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.

What church can look like: a story from last week

Last week the church that meets in our home came together on Friday. In one sense, it wasn’t an unusual time, but God worked powerfully.

We had a new family with us this week, friends from work brought by someone who comes along when he can. “Build your own salad” was on the menu, people bringing salad toppings or fruit to contribute to the meal. We are trying to eat very healthy as a group because one or two who come have major health issues. Lots of laughter and sharing around the tables.

Then we gathered in our living room–people on sofas, sitting on the floor, on extra chairs brought in. Toddlers running around. Dogs lazing on the carpet. “What has God been doing in anyone’s life this week?” asks Becky, our daughter who often leads.

There are a number of really exciting things God has been doing in people’s lives–several of them related to various prayer projects that have been going on with our group. (We’ve seen some amazing miracles over the last few months.) People shared, and we gave praise to God.

One of the topics that came up during this time was faith. So we decided to look at the passage in Romans 10 that talks about faith. (“Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.”) The group was too large for everyone to participate, so we broke down into several groups of 4-5 people who all went to different parts of the house. I don’t know what went on in the other groups, but in our group, the talk went to some very deep things that are going on in people’s lives.

When the whole group came back together, we prayed for different needs. People had pictures and prophetic words, Scriptures and practical help to give.

As our time together came to an end, people began clearing up the mess and a few headed out to our hot tub. One young man, who had come with the visiting family, was obviously very moved by what was going on. Tony and a few others talked with him. His situation was really bad–he was scared and angry. When given the opportunity, he was hungry to learn more about Jesus and wanted to surrender his life to him. He wept his way into the Kingdom.

There was water (warm even)! What was to prevent him from being baptized? (Acts 8:36-37) He was baptized in the hot tub and came out of the water absolutely radiant. A new member of the family!

 

What church isn’t

In the last series of posts we looked at how a legacy church might transition to a network of simple/organic churches. A less disruptive way might be for a legacy church to run a second track where only those who have vision for the change get involved in the new expression of church. Whichever way is chosen, there are some principles that the people involved need to internalize for the move to succeed. This next series of posts will look at what principles need to be stressed to accomplish this.

The word “church” is commonly used in three different ways.

  • The building: I left my bag in the church
  • To describe a specific group of people meeting together: New Life Church, First Baptist Church
  •  A denomination: The Catholic Church, the Assemblies of God Church

While all of these three may be useful terms in that we know exactly what they mean, none of them is a Biblical use of the word (with the possible exception of the second one). In fact the third one, the denomination, may be actively anti-Biblical in that Paul told us not to divide from one another, “I am of Paul,” “I am of Apollos” (I Corinthians 1:12-13).

Photo credit: cuellar (Creative Commons)

While most of us have come to the conclusion that church isn’t the building, we still tend to use it to describe the event, the meeting. “I go to church on Sunday morning.” Again this places limitations that aren’t there in the Scripture.

If this isn’t church, then what is?

The next post will cover this.

 

Why is transition so hard? Death Valley!

Why is transitioning a church so difficult? Because when existing Christians get involved in simple/organic church life they have to go through a process that our friend Wolfgang Simson calls “Death Valley.” And it’s usually a slow and painful journey. Jesus told us in the parable of the wineskins that those who have tasted the old wine will say,  “The old wine is better.” Until the Lord changes people’s DNA, they are more likely to return to what they have known.

So what is Death Valley?

It’s as though someone on the mountain top of legacy church can see the mountain top of simple/organic church in the distance, and they assume that they can go straight from one mountain top to the other. What they don’t realize is that is a valley between the two–Death Valley.

Old traditions die hard. I remember one awesome family leaving us because the mother couldn’t handle not dressing her children in their Sunday best to come to church! In order to experience the liberty that simple church represents, people who have been Christians for any length of time have to die to some of the very good things that legacy church represents.

