The church moves West (part 2)

The focus of Christian missions has historically moved west. This is the second of a three part series (here is part one) looking at this phenomenon, and is part of the foreword I have written to a new Kindle book, Greet the Church in Your House.  by Victor Choudhrie, due out in September. This book details the principles behind one of the greatest disciple making movements of our time.

 

This is a photo of Tony and me standing on the very harbor wall in Turkey (Seleucia) from which Paul and Barnabas left with John Mark to sail west on their first missionary journey. The harbor is now silted up and the harbor wall is about 100 yards inland.

 

While all this was going on in Europe, the epicenter of Christianity was sailing west across the Atlantic to the United States.  Waves of revival spread across the land as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield, John Wesley and Charles Finney preached to huge crowds. In 1906, the Pentecostal Movement began in Azusa Street in Los Angeles and spread rapidly throughout the world. The United States became the great missionary-sending nation.

But even as Christianity waned in Europe and began its decline in the United States, the center of Christianity was moving west again. Initially this was hidden. When the Communists overtook China in the late 1940s, threw out the missionaries, closed the churches and jailed its leaders, everyone wondered whether the church could possibly survive. When the bamboo curtain finally lifted, the world was amazed to see the church had thrived and multiplied. Ordinary people, mainly women and children, rather than trained preachers, were spreading the Gospel, and churches were starting everywhere in the homes of ordinary people. Small and hidden, the good news was spreading like yeast in a lump of dough.

Again the focal point of the church moved west. Via Korea and the cell church movement, it has moved on to India where the Choudhries and many others like them are seeing similar growth to China. Here God is restoring disciple-making and house church planting, not as a matter of necessity because of persecution, but as a deliberate policy with well-understood theological and ecclesiological reasoning. An emphasis on the Kingdom is producing marked changes in the local community too. As other nations hear what is transpiring in India, they are inviting men and women from India to come and infect their own lands with what Jesus is doing.

Part three to follow…

Free e-book on hearing God

A year or so ago I wrote an e-book entitled A Simple Guide to Hearing God. It’s designed to be a very practical look at how to hear God’s voice. However, I decided to take a different approach.

I have many friends who know how to hear God clearly–some of the stories they tell are remarkable. Armed with my iphone, I interviewed these people asking them how God speaks to them. (The videos I produced are amateur, but what the people I interviewed say is not!) How to hear God is also a subject I have studied and practiced for many years, and the text comes out of what I have learned.

The result is an enhanced e-book–a combination of video and writing. (It therefore has to be viewed on a computer rather than a kindle).

I would now like to give this e-book away. If you subscribe to my blog, you will receive a link to the free download.

 

 

An evening to remember

Last Friday the church in our home had one of the most beautiful times together that I ever remember in more than 20 years of meeting in house-church sized groups. The presence of Jesus was so real, it was almost tangible.

Young kids (three of them aged around five) were there, watching spellbound as things unfolded. The two toddlers went from one adult to another as they needed attention. The older kids were fully engaged in what was going on.

As usual, we started with a meal. Over dessert, the usual question: “What God events have there been in your life this week?”

First was Rosaura. Those of you who follow this blog will recognize her story. She was a crack addict for 30 years who was instantly delivered from her addictions during a meeting of our church. We were away in Russia at the time, so it was a group of new Christians and young people who prayed for her to be set free–all in response to the prayers of her 15-year-old son, Jose.

Rosaura shared that for her birthday that week, three of her old friends came round to celebrate and they wanted her to do drugs with them. She was very tempted, but went outside to ask God for help. When she came back in, her friends had decided to go somewhere else. “We’ll be back later,” they told her. They never returned and Rosaura is rejoicing. She is only a few weeks away from a full year of being clean and sober.

We’ll throw a party for her that day!!

We praised God for keeping Rosaura safe and laid hands on her, praying that she not only makes a year drug free but a lifetime.

Jose had asked God for something impossible–his mom set free from drugs. So using that example, we broke into six or so smaller groups to pray for the “impossible situations” amongst our families and friends.

Next came a couple of students who are holding a student CPX this week at their university. They sat on the “hot seat” while people prayed for them and shared any impressions God was giving them. They will be bold in following the Holy Spirit this week, and it will result in more churches on their campus.

One of them had finally graduated from college. Applause and praise.

A young Hispanic couple shared how since they had started coming to the church about two months ago, their lives had totally changed. Their faith had become real to them. They had been struggling financially, but now the husband has a new job. This week they have been able to purchase a second car, and their young son has been accepted into a charter school.

