Anglican priest John Wesley was convicted of the need to preach to English miners who were not engaged in local churches. These gatherings drew the poor and marginalised in every town, seeing many choosing to follow Jesus. So, Wesley created different structures of classes, small bands, and societies, to facilitate discipleship and evangelism within these people groups. So began the Methodist revival.
Mary Sumner experienced the difficulty of motherhood in 19th Century England, where Christian values were coming up against the industrial revolution. Driven by a conviction to support mothers, she gathered women from different social classes together to encourage them in motherhood and faith. Women with no church connections came to faith, worshipped together, and sought to reach other mothers. These meetings multiplied throughout England and were in 9 countries within 7 years. Mother’s Union was born.
Simple forms of church are not new. They have been happening for generations and bringing revival to the traditional church in different ways. Some we have embraced; some we have cast aside. Today’s movements of missional communities, micro churches or simple churches are no different. The question is, will we embrace or case aside such expressions of church?
Long before language of micro church became prevalent, missiologist Lesslie Newbigin offered two critiques of church structures of his times. Firstly, that the fundamental ecclesial unit was too large, and secondly that the current structure of the church emerged from an undifferentiated society, which is no longer descriptive of our modern society (Goheen, 2018, 123–126).
Missiologist Ralph Winter also noted in the early 1990’s that the majority of American churches currently exists for the middle class, and a cross-cultural mission approach will be need to reach the “unreached peoples” of America (Winter, 1990, 98–105). It follows that we see new and different forms of church emerging within the Anglican communion to reach unreached Australians.
Throughout history the Anglican church has adapted to changing circumstances, and in a post-covid world this will be no different.
Recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury faced a similar question with the rise of many fresh expressions with the Church of England. Instead of resisting these new expressions, the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested:
“It is clear to us that the parochial system remains an essential and central part of the national Church's strategy to deliver incarnational mission. But the existing parochial system alone is no longer able fully to deliver its underlying mission purpose. We need to recognize that a variety of integrated missionary approaches is required. A mixed economy of parish churches and network churches will be necessary, in an active partnership across a wider area, perhaps a deanery" (cited in Cray, 2009, x).
As we look through scripture it’s clear that ekklesia did not designate a single form, the focus is instead on a gathering of people. It is used in scripture to refer to larger public gatherings, such as in Solomon’s colonnade (Acts 5:12) as well as household gatherings, such as those who met at Priscilla and Aquila’s house among others (1 Cor 16:19, Phil 2, Col 4:15). Both approaches were held together in the early church, where believers met in the temple courts and in their homes (Acts 2:46). Paul’s letter to the Corinthians also demonstrates that these house churches often came together for larger gatherings (1 Cor 11:17, 22). While some may be tempted to see a modern church and small group network in these two structures, Paul is clear that both were a place of discipleship and evangelism (Acts 5:42). The early church used a variety of structures as needed in their context. Perhaps once again, in a post-covid world it is once again a fitting season for a movement of small Anglican churches?
So, what is a simple church or micro church?
Thom Rainer defines a simple church as “a congregation designed around a straightforward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth.” (Rainer, 2006, 60) Brian Sanders defines church Rev as a “worshipping community on mission,” a group of people engaging together in regular rhythms of worship, community and mission, seeking to be a blessing towards a particular network or neighbourhood (Sanders, 2019, 34). These forms of churches are stripped back and simple. They are accessible not only to the dechurched, but predominately to the unchurched. Like John Wesley and Mary Sumner, these churches seek to take the church to the people, rather than asking the people to come to church. They seek to make disciples, and to multiply disciple-makers. While many of today’s churches seek to grow larger in number, these churches seek to go wider in reach, remaining small by continuing to multiply.
Micro churches are Jesus-centred communities, birthed when a small group of disciples collectively sense a call from God to love and serve a particular community in their area. Whether this is a geographical space or an affinity network, everything they do comes from a genuine desire to love this particular community. Yet, unlike a typical small group or even some house churches who engage together in times of worship and fellowship in community, a micro church also engages regularly in mission together. It’s a part of their identity, they exist for a missional purpose. This purpose shapes the way they engage in worship and fellowship as a community. Their worship still includes regular Anglican practices of the Lord’s Supper, baptism, confession, and intercessory prayer, but seeks to do so in a way accessible to those within their missional focus.
Micro churches seek to be a community conformed to the image of Christ. Graham Hill rightly suggests that the greatest issue in the Australian church today is our lack of conformity to Christ (Hill, 2020, 22). While it may be possible to hide within a larger community, within a smaller group, discipleship or the lack therefore becomes evident quickly. Jesus said people would know we are his disciples by the way we love one another (John 13:35). Micro churches believe that this is an essential part of their witness. As micro churches reach out into the community, they seek to demonstrate Christ and make disciples, multiplying into every corner of our nation to the glory of God.
Finally, these communities are called to unity and collaboration with the mainstream Anglican church. In the early church it’s evident that there is partnership between house churches, and city-wide churches. As a church we are called to unity, but not necessarily uniformity. Our unity should transcend differences in practices, music, and structures, while holding tightly together to gospel truths. The Spirit is equally at work in the mainstream church, as in the many Anglican micro churches already in existence across Australia. Today as micro churches are becoming more prominent within and alongside our churches, the question is will we embrace them?
The micro church movement, by God’s grace, has gained increasing interest, traction, and fruitfulness throughout the pandemic. Whether the Anglican church chooses to accept these expressions or not, they will continue to engage in gospel-centred, Kingdom-focused ministry, taking the church to the unreached peoples of Australia. My hope is that in the future we would see them do so as representatives of the Anglican church of Australia, and we would partner with them as they go.
Recently, a small traditional Anglican church in Melbourne’s east has entered a partnership with a new micro church network church plant. The partnership is hoping that this church plant, primarily of young adults, will learn from the maturity, traditions, and experience of the existing Anglican church, while the existing church will be invigorated by the missional fervour of the church plant. While it is still very much in its infancy, it provides a picture of a possible way forward for the Anglican church of Australia. Micro churches and mainstream churches working together for God’s glory.
Rev Breeana Mills is Assistant Curate at St Philips Mt Waverly, Melbourne and leader of a nearby micro church network church plant.