  • Professionally led worship–in simple church you are lucky to have an out-of-tune guitar.
  • Well prepared talks–there’s no pastor who can spend hours preparing a stimulating sermon. Everyone takes part in an interactive discussion.
  • Children and teens ministry–you can’t just drop your kids off at Sunday School to have an hour free from distractions.
  • Someone else to make all the decisions–in simple/organic church, everyone is involved.
Dying to these things is not quick. It’s a process… a painful process.
Some people get part way through the process and find it too hard. They feel guilty on Sunday mornings when they don’t have to get up for church. They miss the exuberant worship and praise.
They go back to their legacy church.
But for those who press through to simple/organic, it is worth it for
  • The sense of community–people are very involved in each other’s lives
  • Everyone can participate–not just a few in  leadership.
  • The Holy Spirit is in charge of the times together (unless you are doing “Honey, I shrunk the church!”
  • Freedom from religious expectations and traditions
  • The sense of being on mission with God, reaching out to a world that doesn’t know him
  • The excitement of giving birth to daughter and granddaughter churches

Interview with a pastor: why he’s committed to simple/organic principles

Even though David Havice has faced challenges in transitioning his legacy church to a network of simple/organic churches, he is still committed to simple/organic church. Here’s the conclusion of my interview with him. You can view the first two parts of the interview here and here.

Felicity: I know with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, if you were to do it again, you might tackle it differently. What would you do? 

David: I think if I were getting ready to do it again, I would just resign as pastor of the legacy church, help find a new pastor, and then move to a new area to start from scratch, with an eye to reaching unchurched and unbelieving people. Jesus wants the old wine and the new wine to be preserved!

Felicity: In spite of all the challenges, you are still committed to simple/organic principles. Why?

David: There are several reasons.

  1. I see it as the best way to share the real life of what the church is to be about! Openness, transparency, shared life, prayer support, love and acceptance. Some of our people had been in traditional church together for years, but when they started participating In house church, they were amazed at what they found out about one another!
  2. I see it as the best way to get rid of “religious” mindsets and habits. People are able to be more real, more themselves and to be accepted that way, rather than trying to fit the “church mold” – the prevailing idea that congregations have of what their “ideal congregant” should be like! Its amazing to me that God created each individual uniquely different and then we as the church, often try to make everyone alike!
  3. It provides a way for everyone to participate, not spectate!
  4. I also believe that the house/simple/organic church movement is a bit prophetic in nature, and may very well be God’s preparation for a time yet to come, in which legacy churches would not be allowed. (That may sound like heresy here in America, but it has happened in other places!)
  5. Nodya (my wife) and I just love the simplicity of it! Being able to “wait” on the Holy Spirit to lead a meeting, not feeling the pressure of the clock and the program! Seeing the “light” come on in someone’s eyes as they get it! IT HAS REVOLUTIONIZED OUR LIVES!

Interview with a pastor who transitioned his church (part 2)

What challenges do you face when try to transition a legacy church into a network of simple/organic churches? This post continues the interview with David Havice.

Felicity: You obviously hit some challenges when you transitioned your church. Can you describe them?

David: The normal challenges were there and revolved around three areas: Spiritual concepts , emotional issues, and physical logistics. (I describe these and the process we went through in a small ebooklet “Journey Through Transition” which I will send free to anyone who would like a copy!)

The greater challenge is not the initial transition stage – I would say we did this successfully. It’s the ongoing process of grasping the deeper changes! The main one would be moving from a church-centric vision to a kingdom-centric vision. After 7 years we have grown from 6 house churches to basically two house churches! Some of the people who made the transition with us just weren’t able to continue through what I would call “the rhythms of life”: children, toddlers, etc. Changing needs in the existing body brought about changing ideas on how to best cope with those needs and house church wasn’t always the easiest answer!

We have worked hard at releasing people kindly, when they felt the need to leave! My biggest disappointment is that somehow, we’ve not been able to GRASP the MISSIONAL emphasis and go with it!

Felicity: Do you believe it’s possible to transition successfully? What would make a difference?

I believe its possible – but I don’t think it will ever be easy! Any leader who determines that a legacy church can be transitioned should be ready for heartache and loss – as some people just won’t get it. Again, I think it’s a wineskin issue. There are people who fall through the cracks – they start out with the idea of change, and then can’t fully cope, so rather than going back, they just drop out!

Most of all, a leader who embraces transition for the whole church should be patient, and set for the long haul! Ultimately, what survives all the changes will be totally different than what that leader started with, and even then, there will always be the tendency in those who were a part of the legacy church to “look back”. I believe that is a DNA issue, and I’m not sure how much that can really be changed without a major work by God in the heart of each person.

Felicity: What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of transitioning their church?

