Senin, 08 Desember 2008

Keeping Church Simple

Keeping Church Simple
By Greg Hubbard


My story from the past fifteen years is so intertwined with my beliefs about church that I could not begin to separate one from the other. So, I am going to weave my story and my convictions about church together as I retrace fifteen years of my life for you.

In 1989 I made a last minute decision to go to Cincinnati Bible College & Seminary (CBC&S) to prepare for ministry of some sort. I made this decision based on the feeling I had after taking two short-term mission trips during high school. One trip was to the Caribbean nation of Haiti, the other to the Central American nation of Honduras. On the return flights home from each of those trips, I had an overwhelming sense that for the first time in my life I had been part of something that really mattered. This was a confusing thought, though, because I knew on the one hand that I was not gifted to be a third-world missionary. I also knew, on the other hand, that I was not gifted to be a pastor in the traditional American sense of the word. Yet I felt a sense of longing to prepare for ministry.

Out of blind obedience, I decided to scrap my college and career plans. I changed my plans three weeks before my first semester of college was to begin, and enrolled in CBC&S instead of Indiana University.

During my four years of undergraduate study at CBC&S I began to put words to something I had sensed for awhile: “Something was wrong with the church in North America.” Partially motivated out of youthful rebellion, yet partially motivated by a sincere notion that something wasn’t right, I set out to figure out and, hopefully, remedy what was wrong. Little did I know where that journey would lead me over the subsequent fifteen years!

I first suspected that the problem with the church was a generational problem.

During my undergraduate years at CBC&S, I began to study church growth and church planting. These subjects were not part of the mainstream curriculum of my conservative college, but they were creeping into the curriculum through some more progressive-thinking professors. I learned that the church in North America was experiencing most of its numerical growth from rapidly-growing suburban mega-churches and from new church plants. Much of the material I studied concerning mega-churches and new church plants dealt with a specific target audience: the Baby Boomer Generation (those born roughly between 1946 and 1964).

I was fascinated by mega-churches, new church planting, and the corresponding demographics of the Baby Boomers. These theories were combining two areas I had previously seen as distinct: world missions and pastoral ministry. The lines were now being blurred. I began to feel like I had found my unique niche for ministry.

It all made sense except for one glaring inconsistency: I was not a Baby Boomer! I was born in 1970. As I studied the demographics of the Boomers, I realized that I was not studying the demographics of myself or of my high school friends. We were very different. Only later would I learn the labels for our generation.

Still, the whole idea of a church targeting a generation with the gospel was exciting to me at that point in my journey. As I learned more about my own generation, I became aware of the longing I had within me to see my generation come to know Christ in a real and relevant way. I began to have a heart for my own high school friends.

All of this led me to believe that the problem I sensed with the church was directly related to generational issues. The North American church had just begun to understand the Baby Boomer generation. This understanding led to massive growth in mega-churches and new church plants. I wondered what might happen if the North American church began to really understand my generation. I was excited by the possibilities. After attending a nation-wide, cross-denominational conference with two hundred other people who were wondering the same thing, I decided to get serious. I decided to devote my life to seeing the church reach my generation for Christ.

Only later would I realize that this generational issue was not the core problem of the North American church. Instead, this generational issue would turn out to be the first piece to a puzzle that I would have to put together in order to get to the core what was wrong with the church.

Supplemental Readings:

Psalm 78:1-4
Jesus for a New Generation by Kevin Graham Ford (InterVarsity 1995)
13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail, by Neil Howe & Bill Strauss (Vintage Books 1993)

I next suspected that the problem with the church was a cultural problem.

After college, I spent five years involved in church planting in the New York City Metro Area. Part of that time I spent on a church-planting team in the New Jersey suburbs. The remainder of that time I spent working in the offices of a church-planting organization on Long Island. My time in the New York City Metro Area taught me much about culture. The culture of New York was different from the Midwestern culture in which I had grow up. The northeastern United States, New York in particular, was further along the postmodern cultural transition than the Midwest. I learned about the cultural transition first-hand as I lived among New Yorkers. During the same period of time I was learning about this cultural transition “second-hand” by reading various books about the postmodern culture shift in North American and how the shift impacts the North American church.

