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How do we respond when our radical thinking becomes mainstream?

This post is a follow up on trend number 4 from the last post, that we will see an increasing acceptance of simple/organic church principles across the legacy church spectrum.

Back in the UK, in the 1970s and 80's, we were involved in what was then known as the "British House Church Movement."  It was a heady, exciting time taking place against the backdrop of the charismatic renewal that swept much of the world, and it transformed the church landscape of the UK.   Although it became a megachurch movement because we did not have a theology of multiplying the small, for its day it was a radical, forward-thinking movement embodying many of the principles we now hold dear–things like non-religious Christianity, every member participation etc.  We reckon that about one third of British evangelicalism was transformed by that move of God over the next decade or so.

Fast forward a few years to 1996.  We are now in the States, having gone through 9 years of God's favorite training school on the backside of the desert, and God starts speaking to us after 9 years of silence.  The first thing he says is,"You'll be a part of a move of my Spirit again."  The implications of this as we asked the Lord about it is that we would see a  move of the Spirit that would have a similar impact on the church landscape of America.

When the simple/organic movement began to gain momentum a few years ago, it was generally dismissed as, at best, irrelevant.  We were the radicals, the minority with some crazy ideas.  We never dreamt that these ideas would become mainstream. But this is happening right in front of our eyes!  For example, Austin Stone, one of the 100 fastest growing churches in the country, is a megachurch here in Austin.  Earlier this year they held a conference called Verge.  It was sold out within a few short weeks.  Around 2,000 people attended, almost all from mega- and legacy churches, with more than 4,000 joining online.  What is interesting is that the majority of the speakers were simple/organic/house church proponents–people like Neil Cole, David Watson, David Garrison, George Patterson, Alan Hirsch.  They spoke about missional communities, Luke 10 principles and church planting movements.  This coming year, Verge is joining with Exponential for the largest church planters conference in the country and the theme will be similar.

Not only that, Austin Stone actively encourages their people to start missional communities with unbelievers, not insisting that those people and those they reach, come back to the mother church. Maybe because of this relaxed approach, most choose to stay in close relationship with them.  Here in Austin, several of the mega churches are actively seeking to reach out with the missional community approach.  They recognize it as the only way to effectively touch every part of society.

The Lord has given Joel Hunter, the senior pastor of Northland: A Church Distributed, in Orlando, a new task.  They are to facilitate the start of 1 million house churches around the world.  In typical Northland fashion, they are doing this by partnering with other groups who are more directly involved in missions or house churches, and they seek no credit for their part in what is created.

Like it or not,  (and personally I am very excited about it even though I recognize some of the potential pitfalls)  simple/organic church concepts are in the process of becoming mainstream. Many mega- and legacy churches see this as the way forward. God is speaking to them, and he's saying the same things to them that he is speaking to those of us involved in simple/organic churches. And to be honest, as some of these churches embrace the principles of reaching out to the world via missional communities, they have the potential to change our cities even more than we do because many of them have large numbers of young, radical, on-fire disciples who are longing to reach out into their communities.

The secular media is taking notice.  There are an increasing number of articles such as this one about house churches.  According to the latest Pew Forum figures, 9% of Protestants worship in their homes. Legacy churches of all kinds are embracing simple/organic church principles and attempting to implement them within their context.

My question is, how are we going to react?  Those of us in the simple/organic church movement have several options:

  1. Are we going to criticize because they aren't doing everything right (according to our thinking)?  That we have the "pure" form of church and unless they do it our way, they are taking a lower path.
  2. Are we going to cheer them on from the sidelines?
  3. Are we going to work cooperatively with them, rejoicing in all that God is doing in their midst, helping where we can, accepting their help where they offer it? 

Personally, I'm for number 3.   What could happen in our cities if we all work together and nobody minds who gets the credit?

11 replies on “How do we respond when our radical thinking becomes mainstream?”

