Archive for the ‘House Church’ Category

Nine Marks and the Definition of a Church

October 2, 2009

dever_9marksSo I’m making my way through Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, which a new friend gave me to read. It’s a popular book among pastors, and I never turn away a free book 🙂 I’ll take a few posts to interact with the book, giving my reactions as I go along.

Dever summons a consensus from several (Reformed) sources and concludes that three things must be present in order to proclaim a gathering of people a legitimate church: the preaching of the Word of God, observance of the sacraments, and exercise of church discipline.

Of course, there’s lots of room for interpretation there. How many sacraments do you count? And what if you don’t actually call them or label them as “sacraments” in the old Catholic sense of the term? At what point does really bad preaching disqualify a church from being taken seriously?

This is all beside the point that I want to make in response. What I really want to do in response to this is answer a question a brother asked me in Dayton, Ohio, a couple of months ago. His question was this:

What’s the difference between a house church and a cell group/small group?

This comes up as traditional churches debate how to integrate smaller community groups into their church structure. Someone on staff becomes convinced that “small groups are where it’s at” for whatever reason (better accountability, more authentic community, more effective missions, etc). Then they get busy figuring out how to make it happen. Do they phase out Sunday School or do both at the same time? And what will be the purposes and goals of these groups?

And what do you call them?

Life groups? Cell groups? Home groups? House churches?

Most of the time, I don’t get too hung up on what you name things. For example, I’d rather see good eldership and oversight exercised among a group of people than hear the “right” biblical term used for each function. Same goes for any other kind of spiritual gifting. It’s more important to have a gift functioning than it is to know the right thing to call it. I think some people are way too obsessed with terminology some times.

HOWEVER, I think it would help to call these small groups house churches and them treat them as such. If you work in a traditional church setup and you want to integrate the house church model into what your church does, don’t treat them like they’re anything less than bonafide house churches in and of themselves.

Teach them to provide their own ministry. Teach them to celebrate communion and baptisms together, in their groups. Teach them to recognize leaders among them and guide them through the process of learning to exercise their own church discipline.

In other words, treat them like real churches. Think of them and speak of them in that way. Don’t tie long strings to each group and micro-manage them like marionettes under your control. That’s the difference between a cell group and a house church in my opinion. House churches carry out all the functions of a church: teaching, prayer, fellowship, evangelism, discipline, marrying, burying, baptizing, communion, etc. They do it all.

Maybe they still gather together with the rest of the larger church on a regular basis. Maybe once a month, maybe twice, or maybe once every week. Whatever. The staff still trains, supports, and troubleshoots the microchurches that result from the larger church’s ministry. But everything they do serves to EQUIP those groups to find the guidance of the Spirit for themselves.

Is anyone doing such a thing?

Sure. I visited at least four churches like that this past summer. They ranged in membership from 80 people to about 4000. And I heard of several more. Such things do exist.

Not in my part of town, mind you. But some day.

For today’s post, I’ll let Dever’s definition of a church inform the formation of house churches, too.

There are at least a dozen other comments I’d like to make in response to Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. I’ll get to them soon enough…


Ohio Trip 12: Four Meetings and an Epiphany

July 31, 2009

Day Nine of my trip gave me the opportunity to attend for different meetings of Grace Gathering.


Corporate worship at Grace Gathering (GG) happens on Sunday morning in a multi-purpose gym/meeting hall with concert-style lighting, commercial grade carpet, and tons of round tables for gathering around during the service. And while the praise band led worship from the stage, the pastor spoke from the middle of the floor, which I thought was great. There’s an unspoken message communicated in the arrangement of a room, and having the preacher address the congregation like this really says something.

