The Barnabas Ministry
Book Review

The Connecting Church: Beyond Small Groups to Authentic Community
Randy Frazee (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI., 2001). 254 pages.

Coming out of a movement that used small groups in both good and bad ways, I was excited to read The Connecting Church as it was being discussed in my new church. I saw endorsements from the likes of the Willow Creek Association, Larry Crabb and George Barna and I thought, this should be really interesting and good.

Well, it was interesting and good ... in parts. But with all of those recommendations, I really expected something much better than this.

The Connecting Church is not really about small groups or "authentic" community. The book is more about how small groups fit into the author's church's overall structure. (Note: Since the book was published, Randy Frazee has relocated to the Chicago area and now serves as a teaching pastor on the staff of the Willow Creek Community Church.)

  • The congregation is subdivided into small groups and subgroups (congregation, zones community, and home groups), with a pyramidal leadership structure.
  • The church has a 52-week theological calendar governing primary teaching topics in an effort to make sure certain things are taught at least once a year.
  • The church has a list of 30 point "Core Competencies" which is presented as the marks of a Christian. Members are to rate themselves on this annually and select one or two areas to grow in. There is a tool called the "Christian Life Profile" that apparently supports this evaluation. (These and other materials are available from Frazee's Connecting Church website.)
  • He identifies the seven "Purposes of a Small Group" with an acronym spelling "service:" Spiritual Formation, Evangelism, Reproduction, Volunteerism, International Missions, Care and Extending Compassion.
  • The small group is viewed as the primary organizational structure in the church.

There are some good and useful parts of the book that can help Christians build community within their churches. Here are some of the good ideas he discusses:

  • People being busy hurts their connectedness with other Christians
  • Just being in small groups doesn't mean people are connected.
  • Being in close geographic proximity, even down to sharing the same elementary school districts if possible, enhances connectedness in small groups.
  • There are benefits of having multiple generations involved in these home groups.
  • There is something good about a circle of friends who all know each other compared to isolated relationships with various people.
  • Children should be well integrated into the small group approach, not be viewed as an obstacle to adult relationship building.
  • Courageously, he suggests that people even belonging to different congregations could be a part of a neighborhood based small group.
  • He also supports the idea of the “house church" being the primary structure of a church, not the “big church.” Though there are problems with this view, it has some merit.

Unfortunately, there are some serious drawbacks to the book.

To start with, he seems to be at war with the culture of suburban America. The culture may present barriers to community, but it also provides opportunities for building community. Frazee seems to exaggerate and focus too much on the barriers. He seems to want to overthrow the culture (as if it was possible) instead of taking advantage of the culture and using it to build community. Frequently, he uses a "straw man" argumentation technique to make his points. Several examples will illustrate this point.

He was a leader in a church (Pantego Bible Church) with a large, sprawling suburban campus (having moved from a 7 acre site to a 76 acre site), yet he criticizes suburbanites for wanting to have space for their families. This struck me as hypocritical and biased; it doesn't seem to occur to him that the reasons some churches have large campuses are the same reasons some people live in suburbs. Is space inherently bad?

At various points he launches into tirades and snide remarks against suburban life. I was disappointed if not shocked to see this sort of material in this book. There are belittling shots at people who live in suburbs and drink "exotic flavored" teas, park their cars in their garages and hang out in their fenced backyards. What horrible sins! He criticizes them for living somewhere where people have to spend time driving around to get to places, like their children's extracurricular activities. To hear his description of suburbia, nobody ever talks with any of their neighbors. Instead, he crams all suburbanites into a stereotypical triumvirate of suburban wickedness consisting of “individuality, isolation and consumerism” to apparently contrast with his ideas of community.

He romantically idealizes both city and country living from a hundred years ago, where (to his way of thinking) there was more “community.” He speaks of how "connected" people were, and how they laughed and joked their way through life in these wonderful little communities that seem to be taken from The Music Man or It's a Wonderful Life. He disregards the obstacles to community in those circumstances, like hardships and difficulties associated with transportation, 12 hour workdays, the filth and crowdedness, the exploitation of the lower and middle classes and diminished individual boundaries.

One of the staples of American suburban family life he attacks is children's extracurricular activities. He laments how much time and energy they take up and advocates children playing in the front yard instead. But some of the most bonding times I have with my children are when I'm driving them to their sport or extracurricular activities. And the groups of parents in these activities often form a community as well. We car-pool and sit together during games and practices and the like. We take each other's kids to practice, to the pool, to dance lessons. How else are Christians going to meet and get to know non-Christians if they don't interact in these sort of ways? It's bewildering to me how Frazee comes down against children's activities and all of their benefits that you can't get in any other ways. Can children's activities get out of balance with other areas of life? Sure. But I think Frazee should talk about balancing these things and how to use these opportunities to build community instead of criticizing them because they don't fit his model of what community should be.