These experiences helped me understand that North America was fast becoming the next great mission field. This realization helped me understand that I could only be Christ’s ambassador in the postmodern culture of North America by seeing myself more as a missionary to a “foreign” culture, and seeing myself less as a pastor to my “native” culture. Though I was still young enough to consider myself a native to the postmodern culture, I had grown up in middle America’s evangelical church, which meant that I was truly an immigrant to the emerging postmodern culture all around me. I would have to learn to engage this culture as a missionary.

To engage the culture as a missionary, I would first have to do what all missionaries must do when they engage a culture: I would have to “learn the language of the culture.” In my situation, this did not mean that I would have to learn a new spoken dialect as much as it would mean I would have to come to understand the norms of the people. I would then have to engage the culture on its terms, spending massive amounts of time with the natives in order to understand their worldview and how that might impact their understanding of the Gospel.

Only a few years had gone by since I had devoted my life to reaching my generation for Christ. Yet already I began to see that the problem with the North American church was much broader than I initially assumed. The issues were more than just generational, they were cultural.

In 1999 I left New York and moved to Las Vegas to rejoin my college friends as part of the leadership team of Apex, a church specifically targeting my generation. But even before I arrived in Vegas, I had already become aware that generational issues were not at the core of the North American church’s problems. My early experiences with Apex would confirm this. The average age at Apex was right in the middle of my generation. Yet the people who were part of Apex did not always fit neatly into generational categories. For example, there was a seventy-year-old man who related to our style of ministry. On the other hand, there were twenty-five-year-olds who hated our church. We were about more than just a “ generationally-targeted” ministry. Sometimes we described it by saying that Apex was more about an attitude than it was about an age. That attitude was really the understanding of the emerging postmodern culture.

Once again, I thought I had found the answer to my question of what was wrong with the church. I would reorient my life to be a missionary to postmodern North America. Again, this understanding, though proving to be a vital piece to the puzzle, would only lead me toward a deeper understanding of what was wrong with the church. My journey had just begun.

Supplemental Readings:

Acts 17:16-34
Acts 18:1-17
Missional Church, ed. By Darrell L. Guder (Eerdmans 1998)
The Church Between Gospel and Culture, ed. by George Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder (Eerdmans)
Transforming Mission by David Bosch (Orbis 1991)
The Celtic Way of Evangelism by George G. Hunter (Abingdon 2000)
Resident Aliens by William Willimon and Stanly Hauweras (Abingdon 1989)
Ancient-Future Faith by Robert E. Webber,
Foolishness to the Greeks by Leslie Newbigin (Eerdmans 1986)
The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Leslie Newbigin

I then suspected that the problem with the church was a theological problem.

I had only been in Las Vegas for a few months when my fellow Apex leaders and I began sensing some issues brewing beneath the surface of our seemingly “successful” church. These issues would have been easy for us to ignore since people were coming to our church, and offerings were steadily increasing. But we were not satisfied with that. The church had grown to hundreds of people. The crowd dynamic was exciting. But those of us who had first “dreamed her up” in college had begun missing the radical and intimate community we had experienced in college.

We began to realize that somehow we had accidentally experienced what it really meant to be church with each other back in our college days. Back then we cherished our experience of community with each other so much that we had covenanted to start a church together someday. We were largely motivated by an intense desire to keep our community together. Yet in the process of starting and leading this church, we were on the verge of losing our community with one another. Beyond that, to the extent that we still were living in community with one another, only about fifty out of our five hundred people were really connecting to each other in a deep and meaningful way. The others enjoyed our Sunday “show,” but they frequently came and went. Apex attracted many visitors, but although the front door was “wide open” bringing these visitors to our church service, our “back door” was cracked open as well. In response to this, we tried implementing small group programs, but in the end, most of the groups were small and unhealthy and were not effectively closing the back door. We felt a dilemma. How could we really be what the New Testament Church was?

Some of our leaders went out on a week-long trip to visit innovative ministries around the country who were reaching our generation. The ministries we visited used a wide variety of approaches. At one particular stop on our trip, we visited a church that was in the process of decentralizing into a group of smaller churches, or house churches. It was this stop that impacted us the most. What we saw happening in these house churches was exactly what we were missing. We had based our entire ministry on our “show,” which was exciting and good, but missing the essence of what church really was.

