Matthew Green has just posted a very interesting article, “The Church Dropout,” which looks at the growing number of people choosing no longer to attend church, despite not having lost their faith, choosing less formal meetings or other forms of participation in Christian community. The article addresses several important ecclesiological issues brought up by this phenomenon, most notably questions involving authority and safeguards against heresy. Of special interest is the section dealing with heresy or questions about added potential for false doctrine in small, non-hierarchical Christian groups:
[Dan] Lacich admits the open-handed approach comes with its own problems.
“What if someone does something wrong in one of these churches?” he asks. “The incorrect assumption is that we have it under control and don’t have troubles in a large church.
“There will always be the chance that someone will do something that’s heretical. Just like the first-century church, we have to trust that the Holy Spirit is in this thing.”
Any conversation about house churches naturally gravitates toward the issues of heresy, but from a historical perspective, the assumption that smaller churches are more vulnerable to heresy is problematic.
When one observes the theological corruption that led to the Protestant Reformation or the current schisms in denominations over the ordination of practicing homosexuals, it could be argued that large, top-heavy church institutions are worse breeding grounds for false doctrine than small groups of believers seeking accountability and spiritual growth together.
“I get asked about heresy more than almost anything else when I am teaching about organic church,” says Neil Cole, a church planter and author of Church 3.0: Upgrades for the Future of the Church. “But the best solution to heresy in the church is not to have better-trained leaders in the pulpits but better-trained people in the pews.”
Cole left his role on staff at a megachurch in the Grace Brethren Church in 1998 and launched Church Multiplication Associates (CMA). The organization has trained nearly 22,000 church planters from all denominations to start churches as small as two or three people that are called Life Transformation Groups.
Although Cole argues that because of human weakness no church will ever be able to completely avoid heresy, he says intensive discipleship models such as CMA’s create settings in which new believers learn Bible study methods that will help them discern truth from error.
“Perhaps we have misread what is the real threat of false doctrine that infiltrates the church in the West,” he notes. “Sometimes we can espouse the right words and live by the wrong ideas. Having correct statements of faith in your creed is not all there is to being orthodox.”
Cole’s statement touches on the root issue of “church dropouts.” At its core the trend of church dropouts is only a crisis if those “dropping out” are moving away from authentic biblical Christianity—which may be cultivated outside the institutional church but not outside the body of Christ in its many local expressions.
Of greater concern are those who don’t drop out but remain in the pews as passive consumers of a religious product that never transforms their lives, convinced that the Sunday ritual somehow earns them favor with God and satisfies His radical call to discipleship.