I’m for number 3 as well. I think that people trying to take the glory for themselves is one of things that the organic church seems to against. If organic church members develop an us/them mentality, it is no better than the clergy/laity dichotomy that affects the mainstream chuches. One of the things that I think makes God angry is when people are excluded from his family. Someone once told me that this is why Jesus overturned the money changers and drove out the livestock. It wasn’t just the corruption but the fact that this was set up in the Court of the Gentiles, and the believing Gentiles were excluded from worship as a result. I’m not sure if that’s exactly true from a historical standpoint as I haven’t done the research, but it does serve as a good reminder.

as long as its a legitimate move of God and not a fad I’m all for it. If it’s of God it will happen with a demonstration of the power of the Spirit. I’m personally sick of men trying to organize the administration of the Kingdom. When will we just get out of the way?

I believe the Pew Foundation’s estimates were 9% of American Protestants considered house church as their only church. David Olson reported that, in 2009, Protestants (Evangelical plus Mainline) in church on a given Sunday were about 14% of the total population. My guess is that not many Mainline folks are in house churches so the percentage drops to about 10% of the population being in a church. Multiply 9% times 10% and you get a little less than 1% of the total population (about 3 million) in a house church on a given Sunday. This number seems more realistic to me.
My guess is that 10 years ago the number in house church was less than .01% (no statistics to back that up – just my experience). So, it is still my subjective opinion that the house church movement is the fasted growing segment of the American church.

If “radical” thinking becomes mainstream, it was probably never radical to begin with. “Radical Christianity” is simply authentic believers. Jesus said,”Few would find life.” He said, “We must lose our lives if we want to save them.” He said we must hate even our own families to follow him.” He said, “The world would hate us like it hated him”! In most of our safe little communities we go about our normal lives and doing church meetings when we can and trying desperately to not upset anyone. Most have not ever experienced persecution and rejection, like our Lord Jesus. I doubt if many in the US have seen true Christianity. Try looking to China where people run, hide, and still cry tears of praise for Jesus though they are beaten and imprisoned. Because we meet outside of the organized buildings, we are radical? Silly. There will come a time when our faith will be proven. Where or how you gather has little to do with being crucified to the world and the world crucified to you. Remember, no student is above his teacher. If we learn to live, love and walk like Jesus the world and the religious folks will try to kill us.
In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,(2 Tim 3:12)
God help us all truly be authentic followers of Jesus.(Radical)

I’m afraid I remain unconvinced that elephants can effectively give birth to rabbits. (Wasn’t there a book about that?) Biology tells us that these “animals” simply have a different DNA. Having been on the staff of a rapidly growing mega church, I know that this is true. Jesus affirms this same principle in Lk 6:40 – “A disciple when he is fully trained becomes like his teacher.” That is, living things reproduce “in kind”.
While I believe there are some well intentioned, godly leaders in some mega churches, in general, I think many of these folks know deep down that what they are doing isn’t really working. (See the Willow Creek “Reveal” study.) As a result they are continually looking for the next new “thing” (satellite sites! Really?) House church (or missional communities, if you like) is the next “thing”. My prediction is that the house church fad will be abandoned in a few years when they realize that it doesn’t help the “mother ship”.
Sorry to be so cynical but I’ve been on the inside of mega churches and I know what it takes to to keep them afloat.
This doesn’t mean that we should “throw stones” at these churches and their leaders. I think we should take every opportunity to talk about what NT church is really about (small intimate spiritual families led by Jesus). I just don’t think that, in the long run, they will be the key to restoring NT Christianity.

My suspicion is the same as John’s — that they see this is the next new church growth program. But I’m all for it and am confident God will use it. I attend a “legacy” church and just had a meeting with my pastor about launching small groups in the new year and a lot of our discussion was how to use our small groups in a missional way for reaching into the community and expanding the kingdom — not Sunday attendance. We’ll see.
Also, a study by the Center for Missional Research commissioned a Zogby study that found that 26.3 percent of Americans said yes to this question: “Do you meet weekly with a group of 20 people or less to pray and study Scriptures as your primary form of spiritual or religious gathering?” So that’s three studies I know of — Pew and Barna being the others — that pretty much got the same answer. Something sure is going on.

