Ohio Trip 2: Apex Community Church in Dayton

Well, this is really about hunting fruit. It’s not about figuring out HOW churches I visit do things. I should explain first about that, since it touches on one of the things I’m learning through this process.

I had some great conversations Saturday with several of the leaders of an exciting, relatively young church called Apex Community Church. In one of those conversations, we discovered that we share the conviction that forms of church are far less important than FRUIT. In other words, how you do church is waaay less of a big deal, and what it produces is what really counts.

Here are some questions I find myself circling around with folks:

1. What is the goal of “doing church”? What’s our end? (and don’t just say “glorify God,” that’s way too vague)

2. Can organic, home-based church life coincide harmoniously with a larger, organizationally traditional congregational gathering? Can preachers preach every Sunday (or even less frequently) while still effectively emphasizing that every member is functioning, sharing part of the Body of Christ?

3. Should “mission” be the main thing we’re about? Should fellowship with God be the main thing? Or with each other? Or (leading question) is it more likely that these three are meant to be IN BALANCE with one another?

4. My all-time favorite question: What is the church’s role in the world? Also, what do we do if it turns out that the New Testament doesn’t give us much to go on there? What do we decide then?

On to my report!

Apex was a wonderful experience for me. It was, in fact, the apex of my trip (so far, anyway). I found in this church an attempt at wedding both sides of my own background: organic community based in the house church mixing together with a traditional, congregational worship service every weekend, with a preacher and everything.

Their worship style is familiar to us all by now: contemporary-style praise band cranking out worship tunes under the warm glow of concert lighting–very hip. Only I must say that, while musically very easy to listen to and join in with, this band wasn’t as flashy and self-consciously posturing and showy as so many bands like them are. That was refreshing. It probably didn’t hurt my experience that so many of the folks that joined us for worship that evening were my age, or even younger. And the people around me were worshiping with passion.

The message delivery by the preacher, Rob, was entertaining and engaging. That by itself doesn’t do much for me. But what impressed me was that nothing he said ever rubbed me the wrong way. I can’t tell you the last time I was able to sit through a sermon without getting a knot in my stomach over at least something the guy said. But somehow, that never happened. Caught me off guard, in fact. This may be one of those rare instances where a gifted communicator has managed to internalize a theology that’s deep, well-thought through, and shaped by grace. There just aren’t enough preachers out there that even know what I mean when I say those things.

When Rob spoke about the life of Apex church, it was thoroughly centered in real life, and that life was situated in the context of community. He was speaking to a room full of several hundred people who are, more of them than not, engaged in a house church somewhere around town. That’s something not too common at this point in time. I will be eager to see more of how those groups function, because that will make a big difference for me. I visit with one of them tonight (I’ll let you know how it goes).

A good part of my afternoon was spent talking with some of the guys in leadership of the church, and what they told me was interesting. These guys are holding together two separate models: organic house church and a traditional, congregational church structure. Their goal is that these churches be, not just “cell groups” following the mandates of the church staff, but fully functioning house churches, performing all of the functions of an independent church: baptism, communion, preaching, teaching, discipline, worship, etc. If that’s really what they’re after, then they’re a rare bunch. I hear that others are trying this out, too, but most don’t have what these guys have.

Their story goes something like this: Around eight or nine years ago, this large youth group broke off to form a new church plant (Southern Baptist in affiliation). The emphasis at first was on growing the centralized gatherings–the Sunday morning thing. But the pastor of the church turned to some older brothers in the Lord, men with gray hairs (or none at all in one instance!) for guidance. He set up a plurality of elders which grew from three to maybe six or seven. One of those brothers had 17 years of experience in an organic house church setting. That brother recommended that, in order to adequately provide for the discipleship needs of several hundred folks, they needed to get smaller, not larger. Real discipleship, he argued, happens in an intimate fellowship, not in a centralized gathering. Absolutely right, IMHO.

Then another gray-headed brother had some interaction with foreign missions to Muslim countries and discovered as well that small groups are far better for real growth than large ones. He got sold on the house church model, too. So the young preacher said “okay, let’s do it.”

Fast forward several years and you find a church (or network of churches, depending on whom you ask) with about 3000 attenders, 1700 of which are connected with any one of about 70 house churches all over Dayton. They’re broken up in to six regions, with elders providing guidance over each of the regions, and each house church developing its own leadership on the local level. With the right people at the top, this is a really cool set up.

They’ve had some help from a handful of helpful writers and teachers, along with some interaction with Xenos, the network in Columbus. Long story short, they’re currently managing to hold together two very different ways of looking at church: top-down and bottom-up. It remains to be seen whether these two things can harmoniously coincide. I think it takes a particular kind of folks to pull it off. I’m pretty confident there’s not a process that will make this work in just any setting. In the meantime, I think a bunch of churches would like to be a fly on the wall throughout what they’re doing.

I visited one of their house churches for international students on Sunday, and I’ll write about that tomorrow.

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