The conversation happens so often you can almost predict how it’s going to go. Someone who the Lord has just started speaking to about organic church or house churches logs onto a house church discussion group and they ask this question: “What’s the best book out there on organic church?” People will begin to suggest the staples: Books by Neil Cole, Frank Viola, Jon Zens, etc. I’ll throw my two cents in and suggest my top five books on house churches. But inevitably someone will suggest the book of Acts.
Now, I’m never sure if someone is serious when they suggest the book of Acts or whether they are being a bit tongue in cheek to highlight peoples’ tendencies to rely on current authors over God’s word. Sometimes I think they’re doing both. Inevitably, though, someone will recommend the book of Acts as the book to read if you’re wanting to plant house churches.
This conversation happened again today on Facebook and it got me thinking about how we treat the New Testament in regards to church planting. Obviously we have a lot to learn from the book of Acts, but I found myself a little sad today because no one recommended the books of First and Second Timothy or Titus or the Gospels or the Minor Epistles. There is so much to learn from the New Testament that aids us in our pursuit of the church God wants, that to only learn from the book of Acts would be a travesty.
How do the books of the New Testament apply to house church planting? In so many ways. Here are a few:
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
It should go without saying, but the Gospels are critical to the success of any house church. Without the story of Jesus’ perfect life, atoning death, powerful resurrection and ascension into Heaven, none of what we do as house churches makes any sense. Not only are we redeemed by the good news we find in the Gospels but we are matured by the good news we find there. We are designed to grow up into the image of Christ (Ephesians 4:15), so we must constantly hold in front of us the image of Christ, not the New Testament church, so we can grow up into His likeness.
So based on my previous statements this should be a no-brainer. The book of Acts shows us how the small, struggling group Jesus left behind became a nearly unstoppable missionary force. We’d do well to learn from the apostles and others we see in the book of Acts and adopt many of their principles. If anyone tells you the book of Acts is descriptive but not something we should base our churches or strategy on, remind them that all Scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16), including the book of Acts.
Paul wrote the books of Romans through the book of Philemon. There is so much good in all of these books that I could go on for a long time, but I’ll focus on two aspects.
Some of Paul’s books feature rich and deep theology. Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians fit into that category. While each of these books have some stunning pictures of body life, they come after an unveiling of who Christ is in His resurrected glory. Understanding Jesus as the exalted Son of God is critical to house churches functioning as Kingdom outposts.
The other books Paul wrote–1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon are much more practical books. If the earlier books paint you a picture of the resurrected Jesus, these books paint a picture of what the practical early church movement looked like. Many of these books are Paul trouble-shooting church problems that crept in in his absence because of the highly mobile ministry we see him operating in in the book of Acts.
One final note on Paul’s contributions. Everyone who believes that Acts is a blueprint for what the Lord wants to do through house churches needs to spend serious time in 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. These books describe Paul trying to finish what he started in his missionary journeys but didn’t have time to fully complete. I know many people who pit Acts style church planting vs. “Pastoral Epistle” style churches. In reality, Paul planted churches like he did in Acts and served them from a distance by writing books like 1 Timothy and Titus. The churches planted in Acts wouldn’t have survived without the wisdom we find in those books.
These books were written by other early church leaders besides Paul. They include the books of Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude. I love these books and think they are incredibly relevant to house churches and here’s why: Most of these books were letters written to house churches struggling with false teachers who have entered into their midst. You may have not struggled with false teachers, false prophets, or false apostles having come to your house church yet, but if you meet organically for any length of time you will. Often our response to false teachers is to elevate good teachers, but the apostles wrote these letters to encourage the church to contend with false teachers without becoming institutional. This is such a critical reality that we all need to learn from on our journey to becoming the church God wants.