John mentioned David Olson’s research which has always impressed me since his numbers are based on actual head counts, as opposed to phone polling where people are notoriously likely to “inflate” their church attendance records. I don’t know, but suspect that Barna, Pew and Zogby are phone-based polls. So I also am pretty skeptical about the raw number estimates of people active in something like a House Church. But as for the growth rate and the sense of something really significant spreading even among Mega- and “Legacy-” style churches, that sure seems to be what I’m seeing in my little corner of the Kingdom.

I am taking a “wait and see” approach.
If, like Felecity says, they are willing not to have the new communities return to the mother church; then I think it is very possible.
However, I do see one hurdle, that isn’t impossible, that they will probably have to cross to see reproduceable communities.
The question is if they can send people out that do not fall back on the sermon/audience mentality. People usually reproduce what they are modeled more than what they are taught. Modeling one thing with the mother church sending them out, and reproducing something else that looks different IS POSSIBLE!!!!! But its not easy.
It would be like my father sending me out modeling one thing, and asking me to parent another way, it will take some training. I wish them the best.

As part of my study on the Japanese house church movement ( I looked at the British House Church Movement and a few other similar movements since then, and in particular about the issue of mainstreaming.
I think you’re right that the BHCM didn’t necessarily have small, reproducible structures built in, but I think another, bigger issue is that it was a victim of its own success, and I think this is a consideration for the organic church movement too: dynamic movements are very, very hard to sustain because there’s a very human tendency towards structure and organization, particularly when these movements grow.
Max Weber wrote about what he called the “routinization of charisma” – when charismatic, visionary leadership gets replaced several generations down the line by, well, managers. Because, for one thing, not everyone sees themself as a visionary leader, and management is an awful lot easier. And it’s all done out of good intentions. This is exactly what happened to the BHCM, and I can see it happening to the organic church movement to. The temptation is there to add layers of oversight, (hey, accountability is good, right?) training (we do conference already, why don’t we open a training center?) and bureaucracy until the movement stops being a movement.
My worry is that I don’t really see anyone taking this seriously. “But we’re living out authentic Christianity.” Well yes, you are. But look what happened to, let’s face it, every single Christian movement so far throughout two thousand years of history. And every single one of those thought they were restoring the pattern of the NT church too.
And in a way they were, because the NT church very quickly systematized too. You have to fight hard and continuously to avoid the negative effects of mainstreaming, and to be honest I am not sure you ever really can.
But there’s an opportunity in this, because God tends to bring along new dynamic movements of His Spirit once institutionalisation sets in. So I will proudly look forward to the “next new thing” and the “next new thing” after that, because I always want to see where God is doing something new.

Simon, sorry to have taken so long to respond to these excellent comments. Life has been crazy recently…
I greatly enjoyed your paper on Japan. For those not familiar with the British House Church Movement, all over the country, churches started in homes. But they rapidly grew, and because we had no theology of small, they became very large churches.
We once asked John Noble (from the house church movement in the UK) where he thought things went wrong with that movement. He said there were two main problems: they became arrogant, and the majored on minors. They were a very young movement (unlike what is happening here) and they didn’t have the maturity or humility to handle things well. Personally I believe one of the problems of that movement was that they didn’t equip ordinary people to become missional.
I did a study on revivals a few years back. Those that lasted more than a few years (think the Moravians, the Methodists, China, Korea) had an intentional small-group structure. Compare that to the flash-in-the-pan revivals of Wales, the Hebrides, Indonesia etc. Compare the long-term impact of Wesley and Whitfield. Another common denominator, interestingly, is that those that lasted used women in leadership.
Apart from God’s grace, we will not escape the issues of the British House Church Movement. (not the same, but it will be others that derail us.) Just this morning, Tony and I were chatting over this. The movement has already moved from being primarily pioneers to being early or middle adopters. How does one maintain the radical passion of the early days? “House church (or simple or organic church) has now become a buzz word. Legacy churches are changing the name of their small group structures without changing the DNA.
Like you, I’m looking for what God is doing next.

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