Chris’s message was about using a variety of forms of expression for worship. It was interactive. It began with a call for people to share personalized Psalms they had written the week before, and three people took advantage of the open mic to read theirs to the whole congregation. I loved that. My only disappointment was that he cut it off after only three. I wanted to hear many more. But I guess he had a lot more to say, and only so much time to say it. After he spoke about raising hands or clapping during worship, we sang a song and did what he suggested. After he spoke about laying prostrate before God in worship, we spread out and did just that. I thought that was pretty well done. He encouraged all who were in attendance to go home to their home churches and try putting these forms into practice. Clearly there was fundamental integration between the equipping ministry of the teaching pastor and the work-it-out-in-real-life function of the house church here at GG. As my hosts, the Heckleys, told me, the HC setting “gets trumpeted” from the pulpit (or gym floor) every week. And that’s what it takes. The guy up front’s gotta believe in it, or it just won’t fly.


After “big church” (as we called it growing up) I had the pleasure of joining one of the small groups for their meeting in one of the rooms at the church building. Because this group specializes in ministering to people with special needs, they use the church’s handicap-accessible facilities for their meetings. Today they were having a party, and I had a good time. One new friend wandered in looking for some company and found a room full of accepting folks. Since he had lost his wife several months ago, he was clearly still hurting and looking for some fellowship and encouragement. He seemed to have found it the moment he walked in. I was touched by that.

I was also touched by the warmth and encouragement of the group as prayer concerns and updates were offered. The fellowship and community-knitting was evident to me, an it was like water for my soul. We prayed for one another, ate some pizza, and played Mad Gabs and laughed a lot. It was a good party, with some very sweet people. I’m glad Scott recommended visiting them.


Immediately after that the leaders of all the HC’s at GG got together to talk about their progress in the transition from “attractional” to “incarnational” (those aren’t their words, I borrowed them from somewhere else). I was glad to sit in on this meeting as well, because I got to see some of the downside to this task. There was some notable discouragement apparent in the group, as many of them were struggling to transfer ownership of the small group from the leaders to the rest of the Body. This is where the rubber meets the road, and it takes some outstanding ministry to change folks from passive spectators to active participants in the work of the church.

My suspicion is that it takes a heavy dose of high, deep revelation from the gospel to make this transition happen well, and I just didn’t hang around long enough to figure out if that has been a part of their experience. Let me digress from the leaders’ meeting for a second to explain what I mean:

The Rest of the Gospel

The way I see it, the gospel is not just a short story, with four or five bullet points telling you how to “get saved” and go to heaven. The gospel, as I understand it, is a much larger story that begins with God seeking to establish a family on Earth whom He will inhabit, and through whom He express Himself in visible, tangible ways. This is what Christ came to accomplish, and it doesn’t stop when you get saved–it’s only just begun.

I think that larger story, when grasped and communicated in all its vast richness, FUELS the mission of the church in such a way that your methodology becomes so much less important then what drives the activity of the church. More to the point, I think a church can major on pragmatic goals, structures, methods, and measurements, and never really hit that “sweet spot” that I’m talking about.

When you hit a golf ball right, it makes this beautiful “click” noise, and you have to feel it to know exactly what I’m talking about. That’s what happens when the ball and the club come together the right way. All the golf lessons in the world won’t fix your game until you discover what hitting on that “sweet spot” feels like.

It’s kind of like that. When a group of people really SEE what it means to be in Christ and for Him to be in them, as a them, it changes everything. It opens up a world of ministry that wouldn’t make sense in any other context. Folks have to see what it means to be the Body of Christ. It’s like an epiphany. You mind shifts and suddenly you look at the church in a totally new way.

Folks at GG (and Apex and anywhere else) will have to be struck by this realization. Something has to click in place in their minds before the church really “gets it” and becomes what she was meant to be. I’ve known this for a long time. But what’s new to me at the moment is the possibility that our actions may sometimes precede our thinking just as readily as the other way around. I was taught that belief always precedes action, and that you have to change how people think before you can change how they behave. Nowadays I’m not so dogmatic about this. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s just as likely that you can initiate new behavior and watch it gradually lead to a changed way of thinking. In other words, belief and behavior are symbiotic, just like the different corners of the triangle from the last post. Sometimes one precedes the other, but sometimes it’s the other way around. I dunno. Just something I’m processing these days.