In the following months as we processed our discovery, we began reading books from people who were further along on the same journey. Through our reading we saw that what we were contemplating was not just the next great model for church. Instead it was much more radical. What we were contemplating was a better understanding of our theology of church.

At this point in my life I already had a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from CBS&S. I was certainly capable of writing a theologically accurate and Biblically sound definition of “church.” However, what I knew was not reflected in what I practiced. I was living with a blind spot. Though I knew in my head what church really was, I practiced a different idea of what church was, one that was conditioned by my culture. I was living out an understanding of church centered on the assumption that church was a “place where” certain things happened. I knew better, yet I played along!

Apex was different from most of the churches I had known. We had enhanced much of the stuff that happened at our “place.” We had made the music, the teaching, the atmosphere, and even the attitude of the place more authentic and more relevant to our generation and to the emerging culture. Yet we had never challenged the “place where” assumption behind church. We just assumed that church must be a “place where” certain things happened, and we had set out to make the things that happened as good as they could be in our context.

Our culture’s “place where” assumption about church comes out in many of the simple, innocent phrases we commonly use regarding church, such as:
Where do you go to church?
What time does church start?
We don’t go to church anymore.

Our culture has allowed the North American entrepreneurial spirit to control our theology of church. Because of this, our real primary definition of church (though we would never say this) is that church is a non-profit organization! Church in North America has become the spiritual version of the corporation, only with kingdom growth as the bottom line. So when we examine questions like “what is wrong with the church?” we automatically begin by trying to make the non-profit organization more effective. It never even occurs to us to question whether or not the non-profit organization is really the best understanding of what church is.

This leads to logical outcomes. Non-profit organizations (though not bad or good things in and of themselves) must put on excellent programs if they hope to impact the busy, distracted people of their target audience. In order to put on excellent programs, they must hire talented staff people, they must recruit large pools of volunteers, and they must buy or rent first-class facilities. And, of course, in order to hire talented staff and to acquire first-class facilities, non-profit organizations must raise large sums of money. If the church understands itself as a non-profit organization, then it has little choice but to raise large sums of money so that it can hire talented staff and acquire first-class facilities so that it can put on excellent programs so that it can actually impact a busy and distracted target audience. There is no other way to operate if we understand the church primarily as non-profit organization.

The problem is that our theological understanding of church is not primarily that of non-profit organization! Instead, we understand church primarily as being the people of God who are sent out on God’s mission. Once I came to admit this fact, then everything I had previously assumed about church began to rapidly change.

After spending a few years processing this renewed theological understanding of church, I began expressing the essence of church in even simpler terms. Now I would say that church, in its simplest form, is “plural for Christ-follower.” If two or more Christ-followers are together, they are an expression of church. Of course, there is ultimately the universal church made up of all Christ followers in all times and all places. But church often is expressed in more tangible, small meetings between two or more Christ followers.

This understanding was vital to me because I previously defined church by what it did instead of by who it was. Even in our early days of planting house churches, we insisted that a group must do certain things regularly in order to be considered a church. But we would never consider this as a viable way to identify a Christ-follower (the term I am using for Christian). We would insist that a Christ follower is one who follows Christ, or one who has been saved. We would not say that a Christ follower is one who reads the Bible, prays, and uses his spiritual gifts. Though a Christ follower will, in fact likely do these things, it is not the doing of these things that makes one a Christ follower. A Christ follower is identified by who he is (or, stated better, by whose he is), not by what he does. This is true because a Christ follower does not always perform perfectly to a set of standards, yet this does not change his identify as a follower of Christ. Once we accept that a Christ follower is identified by whose he is, not by what he does, then it is possible to see that church (defined as plural for Christ follower) is defined by who (or whose) it is, not by what it does. Two or more Christ followers coming together are church whether they are doing “Christian things” or whether they are watching television. Though a healthy church will do certain things, it is not the doing of these things that determines whether or not it is in fact an expression of church.

