Posts Tagged ‘Church’

To Blog or Not to Blog

September 18, 2009

bloggingBlogging is a funny thing. It’s an online journal of sorts, but there’s a catch-22 when it comes to writing about things that really matter to people. The most interesting stuff to write about is precisely the stuff that you cannot write about. Not for public consumption, anyway. So you stick to things like theology, leisure, movie critiques or other general cultural commentary, yada, yada, yada.

In one sense it’s a journal. You want to express what you’re feeling about all kinds of things. But many of the most intense experiences are so personal to both yourself and to other people that you just can’t broadcast the details on the world wide web. Wouldn’t be prudent. Not gonna do it.

On the other hand, if you’re writing stuff for other people to read then you ought to talk some about the things that really matter in life. You want to share your experience and your reflections on that experience so that other people can learn from it as well. The most intensely personal stuff you write in a notebook and keep somewhere safe in your own home. The rest you can put on a blog. The trick is finding that line. Where does something become “not for public consumption” and therefore too sensitive to publish for all to see? Best I can figure, it’s when something could hurt someone else, or defame them. That’s not kind. You wouldn’t want someone doing that to you. So I guess the bottom line becomes:

The Golden Rule of Blogging: Publish about others what you would have them publish about you.

I imagine this is a difficult rule to apply for the kids in the generation below my own. I don’t know what you’re supposed to call them: Generation Y, the Generation Next, Millennials, whatever. Regardless of what you call them, the characteristics are pretty consistent. Kids that I teach have very little sense of a dividing line between public and private life. To them, it all looks the same. If a celebrity or a public official gets into a fight with his or her spouse/significant other, they feel we are all entitled to hear about it in detail. If a president calls a bone-headed rap singer an idiot (or something more “colorful”) then we should all hear the recording, even if it was supposed to be off the record. Even professional journalists with major networks seem to feel such an interjection should be immediately tweeted to the whole world. It’s funny, I know. But think before you share, will ya?

So I’ll give some careful thought about what could prove hurtful to someone else and I will try to avoid sharing those things. On the other hand, if my own experiences could be informative for someone else in a constructive way, then I say it should be shared. It should be shared with care that no one is unfairly represented, and it should be shared with sensitivity to the reputations of others.

But the bottom line is that this little thing we call the internet has revolutionized the way we all think and act. It has permeated our culture, even globally, creating a new age no less revolutionary than the industrial revolution of the last few centuries. People turn it on in order to help them think about things. It has become a primary public marketplace of ideas. Therefore, I think people who follow Jesus, the Lord of all things, should work to make his presence and his mind known in that realm. Cyberspace should feel the influence of the children of the King. We should be on it, calling things what they are and offering life to those who read what we say.

And it doesn’t always have to be Bible lessons and such. Believe it or not, someone out there may be strangely encouraged by the fact that I got up and went to work this morning in order to teach a bunch of ungrateful, immature teenagers who after two months of classes still can’t remember my name! Somewhere in the daily stuff of my life is something which may touch someone else’s. It’s virtual community, and I have reservations about it. But for some it’s the best they can get.

I suppose as my hairs are turning gray I am learning to think less about how the world should be and deal instead with how the world actually is.

At present, my circumstances force me to do the same thing about church. At the moment, I am persuaded to dream a little less about how church should be and think some more about how to work with the church as it actually is. That’s a new mode for me. But it’s where I am at the moment.

So if you’ve made it all the way down to the end of this post, you deserve to hear that I am no longer meeting with the church that I’ve been a part of for nearly a decade now. I moved to Georgia to be a part of a community of people when I was 25 years old. I tried to move when I was 20, but my dream was deferred until then. Now I am 35 and I announced to my brothers and sisters in this church that the Lord seems to be clearly calling my family and I to move on and follow Him somewhere else. He hasn’t told us yet where that somewhere else is. But I am trying to trust that the next step will become apparent when it is upon us.

For now, my wife and I (along with our four girls) are embarking upon something neither of us ever thought we would be doing. We are church hunting. This new adventure is uncharted territory, even for my wife, who did way more church growing up than I did. Her folks are ministers themselves, so they’ve done church relocation multiple times. But they always get called to a new church and they just go. You don’t hunt around and check out Sunday Schools, preachers, choirs, children’s programs, etc. You just join and work with what’s there. Doing it the way we’re doing it is much more difficult. So many factors to consider! Ultimately we’re listening for the voice of the Lord to make some kind of noise at the right time. But so far it’s just a lot of looking and hard thinking. Not my favorite adventure I’ve ever been on, frankly. But it is what it is. There’s a profound statement.