The upshot of all this is that I still think churches need a significant amount of ministry from its leaders in order to equip them to do the work of the church (see Ephesians 4:11-16). I still think that ministry needs to be heavily soaked in the “bigger Christ” and the “bigger cross” that I wrote about in Christ In Y’all. But then, that’s why you write a book, isn’t it? Because you believe in something?


My visit with GG ended with a visit to one last HC, this time at the home of Brad and Heather Thomas. This group felt more familiar to me than so many previous ones this week because these were all young families with small kids. Their logistical struggles were similar to ours (what do you do with/for all these kids?!). But this group felt like they are still figuring out what they’re about, in a way. The leaders of this group still hold the reins, and they’ve got a long way to go for that to no longer be the case.

What encouraged me most about this is that they know this is their objective. They discussed that shift in functioning from the leadership to the rest of the Body, and that means they’re light years ahead of so many other churches who don’t even know that’s their goal. There’s a significant hurdle to jump when it comes to this transfer of leadership and it remains to be seen whether it can be done on this scale all at once.

Which is easier: Starting small, with a single small group, building in the distributed leadership from the beginning and building outward from the first group, or taking a medium-sized church (with several hundred people) and rolling out a transition plan for all of them en masse? The latter would take some serious patience, humility, and a very slow pace in order to be done well.

And the former? Well not everybody has the luxury of starting from scratch, or the gifting for it. I sure see some benefit to being a part of a larger support network from the beginning. Starting small from scratch means starting with precious few resources. Maybe it’s a different story in the midst of a nation-wide revival (e.g. Xenos in the Jesus Movement), but what about right now? What about in the South, where more people trust the validity of an established church than some fly-by-night rogue folks starting their own thing?

Like I said, still processing…

On a personal note, I enjoyed hanging out some with Brad Thomas, who reminds me of me in a lot of ways. Only he’s got real design skills, and designs logos for a living. So I asked him to come up with a new cover design for my book (and this blog). I’ve wanted that since the very beginning, and now it looks like the Lord provided somebody to fill that need. Woohoo! You should see a way cooler book redesign soon, so stay tuned. I’ll also be revising the book in order to account for some of the shift in my thinking over the last year or two. I hope to have it ready in time to send to the next House Church conference in Dallas.

There’s so much more that can be said upon reflection about this trip. It’ll take me a while to unpack and digest all that I saw and heard along the way. But I’ll try to tie it all together a little in the final post in this series.

In the meantime, I leave you with a couple of photos I snapped on my way out of Indiana early Monday morning.

Ohio Trip 11: Ft. Wayne, Indiana

July 30, 2009

Welcome to Ft. Wayne, Indiana, where the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye…

My final church to visit was Grace Gathering, a traditional community church still early in the process of transitioning to the home church model. Unlike the last three churches, who seemed to be “winging it” for the most part, Grace Gathering is following a model borrowed form a famously innovative church called St. Thom’s in Sheffield, England. These guys have really done their homework. I spent part of an evening chatting with Scott Jester, the House Church (HC) coordinator for the church, and he caught me up on the story:

While Grace Gathering (GG) has long been into tweaking their organizational structure (previously they divided up into several mini-congregations), their foray into the house church model followed on the heels of a visit to England in order to learn from St. Thom’s. Both Scott and Chris Norman, GG’s teaching pastor, spent a good bit of time researching models and ideologies in order to find the right fit for their church. Once again, I am reminded that this kind of transition requires that the “up front” people buy into this vision or else it won’t fly at all.

And like Apex in Dayton, these folks found that the transitional period unavoidably leads to a thinning out of the congregation. Some folks like just sitting in a pew, thank you, very much! They don’t want to be thrown into a living room where they’re suddenly expected to function in some way other than taking up space. Perhaps the stories of Apex and GG warn us that churches need lots of “transitional ministry,” where the newer, decentralized model gets an extensive introduction, and where fundamental mindsets about church get challenged “from the pulpit” as it were. But again, that throws a good bit of responsibility back on the leaders, who will likely be improvising so much that they wish they had a script or an outline to follow once in a while.

