order to interact on public, social and personal levels. And the intimacy is left for your bedroom, not your Bible study. Most small group pastors throw the book across the room many times in the first few chapters. Then they go pick it up again and start to wonder if he’s right. See: The Search to Belong and the forthcoming Organic Community (Spring 2006) both by Joe Myers.

The Internet Spirituality Trend.

With so many innovatively produced web-sites out there, many Christians are now going online for their primary spiritual formation journey. Many of these are very individualistic efforts with a few exceptions that actually attempt to create community online. Some web-sites are even advertising themselves as more than just supplemental to church. One Christian web-site here in West Michigan is advertising on the radio that they provide people with information and learning from the Bible that they just can’t get at Church. For examples: Google the word spiritual growth online.

The Spiritual Walk Blog Trend.

In a similar vein to the internet spiritual formation trend, many people are using their online web-logs or blogs as a personal spiritual formation instrument. There are two primary ways this is happening: 1) some treat their blog as a public form of spiritual journaling. These personalized accounts turn what has been a long held private discipline into a very public confession. Also, some use their blog to 2) ask deeper spiritual questions and invite others to comment on them, thereby creating a spiritual growth community with one person submitting the articles and moderating the discussion. Blogs are such a recent phenomenon that there is a lot of uncharted territory here. Community blogs have taken off in just the last 6 months, for instance, where multiple people join together to create a topical blog on spiritual growth issues.

The Centralized Simple Group Trend.

With all the materials, conferences and training out there on small groups it can be tough to sift through it all. Many churches have moved toward a simpler recruiting and support of small group leaders who are cared for by staff members assigned to them. This modification of the meta-model structure is best advanced by Bill Willits and Andy Stanley’s book Creating Community. See also Ralph Neighbor’s classic Where Do We Go from Here?: A Guidebook for the Cell Group Church.

The Jewish Way Trend.

Some Christians are going so far as to offer traditional Jewish Torah Classes at their local church! They are merely taking a popular view today to its logical conclusion: that knowledge of our Jewish roots as Christians and the Rabbinic Tradition from which Jesus’ teachings came from is essential to adequate interpretation and application of the Christian Way of Life. Here in West Michigan Rob Bell (author of Velvet Elvis) and Ray VanderLaan (www.FollowTheRabbi.com) are the key communicators of this rapidly growing viewpoint.

The Ancient-Future Trend.

As postmodern churches seek to re-think church many of them have determined not to re-invent the wheel when it comes to innovative spiritual practices. From weekly Eucharist to the use of incense and candles, many worshippers are in search for a more reverent and holy experience of God. But it has moved beyond Sunday Worship. Many Christians these days are fascinated with rediscovering ancient spiritual disciplines and unearthing discarded practices that seems strange today but were once commonplace. See Ancient Future Faith by Robert Webber and Dan Kimball’s www.VintageFaith.com

The Free-Market Group Trend.

In a desire to turn the small-groupification of church into an evangelistic strength, many churches are encouraging their people to start small groups with their bowling buddies, knitting group, book club or softball team. The idea is to engage in your interests with mostly unchurched people and a few Christians perhaps sprinkled in. Then you reach out to those people by living out the Christian life with them.

Sometimes called interest groups this trend is extremely de-centralized and nearly impossible to track. Most churches in this mold have trouble even telling you how many groups they have, because each Christian might have three or four they call their own, and so a church of 1,000 could easily have 3,000 groups. More of a philosophy than a program, this trend was most widely communicated by Ted Haggard’s book Dog Training, Fly Fishing, And Sharing Christ In The 21st Century.

The Deeper Teaching Community Trend.

Some churches are asking: why do people think that spiritual formation is a non-Sunday thing? With this question in hand, some more experimental churches have centered their Sunday teaching on a longer and more exegetical search through scriptures. Best popularized by Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill church in Seattle, Washington, these churches have tapped into a more educated group of people that simply want to learn more about the Bible before they do anything else.

Popular with College students in a learning mindset and unchurched skeptics looking for deep apologetics instead of simple steps, these churches view the teaching as the key spiritual formation moment of the week. The rest of the week is devoted to individually working out what they heard on Sunday. You might claim that all evangelical churches are rooted in their Sunday teaching, but with this trend it’s going to a whole other level.