What a huge puzzle piece this discovery was for me! It led Apex into a five-year transition. We began to de-centralize our church into a network of smaller communities. As we decentralized, we were not against organizational tools like church buildings, paid church staff, and church programs. We had just come to understand these tools as totally optional and definitely secondary. This understanding changed everything. Although we held on to our weekly large meeting for awhile, we began meeting in smaller communities in each others homes (or wherever) for our primary church meetings. At first we called these smaller communities house churches. After a while, we found the term house church to be confusing, so we opted for more accurate descriptions such as simple church or organic church. However, even these terms confused the real point, which is that what we were becoming was actually just church. There was no need for labels or titles once we understood what we ourselves meant by church.

Our smaller communities began as mini-organized churches meeting in living rooms. We copied many of the elements of larger church in our homes because we did not what else to do. Although a few communities flourished this way, most began discovering that they had to function more like a family and less like an organization if their community was to survive and flourish. As a general rule, the communities that included a meal as part of their meetings were the ones that became healthy communities that functioned like families.

These theological issues of church, which were a key puzzle piece to understanding what was wrong with the North American Church, would cost me and our church many things. First, it cost us many people. Early on in the transition, we lost many people who decided to go back to mega-churches instead of completing our transitional process. Second, my convictions that paid staff persons were not essential to church would eventually cost me my “career” as a paid professional pastor. Third, it cost us our reputation in some circles as some long-time Christians misunderstood our intentions in de-centralizing our church and thought that we were, at worst, seriously misguided and, at best, not very strategic. In the end though, the benefits of a simple understanding of church would far outweigh its challenges as we started really being church more than doing church.

Supplemental Readings:

Matthew 18:20
Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-35
Acts 16:11-15, 22-34
Acts 18:6-7
Romans 16:3-5
The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard
The House Church by Del Birkey (Herald 1988)
The Church Comes Home by Robert Banks
The Naked Church by Wayne Jacobsen (BodyLife 1998)
Houses That Change the World by Wolfgang Simson (OM Publishing 2001)
Cultivating a Life For God by Neil Cole (ChurchSmart 1999)
The Organic Church Planter’s Greenhouse Intensive Training Even Participation Notes by Neil Cole & Paul Kaak (CMA 2003)

I finally realized that the problem with the church was a personal problem!

But intertwined in our structural and theological rediscovery of church was an even more primary piece to the puzzle. The puzzle had so many pieces in place, but the center piece was still missing. And as I looked at our puzzle and pondered the question of what is wrong with the church, what I found in the center of the puzzle is not what I expected to find. What I found was a mirror.

Right at the center of the puzzle was my reflection staring back at me. The problem with the church, though partially a generational issue, partially a cultural issue, and partially a theological issue, was primarily me. Yes, that’s right, the problem with the church was me. Before you hire someone to take me out in order to rid the church of its problems once and for all, I hope you will understand that I am speaking figuratively! I am speaking on behalf of us all. The problem with the church is me, or, more accurately, the problem with the church is us.

Our hearts are not healthy. My heart is not healthy. It’s healthier than it was when I first voiced this realization. I anticipate it will be healthier yet in the days and months ahead. But the truth is, our hearts are not healthy.

A few people began speaking into my life and helping me understand this. They helped me understand more fully that God really loves me, that the primary image of God is that of a Father loving me as His son. It’s a lot like the Prodigal Son Parable, where dad would give everything for His kids. Once I let this profound truth seep into my heart (instead of just my head), then I quit trying to follow a religious system in order to gain God’s approval. That led to me giving up the struggle to gain my fellow-man’s approval. I began to love other people not out of a sense of obligation, but out of an overflowing of an awareness of God’s love for me. I began to have enough love inside me to allow some of it to overflow to those around me, starting with my wife, my kids, and then radiating outward to my closest friends and beyond.

These understandings started coming in conjunction with my 30th birthday. When I turned thirty years old, I did some soul searching. I had a hard time believing I was no longer in my early twenties! I came to realize that my life was no longer about me. I had been married long enough that I should have been better at loving my wife than I was. I had a daughter at the time (now I have a son also). I was struggling with the transition from being the kid to being the father. I had lived my whole life primarily interested in what I could do and what I could get from others. I saw my 30th birthday as a transition point where I would have to start focusing my life on giving more than receiving. I was going to fail as a husband and as a dad if I didn’t change my perspective. I was going to fail as a church leader and as a friend as well.