Finally, we come to the book of Revelation. Many of you will disagree with me and that’s okay, but I’m still firmly of the opinion that the book of Revelation should be read literally. I still believe that the second coming of Jesus is our hope in this age and the events described within the book are to prepare us for the hour before the Lord’s return. This movement of finding God’s heart for His church, for reaching lost people and discipling them, and for multiplying disciples and churches is going somewhere and I believe that somewhere is the literal return of Jesus to reclaim the Earth. This book serves us by teaching us not to give our hearts to world and its systems and that message will be more and more critical as the day draws nearer.
Imagine a church that is rooted in the Gospel, planted and established like the churches in the book of Acts, guided by Paul’s fascination with the risen Christ and the wisdom he had acquired through planting tens of churches. Picture this same church knowing how to deal with false teachers that show up in their midst and who are prepared, not just for the end times, but for the Kingdom Jesus is bringing on the other side of those end times.
This is the church Jesus is building. It will take the whole counsel of Scripture in order to produce it. It will require us to ask Jesus to give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him. But if we read our Bibles with our hearts open before the word, we will be stronger house churches for it.
So what’s my favorite book on organic house churches?
Let’s start with the New Testament.
It’s possible to learn from someone who is imperfect. The other day I suggested that a helpful way to do that is to take what is helpful from a person’s theology and lifestyle while carefully discerning what is unhelpful. I call it “Eat the chicken, spit out the bones.”
My friends who are theologically cautious will naturally point to the danger here. All of this is dependent on your ability to discern chicken from bone–and they’re right. In order to do this correctly, you have to have two things going for you already: You are committed to the Bible as the supreme source of revelation above any teacher or truth and you are regularly exposing yourself to the words contained within it. If you aren’t doing either of these, you will choke on a bone eventually. It’s also incredibly helpful for believers to study the Bible together because so much error happens in isolation. For the believer who is taking these ideas seriously, very little damage will occur.
Many times leaders who are theologically cautious will tell you what teachers or truths to avoid, which I understand. Frankly I have little interest in reading anything by Rob Bell, nor would I encourage anyone who is a believer to deeply read what he’s written. The problem with this type of philosophy is that it starts to spill over into things not written by our tribe…whatever tribe it is you belong to: evangelical mega-churches, Reformed Baptists, Charismatic firebrands, or house church writers. I’ve learned from brothers and sisters in all of these groups and grown tremendously from it, all while spitting out a bone here and there.
My response to my theologically cautious friends is this: We need to grow in our discernment. For too long, we’ve created a culture where we’ve been told what is good and bad and blindly followed along because someone said so. This kind of mentality has lead to us falling into deception whenever our trusted teachers turn to heresy. Hebrews tells us the mature have become mature because they have practiced discerning between good and evil (Hebrews 5:14). We shouldn’t make a practice of reading heresy and trying to find God in it, but we’ve made a mistake in only trying to read truth from our theological tribe and it’s caused us to be weak and immature.
So don’t go dumpster diving, looking for nuggets in every heretic’s writings, but get broad perspective on what the Bible teaches. Compare it to what the Bible actually says. If a truth you hear or read contradicts a clear teaching of Scripture, ignore it. Don’t put into practice things that aren’t patterned after the Lord Himself. Let these things be your guide.
We can learn from others who aren’t perfect. It’s entirely possible. In fact, it’s the only way we grow as part of the body of Christ. The problem most people have with learning from others who aren’t perfect is the idea that they’ll some how be lead into sin or deception.
Most of you know I spent some time in a Bible college almost fifteen years ago. During that time I heard Mike Bickle say over and over again one phrase that has stuck with me and helped me learn from almost everyone: “Eat the chicken, spit out the bones.”
This was revolutionary to me the first time I heard it. Prior to that, everyone I met was either a defender of truth or a heretic to be avoided. The confusing part was what to do when the defenders of the truth disagreed with each other!
This simple statement communicated so much in one simple phrase. People (believers, specifically) aren’t either all right or all wrong. They are a complicated mix of truth that can nourish you and oddball theologies and practices that you probably don’t want to try and swallow.