Another thing in Frazee's crosshairs is dual-income families. He comes down against both parents working in the interest of simplifying the family's life. He laments the complications of a mother working in a family, suggesting that people do this only so they can have a bigger house or more toys. He doesn't realize that sometimes this is a necessity. Both parents working is not inherently evil-- remember that woman in Proverbs 31 worked, had a family and seemed to be doing OK. Don't both parents have God-given gifts to use for the good of society? Like the other things Frazee discusses, moving to a single-income model could be a good or right choice for some people but necessarily for all. And to the point of his book-- both parents working need not be the terrible obstacle to community that he would have the reader believe.

Second, for someone who seems to be down on relatively modern things like suburban living, Frazee oddly seems to have adopted many modern management techniques and dropped them into a church setting. For example, his numbered lists of this and that, and annual reviews about how these lists are being adhered to, seem far more like modern business management technique than biblical Christianity.

I got tired just reading his list of the seven things he thinks a small group "must" do. And being a sinner who's had his fill of performance-based Christianity, I’d say just mark me down right now down for a “0” on all 30 traits, sight unseen. There is a place for individual growth and taking inventory of one's life spiritually, but for a church system to try to manage this artificially could be very unhealthy. God works on His schedule, not ours. If God wanted us to define our faith and lives this way, he would have given us a bunch of lists and had them pre-punched to fit right into our Daytimers.

This sort of list-based approach can have some benefits-- it may get young or directionless Christians doing "something." But what happens a few years down the road when they realize that performance-based Christianity is an oxymoron? Or can a small group exist and be valid without Frazee's list of "seven things a small group must do" hanging over its head?

Are there any controls in place to prevent the list-based system from running amok? Is there room for people and groups to not conform to the lists without being condemned? How long before somebody gets the toxic, dangerous idea that keeping some statistics on these lists would be a good idea? How long before the ones with better statistics are considered better Christians? How long before somebody comes up with a list "better" than Frazee's?

Christianity is not all about conforming to lists. Frazee compared suburban living to a prison (he actually uses that word). But managing the church and individual Christian lives with a set of lists looks a lot like a prison to me.

Third, his system has a big focus on leadership. He advocates a pyramidal leadership structure with "community group" leaders overseeing "home group" leaders, "zone leaders" overseeing "community group" leaders, and so on. He sees home groups being based on elementary school districts, zones being based upon high school districts. He thinks every group should be training a new leader so that the group can eventually split when it gets too big, and a new leader can be ready to go.

Leadership is important, but I wonder if the concept of peer groups ever dawned upon him? It should go without saying that not all groups need the same sort of leadership, but his model does not seem to allow for that. Everybody needs somebody "over them?" Can a group of home group leaders help each other out, or do they need somebody over them? Why?

I’m a firm believer that no reasonable structure or plan is itself wrong or terrible, that it is what you do with a structure or plan that makes it good or bad. This pyramid structure, a hybrid between Constantinian Catholicism and Multi-Level Marketing, looks nice on paper and is "natural" in one sense. But there are bad effects that lie underneath such a structure. These include a natural tendency to move from servant-based leadership to authority-based leadership, which leads to competitiveness for places in the hierarchy and turns the structure into a conscienceless command and control tool. There no easier way to ruin a church and a lot of lives than with a MLM type of structure that is out of control. With my twenty-plus years experience in a church that did very similar things towards its own demise, I found this a cause for great concern.

Lastly, throughout much of his discussion Frazee has the not-so-subtle underlying message that if you're not doing things his way, you're not doing it God's way. Even in the title ("... to Authentic Community," emphasis added) there seems to be a criticism that whatever "communities" others might have, they are not "authentic" enough for him. This attitude seems to come out in just about every topic he discusses. I don't know if the author truly has this attitude in "real life" or not, but I find that sort of a spirit inappropriate for someone wanting to teach Christians about how to have community.

In the end, the book has some good ideas about community and raises a lot of interesting topics. But community comes down to loving one another, not wrestling culture, making lists of stuff to do or creating organizational charts. Readers of this book seeking ideas about building community in their churches should not accept any of these ideas blindly but should instead use the book to come up with ideas and creative ways to build community in their own circumstances. 

Copyright © 2006 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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