Josh McDowell on Small Groups

Joshm” . . . much of this meeting time is spent with people sharing their subjective ideas. Ideas born out of a post-modern worldview. . . If Christian leaders don’t take hold of the small group phenomenon it will take on a life of its own and redefine the church in a way that we do not even want to venture to imagine. ” Josh McDowell, newsletter.

[HT: Ingrid, who has a great looking new site – love that brown and black!]

On the other side of the argument is the small group movement (that Josh is addressing) and the simple/house church movement that says things like this:

“In most modern-day home churches, all members are considered to be equal. There are no professionals in charge; they often have no leaders. Those which do have leaders select them democratically and often rotate the position. Instead of a minister or priest addressing a congregation, they have discussions, prayers, and sharing among equals.” Link

Well, its Friday morning and I got up early. I have just enough time to scribble some thoughts about Josh’s challenge . . and then I am off to work. . I have grown up with Josh McDowell and his books. Love the guy. I heard him speak once at Jesus North West – he rocked!

I realize the challenge that the small group phenomenon, simple church/ house church movement and underground church scene worldwide brings to the more hierarchical top-down church structures who feel that, without a strong teacher to guide the people, how will they avoid heresy? Josh recommends marrying style with substance. And for Christian leaders to bring “church-wide unity to these small groups.”

As for me, I respect what Josh says and share the same commitment to truth and fear of untruth. But I am seeing it from a different angle:

– The problem of having to listen to people share their subjective ideas in a small group will not be solved by sending them to a church service to hear a preacher behind a pulpit share his or her subjective ideas.

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– Research has shown that heresy usually comes through higher education [seminaries] and foreign elements. It normally does not come up from the grassroots but down from the top. Good book to read here is “Church Planting Movements” by David Garrison.

– Heresy can flourish when false teaching goes unchallenged, or when people are confined to a learning environment where they feel scared or unempowered to speak up when they detect something wrong. A small group setting where interaction is encouraged, even disagreement, is a safer place to find truth than a monologue from a preacher lifted high and not available for correction.

– Unity does not have to come from the top down or from the institutions. Small group networks can host city wide events that bring unity to the the wider body of Christ – We did this in Austin, Texas in 2001.

– Emergence theory, as demonstrated in ant colonies (Prov. 6:6) has shown how an organization can emerge and flourish when leadership and responsibility is shared, rather than ordered from one commander. The goal is not stronger direction from the leader and more obedience from the slaves but rather more communication and response, simple structures, more empowerment to those on the ground. The church already has a leader – his name is Jesus – and we have all been given our orders.

– If George Barna’s numbers are correct, we should not be looking at house churches and small group type expressions as secondary church structures that should be subjugated under modern church but rather as a viable, Biblical, effective, powerful way of doing church and an option that will be chosen by at least the same number that today chose the institutional model. In fact, house church may become the new standard by which we measure other structures.

– The small group phenomenon already has taken on a life of its own in many countries – China, India. Even USA had its National House Church Conference last week in Denver. There is no stopping it and traditional churches cannot expect to jump in to control it because leaders in one ecclesiastic world may not carry the same weight or respect in other worlds. If traditional leaders have not been speaking into the micro church at its inception, how can they expect to gate crash the party half way through with the same level of respect. Or in other words, if they have not helped to build the foundation, why should they hoist the flag?

– Style and substance? Yes. But another element must be added, both in the church hall and in the living room: Submission.

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” Ephesians 5:21. Style + Substance + Submission This will allow churches to be, as Garrison says, “self-correcting”.

Further Reading:

Will The Emerging Church Fully Emerge? by Frank Viola


Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.


  • carl says:

    I just cor believe I’m reading this this morning! Because just a few days ago, a brother was challenging me that ‘strong leaders’ are needed to prevent ‘cults’ developing…at the time, i was tired, so i let it pass without too much intellectual challenge.
    But later i realised the fallcy of his statement-that having individuals think for the group is much more conducive to ‘off-colour’ ideas! And today i guess i’ve been shown that we’re part of a much wider conversation on the matter…how cool!
    Great points andrew, i wish my friend had an email address that i could use to link him in here!

  • So I followed your link to Josh’s website and got the drift of what he’s aiming for… just buy into his program and everything will be just dandy.
    As you said the whole small group/house church/simple church thing is way beyond his reach.
    In my cursory exploration of the stuff offered on the site I was trying to see what wasn’t there. And one thing I didn’t see was something about the Holy Spirit.
    One of the self-organizing principles is that each member of the group has the basic information needed. The ants take a whiff of those phermone trails and they interpret accordingly. Reinforcing the good messages and avoiding the bad ones.
    The Holy Spirit who is in every believe teaches, guides, comforts etc. Pretty cool.
    It seems that’s a pretty big element to never forget.