I think both churches (Apex and Grace Gathering) illustrate the importance of getting help from other people (or groups) who have already implemented some of this decentralization themselves. Apex has gleaned some from Xenos and from the previous HC experience of a couple of their elders. Grace Gathering very studiously sought out examples, models, and even consultants who specialize in helping churches do this kind of thing. This transition is NOT EASY. It’s messy, and you’ll quite certainly lose folks in the process. But counting nickels and noses can’t be too important to you if you’re going this route, so maybe folks know to expect that already.

When numerical growth necessitated that GG build a new meeting facility, they kept it minimalistic. Their building consists primarily of a single meeting hall (which is actually a gym with indoor/outdoor carpet and a stage) attached to an inviting coffee house-style foyer, plus a few smaller meeting rooms for smaller groups and kids programs. One medium-sized room houses the kids worship meeting, and there’s a cool little den with some video games hooked up to an LCD projector.

Grace Gathering borrows heavily form St. Thom’s conceptual world, tossing around phrases like “low control, high accountability,” plotting their course according to four stages of growth (which I found pretty instructive as well), and perhaps most helpful of all, borrowing Mike Breen’s triangular UP, IN, and OUT visual in order to balance out the priorities of the church. As long as nobody sues me for it, I’ll be stealing these things myself, thank you!

Each home church that forms within their network is expected to develop a “missional focus”–a ministry to a specific target like troubled teens, or low-income immigrants, or a food bank. And in time most of them do. Following the advice of Kent Hunter (aka The Church Doctor) a while back they decided to group their HC’s together according to missional focus. So now there is a cluster of churches ministering to the needs of a sizable local Burmese population, another cluster serving with Angel Food ministry, and another working with a local youth center, etc. This way, the separate groups don’t feel quite so isolated in their ministries and they can draw strength from each other’s numbers. Pretty cool idea, I think.

As fabulous as all this looks on paper, I still have some reservations about how they’re going about it all. I’ll need to save that for another post. But for now, I have to compliment my hosts, Todd and Sue Heckley, for their entertaining conversation and their warm hospitality.

And for letting me come stay a couple of nights in their home, which was just a few hundred yards from the church campus (very convenient!).

Ohio Trip 10: Reflecting on Columbus

July 27, 2009

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.

Ohio Trip 6: Fruitful Tensions

July 23, 2009

Before visiting my next home group Wednesday, I ate lunch with the teaching pastor and the executive pastor of Apex, along with one of the elders overseeing some of their house churches. They had just come from a meeting in which they were hammering out a strategy for presenting their story at the National House Church Conference hosted in Dallas by House2House about a month from now. Their greatest challenge, as I understand it, is to find a common mind among the two very different mentalities within their “hybrid” fellowship. Some of them feel more at home in the traditional, centralized, top-down model of ministry as seen in the Sunday morning worship service. These folks would like to see a uniform training process implemented for all their house church leaders (like Xenos in Columbus has always used). But others see that as too controlled, not “organic” enough. The “decentralized” camp resists systematized, uniform procedures and wants more freedom for organic development among the house churches. It would seem that these strange bedfellows are cooperating for now, which is an encouragement to me. I heard someone call this a “fruitful tension.” It fits.

After lunch I visited with the elder who first called for Apex to transition to the house church model, Rennes Bowers. Everyone should have at least one encouraging, paternal brother like Rennes to talk with. He’s an interesting brother with an interesting story. A fireman by trade (Captain of his company), Rennes (rhymes with Guinness) has simple/organic church roots going back to the Jesus Movement. In fact, if I understand correctly, he’s the brother who introduced Jon Zens to house church way back in the early 70’s. And what a champion of organic church Jon became! Along with Robert Banks, he’s one of the most established scholars we have.

Rennes was very encouraging to me about my writing, and boy do I need cheerleaders at this point! My take on things tracks really well with his since we’ve had so many of the same influences. He also had some really helpful things to offer–some perspective balancing words of wisdom that I needed to hear.

