Learning from the Church Around the World

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I grew up very patriotic. It’s safe to say that I believed the United States was the best country on the face of the planet. So when I came to Christ as a teenager and started looking around the landscape of Christianity, it wasn’t hard for me to develop a very “American-Centric” or “Western-Centric” view of Christianity. In my mind, the hot spots of Christianity had gradually moved over the centuries from Jerusalem to Rome to Great Britain, finally landing in America some time over the last two or three hundred years.

About ten years after coming to Christ, I had the privilege of hearing John Cava speak about how the Kingdom of God was expanding in the nations of the world. John shared that he could go to Russia and could start a church in the amount of time most high schoolers have for summer vacation. His argument was that we should spend time engaging in the harvest where there is significant results, not just limiting ourselves to our current locations. I was stirred to see this kind of ministry and learn how it worked.

A year or two after this, a mentor of mine began taking me on trips to Africa.  Soon it became clear that not only were there many people coming to Jesus in these other countries, but that my Westernized view of Christianity had led me to believe that I had all the answers and the church in the rest of the world didn’t.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  I had ended up spending time with spiritually mature figures in the church of Africa. Many of the people I spent time with will never be written about in a magazine or ever write a book, but they had done more than most of the Westerners who had.  It was eye-opening.

I think in many of our minds what perpetuates these ideas is a First World vs. Third World mindset that we’ve inherited from previous generations.  We look at the world and see the Church in the West with buildings and rights and money and education and think we must be further along than those without those things. But these are the things that puff us up, friends.

Instead, I look at the results of the church in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America and am in awe of what they are accomplishing without those things. Today, many, MANY more people will come to Christ in these regions than they will in the cultural West.  And over the years, something has shifted in my heart so that I’m willing to say “If that’s true, maybe we have something to learn from the church in these areas.”

Friends, God has one church. One day it will be made up of a people from every race, tribe, language, and tongue.  This church will reflect the incredible diversity of the nations of the Earth. But we as the church in the cultural West must be willing to learn from the rest of the church, or we risk walking in a kind of pride that says we have nothing to learn from anyone else.

We’ll talk about what we can learn from the church around the world in another post. For now, have you experienced learning from Christians in a significantly different culture? Share your story for us to learn.

Danger and the Church

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Jesus never promised us security. While there is a reward for following Christ, we are called to walk a dangerous path that has real implications for our lives. But where does the church fit in? How do the people of God together encourage each other to follow Jesus and not love their lives, even unto death?

Often I hear the church described as a place where believers should be safe. I understand what people mean when they say that, but I don’t know that Jesus meant what we mean when we say safe.  I think what we mean is that the church should be a place where people are loved despite their sin. This is true. We don’t want to become a house of Pharisees. But the New Testament church was also a place where those who lied to the apostles died and those who exercised their spiritual gifts where required to submit themselves to the judgment of others. In many of the ways we think about safety, it wasn’t safe.

I think a big part of the challenge is that our culture is obsessed with safety. We have safe spaces and talk about people “being safe.” In some ways, because our culture is not connected with the Gospel, they’ve begun to idolize safety and security over other virtues: love, courage, freedom, etc. In some places, the church has followed suit. This is sad because the church’s job is to disciple believers to love something beyond their own life. Each church we are part of has to become a place where we impart a love for Jesus that compels us to love Christ and others more than we love ourselves.

How do we do this?  A particular passage of the The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe has been helpful for me in this process.  In this passage, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver are telling Lucy, Susan, and Peter about Aslan, who serves as a type of Christ in the story:

“Is – is he a man?” asked Lucy
“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion, the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh,” said Susan, “I thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king I tell you.

As the people of God, we help disciples embrace the danger associated with the Gospel by showing both the willingness to embrace risk for the Gospel and also embracing the goodness of God in the midst of danger. Jesus–who is always and forever good–has not only His Kingdom’s best intentions at heart when He sends asks us to do dangerous things, He has ours as well.

What we all need are followers of Jesus who model the trust in Jesus’ goodness, even when that trust could cost us our very lives. This kind of radical trust reproduces itself in the lives of disciples who witness it. It teaches us that there is a better Kingdom, even then the kind we enjoy in this life, that we are willing to trade this life for.  May we all learn how to say, with Shadrack, Meshak, and Abednego: “Our God is able to save us from the fire. But if He doesn’t, we will stand firm.”