Maybe next I’ll write some about what it’s like for a radical house church guy to go church hunting around multiple traditional church campuses around town.

Advertisements

Three Women, pt.3

September 15, 2009

This is the third and final section of the message I spoke in Lithia Springs not too long ago.  Once again, you can hear the final form of the message here.

THE THIRD WOMAN:  THE CHURCH

Well, I need to finish up by moving on to the third woman, and that’s the Church.  The question I want to hack away at tonight is “What is the purpose of the Church?  Why did God create the Church? What were we put on earth FOR?”  I think the best way to answer that question is to go back to the Garden of Eden to ask “What was Eve put on the earth for?”  We already know the answer to that:  She was put on the Earth to be Adam’s helper.  To help Adam complete the task for which he was created.  And that is the reason the Church was made.  The Church was created to be a part of the work of Christ.  And remember that work doesn’t have to be a dirty word. It doesn’t have to be a word tainted by the fall.  I think the concept of work really needs to be redeemed.

Jesus said, “Just as the Father sent me so now I am sending you.”  Jesus was sent.  He was the first apostle.  He was sent to accomplish the will of his Father.  And he said “I do nothing of my own.  I just do what I see the Father doing.”  Once again, an active relationship with his Father.  Knowing his Father well meant doing the same things his Father did.  And for the Church, I think it’s the same thing.

We often say that the Church is here “for the Lord,” and “the Church is here to know the Lord.”  That’s why we’re put here.  What I’m trying to say tonight is that knowing the Lord involves doing the same things that he does.  It is an active relationship.  Just as Eve wasn’t put on the earth only for companionship—she was here to be his helpmeet, his helper—so the Church was put on the earth to help complete the work of Jesus on the Earth.  She was put here to do the same kinds of things that he does.

But speaking of ourselves, I think we get caught up in a romantic notion of what it means to be the bride of Christ.  When we think of a bride, we think of the wedding day itself.  We think of the build up and the anticipation of the actual ceremony, and of the beauty and radiance of the bride herself.  But there’s something about being one spirit with the Lord (just as Eve was one flesh with Adam) which goes beyond the wedding itself.  The wedding day itself is really just a preparation for the rest of the life that will be shared between the man and the woman.  If they were only coming together for a day, it wouldn’t be that exciting of a celebration.  The meaningfulness of the day itself, and the ceremony, is that you’re celebrating that two people are coming together for life.  It’s the beginning of a lifetime of shared experiences, shared purposes, shared tasks.

Incidentally, I feel like I knew my wife pretty well when I got married.  But I also knew that the day we got married would not bring the full extent of how well we would know my each other.  I think I could have told you back then that 13 years later I would know my wife better than I knew her on the first day.  And she can say the same thing about me (for better or for worse!).  She has gotten to know me over time and I have gotten to know her over time, because it takes time to get to know somebody.  It takes living a life together, doing things together, having common aims and purposes like raising children together, or following the Lord and moving to the church together.  All of these are things which brought us to know one another better.  You can’t separate knowing someone well from doing things with that person, and for that person.

We talk a lot about knowing the Lord, and we talk about loving the Lord.  But loving someone isn’t just a feeling you get.  It’s expressed in doing things for them.  That’s why Jesus said “if you love me you will do what I ask.”  Mary loved Jesus.  And because she loved him, anything he asked her to do she would do.  If he had said he was thirsty and asked Mary for a cup of water, I’m sure she would have gotten up and got him a cup of water.  She certainly wouldn’t have said, “But Lord, how can I get up and get a cup of water when the most important thing is to sit here at your feet?”  She would have done anything he asked her to do.  That’s what loving someone is all about.  Sitting at his feet, listening to his word, was ultimately for the purpose of hearing whatever he wanted to say, and sometimes what he has to say is that something needs to be done.  Knowing someone means knowing what they want.   And loving someone means taking care of the things that they want and need.  I cannot say that I know my wife without knowing what she wants.  And I cannot say that I love my wife without actually caring for her needs and doing the things that she needs me to do.

