MACAU (Mennonite Mission Network) — When small groups from Macau Mennonite Church meet, members include one empty chair in the circle. Those gathered together pray for the person who will fill that vacant seat.
Like members of the early church 2,000 years ago, those at Macau Mennonite are working to find wholeness by making space for both large and small forms of church.
Former North American pastor Palmer Becker helped the ministry team articulate their vision when he spoke at their church retreat in fall 2007. Becker shared ideas about the “two-wing church,” which is based on the model of church created by the first believers and described in the New Testament: “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46).
The Macau ministry team—comprised George and Tobia Veith and Tim and Cindy Buhler, mission workers supported by Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Church Canada Witness; and Bailey and Treasure Chow—envisions a church in which members both meet in the temple for worship and in homes for the breaking of bread.
According to Becker, who is writing a book on the topic, the two-wing church is like a soaring bird. One wing is celebrative worship—the Sunday morning service. The other wing represents small groups—regular meetings in homes. The tail of the bird stands for equipping—it is the guiding rudder enabled by times of Christian education.
Becker sees celebrative worship nurturing a vertical relationship with a transcendent God. Small groups nurture horizontal relationships as people care for each other.
Equipping includes training small group leaders, as well as providing times of doctrinal study for all church members through seminars, workshops and retreats.
The Chows wrote in an e-mail, “We have embraced the two-wing church model because we believe it is faithful to the biblical intention for what the church should be.
“But,” they continued, “putting it into practice has had its frustrations and discouragements, as well as its joys.”
The Veiths have lived in Macau, a special administrative district of China, for 12 years. Recently, change there has accelerated at an alarming rate, said George Veith.
Because of the burgeoning casino industry, Veith said money is flowing into Macau, but most people do not benefit.
Casino work is disrupting cultural patterns. The Veiths observe that busier schedules have led to neglected relationships and stress within families.
Encouraging commitment to a faith community is also an uphill battle with the temptation of long hours and high wages so near.
“In this place where so much ungodly worship happens,” said Tobia Veith, “it's been a very slow and challenging process.”
Veith said challenges to small groups include needing to engage all parts of a diverse congregation, achieving consistent small group attendance and empowering new Christians to take leadership in small groups.
When entering into the two-wing concept, Becker said leaders should not overestimate what they can do in one year or underestimate what could happen in five years.
Through persistence, the two-wing church style has taken root in several other Mennonite churches in East Asia.
Meilun Mennonite Church in Hualien, Taiwan, has combined large-group worship and small-group fellowship since 2005.
Pastor Kim Chen said some members did not like the idea of small groups when he first suggested their formation after he returned from three years of study at Asbury Theological Seminary (Wilmore, Ky.) and Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (Elkhart, Ind.).
In response to the varied needs of congregants, Meilun Mennonite, a congregation of about 300 people, decided to offer two small group styles that involve different levels of intimacy and time commitment.
Cell groups of 10-12 people meet once a week to discuss the previous Sunday’s sermon. They aim to reach out and draw new members to the church.
Traditional groups center on different stages of life, including youth, couples and senior citizens groups. These groups of approximately 20 people meet between one and four times a month. Their discussion is not necessarily about the sermon and they focus less on outreach.
Today, almost all who attend Sunday morning worship are also members of a small group. However, Chen said it took about two years to get the small groups to work.
The three Mennonite churches of Hong Kong Mennonite Conference also are exploring the two-wing model. Increasingly, Becker said, they are meeting jointly for celebrative worship and strengthening a small group emphasis.
Grace Mennonite Church in Hong Kong has included cell groups since 1992. Presently, the congregation is divided into five groups of about eight people that meet twice a month.
According to Grace pastor Alde Wong, cell groups support members through prayer, caring and Bible study, while the Sunday service “lets the people focus on God through worship and Word.”
Wong said the groups empower church members to nurture each other. They “let the congregation get involved and share the workload of the pastor,” he wrote in an e-mail.
After 16 years of cell groups, the system is running smoothly at Grace Mennonite with about 90 percent of church members attending a cell group.
As Macau Mennonite approaches its one-year mark with small groups, there are still plenty of challenges ahead. But there are glimmers of hope as well.
“Recently only one woman showed up at our group on Saturday night,” the Veiths wrote. “We encouraged her to come every time, even when she didn't feel a need, because she could encourage someone else.
“We told her that she actually had encouraged us a lot that evening. She met a need that we had. It was an eye-opening experience for her.”