“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” – Abraham Maslow
When people learn I oversee adult classes at The Village, the most common response I hear is, “But don’t classes compete with Home Groups?” It’s an understandable question, knowing our historical “simple church” model at The Village and reflecting a broader common notion that over-programmed churches are the enemy of deep discipleship. But it can point to a potential blind spot in our concept of how discipleship takes place and the tools that help it do so.
In recent years at The Village and in churches that share our DNA, we have held community as one of our highest values and the centerpiece of all things discipleship. We’ve encouraged our people to “go deeper with few,” to “do life together,” to invest our time in weekly small groups meeting in homes as our primary commitment to the local church after weekend worship attendance. Variously called community groups, life groups or (at The Village) Home Groups, these small gatherings became a one-size-fits-all discipleship tool, blending informal social interaction with Bible-based, peer-led discussion time.
While Home Groups have proven to be effective tools for building biblical community, the reality of rampant biblical and doctrinal illiteracy in the church means that they require a complementary tool in the toolbelt. And classes can be that complement.
Home Groups have been an invaluable tool in the life of our church and will continue to be. They enable the formation of deep relationships, and they offer opportunity for living out the “one anothers” commanded in the Scriptures. To address the need for community among believers, we can’t ask for a better tool in our toolbelt. As our culture grows increasingly secular, believers will increasingly perceive our legitimate need for Christian community. But we will need communities armed with truth to navigate the post-Christian haze. We will need a faith grounded in the words of our sacred text, a foundation requiring more than surface or secondhand knowledge of what it says. While Home Groups have proven to be effective tools for building biblical community, the reality of rampant biblical and doctrinal illiteracy in the church means that they require a complementary tool in the toolbelt. And classes can be that complement.
That’s what we’re learning here at The Village. While we’ve seen firsthand how essential Home Groups are to building community, we’ve also realized they can be less effective at building understanding of the Scriptures, leading us to bring classes and other learning environments back into our strategy for discipleship. Asking Home Groups to bear the load of theologically educating an entire church body is unrealistic, especially considering that the average church typically has only a handful of capable teachers. Certainly, some learning can and should take place in a Home Group, but because its highest stated value is community, learning can sometimes take a back seat to feelings-level discussions of a sermon, topic or text, as well as practices like prayer, confession, accountability and hospitality. If Home Groups are the only tool in our toolbelt, we can end up with well-cared-for living rooms of untaught disciples.
By contrast, classes hold education as their highest stated value. They aren’t antithetical to building community; they’re just not primarily designed to do so. Their first purpose is to help students interact with the Bible or doctrine at the thought level. This means they guard their meeting time for learning activities versus relational ones. Sharing about life, meeting needs, accountability and prayer requests may factor into the schedule, but they don’t dominate. Instead, class time is dedicated primarily to learning. These dedicated learning environments benefit the local church in at least four key ways:
1. They leverage teachers. Classes enable the church to leverage trained and capable teachers to benefit more students than a living room can hold. To confine Matt Chandler’s gift for speaking to only a living room would be a clear act of profligate wastefulness. While not everyone is him, others in the body possess teaching gifts more suitable to mid-size environments than living rooms. We want them to have places to serve in their gifting at their capacity. Furthermore, classes (particularly, gender-specific ones) increase opportunities for women to teach and lead in the local church, opportunities that may be entirely absent in more conservative churches where Home Groups are the sole tool for discipleship and are only led by men.
2. They form active learners. Classes train believers to think and to work. Many of us have grown accustomed to sitting under teaching on a passage we have spent no time in ourselves first. This is a perfect recipe for false teaching to take root. The church needs active learners who know how to think critically about what they are taught. The late Dr. Howard Hendricks encouraged teachers to “Never do for your students what your students can do for themselves.” Classes do not simply download information to passive learners. They train them to actively own the learning process by asking them to do homework and practice good methods. Our classes employ a three-legged approach of personal study time, group discussion time and teaching time to train students toward proficiency and away from being content with secondhand knowledge delivered to them by an “expert.”
3. They cultivate the mind. Classes prioritize thinking. While feelings-based discussions have their place in the life of the church, so do thought-level discussions. If you’ve ever sat through a lengthy share time about “what this verse means to me,” you’ve learned a deeper appreciation for rooms dedicated to discovering “what this verse means.” By offering environments that challenge our people to love God with their minds, we help them to base their experiences and feelings on the fact of God’s disclosed nature and character. Right thinking begets right feelings and actions, and classes can work toward that end.
4. Classes remove barriers to entry. Properly done, classes allow people to “opt in” to committing to the extra work and time they represent through a predictable rhythm. By offering workable schedules, clear expectations and affordable options for materials and child care, we allow our people to say “yes” to this important use of their discretionary time. Here again, women in particular can benefit. With Home Groups, the responsibility to schedule meetings, provide food and secure child care often naturally fall to women. Scheduled classes with child care enable women to participate with fewer demands on their attention.
No, Home Groups and classes don’t compete; rather, they complement one another. A desire for simple ministry structures is commendable, but it’s possible to unintentionally oversimplify. Just as both a hammer and an electric screwdriver contribute to a building project, both Home Groups and classes build disciples, each in their own particularly effective way. Biblical community matters, but with biblical illiteracy hitting a record high, it’s time for churches to rethink ministry strategies that potentially elevate community at the expense of learning. We need environments specifically dedicated to both. And these environments can work well together.
To ask Home Groups designed for caring community to also function as dedicated learning environments is the discipleship equivalent of sinking a six-inch screw with a hammer. Adding a well-chosen tool to the toolbelt of discipleship simplifies the task of ensuring our people know how to love God with their minds in addition to loving Him with their hearts. Classes enable us more fully “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12).