I shared these thoughts with a trusted mentor. I shared how I was trying to become more of a giver and less of a receiver. Being a few years ahead of me on the journey, he knew exactly what I was feeling, yet he leveled with me that I could not do what I was trying to do! Instead, he challenged me to focus on receiving (yes, getting!), but only by receiving from God. He instructed me that I would never be able in and of myself to really give more than I received. Instead, I would have to start trusting my Father to constantly give to me so that could overflow with love to give to others. I was being challenged to start trusting God instead of just believing in Him. I was being challenged to allow God to heal my heart so that I would have something to give: something to give to my wife, something to give to my kids, something to give to my friends, and something to those who would come behind me in the journey of faith. I took my mentor up on his advice. I’m still learning how to do it, but my heart is healthier today than it was on my 30th birthday. I am learning to focus on receiving from my Father so that I can turn around and give to those around me.

My same mentor friend, seeing that I had made some progress, shared another thought with me a couple of years later. He described the life of following Christ by saying, “It’s not about being right, but it’s about giving your life away.” Those are words I intend to ponder and implement over the upcoming years.

All of this is part of my most recent piece to the puzzle of what is wrong with the church. I am now looking at the mirror at the center of the puzzle and working on the health of my own heart. I do so in order to have something to give to those who surround me. And as I have more and more to give to those who surround me, I am finding that those who trust in the Father as I do are my church, and those who do not yet trust in the Father as I do are my mission field. It is really that simple. I am focusing on my relationship with my Father, praying daily “Father, help my relationship with You to be the first thing on my heart today.” As I slowly but surely “get God right” I find it quite natural to start “getting church right” as well.

Supplemental Readings:

Luke 15:11-32 (read with The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen)
The Book of Galatians
1 John 4:7-5:5
He Loves Me by Wayne Jacobsen (Insight 2000)
Authentic Relationships by Wayne & Clay Jacobsen (Baker 2003)
The Only Necessary Thing (along with anything and everything else) by Henri Nouwen (Crossroad Publishing 1989)
Dangerous Wonder by Michael Yaconelli (NavPress 1998)

Practical Implication #1: Learning to see what is happening with the church globally.

As Americans it is very hard for us to admit the facts that are now being widely reported to us: The church is growing faster in other parts of the world than it is here in the U.S. In places like China and India, the church has grown faster than in North America in recent decades. This has happened through church planting movements, which allow small, simple churches to multiply rapidly. We often lose sight of this because we see the explosion of mega churches in many suburban areas. What we do not see, however, is the shrinking of the church in urban and rural areas. What we do not see is that the population is exploding much faster than the church is growing here in North America.

Supplemental Readings:

Church Planting Movements by David Garrison, available at

Practical Implication #2: Learning to See Family as the Primary Image for Church

There are two problems that emerge from trying to figure out “church.”

First, when we try to figure out “church” we often start with a cultural assumption that church is a non-profit organization, or a “place where” something happens, as discussed above in the introduction. Early on in our house church days, we were really just doing big church shrunk down and stuffed in someone’s living room. We still had a teaching time (the house church version of a sermon) and usually a signing time (acoustic guitar instead of the full band). If no one could play guitar, then we would “just pray” instead. We took communion formally in a small room. We even passed a jar to collect some cash. It wasn’t all bad, but it was silly in many ways. We were trapped in our institutional understanding of church even when we moved it into a house. This began a long journey of learning what it meant to be Christ followers with each other. Many of us had to work on what it meant to be a Christ follower apart from “going to church.” And, even those who had something meaningful to share about that had to figure out how to do that with an intimate community of others. Groups struggled to discover who they were. Some went to one extreme and insisted on keeping “teaching” time and “singing” time. Others went to the other extreme and just hung out without any agenda ever. Many landed somewhere between. All of us were awkwardly trying to live out relationship with Father with each other.

The second problem that emerges from trying to figure out “church” is that we are focusing on a secondary issue. Healthy churches only emerge when people are following Christ in a healthy way. It has been said that a church is only as healthy as its disciples. Or, put another way, once we get “God right,” then we will get church right. Once our hearts are healthy, once we understand the love of our Father for us, then we will overflow in our love for each other, and we will be unable to help but to “get church right.”

