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 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.

 

Are there advantages to living in a post-Christian nation?

Derelict church
Photo credit: phill.d (Creative Commons)

The way this country is trending, unless the Lord intervenes, it may not be long before the USA is a post-Christian nation. Only 4% of adults currently have a Biblical worldview as the basis of their decision-making. We are potentially only a generation away from being like many countries in Europe where the church is effectively irrelevant.

I've lived in a country that is post Christian. When we lived in the UK,  active Christians made up about 2% of the population. In the very poor area of London where we lived, less than 0.5% were in church on any given Sunday.

Recently, I've met with one of our medical school friends who has become a Christian (he describes himself as "the happy-clappy variety") since leaving medical school. One of his first comments to me was,  "Do you remember how all the rest of us used to ridicule and persecute the Christians?"

Persecution of Christians wasn't physical, but it was social/emotional. In the media, Christians are portrayed as weak-minded wimps. They are laughed at in institutes of higher learning. There is a definite cost to discipleship.

But this has some positive effects:

  • People take a discipleship lifestyle much more seriously. Admitting to being a Christian is not a step to be taken lightly. 
  • Light shines brighter in the darkness. The contrast between believers and non-believers is greater.
  • There's a sense of deeper community. You have less in common with the world and stronger relationships with those of God's family.
  • It's exciting to meet someone else who's a believer–something to discuss over the dinner table.
  • Christians and churches tend to work together more cooperatively. There's much less separation along denominational or theological lines.

 

The future of the church in the West

The church landscape in this country is changing.

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Ecclesiology lies along a continuum. At one end churches are  traditional, structured and liturgical; at the other end they are simple, organic, and missional. Most lie somewhere in between. But a shift is occurring. Many churches are taking steps towards the organic, missional end of the spectrum. The Lord may not lead them to move completely to that end of the continuum, but the changes they are making appear more organic than traditional. 

What is most important is that wherever we are along the continuum, our focus in on the King and his Kingdom.

What are the reasons for the shift?

  1. As the nation slides towards a post-Christian status, church is no longer at the center of social life. People no longer think about going to church on a Sunday. Across the board, denominations, missions groups and churches recognize that an attractional form of church is no longer effective for the future.  Many are exploring the concept of missional communities or simple/organic churches.
  2. The current economic crisis is affecting many churches. Just in the last month or so, we have been working with a church locally that can no longer afford to keep their building. They are therefore looking at a more organic network of smaller churches.
  3. A subtle, but increasing hostility towards Christianity is affecting some churches. For example, in New York, recent legislation means that more than 60 churches are no longer allowed to use schools or similar buildings to meet in.
  4. As churches follow the Holy Spirit, some of them are hearing the Lord leading them this way.

The definition of insanity is to keep doing what we've always done and assume we'll get different results. If the church continues the way she has been for the last several decades, we'll find ourselves in  a post-Christian society.  

Is God using this shift along the continuum to prepare us for what lies ahead?

 

 

Guest post by Roger Thoman: 5 pitfalls of missions

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Roger and Brooks Thoman train and coach leaders in several developing countries, to multiply disciples and simple churches.  The poor are empowered as part of the process of disciplemaking assisted by strategic investments in projects that are pioneered and managed by national leaders.

Their ministry site can be found here, and Roger's blog, Simple Church Journal, is here.

 

A few days ago I received an email from Roger Thoman in response to some of the posts I'm writing on missions. His thoughts were so relevant I asked permission to use them as a guest post. Here they are:

Felicity, I love these posts on missions.  I definitely believe that the organic/simple church movement has the potential for transforming missions, and thus the world, because it supports planting the pure seed of the Gospel which has in it that transformative power and ability to naturally reproduce.  However, as you shared, there are many pitfall we have seen in missions and, unfortunately, many of these mistakes are easy to propagate even with those who have the ‘organic’ message.

You mentioned well the issue of exporting our native culture and our religious culture.  Though, with the organic message, we are not exporting our traditional buildings and church models, we still often export our western cultural norms and our Christian religious culture without realizing it.  You pointed this out when you spoke about the church of Nepalese needed to look like the Nepalese. 