Photo Credit: Danger! by Susanne Nilsson

Embracing the Danger of the Gospel

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It’s easy to talk about living dangerously. I find there’s a lot of talk about laying our lives down for the sake of Christ, but most of us hear those verses and think they’re only for missionaries to scary countries. Or worse, we spiritualize them mean just laying down our ambitions or something important to us, nothing more. It’s hard, in our middle class, Western mind to fathom God really asking us to risk anything significant.

But Jesus calls us to lay down our very lives for the Gospel. That may mean our physical lives. Every time I travel to Africa to serve the church there, I have to count that cost. I have to lay down at the feet of Jesus my fears for my wife, my young family, and whatever else I’m responsible for every single time I go. You don’t want to see me right after that time I have with the Lord. I’m a mess. It’s not just in regards to Africa, though. I have to do the same thing on a regular basis here in the sphere of influence the Lord has given me.

For the last several years I’ve been focusing most of my time and attention in the inner city neighborhood I live in. I’ve also been pretty direct about working with people that don’t darken the doors of a church building. To be clear, there are plenty of hard-working, decent people where I live. However, there is also a fair number of people with lives that are a mess. The homeless, the drug-addict, the sex-addict, the attention-addict. The list goes on. These are the people Jesus would hang out with. But they are also not the safest people in the world to minister to.

And for the last several years, I’ve also been fairly forward about calling people to live their lives down here with us. Coming into the neighborhood, dropping the Gospel, and then leaving wasn’t going to work. Come, be a part of the neighborhood. Learn how to interact with people who have no interest in your church. Come share the Gospel here. Come make disciples here. Come live here. Give your lives.

This came home clearly a few years ago. My wife and a friend were regularly meeting at our local McDonald‘s as part of their weekly discipleship time. I received a call late one night from my wife. She was a little bit frantic. As her and her friend were leaving, someone they had never met before walked up to them in the parking lot and punched her friend and ran off. There was no rhyme or reason to it.  Now this would have been horrible in any circumstance, but our friend was nine months pregnant at the time.

I’m happy to report that other than some bruising, everyone came out okay. Our friend gave birth to a healthy, active baby boy. The police never caught the assailant.  But we experienced a wake up call that day.  There is a cost to living on mission that you rarely hear about. There is a danger that we all have to embrace.  This could have turned out much worse.

Jesus did not call us to be safe. Countless believers have lost their lives over the course of church history as they’ve tried to bring the Gospel to people who didn’t have it. In other places in the world, becoming a follower of Jesus is a death sentence. It’s only in the West we are fairly inexperienced at loosing anything for our faith.

It’s important to be very clear: Jesus does not call us to safety.  He calls us to love Him and trust Him. He also calls us to trust Him with the risk that doesn’t make sense in light of His Sovereignty. And He calls us, regardless of whether we go to Africa or live in the inner city or practice mission to the most broken or live in the gated communities of the upper class to lay down our lives for His sake and the Gospel’s sake.

For too long, Christians have talked about laying their lives down and been willing to do it in abstract ways. It’s time for us to embrace the fact that Jesus calls us to truly put our lives on the line. We need to ask the hard questions: Is God still good if my worst fear happens? Is the Gospel worth really loosing my life? If we are willing to count the reward, the answer is “Yes.”

If we embrace the danger of living for the gospel, we will find, on the other side, true life.

If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it.

-Jesus, Mark 8:35

Photo Credit: Danger by Doran

 

The Danger of the Gospel

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Jesus frequently warned that following Him would cost us everything we have. In fact, he told His disciples that if they wanted to follow Him, they would have to deny themselves, pick up their cross, and follow Him.  What that meant to first century Jews and most of the Roman world was that following Christ was a death sentence. You were welcome to do it if you wanted, but you knew it would cost you your life.

The apostles would regularly say similar things. Paul told the early disciples in the churches he planted (after being stoned–possibly to death–in the previous city) that they “must suffer many hardships in order to enter the Kingdom of God,” (Acts 14:22). Paul would go on to tell his apostolic son that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution,” (2 Timothy 3:12). Peter would tell the churches he served not to be “surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you,” (1 Peter 4:12). Clearly the apostles understood that experiencing danger was part of following Jesus.

Yet so often the church cautions us to be safe. Under the disguise of “being wise” they caution us not to do daring things. And while some of the young and naive may have been kept from doing something foolish through this “wisdom,” the ultimate message is “don’t loose your life for the gospel.” In doing so, the church can end up on the wrong side of the Gospel.

Jesus calls us to lose our life for Him. That doesn’t always mean we die. But of the original twelve disciples/apostles that followed Jesus, eleven lost their lives sharing their faith. The Romans attempted to boil the twelfth disciple/apostle in burning oil, but he miraculously survived at least long enough to pen the book of Revelation. Paul was beheaded. Stephen was stoned. Jesus–our example– was brutally murdered. My point is, while Jesus has the power to heal our bodies and even provide for us, He doesn’t create a safe space for his disciples.

