A fashionable fad

Several years ago, in our book The Rabbit and the Elephant: Why Small Is the New Big for Today’s Church, I wrote a chapter on some of the potential pitfalls the house church movement might face as it became “fashionable.” Here’s what I said:

Another hazard is that of becoming fashionable, the latest phenomenon in church statistics, the trendy alternative to traditional church. There will always be people who hop onto the bandwagon because they want to be part of the latest thing, not because the Holy Spirit is leading them. But those who join the simple church movement without truly understanding and living out its DNA will soon find that what they have is only a pale substitute for the real thing.

Photo Credit: MSVG via Compfight cc

I believe we have seen this come to pass over the past few years. Many people started groups outside the four walls of the sacred building in response to the leading of the Holy Spirit, often working with those who didn’t know the Lord. But as “house church” became a buzz word, others became involved because they wanted to be on the cutting edge of what God is doing. Churches changed their home groups to house churches without changing anything more than the name. For some it seemed a good idea and a way to escape the tedium of the status quo. So they did what they’ve always known in terms of meetings, but exchanged the pew for a sofa.

Some of the incredible growth we have seen (The Pew Forum reckons that 9% of Protestants “attend religious services” in homes) is due to this phenomenon. That phase is coming to an end. Those groups that only changed their name will either die,  join the next fad, or, hopefully, seek the Lord to change them. House/simple/organic church is now mainstream and I don’t think that will change, but what emerges over the next few years may be a truer reflection of what God is doing through this movement.

Just my two cents worth as I look back on the incredible things God has done. What do you think?

How to find a simple/organic/house church in your area

One of the most common communications I get is this: “I live in ——. Do you know of a house church in my area?”

It can be difficult to find a simple/organic church. We don’t put a sign outside our house saying “Church Meets Here.”  We’re not listed in the Yellow Pages under “Churches.” Contact usually happens by word of mouth.

The best way I know to find a simple/organic church in your area is via House2House. It has a “find a church” map where if you type in your zip code it will list the simple/organic churches near you. If you already have a church, why not submit your church’s information?  You’ll find people contacting you who are looking for fellowship.

But I think there’s a better way.

Most of the people who contact me with that request have been Christians for years. They don’t need to find a simple/organic church where their needs will be met and where they will be well taught. They are mature believers. They have much to give. Why don’t they pray about starting a church themselves?

Don’t know how to start a church? Go to one of CMA’s Greenhouse conferences. Or go through this online 6 week church planting course. The House2House site is full of useful resources and are always ready to help anyone who contacts them.

Anyone interested?

 Photo Credit: Arty Smokes (deaf mute) (Creative Commons)

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.

 

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? 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 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.

To transition or not to transition: that is the question

As the simple/organic movement becomes more mainstream, and the financial trends force more and more traditional churches to cut back economically, then many churches are asking the question: should we transition our legacy church into a network of simple/organic churches?

Church2
Photo credit: Dan4th (Creative Commons)

Every church needs to hear from the Lord about their specific situation, but the next few posts will look at some of the pros and cons of this step and some other potential alternatives.

Jesus described some principles that speak into this situation when he gave the parable about putting new wine into old wineskins.

And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the new wine would burst the wineskins, spilling the wine and ruining the skins. New wine must be stored in new wineskins. But no one who drinks the old wine seems to want the new wine. ‘The old is just fine,’ they say. (Luke 5:36-39)

Jesus cared about the wine, and therefore he had concern for the wineskins. Similarly he cares about the people in our churches, and therefore he cares about our structures. Jesus said that if people have tasted the old wine, they won’t want the new, and this is true when it comes to transitioning churches too. Many people are comfortable with the old and familiar ways of doing things, and asking them to change is going to rock their world so much they may leave. They didn’t sign up for simple/organic church and they aren’t going to change their minds quickly.

There are now many examples of churches that have successfully transitioned. We’ll examine the following topics over the next few posts.

  • Why might a church consider transitioning? Pros and cons
  • What lessons can we learn from those who have transitioned successfully?
  • Are there alternatives to transitioning that still accomplish the same goals?

I’d love to hear some of your examples.

 

 

 

Do you need some help on the simple/organic journey?

Every year, the Board of House2House (a ministry providing resources for simple/organic/house churches that Tony and I helped to found in 2000) spends a few days together seeking the Lord.  We want to know his emphasis for us over the coming year. Because we have a philosophy that we would rather stop something than continue without the presence of the Holy Spirit, we ask the same question:

"Lord, do you want us to continue, or is our work done? Is there someone doing it better? Should we stop the ministry?"

This January, the question seemed more pressing than usual because simple/organic church has become mainstream here in this country and there are many great resources available. 

What we sensed the Lord say to us is this: there is a continuum of churches across the nation, from more traditional at one end to simple/organic at the other. The Lord is shifting many churches (both house and traditional), denominations and missions towards the more organic end of the spectrum.

House2House is to help in this shift.