  • Mrs. Nygren says:

    Something fishy about that link… it can’t be found by going through Josh McDowell’s website.
    The words “special” and “WVW” (Worldview Weekend — dunno who they are, but they’re the ones sending out the link) also caught my eye in the URL.
    Josh *does* address small groups in his August 2005 newsletter — the one posted directly at his site — but the verbiage is quite different… far less of a “witch hunt” tone than the one circulating that’s purported to be his.
    I emailed his web guy with both URLs and asked him to clarify. Will keep you posted.

  • frank says:

    Neil cole’s “keeping heresy out of the movement” Good article

  • andrew says:

    thanks Mrs N.
    please let me know what you find out so i can respond.

  • jason_73 says:

    you know thats the same problem that the judaisers and legalists had with Paul and all his small groups starting up throughout Ephesus, Rome, Thesolonica ect…..Then they got these bishops in to organize it all.. Everyone was afraid of heresy.. I think a great enemy of the church is paranoia. We have to trust the Holy Spirit!! Thats my other problem, not enough trust.. alas , a sore spot..(and I don’t even belong to a small group at the moment)

  • Dan says:

    Good post. I belong to a very top-down hierarchical church and find it unsettling at times. Even the small groups all have curriculum and questions directly from the pastor’s sermons. (I suppose the positive aspect to this is that everyone is studying the same thing thus promoting unity, but I also wonder if this is a way of thwarting independent voices.)
    That being said, however, I’m still somewhat conficted. I’m curious, for instance, how passages like Acts 15–where the leadership makes a decision for the church community–would play in the house church movement. Would it be the case that those specifically trained in the ministry would have more authority while the rest of the group would still be able to voice Holy Spirit inspired views? This is a question I genuinely struggle with.

  • TallSkinnyKiwi: Josh McDowell on Small Groups

    I hope Josh McDowell’s right:
    ” . . . much of this meeting time is spent with people sharing their subjective ideas. Ideas born out of a post-modern worldview. . . If Christian leaders don’t take hold of the small group phenomenon it will take on a …

  • Dan says:

    I should add that the Frank Viola link you gave provided some food for thought on my question. Much of the answer seems to depend on what kind of church model the NT advocates. (This is a huge question which I feel unequipped to answer.) While I’m not sure the popular understanding of the pastor/elder position is as unbiblical as he takes it to be, I do feel uncomfortable with how little say lay people have in many churches on the direction of the church and programs being implemented. Worse yet, views of scripture contrary to the theology and exegesis given in the sermons seem to be too often discouraged.

  • Robert Hyde says:

    Just a quick reaction to this post, with no research on McDowell or anything, but:
    Why would Prov 6:6-9 (which does not appear to be centering on issues of authority but rather, diligence) outweigh the whole of the biblical perspective on spiritual authority which seems to regard it as part-and-parcel of living in God’s community?
    Ephesians 4 talks of the risen Christ giving leadership gifts to the church, not so that we can be abused or lobotomised but to help us ‘attain to the unity of the faith’ and not be ‘carried about by every wind of doctrine’ (v 13,14). The word and the Spirit are there to moderate leadership authority as lay membership have access to both.
    Hebrews 13:17?
    In small groups, an influential person often comes to prominence who people look to for wisdom even if that group sets out with the intention of freeing itself from the yoke of authority. It seems built into the fabric of who we are.

  • Ladybug says:

    Actually, the newsletter IS available through the website.
    From the home page, click on the “E-Connect” button. From there, you can view Newsletters.
    The link you’ve posted, Andrew, is to a slightly altered version. I’m not sure of it’s source, unless it is an email blast sent to church leaders and such.
    Here’s where I wound up:
    It’s another example of an organic movement being warned against by an established “voice of leadership” (McDowell, Mohler, etc) for fear of it causing irreversible damage to the DNA of the church, like some kind of mutation.
    Instead of looking for God working in these movements, it appears that there is much fear (of what?) and then eventually co-opting of the movement for new ______ (you fill-in-the-blank with curriculum, model, book, tape series).

  • bobbie says:

    i’m with matthew – this is plain and simple really bad holy spirit theology. the leveling of the playing field terrifies those in power in the church.
    they have no faith that the holy spirit as the inner teacher will truly illuminate and reveal truth.