Deeper still, there is no chicken without bones to work past, so no matter how good the chicken, expect a few bones. The presence of bones shouldn’t cause you to forsake the chicken, either! The point is that you can read broadly, listen closely to lots of voices, and find truth that is there, without having to adopt anything unbiblical.
For example, unless you’re willing to write off about twelve hundred years of church history, almost all of the writings we have from 300 AD to 1500 AD are Catholic in nature. Now, you can ignore the writings of this time out of fear of growing in the belief that Pope is infallible and Mary is a goddess, or you can understand that these men were a complicated mixture of truth and error and learn from them where you can.
My friends in the missional movement are a tremendous encouragement to me to share the Gospel and recover much of what is missing from the church. However, I’d be lying if sometimes I didn’t see them slip into both theological and political liberalism that I don’t see in the New Testament. The beauty is I can learn from these men and women without having to wholesale adopt everything that they believe.
So read that Catholic mystic, that evangelical mega-preacher, and that missional guy who loves the poor. Just make sure that you don’t worship Mary, crowds, or liberalism instead of Jesus. In fact, I expect you to do the same thing with what I’ve written. We won’t agree on everything, but we can agree on Jesus and learn from the good in each others’ and others’ lives.
Eat the chicken, spit out the bones.
[Editor’s Note: I am slightly preoccupied this week, so I’ve asked some friends to help me keep some posts coming your way. Today’s post is a review of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. The review is by David Washburn.]
Randolph Richards is dean and professor of biblical studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University, and Brandon J. O’Brien, a former student of Richards, is a part-time instructor of religion at College of Du Page and editor-at-large for Leadership journal.
Together Mr. Richards and Mr. O’Brien have revealed where many Christians throughout time have mistakenly interpreted the words and actions within scripture through their cultural norms instead of the culture of the scriptural writer. As a result, those living in western societies are frequently blind to the cultural subtleties of those living in other cultures. Westerners may often miss the point of a biblical passage where the reader is expected to know something which would go without saying. For example: If I was to say, “I’m going out to eat.” It would go without saying, that I am going to go out to a restaurant. If I was in another culture or time, it would go without saying, that I was going to eat outside. Many times we assume that what we say will be understood because the reader or listener will understand what went without saying.
“The core conviction that drives this book is that some of the habits that we readers from the West (the United States, Canada, and Western Europe) bring to the Bible can blind us to interpretations that the original audience and readers in other cultures see quite naturally” (p. 15).
It is normal for readers from the West to view things with Western eyes. It is very difficult to read and perfectly understand a book which was written with an Eastern point of view, when all your life you have viewed the world from a Western viewpoint. That does not mean we can not learn to train ourselves to look for those differences. The nine differences identified in this book are written to “help us learn to read ourselves. . . . Before we can be confident we are reading the Bible accurately, we need to understand what assumptions and values we project onto the Bible: those things that go without being said and that make us assume that some interpretations are self-evident and others are impossible” (p 16)
We are all culturally immersed in our way of life. Everything we do, say and think is effected by the cultural world around us. It is easy for us to forget that The Bible was not written to people within our culture. This book helps to show us that we can not simply read our world into the Biblical world. The word of God is true and perfect. It applies to everyone worldwide, but we must also remember to view God’s Word with an eye towards the culture and times of the writer.
This is an excellent book which I highly recommend Christians to read. It will not overnight make you understand all the cultural differences within Scripture, but it is a good place to start.
David Washburn is a follower of Jesus, a husband, a father, and a grandfather. He is an author of short stories and blogs occasionally. You can connect with David on Facebook and Twitter.
Once upon a time many, many years ago, there was a little girl who picked up a white ball with black spots and started playing with it. She decided to try making a game where you couldn’t use your hands. So she started kicking it around and soon other kids started playing. Quickly a game was created and this young lady named the game soccer.
Soon soccer games started popping up everywhere. To help soccer spread as far and wide as possible, the young lady wrote down how to play soccer in a book called “How to Play Soccer.” With the rules of soccer written down, soon the young lady was forgotten, but soccer became an international phenomenon. Everyone was playing!
