Four Legs Good

My church doesn’t have Awana.

But we do have Missional Communities.

Does your church have Awana? Does that even mean anything to you?

If you’ve been to a large enough church of certain denominations, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you’re not active in one of those churches, you probably have no clue.

Because it’s a bit unclear, isn’t it? What is an Awana, exactly? The word means nothing at all, unless you know what the word means. For some reason, it makes me picture an exotic Oceaniac bird, but that probably doesn’t help, does it?

Awana is an international, multidenominational evangelism and discipleship program for ages 2 to 18. The Awana organization established the program, and individual churches have Awana groups for kids. Awana, by the way, is inspired by 2 Timothy 2:15, and stands for “Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed.” Obviously, right?

But how do you convey that to other people? Things like Awana make the church exclusive, arcane. A church can put on its sign when Awana groups are held. And if you’re a member of the church community, if you’re in the know, then that means something to you. But if you’re not, it means nothing. At that point, the church might as well be speaking in code to keep outsiders clueless. Which, one could argue, somewhat defeats a big part of the purpose of the church, right?

And that feeds a perception that people have that the church is exclusive and arcane. It makes people feel less welcome, more different, less connected. Which is the exact opposite of what we should be trying to accomplish.

Churches are big on jargon. When I was growing up, we went to Sunday School on Sunday mornings. In fact, I was in a Sunday School as recently as my divorce. When I left Southside around that time, however, I discovered that they were apparently one of the last Baptist churches to have Sunday School. The other Baptist churches I visited had Life Groups. (Or, possibly, LIFE Groups.”)

I don’t know that it really matters; I don’t know that one term is better than the other. And, to be fair, Sunday School is sort of a mixed bag. It’s a term that has been around long enough for people to know what it means. On the other hand … well, it’s a term that has been around long enough for people to know what it means. It’s recognized and understood, but probably has negative connotations to some people outside the church. If I invite you to Sunday School, you may know what I’m talking about, but you may not want to come.

Life Group, on the other hand, means less. Not only because it’s less well-known and universally understood, but because there’s less universal meaning. I’ve seen Life Groups as Sunday morning programs and as Sunday evening programs, and they may be held in even more contexts. I’ve been a Baptist for a while, but I’m not necessarily going to know what you mean if you invite me to your Life Group. But that, at least, means it doesn’t carry any negative connotations.

This topic was an issue for me during a recent discussion at my primary congregation, Sojourn. Small group meetings at Sojourn are not held at a uniform place or time, but, rather, at homes around the area on different nights throughout the week. The small groups are called Journey Groups, echoing the Sojourn name and reflecting the idea that the church is a fellowship of believers sharing their journeys through life together.

I’ll admit that it’s a non-literal name, but, to me, it’s accessible, intriguing and appropriate. I’ve had no problem telling people that I was going to Journey Group, and then, if necessary, explaining what that is, and why we call it that.

For the new year of groups, however, the church leadership decided that the name should be changed to Missional Communities, or Missional Community Groups. After the annoucnement, there was enough protest from within the church that the Journey Group branding was kept for public use, although Missional Communities will be used internally.

I think the reversal was the right decision.

Ironically, Missional Communities is a bit more descriptive, especially if you know the jargon. I know what “community” means, especially within the context of a church and particularly Sojourn. I understand the concept of “missional,” even if the particular details of the mission can be arcane at times. I question whether even within Sojourn every regular attender of a Missional Community could tell you exactly what the mission is.

But to an outsider? Is someone not involved in the church going to know what a Missional Community is? Heck, is someone involved in another church going to know what a Missional Community is? Are they going to want to be part of one? Or are they going to be excluded by the name? Is a non-believer going to take it as one more piece of evidence that they just don’t get this whole Christian thing, you know?

To me, it’s religious in the worst sense of the word. It’s formal and bureaucratic. It sets apart the insiders and the outsiders. It’s the sort of thing the pharisees would be proud of and the prostitutes and tax-collectors would have no interest in.

Sojourn’s website still boasts the slogan “rethink church.” But as time goes by, there seems to be less rethinking.

A good friend of mine argues that the modern church is inevitable. That no matter how much tradition you strip away, how much you return to the basics of the Biblical church, a body of believers in this day and age gradually drifts back toward the mainstream of the modern church.

Sometimes, I fear she’s right.

I applaud Sojourn’s leadership for making that drift seem a little less inevitable.

“Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

One Response

  1. We call ours “Growth Groups”, though they’ve had several similar names over the years. All of our small groups, classes, and the occasional seminar are under the banner of Growth Groups.

    Some groups blur the line between class and “traditional” small group, with the idea being that discipleship happens when there is just enough structure for a person to plug in, but not so much structure that the individual faces a steep learning curve. Most of them have definite start and end dates, to establish a group lifecycle that encourages individuals to learn and move on, rather than “sit and stew.” That also limits the learning curve of each group/class — there’s less chance for unnecessary complexity to develop if you have a different group of people every 4 months.

    We’re hoping that it limits the formation of social bubbles as well, and we’ve seen good success with classes like Financial Peace University mixing older and younger, single and married, etc. FPU is a prime example of the group/class structure – 13 weeks, low learning curve, lots of opportunity for growth, intentional times of group discussion/connection, and applicable throughout the rest of the individual’s life.

    As an aside, I’ve grown up in church, but never knew what “Awana” meant.

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