An awesome example of living in community

In the late 70s and 80s, Tony and I lived in the East End of London, an area of London where people ended up when there was no place lower to go. (The PBS series, “Call the Midwife” took place right where our medical practice was. We were there a couple of decades later, but most of the same socially deprived conditions still existed. That part of London has since become gentrified.)

We experienced a remarkable move of God while we were there. It was characterized by community. We lived “from house to house.” Most of us with homes had other people living with us as part of our families. We shared cars and lawn mowers. I never knew how many people would turn up for our evening meal and so usually cooked for around 10 people–it was rare that we didn’t have that many. We had different home groups meeting on many streets in the area–at one time or another, 17 contiguous streets had home groups. When one of Tony’s patients became a follower of Jesus, there was usually a group within a street or two of where they lived to refer them to. You couldn’t leave our house and walk to the nearest subway station without meeting other believers. And people became followers of Christ.

I’ve never experienced community like that again.

Until a few weekends ago, that is.

I had been invited to do a Black Swan Effect round table for a network of house churches called Common Thread in Birmingham, AL. What Tony and I experienced there was hugely encouraging–especially since I’ve been asking the Lord what he’s doing with simple/organic/home churches around the nation, and sensed him telling me to look at the situations where we were invited to speak.

A group of around 150 people live in the inner city, sharing their lives together. Most of those with homes have others living with them as part of their family. They have more than 25 “micro-churches.” Some of these are in homes, others in businesses, others out in the community. They share their faith in an incarnational way on a daily basis. They have started businesses like lawn care and house cleaning to help those who cannot find employment–a great way to disciple new believers. They have homes for single guys who need help getting off drugs. They are about to start a home for pregnant unmarried women. They have a coffee shop, which is now the number one coffee shop in their city, with an associated coffee bean roasting business. They use fair-trade coffee which has necessitated them visiting the coffee plantations in Indonesia, and they are about to send their first “missionaries” to work there. The “Hub” is a shared space for several of their businesses.

Their sense of community is awesome! Although two or three families live in the suburbs, some of them live in the very poorest area of town. They hang out and play football in the local park, getting to know the local residents who now accept them as part of their community.

We felt right at home. An awesome expression of the body of Christ.

And, by the way, the round table went great too.

Common Thread Coffee Shop

Life in Community: Geneva Two by Russell Smith

In the late 70s and 80s, Tony and I lived in community. We didn’t all live under the same roof, but many families lived in a very small area of the East End of London, which at that time was 92 percent government housing. They were amazing days. We shared meals, tools, at times, cars. You couldn’t walk more than a few hundred yards from our home without meeting another believer. For years, I cooked for about 10 extra people every evening, never knowing who would show up for dinner.

Of course, it had its problems. Personalities clashed. People disagreed. Because of the area we lived in, people had problems of every description. If you’ve seen the PBS series, “Call the Midwife” you will understand some of the issues we faced. We were there 20 years after the TV program takes place, but many of the conditions were still the same. The area has since become gentrified. Back then, God was at work. Over the years, many of Tony’s patients became believers, and we had so many home groups in the area that it was usually possible to find someone who lived within a street or two who could follow them up. Because of the demographics, we saw miracle after miracle as people became believers, were healed and set free. It was also extremely demanding and stressful.

It was with great interest, therefore, that I read Russell Smith’s new book Geneva Two: A Parable of Christian Community and Calling. It is superbly written, and takes a fascinating approach to the subject as a fictional reporter interviews different members of the community. As each person speaks, a composite picture of the community develops with all its warts and flaws as well as its blessings. The settings, conversations and character sketches show the different personalities well.

I’m not sure whether Russell has ever lived in community–he is Senior Pastor of a Presbyterian church. The picture he paints in Geneva Two is unlike the communities I’ve lived in–it feels somewhat unrealistic, but this is probably because of the different culture. However, this is a thought-provoking book that highlights the value of community.

Geneva Two

 

 

From Tablet to Table: Leonard Sweet

Len Sweet is one of the most influential Christians in North America. So when he writes a book (From Tablet to Table: Where Community Is Found and Identity Is Formed) that espouses principles that we who are involved in the simple/organic/house church movement hold dear, I sit up and take notice.

 From Tablet to Table examines the importance of meals in the life of Jesus and the early church and why this is significant for us today. Jesus performed much of his ministry and teaching around the meal table, and the early church placed a heavy emphasis on  “sharing meals from house to house.” In fact, the New Testament contains many examples of hospitality–of being both a host and a guest. Why the importance?

In the New Testament, the communion table was not a wafer and sip of wine, but occurred in the context of a full meal. We live in a day of fast-food and drive through meals. As a culture we have largely lost the benefit of sitting together, enjoying our food in a leisurely fashion and telling stories that will live down through the generations. Meals together form relationship and community. So what might happen if we brought shared meals back into the life of our churches and gave the table a place of pre-eminence in our interactions with the communities we live in?

Another facet of this book I appreciated was the idea that the Scriptures can be a spiritual feast from which we gain sustenance for our souls. God nourishes us through his word and gives us strength to live our lives as his ambassadors here on earth.

There are many good and practical ideas in this little book. It’s definitely worth reading!

From table to table

 

(Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publishers.)

 

Commercial fishermen in the Kingdom

Jesus told his disciples who fished for a living, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Commercial fishermen are disappointed if, when they pull in their net, there is only a single fish flopping about.  They hope and expect to catch multiple fish at a time. Remember Peter’s dejection when he’s fished all night and caught nothing?