“How to Play Soccer” was also an international success. Copies of the book were being sold as fast as they could be printed. Everyone who loved soccer was given a copy. As generations passed, parents would pass their copies down to their children. It became uncommon for someone not to have a copy sitting around in a drawer or a closet.
But as generations passed, people read the book less and less. And a few hundred years after the publication of the book, small changes started taking place. First, people decided that hands were okay to use. Years passed. A group of people decided that goals were unnecessary, so they were removed and the practice spread. Soon the game had evolved into people passing the ball back and forth, declaring they had scored whenever they felt like it.
Interest in the game waned. People played it because their parents did or because their parents expected them too. Some people played out a sense of preserving their cultural heritage, but the passion for the game was largely absent. Duty had replaced the love of the game.
Then, one day, something happened that changed everything. Two young boys were going on a cruise and their parents had given them a copy of “How To Play Soccer” and a soccer ball. A freak accident happened on the ship and these two boys with their book and ball ended up on a life raft that landed on a deserted island.
Obviously, survival was a primary concern for awhile, but after figuring out how to survive, they were left with little to do. The boys eventually got around to reading the book their parents had given them. Having never really played the game, they read the instructions with a fresh set of eyes. No one was around to tell them that soccer isn’t played like the book stated. And so they played. They fashioned makeshift goals and started, kicking competing against each other. They would spend weeks learning to play against each other.
Then, a miracle happened and the boys were discovered by a passing ship. They were brought back to their home city and reunited with their family. Something strange happened, though, when they returned. They played a different game than everyone else, the one they had learned from reading the book “How To Play Soccer.”
Because they had read the book and did what it said, at first they were ridiculed for playing such a strange game. Others questioned whether it was helpful or relevant to play the game like it was described in the book. But the curious and those who would have never touched soccer before suddenly began to see the fun and the joy of the game. And soon the joy of playing soccer began to spread again, replacing the formalism and tradition of the game it had become.
Soccer became fun again. It was played the way it was always intended thanks to two young boys who had the audacity to believe the book and put it into practice.
Let the reader understand….
Making disciples who make disciples is part of the commission Jesus gave us as believers (Matthew 28:18-20, 2 Timothy 2:2). Jesus Himself told us to teach them to obey everything He commanded, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that a large part of making disciples involves all of us getting into the Bible and studying it together.
As I mentioned yesterday, our corporate discipline involves 2 or 3 people gathering together and reading large amounts of Scripture, somewhere between 20 & 30 chapters a week. Why are we so determined to study the Bible? Jesus said that His very words are Spirit and life (John 6:63). The message of the Kingdom contained within the Bible is like a seed in our hearts (Mark 4:13-14, 26-27). The more we can get that message of the Kingdom into our hearts and spirits, the more of the Kingdom we see take root in our life.
So, every time our groups of 2&3 gather, we pick a section of Scripture, usually 20 or 30 chapters in a row. This section is what everyone is reading this week. This week my 2&3 is reading the book of Mark, last week was the book of Revelation. Sometimes it’s multiple books like 1st and 2nd Corinthians. The point isn’t to finish the section every single week. Many weeks someone in my 2&3 doesn’t finish. When this happens, we start over, and read it again the following week. When everyone finishes the 20 or 30 chapters in the same week, that’s when it’s time to pick a new section of Scripture.
Why do we read the Bible together like this? The main reason is it’s good to be in the Bible hearing Jesus for ourselves. As Christians we believe the Bible is the only inspired message from God and because of that, it is fuel for us to grow up into the likeness of Jesus. But in addition to that, reading large portions of the Bible together keeps us from heresy. Mutual discipleship means there’s no authorized leader of a 2&3. If we read significant portions of the Bible together in context, each believer is able to say “Can you show me where you found that in the reading?” whenever a controversial statement is expressed. One final thought about reading together like this: It eats away at our carnal independence. Many people are content to read what they want, when they want. This process asks us to be formed as disciples together.