Why would we follow Jesus if this is the kind of life He promised us? Who would sign up for something like this? Only people who have come to believe that Jesus’ love is the answer to life. Only people whose hearts have been transformed by His forgiveness. Only people who are convinced that there is more to life than just today or tomorrow. Only people who believe He is their great reward.

There is a danger in signing up for the Gospel. We shouldn’t hide it. In fact, we should call people to lay down their lives for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel. Anything else is a gospel that is too small and worldly to be called the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus promised his disciples three things—that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.

-William Barclay

The Reward

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Sometimes we forget.

I know I do. When the pressure of the days is high and the work before us seems unending, it’s easy to lose perspective on why we do what we do.

I talk a lot with the brothers and sisters around our network about counting the cost of following Jesus. This is right and good, because there is a cost to following Him. You won’t be the most popular person in your school or your job. There will be times you have to go against the world.  They way of the Kingdom is narrow. All of this is true.

But counting the cost can become a thing where we discourage our own hearts. We become a Christian version of Eeyore the Donkey who only sees the weight of what was left behind. Brothers and sisters, this shouldn’t be.

Instead, counting the cost starts with recognizing the great worth of Jesus. When we truly see the fact that we have been invited into a relationship with a God who loves so extravagantly and doesn’t hold our past against us, it changes the equation. We get God! We get to live in relationship with Jesus. And when we count the worth of that relationship against the cost of following Christ, the math changes significantly.

God said to Abraham: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward,” (Genesis 15:1). Jesus compared God’s Kingdom to a treasure that a man found hidden in a field. That treasure was so valuable that when the man found it, he joyfully went and sold everything he had in order to buy the field (Matthew 13:44). This is the kind of relationship we are invited into: One where God Himself is our reward.

Jesus promises trouble for those who follow Him. We may lose all of our earthly possessions. We may be despised for resisting immorality that is trying to overtake the Earth. We may lay down our physical lives for the sake of the Gospel. But we get an invitation to be friends with God. We can’t forget that or we will grow weary and give up.

He is our reward. Not success. Not notoriety. Not friends. Not honor. Him.

He alone will satisfy.

He is our reward.

Photo Credit: Treasure 014-1 by leigh49137

Organic Churches Should Learn the Wisdom of House Churches (House Churches and Organic Churches Part 3)

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House churches and organic churches are often lumped into the same category but are not necessarily the same thing. Yesterday I spent some time describing how house churches can be more organic. Today I want to look at what organic churches can learn from house churches.

For organic churches, the idea of being confined to a certain size is unthinkable. And while many organic churches meet in homes and are typically smaller, I find many who are part of the organic church movement who meet in traditional church buildings and bigger groups. And while I’m sure in the grand scheme of things this is okay, I think it’s wise to learn from the wisdom of house churches.

Most of the people I know who have started house churches have looked into the Bible and recognized that the early church met in homes and shared the life of Christ together around tables and in their homes (Acts 2:42, Romans 16:5). There were multiple reasons that people give for this, persecution and finances are two of the major ideas that get expressed. I’d like to articulate another: purpose.

I believe God understood the makeup of the human frame when he created house churches. In anthropology circles, there is a term called the Dunbar Number. The Dunbar Number is a philosophy of what happens with certain sizes of groups. You can read more at Dunbar’s Number at the link above, but the detail in Dunbar’s Number that I want focus on is that when a group starts to reach more than 12 people, specialization within that group begins to happen. Prior to 12 people, everyone in the group was responsible for the group. But when the group grows larger than that, jobs begin to be assigned in order to accomplish whatever the goal of the group is.

But this is the beauty of house churches. Meeting in homes is often a limiting factor for how large a group can become. It gives a kind of ceiling for how large the group can become.Within a house church, there is generally few enough people that everyone can participate, everyone can do some teaching, everyone is known by everyone and knows everyone else. The meeting in a home (or most alternative meeting places besides a meeting hall) keeps the number of people small.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard traditional churches discussing their glory days about how it was when they first began meeting in a home. The story always dims when they talk about how their church moved out of a home and into a building. The relationships changed, the purpose changed, people who knew one another well grew distant.  This happens because as a group grows, roles change. But God in His wisdom knew we would flourish best relationally connected.