We arrived at our idea of church from the back door, by stripping down our institutional idea of church to its relational essence. A healthier process would be to focus in on our relationship with our Father, and then allow that relationship to spill over into all of our other relationships.

Some Christ-followers find it necessary to go through a period of detoxing from church in order to get their relationship with Father right. Detoxing means taking a set amount of time to intentionally rest from Christian activities: going to church, going to Christian events, listening to Christian radio, reading Christian books, etc. None of these activities are bad in and of themselves, but sometimes we can’t focus on our relationship with our Father because we are so distracted and busy.

Once we come to experience our Father’s love and begin healing our hearts, we naturally start to turn to others. We begin living out, quite naturally, the one-another commands of the New Testament with people around us who are also experiencing Father’s love. This then becomes the basis for “church.”

Church is then not defined by a “place where” assumption. The church still gathers, but often in more intimate communities, and often in homes, though the church can gather almost anywhere. The primary image that describes what church looks like shifts from non-profit organization to family. Churches in many ways resemble extended families. Church gatherings are often closer in size to family gatherings. Churches, like families, are led by parents. Churches, when healthy and mature, naturally reproduce. You don’t have to convince them to do it, because the process is actually quite natural and even rather enjoyable. Churches, like families, value their kids, make supreme sacrifices for their kids, and include their kids in most (though not every) aspect of who they are. Churches, like families, are connected to other churches (families), though not in a hierarchical way, but in a relational way.

Supplemental Readings:

Acts 10:1-2, 44-48
Acts 16:14-15, 29-31
Acts 18:7-8
The Cry For Spiritual Fathers & Mothers by Larry Kreider

Practical Implication #3: Learning to Question our Most Frequently Asked Questions!

Meaning no disrespect to those who ask, I must admit that most of the questions that we are asked about simple church are the wrong questions! We humbly acknowledge this because these are the same questions we spent much time asking ourselves. The questions we are most frequently asked include the following:

What do you “do” at a simple church meeting?
How do you control these churches doctrinally and morally?
What do you do with kids in a simple church?
How are finances handled in a simple church?
How does leadership work in a simple church?

There are, of course, some reasonable answers to these questions which are included below.

But first, let’s consider if these are the best questions to be asking! What is it that these questions all have in common? I have come to realize that these are all questions that we ask as we try to take what we’ve learned about church under the “place where” assumption, or the “non-profit organization” assumption, and apply it to a simple church setting.

We are used to having an order of service when we go to church, so we ask “what shall we do at house church?”

We are used to having control structures in place to preserve a certain denomination’s theology and to make sure that we don’t “blow it” morally. Because we have grown accustomed to these control structures, we ask how we can preserve theology and morality without such structures.

We are accustomed to dropping our kids off at class, attending the church service with other adults, then picking our kids up afterwards and hearing all that they have learned about Jesus. We enjoy this convenience (at least until we get the phone call asking us to volunteer as a children’s worker and to teach a room full of kids about Jesus!). With this in mind, we ask what the arrangement for kids would be like if we met in a house.

Finances are a major issue in the non-profit organization, as discussed above. We are accustomed to elaborate systems for teaching tithing, collecting and accounting for offerings, ensuring bills are paid, and systematically distributing missions and benevolence funds. We shrink at the prospect of having to re-invent all of those systems within our little house church, but what else would we do?

And last, but not least, is the question of leadership. We are accustomed to a board (or multiple boards or teams) that run the church either according to a representative government model, or a corporate business model, or some combination of the two. How does this translate into church in the living room, we wonder?

Many of our questions stem from our “place where” / “non-profit organization” understanding of church. We’ve even been taught which Bible verses justify (or even mandate!) each element of our non-profit organization’s structure. After all, 1 Timothy 3 was intended to give the qualifications for “board members,” right? We jest. Of course Paul did not have “board members” in mind, but probably a very different understanding of what it meant to be an “elder” than what we have come to understand.

Having established that these frequently asked questions are not the best questions to be asking, here are some general responses nonetheless!

What do you “do” at a simple church meeting?