It’s interesting to note that in the Book of Acts, there are only two people who become followers of Jesus as individuals—Paul and the Ethiopian Eunuch. Everyone else becomes a disciple as part of a group.

  • Following a vision, Peter visits Cornelius who has gathered together a group of friends and relatives in his home. When they are all filled with the Holy Spirit, as evidenced by their speaking in tongues, Paul gives orders for them to be baptized. (Acts 10) A whole household follows Jesus in a single day.
  • When Paul goes to Philippi, he speaks to some women at the riverbank. Lydia opens her heart to Jesus and she and her household are baptized. (Acts 16: 11-15)
  • A few days later, Paul and Silas are jailed. A massive earthquake sets them free, but when they don’t take the opportunity to escape, the jailer invites them to his home where they share the word of the Lord with him and his household. Again, the whole household is baptized. “He and his entire household rejoiced because they all believed in God.” (Acts 16:16-34)
  • When Paul finds a group of people (about twelve men) in Ephesus who have only been baptized with John’s baptism, he baptizes them and prays for them to be filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1-6)

What’s the difference? How did those early followers of Jesus get these results?

Jesus had taught his disciples how to be “commercial fishermen” for the Kingdom–not in the sense of making money, but in the sense of bringing in a large catch.

All around the world, God is using this pattern to bring in a massive harvest. Why not here too? We’ll look at how this works in later posts.

Catch of fish

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Making disciples

As part of my study on Disciple Making Movements, I’ve been reading through the gospels to see how Jesus approached making disciples.

Jesus invited people to become his disciples. In Mark 2:14, Jesus said to Levi (Matthew), “Follow me and be my disciple.” He didn’t tell him, “Follow me and when you’ve learned enough, you can be my disciple.” Too often, we make discipleship a teacher/learner process, whereas Jesus regarded anyone who followed (and obeyed) him as a disciple, right from the get go.

Our friend, Molong, in the Philippines has a very simple pattern of making disciples. He’ll say to someone, “You’re my friend and you believe in me, would you like to become a disciple?” Then he tells them about following Jesus. When they say “yes,” he baptizes them, and teaches them how to do the same for their friends. He now has disciples down to the 14th generation. If you follow him on facebook, you’ll come across posts like ” XXX (second generation) says they are going to baptize seven people today.” There are around 600 new believers who have become disciples in this way. Their “follow-up” consists of  living life together–not under the same roof, but as an everyday occurrence.

Within evangelicalism, one-on-one is a preferred method of discipleship . I have no doubt as to its effectiveness (wish someone had been there to disciple me as a young believer). However, recently I’ve been questioning this.

There were only two occasions I can find in the gospels where Jesus had a conversation with one of the disciples alone. One was with Peter over the paying of taxes (go and catch a fish) and the other, also with Peter, was about forgiving people seventy times seven times. As far as I can see, every other interaction that is recorded involves a group of them–of at least two or three.

There was one occasion where it specifically states Jesus was alone for a conversation with someone–the woman at the well. And we assume (although it doesn’t say so) that he was alone with Nicodemus in John 3.

Other than that, once he had chosen the twelve, Jesus worked with groups–groups of his disciples, the crowds, challenged groups of Pharisees and Sadducees. Other conversations where it appears he was talking to individuals, if you examine the context, were all within a group situation.

What can we learn from this?

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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.

 

 

Another wave rolls in

Arthur Wallis, a British “elder statesman” in the Kingdom wrote a fascinating foreword to a book by Frank Bartleman called Another wave rolls in: (formerly) What really happened at “Azuza Street?” The book describes from a first-hand perspective, the events at Azusa Street–the beginning of the Pentecostal Movement. In this foreword, Arthur described how the life of the early church quickly degenerated and was nearly extinguished during the Dark Ages. But then God began recovering waves of truth.

 

  • In the 15th century, the Bible was put into the hands of ordinary people (Wycliffe and Tyndale).
  • In the Reformation, through people like Luther and Calvin, the truth that salvation is by faith and not by works was recovered.
  • In the 17th century, the Congregational Movement recovered the truth of the autonomy of the local church, and the Baptists also stood on this ground while adding baptism by immersion.
  • In the 18th century God raised up Wesley and Whitfield. The Methodist movement emphasized salvation by faith as a work of the Holy Spirit, holiness, and the fact that neither ordained preachers nor sacred buildings were necessary to preach the Gospel.
  • In the 19th century, the Brethren taught that the Bible is sufficient for running the church and the priesthood of all believers. The Salvation Army looked at the social implications of the Gospel. The deeper life movement recovered the potential of a victorious Christian life through union with Christ’s death and resurrection.
  • In the 20th century, the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements characterized the church.

Each of these waves of recovery built upon the previous wave, like a tide coming into the shore. The waves may break and recede, but the tide itself moves inexorably forward.

What will be the waves of the 21st century? It’s too early to answer that fully, but I believe that one of the waves is this: that God wants his people to be led by the Spirit.
  • His ordinary people will engage with him in the harvest, following the Holy Spirit as he leads them on mission with God to make disciples. It’s no longer the DL Moody’s, John Wesley’s or Billy Graham’s, extraordinarily effective though they have been, but all of us–“an army of Billy Graham’s” that will usher in the final harvest.
  • Church, too, will be in the hands of ordinary people, and therefore will become simpler and more organic, again following the Spirit’s leading. This won’t be limited to house/simple/organic church, but will increasingly be recognized across the denominations.

What other waves do you see?