David: Here are a few pointers.

  1. Make sure God is in it (but even when He is, be prepared for an outcome different from what you expected.
  2. Don’t see it as another way to grow the church – Turn your eyes to the Kingdom and look for how you can have the most impact in reaching people.
  3. Prepare your people for serving others, rather than being served! Help them understand that some of the things they are used to will not necessarily be available any more – the perks and benefits of a traditional programmatic church. It really isn’ t about us, its about Him and His Kingdom!
  4. Build in the MISSIONAL perspective from the outset – not as an idea for those who are most outgoing, but as a necessary framework for each believer!
  5. Help people understand that the church is much more fluid than static and that we don’t have to exist perpetually in the same form!

In the third part of this interview, we’ll look at why David is still committed to simple/organic church principles.

Interview with a pastor who transitioned his church (part 1)

The following is part of an interview with David Havice, a good friend, and pastor of a traditional church who transitioned to a network of simple/organic churches.

Felicity: What made you decide to transition your legacy church into a network of simple/organic churches?

David: We were a small congregation in a town of multiple megachurches as well as seeing “new works” appearing regularly! Tired of the status quo and the competitive spirit among churches, we began to pray, asking the Lord about our niche, and what we should be doing. Ultimately that led us to the whole idea of the house/simple/organic approach, and a basic belief that God was indeed leading us in that direction!

Felicity: What process did you go through? How long did it take?

We started by sharing the ideas, thoughts and information with the leadership structure, first the elders, then the life group leaders. At each level, we gave them time to think, process, research, and ask questions. After this group was “on board” and felt somewhat comfortable with it, we presented it to the whole congregation, through a series of teachings, sharing, and discussion. We actually launched on the first Sunday of January 2006. During the initial phase of transition, we moved things around, both physically in the sanctuary and in their minds as well. We confronted thought processes, old paradigms about what the church is and shared new ideas to stretch their thinking. All in all, there was about a 6 month lead up to the actual launch. We gave people permission to leave if they didn’t feel comfortable, but we did ask them to try it for three months before they decided!

Part 2 of this interview will be posted on Friday!

 

A personal story for Memorial Day: in memory of my father

My father, Peter English, was one of the kindest, gentlest men I’ve ever known.

Peter English: 1919 – 2003

In World War 2, my father volunteered to serve in the British Army. His regiment was sent to Singapore, where he was captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore and  taken to Burma. He labored on the infamous Railroad of Death, helping to build the bridge over the River Kwai. He watched from a few hundred yards away as the bridge was bombed by the Allies. (If any of you have read the book, Miracle on the River Kwai, my father was with the author through most of that time.)

The torture and atrocities of life in the POW camps were unspeakable–and my father was silent on the topic for most of my growing up years. Yet the war was always present with us–in the nightmares he suffered, in the fact that we never had a Japanese product in the house. His closest friends were always those who had been with him through the war.

I therefore had mixed feelings when Tony and I took our first trip to Japan. What would I think about the race of people who had been responsible for my father’s pain? In one sense it was nothing to do with me–it had all happened to a previous generation. Yet I found myself surprisingly troubled by being there, especially when I saw someone elderly or in uniform.

At the end of our first conference, we had a time for feedback. I mentioned how healing it was for me to have Japanese friends because my father had been in a Japanese POW camp. To my surprise, the Japanese we were with broke down in tears.

“Please give your father a message from us,” they sobbed. “Tell him we are so very, very sorry for the way we treated him.”  These people were far too young to have been in the war.

Also present in the group were two others who had been personally impacted by the war. There was a Korean girl whose parents had been captured by the Japanese and deported to Japan. And then there was a Japanese girl from Hiroshima whose family had been deeply affected by the nuclear bomb that ended the war. If I remember rightly, her grandmother had survived the bombing even though she was quite close to the center of the blast, but never spoke of it until towards the end of her life. The people of Hiroshima live with the constant reminder of “The Bomb.”  They are taught about it from a very young age in their schools; they live with the sickness that has resulted from the radiation.

The group of people we were with then prayed through the situation. With tears, we repented on behalf of our nations for what had happened during the war. We prayed for healing. It was a powerful, Spirit-breathed time of restoration.

I look back on that time of prayer as one of the most healing times in my life.