For example, my conceptual model of the Christian life is so lopsidedly mystical at this point that I hardly see outreach or evangelism in the New Testament when I read it. But somehow it struck me right when I heard Rennes talk about how Jesus first gathered people to himself, then sent them out again to share what they had received. Rennes’ own heart has always been geared towards others and he has obviously spent most of his adult years sharing Jesus with so many that it comes naturally to him. That was encouraging for me to see and hear.

At dinner time, somewhere between 12-15 college students from Wright State showed up for the home church meeting. We sat at two long tables, lined up end-to-end, and ate some delicious beer-soaked “brats” (which I’ve never had before). During the meal, as Rennes has taught them to do, they shared “Jesus stories,” one by one. Jesus stories are instances of encounter with God during the last week (or month or whatever) in which you get to either share Christ’s love with someone who needed it, or otherwise you saw God at work somewhere, maybe even in your own life. I think everyone there shared at least one, with many of them sharing a couple.

I was touched by their sincere openness to God’s leading in their daily lives. Here was no theoretical chit-chat about loving God or loving one another. This was experiential. It takes me a few days for anything significant to sink in, and with each day that passes I find myself affected more and more by their example, and by Rennes’ modeling of spiritual parenting. I think I’m beginning to see some of what it was I set out to find this week.

When the meal concluded we passed around a loaf of bread and some juice, and Rennes asked me to share some about the symbolism of the one loaf. Another young brother shared about the blood of Jesus. We also prayed for one another and for the people we encountered in our Jesus stories. I liked that. After we cleaned up from dinner, we relocated downstairs to the finished basement for the rest of the meeting. Rennes read out a passage from 1 Corinthians 12 and the group discussed what it meant to be Christ’s body, with differing gifts in a community. Students shared about things they understood and experienced as parts of the Body of Christ, and they shared prayer concerns and prayed for one another for a good while.

Another neat thing Rennes does is to place a giant OSU pillow in the middle of the room. When the group wants to pray for a specific need that someone in the group has, he’ll get that individual to kneel down on the pillow in the middle of the room while everyone else gathers around and places their hands on him or her. This reminded me of how our group demonstrates its solidarity by standing together when we sing, like a big huddle or group hug. We call it “clumping,” or as our British brothers once called it, “coagulating” 🙂

I think I enjoyed this meeting the most because it was the most “open” and participatory one of them all. For the record, I’m losing my confidence that leaderless meetings are THE correct way to meet. For instance, when most of the folks in the room are young or maybe new believers (or some of them aren’t believers at all), more leadership is needed. But in the end I’m still sold on meetings where most people share at least something during the meeting.

I’m sure I also enjoyed the meeting because I just love being with college students. There’s something ideal to me about people in that stage of life, with just the right mix of open, eager receptivity and a developing sense of unique identity. Gotta get back around college students again somehow!

On another personal note, I’m growing in my appreciation for layering of maturity levels in a church. Put another way, I need people ahead of me in the Lord to who I can go for counsel, and I need people for who I can serve that function as well. People ahead of me and people behind me. That’s the best way to live.

As I think back to the sweetest phase of church life that I can recall, it was when we had a group of college students regularly driving down (an hour and a half!) to be with us. It’s not that we were doing any deliberate “discipling’ or anything like what folks in these hybrids are so committed to doing. We just got to spend good quality time with them, and it felt like life was shared–maybe mentoring happened despite our laissez-faire approach to things.

Well, this post is long enough.

Thursday and Friday were conference days. I’ll talk about them in the next few posts.

Ohio Trip 5: A Sweet House Church

July 21, 2009

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.

Ohio Trip 4: An International House Church

July 19, 2009

Sunday afternoon I spent some time getting to know another one of the elders from Apex in Dayton. Jim Schindler is a retired business man who was tapped by the young pastor at Apex to be an elder early in the church’s history. Jim had been a respected member of the mother church out of which Apex was planted. He also was the brother who traveled overseas and discovered the effectiveness of the house church model in international missions. Now an advocate of house church for American churches, he invests a good deal of time cultivating relationships with international students (online and in person). He and his wife have built relationships with several international students in the Dayton area, resulting in a small regular gathering of them in his home.