  • Andrew,
    As you clearly indicate, the house church phenomenon is nothing new — and I remember when Robert Banks, now at Fuller I believe, left his University post in Oz to participate in house church work — and that was in the 70s.
    Doug Pagitt’s new book on preaching touches on some of this from a different angle. I don’t see a clear analysis of the problem in his book, but he is for a different kind of preaching because he doesn’t think authority ought to be vested so firmly in one person or one event (what he calls speaching).
    So, when your commenters are into Holy Spirit, radical equality in the community of faith, and leadership they are seeing what appears to many of us a trend that is not likely to slow down any time soon.

  • iggy says:

    I really like Josh McDowell… yet one must remember he is a man with an opinion… which is like a certain orifice all mankind have… and usually all stink equally.
    Now here is my stinky opinion.
    I agree if “heresy” goes unchecked then we have a problem… the problem is then who’s definition of heresy do we address? Calvinism? Armanianism? Those who follow liturgical teachings? Those who follow the Sacraments?
    Those who believe all are priests and kings or those who believe there are some who are “more anointed”. Those who receive the “second blessings” or those who deny uncomfortable gifts of the Spirit? Those who see the Sabbath as Holy and set apart or those who see the Sabbath as everyday resting in Christ Jesus?
    I stand on Paul’s teaching that whatever is a sin to you, then it is a sin and don’t do it… yet do not allow another man’s conscience to shackle you.
    I also agree with Paul that there must be some division in the Church to tell who has sound doctrine and who does not… but how does that happen? Though a conversation of course. Through a relational dialog that allows for someone to have heretical views yet feel comfortable to bring to the community to discuss and work out and be challenged for the purpose of growth.
    I love Josh and all he has given to the church. He books gave me much knowledge and understanding and helped in my growth and confidence as a young believer. He helped set a foundation in my life. Yet, as I said, he is a man. A man who is just as retarded in some areas as I am. I cannot let his words override the teachings of Christ in my own heart. Nor would I of anyone else that I teach want my words to displace the work of Christ in theirs.

  • Back again…
    Maybe this is what I get for being out of the States for so long…
    Andrew wanted to draw out another angle on the small group/house church… that the hierarchy types needed to see but in looking the Beyond Belief stuff I think there’s another thing going on that seems even more pernicious…
    And to be fair Josh in what I’m about to say simply stands as an example of what goes on with a lot of ministries…
    So I’m on a mailing list and I get an email warning me of the dangers of herersy or wrong thinking or you pick the subject. And so I get a little nervous, maybe even afraid. What am I to do? Well if I follow a few links I can just buy the resources that will take away my fears…
    I realize this is coming at a long list of comments on a post by Andrew that was focusing on the reality of a movement that can’t be contained but I feel it’s linked…
    You can’t buy freedom from fear. What if the consumerism of our age is like the buying of indulgences at the time of the reformation? Buy the right book, go to the right seminar, pay the right dues and all your problems will be solved.
    Ministries have got to move their products. Josh or Bill or Rick or you any of the other first names out their gotta keep the machine rolling…
    OK so I’m a long way from the home of the free so I’ll just stop.

  • Dan says:

    The question for me is why the top-down approach is so popular and why a different model would be more appropriate for the age in which we live.
    It seems to me that churches desperately want to display the same certitude that Paul and other NT writers evidently display in their writings. Paul seemingly knew exactly where to draw the lines in terms of heresy, so why shouldn’t we? Paul seemed to have many clear cut answers, so why shouldn’t we? (I realize that Ro. 14 would be an exception, even for top-down chuches, although which categories fall into this passage is a matter of debate.) Overall, they read and preach with this mindset: “Here’s the scripture which _obviously_ means such and such, believe it and don’t argue about what it says [which really means, don’t argue with my interpretation]”.
    Two questions. First, does the NT support such an approach? Iggy, you wrote: “I also agree with Paul that there must be some division in the Church to tell who has sound doctrine and who does not”. Could you expand on this? Is a dialogue format of understanding “truth”, through the Spirit, shown in the NT? Would 1 Co 12-14 perhaps be an example? Secondly, does the fact that we no longer have apostles make things different in our day? In other words, is dialogue, the role of the Holy Spirit, and the priest-hood of all believers that much more essential in our day?

  • iggy says:

    This will take up a lot of space to answer… so i am posting your question and my answer on my blog.

  • I have made the turn

    I realized that I have made the turn to an emergent/postmodern mindset. I realized this while reading this post by TSK on small groups. Two things struck me. First was that I disagree with Josh McDowell. Second was that I agreed with him until not to…

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