We can say that we know the Lord and that we love the Lord but the best way for that to show is for us to:   1. Know what it is that he wants, and 2. Do the things that he wants.  We have an active relationship with the Lord.  So when we ask what the church is here for, someone answers that “we’re here for the Lord.”  That’s great!  But what does that mean?  What does the Lord want?  If we’re here for him, then what does that look like? What does that mean we do?
Jesus put it really succinctly when he said “If you abide in me and my words abide in you, you will bear much fruit, and this will glorify our Father in heaven.”  There’s that fruit again.  Do you remember how I said that was going to show up again?  His intention was that his people would bear fruit, and that fruit would bring honor to him.  And we know what that fruit looks like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self control, these are all evidences of his presence in us.  He wants to see those evidences brought out.  He is honored and glorified when that happens.

So if we want to say that we are here for the Lord, then we must understand what it is that he’s here for, what he’s after.  He’s after a people that will bear fruit, which is how we bear his image—it’s the same thing.  These fruit of the Spirit are just aspects of who he is.  We’re just bearing his image when we bear his fruit.  Do you also remember that he told us he wanted us to multiply and fill the earth?  Well, multiplication is certainly something the church did in the first century.  The church had a tendency of taking the life that was in them and sharing it with other people in such a way that they, too, would come to have that life inside of them.  It’s a natural function of fruit to nourish others.

Now I know that all of this may be striking you as a lot of self effort somehow.   Maybe it seems legalistic to you to hear that God wants to see things come out of us.  But we shouldn’t be overly reactive to this idea.   I know why we would lean that way.  It’s because the rest of the Christian world out there is obsessed with performance.  So we run the other direction.  We downplay performance, and we downplay results, and we downplay progress in the Christian life because we know the incompetencies and the incapabilities of our own flesh.  But we don’t need to run too far the other way, jumping out of one ditch and into the other.  The Lord really does want to make a difference, make a change in the life of the church.  In the end, there should be some things present in the church that you don’t see in the rest of the world. . When that happens, he is given the glory that the church was put here for.  He is glorified when we bear fruit, and when we multiply.

So I have a couple of observations that I want to make about that.  This is where I get really personal, and really direct.  I don’t think that we as a church have always been good about understanding the goal of what we’re about.  That there is meant to be the fruit of the other realm coming out of ourselves.  On the contrary, I think that we have always worked to be a place where nobody is ever held up to any kind of measuring stick.  We don’t want anyone to feel under the law.  We know the incapabilities of our own flesh.  And so we end up shrugging our shoulders and saying, “Well, I’ll just never be able to do anything.”  But that’s not really what the Lord is after, is it?  I think that we have cultivated a habit here of saying, “Don’t worry, you’re not any worse off than anyone else…we’re all failures in the Lord and we’re okay with that.  Let’s learn to be okay with who we are.  But years later we never really get beyond that to saying, “Doesn’t the Lord want to move us forward in his grace?”

The Lord doesn’t want to leave us the way we are.  That’s not grace.  That’s not love.  Love wants to see sick people get better.  Love means wanting to see dysfunctional relationships become functional relationships, healthy relationships.  Dysfunctional people become healthy, functioning, balanced, well-adjusted people.  That is part of the evidence of the fruit of his Spirit in us.  His Spirit in us is meant to make a difference, and he does!  But I think we downplay that too much.  I think that we are so afraid of getting back under the law, and feeling bad about ourselves, that we recoil away from any kind of talk of actively following the Lord.  We don’t want to go back under the law again.  We’re like an abused child that recoils away from an outstretched hand.

But there is a goal to which we have been called.  Paul talks about pressing on to lay hold of something that was the reason for his calling.  That implies some kind of a progress.  There is direction; there is trajectory; there is purpose.  There is progress toward a goal, and I think that this is the way we should approach the church and our own lives individually.  There is something that the Lord is after in this group of people.  And it does not involve somehow going in circles.  There is meant to be some kind of progressing toward what he is after.  And it involves bearing fruit of the other realm.  Which, by the way, means putting tangible, physical expression to a life that originates in the other realm.  There are things that are not from this world but they enter into this world.  Call it a kind of incarnation.  God is always about incarnating himself.  That’s a whole other message that we could get into sometime.  But for now, I’ll just briefly state that we often talk about fellowshipping with God outside of time and space, and we talk about God living outside of time and space.  But we cannot forget that he chose to become visible because there was something he wanted to do in this world.  And there is still something he wants to do in us.  He wants to continue becoming visible to the earth.  And that means that he’s not staying outside of time and space.  He wants to get inside of time and space.  So if we are going to know him, then we are not only going to know him outside of time and space; we are going to somehow know him inside of time and space, as well.  But like I said, that’s a whole other message that we could discuss.

