Ohio Trip 5: A Sweet House Church

On Tuesday I said goodbye to my Cincinnati hosts and drove to Columbus to meet with one of Xenos Fellowship’s 270 home churches scattered all over Columbus. This is indeed a unique church — and they know it. Individuals and churches have been coming to them for years hoping to glean some helpful tips on how to reproduce what these folks have done. Pretty soon they figure out it’s not exactly duplicatable.

Basically their story goes like this: In the early days of the Jesus Movement, a couple of pot-smoking hippies at Ohio State University got saved and, with some help from various Campus Crusade guys they began meeting with other pot smokin’ hippies and got them saved, too. One house church became two, then four, then a dozen, and so on throughout the 70’s. Heavily emphasizing Bible study and evangelism among unbelieving OSU students, they got big enough to need some centralized support structures. That’s a pretty organic way of doing it, by the way! Two of the leaders went off to seminary and came back armed with advanced degrees and a passion for research, study, and an unusual mix of non-conformist idealism and no-nonsense pragmatism.

I really could spend all day explaining the intricate, multi-layered structures and practices but that’s not really what I came to learn about. I came looking for fruit. And I’d have to say that I found a good bit. The “wineskin” felt strange in places (as it did to many people who were attending a conference this church was putting on), but the wine was recognizable and real. Attending the conference going on that week was far less important to me than visiting house churches which their network had birthed. Which brings me back to Tuesday night.

Scott and Liz Sweet hosted the evening’s meeting at their house. Most of this group of maybe 20 adults have been a part of Xenos (pronounced zee-nahs) since the 80’s, with one or two going back to the very beginning in the 70’s. By now, these seasoned “xenoids” (as some call themselves) have birthed multiple home churches, redistributing leadership several times over. This collection of people resulted most recently from the merging of a couple of groups which had lost people for various reasons (including the creation of a new group somewhere else, I believe).

One of the ladies led the discussion, breaking us up into smaller groups and instructing us to read and discuss various biblical passages which spoke of work and rest. I had to laugh because that was exactly the same thing I talked about in my church group just a couple of weeks earlier. In fact, it felt like she was using my outline for the first 10 minutes of the lesson! Pretty wild. After the lesson was over, we ate and chatted for a good hour and a half. By then it was pretty late and the wine they had passed around was beginning to convince us it was time to go to sleep.

I believe Xenos’ home churches follow this same basic meeting format under most circumstances. Half an hour or so of “hanging out” followed by a lesson (led by different teachers in the group at different times), then you eat and drink and hang out some more until everyone’s ready to go home.

Upon visiting a Xenos group, you will quickly notice several things. I’ll write about some of them later, but for now I’ll mention that their general temperament is very casual and non-religious, even a little rough around the edges, and that’s no accident. The leaders of Xenos have always stressed fully inhabiting the surrounding culture, avoiding the explicitly immoral behaviors which often go with it. So they have a fair share of smokers, drinkers, cussers, and all-around party folk. That’s the way they like it. They exist to be a comfortable place for people in the world to come in contact with the gospel, and they are very successful in winning unbelievers to the faith.

A well-known Baptist seminary professor wrote a book about successful churches and devoted some of his attention to this church, since they boast of something like 40% of their new members as conversions to the faith. Most churches, they are quick to point out, just “win” people who are already Christians. Pretty good point, I have to admit. I don’t think a single person in my church group became a Christian through the efforts of the group. And all those megachurches who still experience growth in this era of declining church membership are just getting “transfer” growth themselves.

I’ve got more to say about my time in Columbus, including a conversation with Xenos’ founder, Dennis McCallum. But I used the next day to visit another group from Apex in Dayton. So I’ll blog about that next…

In the meantime, here are my gracious young hosts, Jim and Lisa Long, of Xenos.

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