More praise and thanksgiving.

A young man who became a Christian around two months ago when he was homeless shared how his faith has been real, even through difficult circumstances. This week he has a job and is now back with his family.

Applause and thanksgiving.

Then Tony asked, “Is there a passage of Scripture that has been on anyone’s heart this week that fits in with what the Holy Spirit has been saying so far?” Someone shared that the verse from 1 John 4, that perfect love casts out fear, had been on her heart. We studied that passage of Scripture together, different ones commenting on parts that were especially relevant to them.

A description of the highlights we experienced doesn’t begin to do justice to what happened in our midst on Friday evening. How do you accurately convey the sense of God’s presence, the leading of the Holy Spirit, the friendship, fun and camaraderie?  The glow on people’s faces as no one wanted to leave because the presence and power of Jesus was so real.

Do you have similar stories? I’d love to hear them.

 

 

The Untold Story of the New Testament Church

I’ve been studying the different characters that appear in the Book of Acts recently, starting with Paul. I’ve often puzzled over apparently contradictory passages from Acts and Galatians that talk about what Paul did immediately after his conversion–whether or not he visited the apostles in Jerusalem. As I revisited this question, I remembered a book written by Frank Viola called  The Untold Story of the New Testament Church: An Extraordinary Guide to Understanding the New Testament. I’d skimmed the book before, but never taken the time to study it.

Frank is a good friend of ours. He and his wife have enjoyed several evenings with us in our hot tub, putting the world to rights. (It’s where we came up with the idea for the hilarious spoof video for his book, Pagan Christianity?, that our son, Tim produced.)

I’ve been reading The Untold Story for a week or so now, following the extensive endnotes, and greatly enjoying the insight and research Frank has produced. The books promo claims “you will understand the New Testament like never before.” As I have read the epistles within their historical context in the New Testament narrative, I would definitely say the book lives up to its claims. Anyone who desires a greater understanding of the history of the early church would profit from reading it.

 

A church by any other name…

Brian used to host a Bible study group of 17 “unchurched” people in his home. Brian’s a chef and people love his food. They’d sing, read the Bible and talk. The pastor of his traditional church put the kibosh on it, however, because it was outside of his programs and control. So Brian did stop it. Now Brian is meeting in a home church somewhere else and has invited about 8 of those people to the house church. Only two have come (one who accepted Christ, PTL). He says, however, if he would restart his home group, all of those 17 would come back.

Dan left this story as a comment on one of my previous posts.

Some people may be far more willing to join us if what we present to them doesn’t include the word “church.”  “Church” has negative connotations for many people. They remember being dragged there as children, bored and restless when they’d much rather be outdoors playing. Or the word may smack of religious legalism, hypocrisy and judgmentalism. To others it is simply irrelevant.

So why do we insist on calling it “church” especially when we’re talking to not-yet-believers? It only makes it more difficult for them. A church by any other name is still a church. It’s not the name that’s important, but what goes on there. Is Jesus at the center?

Tony and I love to start church amongst non-believers, but we rarely call it that. We’ll invite people to get together for “a group that discusses spirituality,” or to “an evening when we can pray about some of the issues in their life,” or to “the Friday night group,” or to a “time to look at the Bible and talk about Jesus.” We’d much rather it’s in their home than ours, and they are probably not ready to have “church” in their home. It’s only later, when they’ve been won over by the friendship and authentic fun of what goes on and their lives have begun to change, that we tell them this is what the Bible means by church. Once they’ve surrendered to Jesus, we may or may not change the name.

It wouldn’t matter if the word “church” was never used; it’s what goes on that matters. Are relationships being formed? Is Jesus glorified? Is the Holy Spirit in control?

I like the term “missional community,” although that probably works best with believers. Are you familiar with I Am Second? They start I Am Second (the title implies Jesus is first) groups rather than churches.

I hope Brian does restart his home group.

Can you think of any other names that wouldn’t be a turn off for people?

 

What’s in a name? Missional Community

The word, “missional” has become something of a buzz-word over recent years. Several friends such as Linda Bergquist and Alan Hirsch were involved in writing a Missional Manifesto which was published last year to help describe the term. Here’s the first sentence from the manifesto:

God is a sending God, a missionary God, who has called His people, the church, to be missionary agents of His love and glory.