But that’s what it means to bear the fruit of the other realm:  putting physical expression to something that is from the spiritual or non physical realm.  He wants us to bear fruit, and he wants us to multiply.  To be completely honest with you, I don’t think I know much about what that looks like in our context.  I’m more convinced of what I don’t know than of what I do.  But I know this:  It means growing.  And I don’t mean that a house church like ours should have a hundred people in it.  But I am beginning to believe that churches should produce other churches, just like families naturally produce other families.  I really don’t know all the ways that this happens; I just know that it’s part of what we’re about.  At some level I imagine that involves both bringing in new people to know the Lord, so that they, too, can bear this fruit.

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.

MEETING 1

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.

MEETING 2

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.

MEETING 3

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?

MEETING 4

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 7: A Thought-Provoking Lunch

July 24, 2009

Every year in July, Xenos Fellowship in Columbus hosts a large Summer Institute. People come from all over the country (with quite a few from other countries) to hear challenging messages from internationally known speakers and to attend workshops on church life in the Xenos style. They’ve got lots of information to share, both practical and visionary. One of the coolest things about that, besides how incredibly well organized it is, is that they upload all their talks onto their website for free download within days of the conclusion of the conference. They seem quite content to have ideas and resources stolen and used frequently by anyone. That’s refreshing.

Also refreshing was the fact that it was so easy to get lunch with Dennis McCallum, the founder of this huge network of churches. During the first day’s lunch break he wandered out into the foyer of the main building and stood around, apparently hunting people to share lunch with. Despite the fact that he didn’t know me from Adam, when I told him I’d like to chat with him at some point he treated me to lunch right then and there. He took me to Skyline Chili (chili is really big in Ohio, apparently) and we compared notes about a handful of events going back to the founding days of their church, when a band of ex-Campus Crusade leaders helped foment a sizable student movement across the country (all during the dynamic days of the Jesus Movement). Some of the same people who got involved in the earliest days of that group were also responsible for the group which evolved into Xenos in Columbus. All this was relevant to me because the church I’m a part of was patterned after a kind of prototype church which gathered about the same time in Santa Barbara. And both of those groups received ministry from the same band of ex-Campus Crusaders. I believe Dennis said that the founder of my church group spoke at one point to his group waaay back during those early days. Small world, huh?

After that I picked his brain a little about the end game of the church–what’s its ultimate purpose? For Dennis, winning the lost clearly occupies first place. The way he sees it, all of the multi-layered aspects of his church network, from the smallest discipleship unit to the house church on up to the central teaching meetings which they put together, the main task of the church is sharing the gospel with people. I believe Dennis would say that “sharing the gospel” applies as naturally to believers as it does to unbelievers (he would agree with me that the gospel is way bigger than just “how to get to heaven when you die”). So in one sense outreach and inreach don’t have to be so separated. But Dennis’ burden is that churches fail far more on the outreach part than they do on the inreach. Can’t say I disagree, I suppose. Now I’d be quick to add that if churches aren’t getting the whole gospel then their inward movement (i.e. fellowship, community building) will suffer, and does suffer. But he’s right, too. We lose touch with folks “on the outside.”

Something dawned on me recently and it’s connected to this very idea: When a church never gets new believers, it suffers for lack of the joy which comes from being introduced to the One Who Saves. After enough years go by, we lose touch with what it means to “get saved.” We may encounter it some through our children. But there should be more. And I’ve witnessed this week a certain zest and enthusiasm, even among seasoned old veterans of the church, which seem to have issued from staying engaged in the work of introducing people to the Lord. Among people who are into “organic,” simple church life, you are more likely to find people who go about that in more natural ways (when compared with the programmatic methods taught in so many traditional churches and parachurch groups) It feels like I encountered that a good bit this week.

Back at the conference, the first breakout session I attended was on starting spiritual conversations. It was a talk on how to develop the habit of really listening and talking to people in order to build relationships through which the gospel may (one day) be shared. He stressed how unhelpful (and ultimately ineffective) it is to shove verses or the plan of salvation down the throats of people you just met. He encouraged us to cultivate a habit of making ourselves available for relationship building, which of course presupposes that we’re even thinking in that direction in the first place! For me, that was the take-away. One way to summarize this whole trip is to say that I was challenged to consider making outreach a part of my life again, finding some way to reclaim it from its more legalistic, guilt-driven modalities that I drop kicked years ago.

Grace-driven, relational, organic evangelism…that’s what I’d like to learn more about and see modeled.

More on the first conference day in the next post.

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 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 😉