See The Church of Irresistible Influence by Robert Lewis along with Re-Imaging Spiritual Formation and Preaching Re-Imagined both by Doug Pagitt for a variation of this trend revolving more around what he calls progressional dialogue where the message is co-created in community and looks more like a facilitated discussion on Sundays.

The Missional Group Trend.

Some churches, most notably Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, are reworking their small groups to move their central task from the traditional Bible study to serving. Serving small groups are nothing new. Willow Creek has long advanced a sub-ministry within small groups that encourages people to serve and do life together in community. But this new trend takes that concept and expands it to claim that all groups should be serving groups. The idea is that serving is not one of the functions of community; it is the primary function of community. The claim is that the very act of serving is the essential key to spiritual formation, and serving together achieves a community being spiritually formed.

The All Church Journey Trend.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last 3 years, you’re already aware of the 40 Days of Purpose journey centered on Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose-Driven Life. While most of the attention that campaign has garnered has centered on Warren’s record breaking sales, the spiritual formation trend within it has been largely unnoticed. The brilliance of the 40 Day journey that most pastors are latching onto is this: the entire church is on the same page for an entire 40 day period, literally (in that their reading the same pages of a book the same day).

The all church unity sought for in the 40 Days of Purpose journey and its more recent clones http://www.drurywriting.com/david/05-spiritualformationtrends.html is the real spiritual formation trend. The kids, youth and adults of these evangelical churches are being trained in spiritual matters at a level that suits them and that trains them at the same time. My brother John and I have co-written an article wondering if the 40 Days of Purpose has effectually become the Evangelical Catechism. Go to this link to view that article: www.drurywriting.com/david/PurposeDrivenCatechism.htm

The Sunday Schools Aren’t Dead Yet Trend.

Some research in the recent decades has suggested that Sunday School remains a very effective tool for not only discipleship, but also assimilation and evangelism. While the Sunday School Superintendent era is certainly passed, many within the small group movement too quickly dismissed the effectiveness of Sunday school. Part of the trend here is that most churches are not large. In a church of 200 people or less, 10 Sunday school classes or 5 Adult Bible Fellowships (mid-sized teaching classes used in conjunction with small groups) may be much more effective at achieving spiritual formation goals than small groups by themselves.

In some churches a quiet balance of half the church going to Sunday school and the other half going to small groups exists, and everyone seems happy. In other churches, of course, half the church people are doing both Sunday school and groups and the other half of the people are doing nothing, and everyone is unhappy.

The Small Groups Aren’t Dead Yet Trend.

Last year I sat around a table eating pizza with 5 other small groups pastors, all of us from churches well over 1,000 in attendance. We were discussing many of these trends and the way the spiritual formation movement is splintering into a dozen or more different directions. There was a sense in the informal meeting that the day in day out job we all had was slowly being out-moded by new and different (and to be honest, more innovative) kinds of spiritual formation. At one point when the conversation stalled, I asked, Hey everyone, is there a chance that we’ll all be sitting here in 15 years, older and stuck in our ways, looking at each other and wondering why everything has passed us by?

Is there a chance that we’ll become just like those Sunday School Committees we all thought were so lame? Everyone awkwardly looked around, considering that fear for a moment.Then one of the small group’s pastors spoke up: I’ve just seen so many lives changed by getting into a small group people that have been truly and radically transformed. I am one of them. I still believe that despite all these trends, small groups just plain work at what we’re trying to do! For what I consider the best strategic book on the traditional style of small groups, see: The 7 Deadly Sins of Small Group Ministry by Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson.

I’ve offered you 15 trends. There are likely 15 more current trends I haven’t spotted yet and 15 more that will start in the next 5 years. What am I taking away from these trends?
Overall I think we need to loosen our definition of small groups, broaden our concept of spiritual formation, and entertain all kinds of innovative ways of becoming more like Christ. The splintering of spiritual formation is actually just a broadening. In these postmodern times we will see these small pockets, tribes almost, of spiritual formation.

None of them can claim to be the only way to be transformed by the renewing of the mind. But each of them seems to be working for the churches that are doing them. Perhaps in the days ahead there won’t be one dominant movement as we had before, but instead dozens of smaller more localized and regional movements in spiritual formation. I suppose the key is to be a part of at least one, if not a few, to ensure our people are indeed becoming more like Christ every day.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.