Here are some additional pitfalls that, unfortunately, I see all the time in the mission field.

  1. An attitude that our culture is inherently better than the culture we are serving in.  This causes us to try to export our culture, as already mentioned, and it also causes us to take on a better-than-thou attitude among those we are seeking to serve.  We can find ourselves trying to change ideas or behaviors that the Holy Spirit is not working on.
  2. An attitude of paternalism which some have referred to as the ‘poison of paternalism.’  This is the attitude and motivation that comes from thinking that we are somehow above those we are ministering to because we come from a more ‘developed’ country serving those who live in a less ‘developed’ country.  This causes us to act like benefactors rather than partners and to believe that we are there with something to give while those who live in that country are meant to receive from us.  This pride keeps us from giving and receiving mutually which is essential for a beneficial, Biblical partnership. 
  3. We make the mistake of going to teach knowledge rather than learn from, support, and come under the movement within that culture.  The only thing we have to offer others is to call them back to the pure Word of God so that they can embrace it and adapt it to their life and culture themselves.  We can confess the mistakes the church has made (that we have made), but the truth of how to go forward and walk out becoming the true church must come from those who live in that culture.  So, we can call them back to the Word and then we must take the position of learners to see how they take the Word of truth and apply it into their own lives and situations.  Ninety-nine percent of what I have learned about ministering in the context of Africa I have learned from Africans.  Too many cross-cultural missionaries do not understand this and imagine that those they are serving are in need of their endless teachings.
  4. We go to have our own ministry built up and to feel good about ‘our’ ministry rather than to serve the ministries of the nationals.  As already mentioned, only those who are native to a culture can fully adapt the Word to their culture.  Our role must be fully to support and serve them, not the other way around.  Our goal must be to stand in the background and to give away whatever is in our hands until we are no longer needed which is usually sooner rather than later.
  5. We give finances in a way that creates dependency.  We feel good about giving but we do not understand the importance of first empowering people spiritually through discipleship that brings about worldview change and then partnering financially in projects that are owned by them.  

I could go on but let me just say that I am more excited about God’s purposes in the world than ever before because of the organic/simple movement.  But we must realize that the potential is in the Word of God and the Spirit of God organically taking root allowing the church to take its own shape in the culture it’s planted in.  As outsiders in a given culture we must learn how to support what God is doing in others and truly serve the movements, along with the national leaders of those movements, that He is currently birthing throughout the world.

 

How do we recognize God’s presence?

Wind in trees
Photo credit: antgirl (Creative Commons)

Recently, God has spoken very specifically to Tony and me from the book of Haggai. His prophecy, "I am with you, says the Lord" was enough to get the Israelites to resume the work of building the temple after a 20 year hiatus.

Those of us in organic/simple church believe that the simplest and most basic building block of the church comes from the verse, "For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them." (Matthew 18:20) Jesus among us is church.

As Robert Fitts says:

"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 church in the fullest sense of the world. 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 a bigger church. (Saturation Church Planting)

Theologically we hold to this truth, that Jesus is with us when we come together in his name.  But do we experience this as a reality?

So I've been asking God the question, "How do we recognize your presence in our midst?"

When Jesus and Nicodemus talked together about being born again, Jesus likened the Holy Spirit to the wind. You cannot see the wind; you just hear it.  If you look outside you can see the effects of a breeze on the trees.

Many people seek a personal sense of God's presence through spiritual feelings when they come together  But what the Lord seemed to say is that we will know he is present with us when we see the effects of his Holy Spirit being with us.

His presence in our midst looks like Rosaura finding the Lord and being set free from drugs and alcohol. It looks like the Lord answering Jose's prayers. It looks like a Hindu family coming to know Jesus. It looks like a person being instantly set free from crippling worries and anxieties. It looks like marriages being restored. It looks like the incredible sense of community we have together. It looks like new daughter and grand-daughter groups forming. 

How do you know God's presence in your midst?