When evening came, we met around the dining room table for a Bible study which Jim led, since together with his wife he was their senior by several decades. There were students from India, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. One international student skyped in from a trip in North Dakota (see the laptop on the table). This meeting was more clearly “led” by an individual than the one I participated in earlier that day in Cincinnati. Given the relative youth and level of maturity in the faith among the students I suppose this makes sense. One of the students is a Hindu and another is a Muslim.

We read through and discussed a chapter of Matthew’s gospel and answered questions asked by those present. After a brief prayer our hosts produced a serving tray with a hamburger bun and small dixie cups full of juice. We ate and drank these and then got up and ate dinner together. At the end of the dinner, we shared a going away cake for on of the students who was leaving the next day for India. Her parents had arranged a marriage and she was going to start a new life with a man she barely knows (!). That was bittersweet. I was inspired by the diversity of the group, and by the ability that this group showed in reaching out to unbelievers from other faiths. The host couple shows a genuine calling to minister to this population of their church. That was encouraging.

Pretty exhausted from two days of solid travel and meetings in two different cities, I returned to my futon and slept like a rock. Day three (or four, if you count the first night, too) was a day off from meetings. Time to process and chill out for a while, ’cause the next few days were full indeed.

Ohio Trip 3: Vineyard Central, a Liturgical House Church

July 18, 2009

Sunday morning I (along with my hosts Scott and Angela) visited a unique community of house churches who call themselves Vineyard Central. Apparently they originated as a church plant from “The” Vineyard, but that hardly seems to characterize them at this point. This group of believers, like the one which I am a part of, chose to buy houses close together–in the same neighborhood. They are a “neighborhood church” as a friend once called it, like my group. This church, however, chose to inhabit a poor, urban section in the heart of their city. They did this because they felt a calling to establish a presence in that community, and they appear to be doing just that. Amazingly, there are around 80 of them in the neighborhood, with some still moving in!

It’s pretty raw, authentic, incarnational living. I could tell from their interactions with their neighbors that they are at work doing what they set out to do: building relationships with those in their neighborhood, maintaining community gardens, helping out people in need, and (formerly) operating a cool coffeehouse as a point of entry for people in the community (sadly, economic times being what they are, the coffeehouse may have gone the way of the do-do). It’s messy work, fraught with the costs of giving your lives over for the sake of needy people. But they struck me as a very hospitable, giving, accepting group of people. Their house churches meet weekly while the whole group only assembles together about once a month.

Another unique thing about this group is that they are liturgical. They are “low church” in the sense that they are a clergyless, decentralized and informal assembly who show up in t-shirts and jeans, meeting primarily in their homes. But they read from “the lectionary,” pray the creeds, and pray “the hours.” After someone reads a portion of the Bible, he or she says “the word of the Lord” and everybody responds in unison with “thanks be to God.” Haven’t done that since my teen years when I used to visit an Episcopalian youth group.

It’s unfortunate for us that we didn’t get to be a part of their bigger monthly gathering. On those days, typically coinciding with festivals from the traditional Christian calendar, they all come together in an old catholic church building called Saint Elizabeth’s which they purchased and renovated over a decade ago. This morning’s meeting, however, happened upstairs in the house across the street. We were greeted warmly, we sang songs recently compiled by one of them on a songsheet, and we read aloud and discussed verses from the lectionary, a standardized grouping of Bible passages used in liturgical churches (Anglican, Catholic, etc). Next someone brought out a plate with a multi-grain bagel and a bowl of wine on it. They passed it around, tearing off a piece of bagel and dipping it in the wine before eating it. Each person passing the communion repeated something like “the body of Christ which was broken for you and blood of Christ shed for your sins” (I couldn’t remember the right words so I just passed it on and shrugged). When we finished with that we had a time of prayer, then we ate and chatted with folks for a while.