In truth, the wisdom of house churches preserves the organic nature of churches. It’s exactly because house churches stay small that they are able to allow for the life of Christ and the Gospel to be exchanged between one another without hierarchy or specialization. Crowds never become the issue. Caring for one another remains important.  The church Paul and the other apostles in the New Testament describe with “one another” phrases in the New Testament is allowed to naturally emerge.

What happens when these churches grow? Well at some point it becomes important for house churches who grow too large to multiply. I’ve never looked around one of our house churches, counted 12 people in the group, and decided it was time to multiply. But when our churches get somewhere around this number and they start to feel like someone is orchestrating that many people gathering in a home, I begin to pray about how God might be asking us to multiply.  What we’re after is not a number, but the ability of every believer to connect with a spiritual family they can feel a part of.

What about churches that are larger than this number but claim the organic title? Yesterday I quoted Neil Cole saying “If your church isn’t organic, it’s probably not a church.” My point here isn’t to say larger churches aren’t legitimate*. But I think what we need to acknowledge is where church is actually happening within these congregations. Usually church happens within the small groups or Bible studies that these churches host or encourage. The wisdom is in knowing and providing some flexible context for where this sharing of Jesus, caring for one another, and multiplication of disciples can take place.

So, organic churches can learn from the wisdom of house churches. I’ve spent a lot of time writing about size, there are obviously other benefits to house churches that larger churches can learn from.  But it’s significant to me that God has given us a family-like structure that facilitates all of us participating and caring for one another.  Organic churches who adopt the wisdom of house churches will find themselves strengthened in what God has called them to be.

*This will probably receive a follow up article in the future.

House Churches Should Be Organic (House Churches and Organic Churches, Part Two)

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House churches and organic churches are often lumped into the same category. Many people use the phrases house church and organic church inter-changeably. When we drill down into the vocabulary, though, we find that the two phrases don’t actually mean the same thing.  Organic churches are described as churches built around the presence and life of Jesus, regardless of their size.  House churches are understood to be a church adhering to some kind of biblical pattern with a specific size.  So which one is right?

Well, both. And neither. Let me explain: I think both expressions of church have elements that approximate the New Testament definition of church. But both definitions and the people representing them have need to learn from the other to get closer to the truth.

House churches should be organic.  Aren’t they already? Well, I think there are a lot of them that are. But there are some house churches that are built only as smaller versions of the tradition that people have come out of.  It’s “Honey, I Shrunk the Church” in a living room.  Some of these house churches have pulpits, still dress up for Sunday morning services, and have one person constantly teaching.  Needless to say, this is less than organic.

What’s sad about these types of situations is that house churches are the perfect environment for organic Christianity to take root.  There is no more perfect place for Christ-centered ministry, mutual edification, humble service, and operating in the gifts than in small groups of people who are committed to one another. But this isn’t always the case.

How can a house church become more organic?

  1. House churches that are based around rigid programs that leave little room for God to manifest Himself among His people need to lay down the programs. This will be awkward at first as you learn to corporately wait on the Lord and lay down your (and everyone else’s) agenda.  But if you wait for Jesus to show up, He will, even if only in the most simple ways.
  2. House churches should adopt an attitude that everyone in their fellowship who is a believer has the right to participate in the meeting. There shouldn’t be an unnatural division between clergy and laity, just a willingness to serve one another out of love for the Lord. This will mean some who are used to sharing much will need to hold back and some who are quieter or intimidated to share will need to step up and share more.
  3. Begin leading new believers to Christ. Many new believers are better at experiencing Jesus than us “established believers.” The sad reality is we sometimes teach people how not to be organic.  If we can lead people to Christ and teach them to depend on the same Jesus that saved them to help them walk out their faith, we’ll learn much from these new believers about true Christianity.
  4. Learn to cultivate the life of Christ in your life and in the lives of others. This is not just a once a week thing. It’s something that is played out 24/7 and can’t be confined to a sermon, a series of songs, and an hour on the calendar. The process of cultivating this life in Christ in ourselves and in each other is called discipleship. The more we practice this, the more organic we become.
  5. Because cultivating the life of Christ is a 24/7 reality, it’s best to realize that the focus of the church is not a meeting. Meetings are important, but what truly makes Christianity organic is the life of Christ flowing through relationships whenever and wherever they happen.  Our dependency on meetings can snuff out the spontaneity and transparency that are so often needed in becoming a church the way God wants it.

House churches should be organic churches. As Neil Cole says, “If you’re church isn’t organic, it’s not a church.” But we have to guard ourselves against only becoming a smaller version of what we saw in the traditional church we came from. In reality, God designed us to go deeper in Himself and become a reproducing agent for the Kingdom of God. It all starts as house churches become more organic.