Several of the mega-churches in our city have come to terms with the fact that , even if they multiplied themselves many times over, they wouldn’t be able to reach the city in the way they long to, and they are adopting simple/organic principles as a deliberate strategy. This isn’t just happening here in Austin, but all over the country.

I’ve led workshops at three of their conferences (like Verge and Exponential), and the main speakers at the conferences have included people like Neil Cole, David Watson, George Patterson, David Garrison–all of whom teach on simple/organic principles and church planting or disciple-making movements.

What these churches have come to recognize through the teachings of people like Alan Hirsch, is that an attractional model of church (“Come to our church service, come and hear our special speaker) isn’t nearly as effective as sending the members of their church into their communities and sub-cultures to reach out with the good news of Jesus. And although their church members might continue to come to the main church, the new “missional communities” formed in the harvest from the disciples that come to the Lord through their witness, are not expected to feed into the main church. These missional communities are autonomous, able to baptize and give communion, free to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead when they meet.

To all intents and purposes, they are simple/organic churches. “A rose by any other name is still a rose.”

I, personally, am very excited by this development. Mega-churches have huge resources of personnel. Imagine what could happen if these churches sent out their young people by their hundreds to form missional communities across the city.

Alongside this,  a slightly different model is also called a missional community. These “missional communities” originated in the UK. Mike Breen is the name most commonly associated with them. This model is larger–a small congregation with 25-50 people attending. They are not just a smaller version of Sunday morning, but have an upward focus (towards God) and inward focus towards their missional community and an outward focus into mission. They have spread into Europe and are now becoming better known here in the States.

What might happen in our cities if nobody minds who gets the credit?

What’s in a name? Different uses of the term, “organic”

The term, organic, means natural, nonchemical, living, and alive. When applied to church, it refers to something that grows naturally.

Photo credit: thebittenword (Creative Commons)

Two people have popularized the name, organic church within the simple/organic/house church world.

Neil Cole was the first one to do so with his superb book, Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens, which God has used to teach the principles of multiplication and harvest all over the world. He uses the term to refer to planting the seed of the Kingdom out in our communities where people need the Lord. Here’s a quote from the introduction:

What would it be like if churches emerged organically, like small spiritual families born out of the soil of lostness, because the seed of God’s Kingdom was planted there? These churches could reproduce, just like all living things do.

We have seen churches meeting in restaurants, offices, homes, university campuses, high school facilities and beaches. We’ve had churches meeting in bars, parks, coffeehouses and locker rooms…

Let the church be alive, organic, in the flesh. Let it be birthed in the places it is most needed. Let the church be fruitful and multiply…

In other words, Neil uses the term “organic” to refer to bearing fruit in the harvest. Everything “alive” that God created multiplies, and church should be the same way.

Another person who uses the term, “organic church” is Frank Viola. Frank has a passion for the Bride of Christ. He uses the term to refer to a church that has life within itself–the life of Jesus. Here’s a quote from the introduction of his book, Finding Organic Church:

By organic church, I mean a church that is born out of spiritual life instead of being constructed by human institutions and held together by religious programs. Organic church life is a grassroots experience that is marked by face-to-face community, every-member functioning, open-participatory meetings (as opposed to pastor-to-pew services), non-hierarchical leadership, and the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ as the functional Leader and Head of the gathering.

So Frank uses the term to apply to a community of believers whose life is centered around the living Christ.

It’s a question of emphasis. I’ve been in enough groups waiting on God with Neil to know that he believes in Jesus being the center and leader of the gatherings. And Frank has a desire to see the Gospel spread. They just use the term “organic” in different ways.

We need both emphases. We need organic church.

 

What’s in a name? Simple church

Why the term, “simple church”?

We love the story that gave the title to our book,The Rabbit and the Elephant, now republished in paperback as Small Is Big!: Unleashing the Big Impact of Intentionally Small Churches. It goes like this:

Imagine you take two elephants, for our purposes, a male and a female, and you lock them in a small room with plenty of food and water. You leave them there for three years. At the end of that time, when you open the door, what comes out? Three elephants. mom, dad and baby.

Now instead of two elephants, imagine you put two rabbits into the room. At the end of three years, when you open the door, you’d better run for your life, because millions of rabbits will explode out of the door.

The moral of the story is that something small and simple multiplies faster than something large and complex. (Yes, I know, I studied medicine. A rabbit is just as complex as an elephant at a cellular level. Think of a bacterium if you prefer. “The Bacterium and the Elephant” just isn’t as catchy.)

Our son, Tim, produced a great promo video for us that illustrates the concept.

