Ohio Trip 10: Reflecting on Columbus

One of the things I look for when I visit a group is the effect it has on a person after a decade or more. I’m not particularly interested in how great things look after a year or two. How does a person fare after 10-12 years in a church? That’s something worth noting. That’s also why my ears perked up when a member of Xenos asked Ajith Fernando about how to maintain lifelong relationships when your home groups reconstruct and reproduce every three to four years (as they do with Xenos).

This commitment to duplication/multiplication is largely responsible for Xenos’ enormous size and successfulness (they’ve got over 4000 members, most of whom are regularly plugged into 270 house churches!). But something is lost when you keep multiplying so many times over again. As this sister admitted to me later, you can only connect at such a deep level so many times before you can’t really do it so well anymore. You become close to people over a period of years only to have them redistributed in order to start a new group with a new set of people. And with schedules as busy as they have, there’s not really any space left for maintaining relationships outside of your most immediate relational commitments.

Consider, for example, a sample Xenos member’s weekly commitments: You and your spouse meet with a house church one night a week, but you also lead a group of college students in their house meeting another night. You attend a “central teaching” once a week at the main campus along with the rest of the house churches in your “sphere” (cluster). Your children attend different central teachings and home groups, though, and since one is a high school student and the other is an elementary student, they keep two different gathering schedules, too.

But that’s not all. Since a good “xenoid” also disciples people, you’ve also got a weekly meeting with at least one younger believer for prayer, counsel, and teaching. You will likely also meet occasionally with others who are discipling folks in what are known as “workers’ meetings.” Add to that one purely social outreach event a month and a prayer meeting or two and BAM! You’re burnt out in a few years. It just seems a bit over the top to me. And since those groups regularly subdivide as a matter of principal, I can see how lifelong relationships would be really hard to maintain. And one of Ajith’s main points was that the church should be providing a witness that’s counter-cultural, resisting the fragmented, frenzied style of life to which we’ve all become so accustomed. Needless to say, that sister’s question caught my attention and confirmed a lurking suspicion.

To be fair, I should admit that some seem to be managing this kind of busy-ness with grace and competence. My young hosts, Jim and Lisa, seemed quite contented with their commitments and spoke highly of the lifestyle in which they have lived for several years. When I asked them about burn out, they countered that a life of giving yourself over for others tends to be replenished by the Lord so that there’s always enough of you to go around. Once again, I found that both encouraging and challenging. I only want to see how families with several kids balance this kind of schedule without losing something in the process.

***************

I believe it was Mike Breen (more on him in a later post) who developed the triangular conceptual framework for church life. You see an adapted version in the image below.

We have three dimensions in which we travel, or three directions: UP, IN, and OUT. UP refers to our worship, IN refers to our fellowship within the Body of Christ, and OUT refers to our outreach and our interaction with the world around us. Apex calls these Gathering (IN), Growing (UP), and Going (OUT). They’re both useful frameworks, so I’ll be adopting the basic idea for a while.

My contention is that every church seems to choose one of these three dimensions to emphasize. The other two merely serve the third and at least one is bound to suffer as a result. My group has always stressed the UP direction at the expense of the other two, especially the OUT dimension. I believe Xenos stresses the OUT at the expense of the IN. I see the potential for alot of burn-out among members of a church which neglects deep and lasting peer relationships in the interest of always growing, duplicating, expanding the kingdom.

Maybe I’m way off here. I’m significantly open to that possibility at this juncture of my life. But I might as well admit my bias. I suppose time will tell if I’m off or not.

The way I’m thinking about it, those three aspects of the life of the church are symbiotic, and need to be in balance with one another. Without the UP, you lose the motivation for both the IN and the OUT. Without the IN, you burn out chasing the OUT and the UP. And without the OUT, the IN becomes stagnant and the UP weakens, too. They feed one another.

Well, anyway, the conference ended on a good note, with an encouraging message from Gary DeLashmutt, one of the lead pastors of Xenos. He spoke about keeping Joy in your life, which felt like a perfect message for the moment somehow. Maybe I’ll write more about that another time. It tracked for me personally because I’m in a place of needing to rediscover the joy of knowing God, perhaps as it so naturally comes in introducing people to Him for the first time (or maybe even re-introducing people who forgot that there’s more of Him to know). And it tracks for Xenos because, as I’ve supposed already, the emotional side of life may be missing from their experience these days. Either way, Gary is highly spoken of among those I spoke with, and he didn’t disappoint.

After the last meeting let out (around 10pm!) a group of college students who ordinarily meet with my hosts, Jim and Lisa Long, showed up. Incidentally, Jim and Lisa were very kind and helpful to me during my stay in Columbus, and I hope to keep in touch them over time. It’s too bad I didn’t get time to visit one of their “ministry houses,” which at Xenos is how students are grouped together, like church-organized dorms. College ministry (and student ministry in general) is a big part of the life of this church, so that was on my to-visit list. But I only had so much time…

I had a good time hanging out with them that evening, especially since we spent way too much time engaging in one of my favorite pastimes: quoting movie lines from every conceivable genre until your eyelids get too heavy to keep it up.

If I ever get to come back to Xenos again, I’ll be sure to visit at a time when I can sit in on more home church meetings, since that’s what I came for. But the conference was challenging, and thought-provoking. Well worth my time.

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3 Responses to “Ohio Trip 10: Reflecting on Columbus”

  1. Dennis Says:

    Neil, your scenario for Xenos at the top had some inaccuracies. First, we would not have a mom going to an adult home church and leading a college home church. Only empty nesters with nothing to do would be in that position.

    Secondly, your thing about how kids meet on different nights from adults is also usually not true. Jr. Hi aged and below kids meet at the same time as their parents are in Central Teaching.

    Also, most people meeting with someone for discipleship do so before an evening meeting. So you might have supper with your friend, and then go to home church together. So it isn't another night.

    Generally, adult, family aged people in Xenos go to Sun. AM and one or two nights. That all. Not much different than most churches.

    College singles are far more busy than that–often engaged in something most nights. But they also enjoy being out with their friends. Some of us who are empty nesters are joining students with busy schedules.
    -Dennis McCallum

  2. Neil Says:

    Thanks for the feedback, Dennis. Sounds like I may have combined scenarios that don't get combined in real life. Sorry about that.

    And I can see how folks without kids would have more time for college ministry. Thanks for the clarification!

  3. Tricia Says:

    Neil, your guess that xeniods might be prone to burnout was true for me. I was heavily involved in Xenos during my late high school and early college years – I lived in a ministry house instead of a dorm – and the jam packed schedule coupled with the expectation to develop deep friendships with new people each time the home church split was exhausting as well as heartbreaking. There were additional reasons for me leaving the church but the demanding schedule was not the least among them. I know it works for many of my friends who are still heavily involved, some 10 years after I left. It just didn’t work for me.

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