Simple Church meetings are open to many activities. No two simple churches meet in exactly the same way. Some simple churches have a set meeting time each week just to ensure that everyone does gather and make a priority to meet with God and with each other. Some simple churches are meeting throughout the week, intermingling individual lives with one another, allowing each other to be more spontaneous about when it is time to engage in spiritual disciplines and when it is time to have fun together.

Some groups have embraced the Greenhouse theory of “D.N.A.” (Divine Truth, Nurturing Relationships, & Apostolic Mission). Under this theory, each simple church looks to keep all three elements as part of its core identity, whether only two or three are gathered, whether an entire community is gathered, or whether multiple communities are gathered. Regardless of the size of gathering, there is church when there is Divine Truth (awareness of God’s presence and the freedom it His love brings), when there are Nurturing Relationships (awareness of each others’ needs and genuine love for one another), and when there is Apostolic Mission (awareness of the spiritual and physical needs of those around us, and the mission to them which we have as the church).

Other groups get this more intuitively and are able to spontaneously be what God has called them to be.

As far as specific activities that happen in the midst of simple churches, they are not new ideas, but often fresh expressions of familiar ideas and include, but are not limited to, the following:

Churches break bread, not only in the sense of remembering the body and blood of Christ, but also in the literal sense of sharing meals (and the preparation and clean-up) with each other. Both the spiritual and the physical aspects of Biblical “breaking bread” come back together as one as they originally were.

Churches pray, not only in the formal sense of thanking God before a meal and asking God to heal the sick, but also in more contemplative, meditative, and experimental forms. Churches practice the Biblical concept of blessing as they pray for each other and speak into each others’ lives.

Churches teach, not only through reading a section of the Bible and making life application from it, but also by allowing each person in the community to come to meetings prepared to share what they have been learning from their week with God.

Churches worship, not only by singing praise songs accompanied by musical instruments, but by actually creating in the image of the Creator (which may include original artistic expressions to God through songwriting, poetry, painting, cooking, writing, etc.).

Churches serve the needs of others, not only by planning service projects, but by simply noticing what needs are present in the room or in the neighborhood and spontaneously responding to those needs.

Churches laugh together and cry together. Churches hang out and eat meals and play video games and go on trips and go to movies and play board games and flat out enjoy life together. Churches go through the worst parts of life together crying with each other and working through conflict and saying goodbye to loved ones and listening in silence to a friend whose life has fallen apart.

Since churches are like families they go through the most profound moments of life together and the most mundane parts of life together, and everything in between.

Since church is plural for Christ-follower, and Christ-followers are holistic people who simultaneously live the sacred and secular, churches are holistic communities that simultaneously live the sacred and the secular as well.

Once again, it is important to realize that churches are really identified by whose they are, not by what they do. Only when they realize whose they are will they really begin to do what they are designed to do.

Supplemental Readings:

Acts 2:42-47
Romans 12:9-21
1 Corinthians 14:26-33 (read in the broader context of 1 Corinthians 12-14)
Authentic Relationships by Wayne & Clay Jacobsen (Baker 2003)

How do you control these churches doctrinally and morally?

There are two ways to respond to this question!

The first way to answer this question is to acknowledge that simple churches do have a natural form of accountability that comes through relational lines. Every church was started by another church or by a church planter who has within himself an understanding of the things of Christ. These relational/family lines provide the best kind of accountability. DNA is passed from generation to generation, much like in a biological family. Sometimes simple churches incorporate more formal special training opportunities (classes, retreats, books), but these are only supplements to the relational training that happens naturally.

The second way to answer this question is to probe into our motives for asking it in the first place. In all honestly, only God controls His church. When we ask who is in control we are asking a dangerous question because we are assuming that the church works better if a human(s) ultimately controls it. What we ignore in asking this question is that some of the most structured and controlled church denominations and systems throughout history have been plagued by moral failings and doctrinal issues. Control structures have not proven very effective in eliminating these things. We have come to a place where we fear that control structures may do more to limit the spontaneous expansion of the church than they have done to preserve its purity. Based on this, we would rather err on the side of freedom than err on the side of control. In fact, it is the very presence of controlling leaders (not the absence of such) that has led to the emergence of heresies and cults throughout church history. This fact is a major blind spot in today’s understanding of church structure.