They were warm, caring people who obviously carry the burden of ministering to their neighborhood in a very incarnational way. The fatigue of some of it showed, as did the resolution to keep giving, keep serving, and to keep meeting and praying for those around them. In the end I found the liturgical worship too foreign to easily enter into. I find it hard to internalize standardized phrases and prayers, no matter how time-tested they may be. But I also think that these folks don’t experience those things in the same way I do. For them, it seems living and somehow vibrant. In the end it’s all about what’s going on inside, isn’t it?

For me, reciting rituals easily lends itself to mechanical repetition, disconnected from the heart. But I’m not sure it has to be that way. I suspect some can take those pre-formed prayers and creeds, connecting their hearts to the messages preserved therein, and it becomes living words for them. I bet that works better for first-generation folks than for second or third ones, though. That’s my guess, anyway.

Coming out of that meeting I bumped into a completely separate group of people gathered on the front steps of St. Elizabeth’s. They were from neighboring cities and were using the neighborhood facilities as a centralized point at which they could all gather for prayer and fellowship. Although they were not really connected with VC, their example seems to have encouraged this group to pursue community in their own way as well. Pretty cool how groups seem to inspire one another along the way. Folks thinking about building deeper community among believers seem to get so much from just seeing other people doing something similar. It’s great to steal ideas, too, while you’re at it!

When I got done talking with that group, I looked up and saw something growing out of the building above us. Kinda crazy, isn’t it? Seemed somehow metaphorical to me of some of the things I’ve been discovering lately. I’ll let you figure it out yourself 🙂

Well, that just covers Sunday morning. In my next post, I’ll share about the third group that I met that day.

Ohio Trip 2: Apex Community Church in Dayton

July 13, 2009

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.

Ohio Trip 1: A House Church in Beaver Creek

July 13, 2009

Wow, what a full 24 hours!

I’ll have to split this up into a couple of posts…there’s too much!

My first night in the Cincinnati area brought me to Beaver Creek, a subdivision of the east side of Dayton, where I met with a small group of folks loosely connected with the Xenos Fellowship of Columbus. This group is one of two or three remote satellites of the main network of churches based about an hour to the northeast.

I had a pleasant time with the folks I met there. The host family was out of town, so some folks were missing (that’s the downside to traveling in the summer to meet groups like this, but hey, I’m a school teacher–it’s the only time I’ve got!) It’s too bad I missed meeting Clem, one of the group’s leaders, cause he’s a writer, too. Before I left, they swiped me a copy of his book What Does God Want Me to Do? which I intend to read at some point soon, and maybe comment on as I go.

Betty, our facilitator for the evening, led the discussion, which took us through a passage in Galatians 4. She had some thought-provoking insights into what we read, and the comments and discussion which resulted was substantive and seemed to issue from real experience. I didn’t really hear any canned answers like you sometimes get in a meeting like this, and the folks in the group seemed to be genuinely walking the path of wrestling with the meaning of the text and its effect on their lives.

I was encouraged and exhorted to consider how both giving to others and allowing others the opportunity to give are marks of maturity. Just like a parent always has an eye towards shaping their children into contributing members of the kingdom of God, so mature believers consider how they can enable and encourage others to give and function–even if that means allowing them to give to you. Graciously receiving can be so much harder than being on the giving end! That takes a bit more presence of mind, doesn’t it? Haven’t you struggled before with allowing others to do for you–give to you–without giving in to the compulsion to make it up to them (so you can be “even”)? Hmmm. Solid stuff.

So in the end I found the discussion helpful and the conversation afterwards challenging (in a good way). They asked me lots of questions about the church group that I meet with, and had some instructive, helpful suggestions to make which I appreciated.

I’ll visit the “mother church” of this group next week and I’m sure I’ll have plenty to report as that experience unfolds. In my next post, I’ll try to capture the visit I had with the next group, Apex. But int he meantime…

O. M. G.

Anyone who has ever traveled between Dayton and Cincinnati knows about the Touchdown Jesus (see below).

This baby is a 60 foot tall, gargantuan monument to religious excess (IMHO) like I’ve rarely seen. It’s HUGE. Makes you almost run off the road trying to take it in. Sheesh.

Bless their hearts 😉