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Small is beautiful; the rise of the microchurch

by ervte

This may well be the cultural moment for small churches. Bree Mills said so during the annual Tinsley lecture on the Sydney campus of Morling College. Her topic: Micro-churches: remembering the Past to Shape the Future.

Mills, the Senior Associate Pastor at Glen Waverley Anglican Church, drew on her experience establishing a network of missionary communities around Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.Small is beautiful;  the rise of the microchurch

“There’s a cultural move back toward supporting the locals,” Mills said. “And I think climate issues and the impact of travel and things like that fuel this… But essentially, it’s about choosing to invest locally. I believe this has always been the case in Australia to varying degrees. I think the success of the local pub and the local milk bar. Do you have milk bars in the corner shops in New South Wales? … Many cafes are becoming local hubs selling things from local vendors during co-COVID lockdowns, especially in Melbourne. But overall, I think this shift to live and be more local has accelerated in Australia.”

This trend fits micro churches as “adaptable, lightweight, lay-led communities that live out their mission identities in a particular network or neighborhood.”

Mills’ second cultural shift causes the first: “an increased desire and awareness of our need for connection and connection.” She refers to the belief of social psychologist and author Hugh Mackay that the community provides emotional security and moral guidance.

Younger people can find fellowship at work, and some Church members want more of it in the Church.

“I’ve spoken to a few larger church pastors who have reported to me since COVID that a significant number of people are moving away from their larger church phrase they used to drive to and, in a few cases, were seeking something a little more local.”

Mills describes a third shift as “decentralization,” a growing lack of trust in large organizations, and the emergence of a personalized economy.

“As a larger organization, as an institution, the Church has lost people’s trust in Australia. And I think, rightly, right, leadership failures, tribalism, and high limits on complex theological issues have led people to walk away from the Church as an institution or an organization. That is the reality we are dealing with.

Finally, she describes the impact of the Missio Dei concept of authors David Bosch and Lesslie Newbigin – that of missions not only as an actor but also as the heart of church life. “There is a greater focus on discipleship in many churches at ministries of justice and on equipping all believers for works of service.”

A micro church is not just a traditional church that has shrunk. Michael Frost, the founder of the Tinsley Institute, a mission study center at Morling College in Sydney, clarifies for Eternity.

The NSW Baptists use the term “simple churches,” Frost explained, which “have no paid staff or property. They usually consist of a relatively small number of members but often have a significantly larger number of non-members associated with their community. They are very relational and flexible in their structures and approaches. They can exist anywhere and everywhere, based on various confluent factors, such as a particular area, a workplace, a community group, a theme or purpose, a project or interest.”

This “simple church” model is an alternative to other forms of church planting that begin with full-time or part-time staff.

“The NSW Baptist definition comes from this paper in which we advocate a diversity of models of Baptist congregations operating in a mixed ecology, with simple churches as one of the models we want to nurture,” Frost tells Eternity. The NSW/ACT Baptists strive to grow “to become a movement of 1000 Healthy Churches by 2050”.

Mills turns to how the Bible uses “ecclesia,” often translated as “church.” “Ecclesia” in scripture often refers to larger public gatherings, such as those at Soloman’s ADE, and domestic groups, such as those gathered at Priscilla’s and Aquila’s home (Acts 2 46). Mills emphasizes that both approaches were held together in the early Church, where believers met in the temple courts and their homes.

“Paul speaks in the same kind of language of ministry in Acts 20. And he says of teaching publicly and from house to house. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians shows that these households sometimes come together for larger gatherings. While we might be tempted to see a typical church and small group network in these two structures, I think Paul is pretty clear that both spaces in Acts 5:42 are places of teaching and mission.

“He says day after day in the temple courts, and from house to house, they have never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah. Now stories like Cornelius show that the household was where many came to faith.”

Mills encourages and describes how movements such as the Moravians sowed revival through small gatherings, encouraging John Wesley to do the same in Britain. Before growing up in a congregation, Wesley began forming small groups called class meetings. Bree also points to historian Howard Snyder’s account of how the class meetings sparked a revival in that country.

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