Supplemental Readings:

Acts 15:22-35
Houses That Change the World by Wolfgang Simson

What do you do with kids in a simple church?

If the primary image of the church is that of “family,” then healthy churches should deal with their kids in the same way that healthy families do. This means that kids are frequently included in the life of the church and in its meetings.

Families with small children often have to modify their lifestyles in order to deal with their kids. It is looked upon as a privilege rather than an inconvenience to do so. Church life should follow the same pattern. What better way to spend a church meeting than in pouring into the spiritual lives of the next generation?

Having said this, families occasionally need to get a babysitter so that the adults can have some free time to relate on an intimate level. This same pattern can be practiced by the church as well.

Supplemental Readings:

Matthew 18:1-6
Deuteronomy 4:9, 6:1-9, 11:18-21

How are finances handled in a simple church?

There are many options for this. In our network, we encourage everyone to meet the financial needs of those in their simple church family first. Then, with whatever money is left, give back to the church network to help start new churches and network the existing churches. We provide two ways for people to do this: by giving at our monthly gathering of churches, and by sending gifts to through the mail.

When we honestly read the New Testament again “for the first time,” we notice that financial giving was primarily about meeting the needs of the poor. There are also subtle references to supporting people who give their full-time attention to ministry (though the kind of ministry more closely resembles what we would call missions than it does pastoral ministry). What we don’t find in the New Testament is a command to tithe to an organization to allow the organization to function. This is not to say that tithing (an Old Testament principle that can teach people much about generosity even today) to an organization is “wrong” in and of itself. This is to say that the New Testament teaches sacrificial giving and sharing of material wealth to those who are in need and the New Testament teaches that some (though certainly not all and probably not most) full-time missionaries are entitled to financial support from the church.

Once we acknowledge what the New Testament actually teaches about giving, it becomes far simpler to follow New Testament patterns in our church life. We prioritize sacrificial sharing of our material wealth with those in need, including those who gather with us in our small communities as well as those who live on the other side of the globe. We are also open to giving financial resources to support local or international missionaries. Beyond this, most expenses are minimal and can be dealt with without elaborate financial systems.

Simple churches and their networks sometimes incorporate in order to allow their members to receive tax benefits for their financial gifts. Though this is a legitimate practice, it is certainly not high on our list of priorities as to what it really means to be the church. Our preoccupation with giving in order to get a tax deduction is, once again, an idea we have incorporated into the church because of our “non-profit organization” assumption. It is more of a luxury, and certainly not a necessity, to get a tax benefit for sharing our wealth with those in need.

Supplemental Readings:

2 Corinthians 8-9
1 Corinthians 9:1-18
1 Timothy 5:17-18
Luke 16:13
1 Timothy 6:6-19

How does leadership work in a simple church?

Once again we must think of family as our primary image of church instead of thinking of non-profit organization as our primary image of church. Once we do that, the idea of leadership becomes simple. Leadership then resembles parenting more than it does managing.

Two kinds of leaders emerge in simple church networks: stayers & goers. Stayers are the spiritual fathers & mothers within a simple church. They serve as the overseers of the family. They pastor the flock. Their leadership style is comparable to a mother or father in a healthy biological family. Goers are more apostolic at heart. They go throughout the network planting new churches and networking the existing ones together. They often act as overseers of the network.

Various authors have come up with more elaborate leadership concepts for simple churches. These systems try to identify how simple church leadership corresponds to Biblical terms such as apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, teacher, elder, and deacon. Though some of their ideas may be valid, I have not found myself to be smart enough to positively identify how each of these roles plays out in today’s church. For my simple mind, I have only been able to distinguish between the stayers and goers. Perhaps the roles mentioned above are more complex explanations of the simple reality that some leaders stay in a context while others go from context to context. In the end, it is often easier to identify leadership roles in the rear view mirror (by seeing what God has done with a person over a period of time) than it is in the windshield (trying to label and predict who will play what leadership role before the test of time).

Supplemental Readings:

Luke 10:1-12 (read along with Luke 9:1-6 & Matthew 10:1-16)
Ephesians 4:11-16
Romans 12:3-8
1 Corinthians 12:1-31
I Timothy 3:1-13, 4:12-16

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