Katies-bio
In order to accomplish this, we have decided to make coaching available for people who would like help and encouragement along the journey. The Board has initially asked Katie Driver, an experienced coach who has done much to encourage the simple/organic movement in her region, if she would be willing to take on that responsibility. Katie has over 27 years of missional experience, training and igniting people in their unique design and calling. She has started many diverse, simple, organic and missional fellowships over the last 15 years and has also worked extensively through legacy churches to encourage simple, organic and missional expressions of church life. She is a trainer and coach for CMAresources’ Greenhouse, and is on the board for House2House.  

Obviously, coaching could address a number of different situations, but within the House2House context we anticipate the following people/groups may benefit:

 

  • You feel alone in your simple, organic church journey and would like some encouragement.
  • You're  in a legacy church that desires to become more organic and missional.
  • Your simple church has lost its energy and sense of purpose. You've reached a barrier and don’t know how to push through.
  • You'd like to start a simple, organic church but don’t know where to begin.
  • You long to be missional but struggle in reaching the people around you with the good news of Jesus Christ but lack the skills.

 If you are interested, check out the coaching section of the House2House website

 

 

How our standard poodle was witness to my failure

Winston H. Churchill is the full name of our standard poodle. (Winston Churchill obviously stems from our British heritage. The middle initial, "H," stands for Houdini which we added after he twice escaped from a wire kennel, leaving the door bolted behind him. No, don't ask!)

Winston before
Winston: before grooming

One of the advantages of a standard poodle is that they do not shed. The disadvantage is that they need grooming. Let me explain what Winston and his dreadlocks have to do with God's Kingdom and church planting.

Six months ago I would have struggled to find the books of Haggai and Zechariah; now my Bible falls open to those pages. God has been speaking clearly and specifically to Tony and me from these books about many of the things we are involved in: our personal lives, the direction our business should take, what is going on with the simple/organic/house church movement. 

To understand these books, it helps to know a little of the history. The first waves of the Children of Israel have returned from 70 years of captivity in Babylon. Led by Zerubbabel the Governor, and Jeshua the High Priest, they lay the foundations of the Temple in an attempt to rebuild Solomon's Temple, destroyed when Nebuchadnezzar invaded. But the local people (not Israelites, but others who have been relocated to their land) conspire to stop the work. For almost 20 years, the rebuilding of the Temple is abandoned. In the meantime, the Israelites settle back into their various towns and villages to rebuild their own houses.

Enter the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. They prophecy to the leaders and to the people telling them that many of the challenges they face, from financial difficulties to crop failures to drought, stem from the fact that they have neglected to rebuild God's temple. When Haggai and Zechariah prophecy the promise of God's presence and blessing  (I am with you, says the Lord (Haggai 1:13)), it is enough to galvanize Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the Israelites back into action. Within four short years the Temple is completed.

The church in our nation  is in rapid, overall decline.  Christianity is fast becoming outdated and outmoded. It's time for us to rebuild the Temple. I'm not referring to physical bricks and mortar here, but to the Kingdom, God's spiritual temple built with spiritual stones. These spiritual stones are people, followers of Jesus (1Peter 2:5).

The Lord has been convicting me over recent days through the book of Haggai and through T4T teaching that I need to be more vocal about my faith. How will we ever see a move of God here if no seed of the Kingdom is sown? If I preach the importance of speaking about our faith, then I must live it too.

As I looked at my day early yesterday morning, the one occasion I was likely to get to chat with a non-believer was when I took Winston for his end-of-winter hair cut. I determined I was going to find an opportunity to share my spiritual story with the lady who grooms him.

I failed. Completely. Someone else was in the store and I chickened out!  (Yes, I know. It's all about listening to the Lord and speaking to those he tells us to talk to.) 

God help me!

Winston after
Winston: after grooming

 

Fast multiplication: principles behind an abundant harvest

No farmer would expect to reap a harvest of wheat in a field where he had not sown seed.

Seed

Photo credit: CIMMYT (Creative Commons)

Why do we believers expect to reap a harvest of souls where we haven't sown spiritual seed?

There are similar principles of multiplication behind both physical and spiritual reaping and sowing. If we expect to see people become followers of Jesus without sowing the seed of the Kingdom, we are deluding ourselves.

What does this look like? According to Luke 8:11, the seed of the Kingdom is the word of God. In Matthew 13:38, the good seed represents the people of the Kingdom.

While at the Verge conference, I had the opportunity to attend some T4T training with Ying Kai. The T4Tmovement has seen more than 1.7 million baptisms and 150,000 new churches start since 2001.

What is the difference between what they see there compared to what we see in the West? They sow seed. Not just the occasional seed here or there. They sow abundantly.

The foundation behind their training is that each new believer is trained to share the good news of Jesus in simple ways right from the day they become a disciple. And not just once or twice. Each person is encouraged to share their personal story as a bridge to the Gospel, five times per week. 

Is it surprising that they reap a big harvest?