The Rabbit and the Elephant from simplechurch.com on Vimeo.

I remember when the name, “simple church” first came up. A group of house church pioneers back in the early 2000′s used to get together semi-regularly and we often discussed the need for simplicity. A couple of them (including John White who now runs the Luke 10 community) started using the term “simple church” and somehow it caught on!

Simplicity is essential if we want to see multiplication. Simple things multiply; complex things break down.

What we model is crucial. If we demonstrate by example a talk or a sermon, we’ve stopped multiplication dead in its tracks. Most people fear public speaking more than death by fire or drowning, so very few new disciples would ever dare to start a church if they thought they had to give a talk. The same is true for “professional worship.” If an accomplished musician always leads the worship, people will think they cannot multiply without a musician. (Don’t get me wrong, I love beautiful worship music and (some) inspiring talks. But they don’t belong in a simple church context.)

The same is true with prayer. A sentence or two prayer with everyone praying several times is more effective in terms of getting people to pray than one person giving an eloquent five minute sermon prayer. A potluck meal is easier to reproduce than one person cooking a gourmet meal each week.

The terms, simple church, organic church and house church are used by most people interchangeably. Each term describes a different facet of what goes on. I looked at the term “house church” in the last post.

(Simple church, when used in the house/simple/organic church context isn’t to be confused with the book, Simple Church by Rainer and Geiger which is about designing a simple process of discipleship within any church structure.)

What’s in a name? House church

Very occasionally, I experience the almost surreal experience of being the person learning most from what I am teaching. The context in this particular instance: I was part of a team that was training people in a country hostile to the Gospel in how to identify the person of peace and start multiplying simple organic churches as a response to a major evangelistic meeting. Tens of thousands were giving their lives to the Lord at these times, and our training had two to three thousand attendees.

I found myself saying to these people, “It doesn’t matter how big the harvest is. God has already provided the buildings! He’s given us houses to meet in!”

Although here is the States we have plenty of buildings to meet in, a harvest of the size we all long for would swamp all our facilities. But God has provided the buildings here too. He’s provided our homes.

Photo Credit: Shapeshift (Creative Commons)

Of the three interchangeable words used to describe churches–house, simple and organic, for various reasons, house church is the one I like least. Here’s why. Firstly it implies that these groups only meet in houses whereas they can meet anywhere–restaurants, parking lots, college dorms–anywhere life happens. The second reason is that  for historical reasons, people associate the term “house church” with an insular,  inward looking group of people,, reacting against the establishment, and convinced that house church is the only Scriptural way to meet.

House church, however, is a Scriptural term used several times in the New Testament, for example, the church that meets in Aquila and Priscilla’s home  (Romans 16:4). Until Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire following the Edict of Milan in 313AD, the church, apart from a few short years right at the beginning of her existence, met in homes. Once Stephen’s martyrdom and the persecution of the church began, the only references which might be construed as having another venue are the Hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus where Paul held daily discussions (Acts 19:9), which he probably describes later when meeting with the Ephesian elders “I taught you publicly and from house to house” (Ephesians 20:20). Other than that, while Paul spoke often in synagogs or public places declaring the good news about Jesus, all references are to church meeting in homes.

The church began her journey meeting in homes. Could it be that she will end her journey the same way?

What is church?

The New Testament uses a number of different pictures of church: church is Christ’s body (Rom 12:5); it is a temple built with living stones (I Pet 2:5), it is a family (Eph 2:19).

Photo credit: Cia de Foto (Creative Commons)

The metaphor of family is very helpful.

Family is neither a building nor an event. Healthy families will get together often, but it’s not the get-togethers that make them family. It’s the relationships. We are family, we don’t do family. Families share life together. Their interaction isn’t limited to Sunday lunch. They love each other, live life together, share one another’s burdens, care for one another, at times they will reprove one another and teach one another.

Sounds like the “one anothers” of the New Testament.

Similarly, church is relationships, but the difference between church and any other set of relationships is the presence of Jesus. As Robert Fitts says in Saturation Church Planting:

When two or three true, born-again believers come together in His name, Jesus is in the midst. Jesus in the midst is church! It is a different experience than Jesus within. We cannot experience Jesus in the midst when we are alone. We can only experience Jesus in the midst when we are in company with others–at least one or two others.

But is it church in the fullest sense of the word? Yes, it is a church in the fullest sense of the word. It is the basic church. You can have more than two or three and it is still a church, but it does not become “more church” because there are more than two or three. It only becomes bigger church.