We want to be careful of a few things. The intent of this time is not turn our 2&3’s into a Bible study. Bible studies are good and have their place. But our goal instead is to figure out how Jesus encountered us in the Scriptures and is asking us to obey Him. This isn’t the chance for those gifted as teachers to break down whole chapters of the Bible for everyone else.
Also, we need to be careful of dead religion. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for reading the Bible but resisting the very One that the Scriptures pointed to (John 5:39). The goal is not to become an expert, the goal is meet the One who Scripture points to! But reading and immersing ourselves in truths within the Bible is the surest way to do that.
I think in the West, because the Bible is so available to us, it can become easy to grow cold to its ability to transform us. The words sound familiar and if we fail to take the words back to the Holy Spirit and ask Him to encounter us around those words, our hearts can grow dull to the Word. I believe the word of God has the power to change human hearts. Have you ever seen Chinese believers receive a Bible for the first time? It should humble us. We need to hunger for God’s word like these fiery believers who are being transformed by the Gospel.
What I’ve described here is a corporate discipline that we embrace to make disciples. But friends, the heart here is that we are soft towards God’s word and being transformed by it. We need not only to read it ourselves, but join with others and help each other find the divine truth God has hidden in its pages.
Yesterday I shared some thoughts about how “not being fed spiritually” isn’t why we participate in a church. My primary argument (in case you hate clicking links) is that we weren’t primarily designed be fed by another person, but by the Lord Himself. But I realize that because of the state of the church today, that could leave many of you asking, “How do I do that?”
Because of that, I want to look at four different ways the Bible encourages us to fuel our spiritual man. God actually has ways for you to feed your heart and soul yourself as you encounter Him. My encouragement to you is to look at the four different ways listed below and pick one (or more) that you aren’t doing, but to also do it daily for ninety days before you give up on it. There are many, many days where the disciplines I practice don’t feel like they are accomplishing anything. But the overall effect of doing them consistently over the years has had a tremendous impact on my life.
So, to feed your spiritual man, you should try the following:
- Pray. I know what you’re thinking. You pray. But I’m not talking about the short “Help me, God,” sort of prayers we pray throughout hectic days. I’m talking about a kind of prayer where your mind is focused, your heart is attentive, and you and the Father are dialoguing back and forth. Part of the problem we experience with prayer is much of the church has taught us not to expect God to talk back to us. But prayer is a communion of our spirit with God’s Holy Spirit where real relationship happens. If you have problems praying I have a few suggestions: 1) Get alone. 2) Leave behind all of your electronic devices. 3) Bring a pen and some paper. Write your part of the conversation out on paper and then wait. And as God brings truth to your spirit or brings up a Bible verse, or shows you a picture write those things down. Over time as you practice this, you’ll begin to get good at hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit as you wait for Him.
- Read the Bible. Again, this can seem so elementary, but we so don’t do the simple things and it hurts us. Can we put away our books, our blogs (even this one?), our Christian programs, and truly begin to understand what God is saying? Jesus (and Moses) said “People do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” (Matthew 4:4). We have to get to our place in our walk where we understand we are dependent on God’s word to feed our spirit on a daily basis. This encounter with the word has to go beyond just dull, repetitive reading, though, to ushering us into an encounter with Jesus (John 5:39). In our network, I encourage believers to get in groups of two or three and read 20 to 30 chapters of the Bible in context every week. Consuming a large amount of Scripture in context has helped us grow in understanding of God’s will for our lives. Not only that, but we’ve met God in the process.
- Do the will of the Father. “I have a kind of food you know nothing about…My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work,” (John 4:32-34). Jesus, as a human being, had learned to become dependent, not on natural food, but a spiritual food that came from the Father. This wasn’t just because Jesus was God. Jesus had to lay aside His divine nature and become like us in all things (Philippians 2:6-8). So His entire life was an example of how redeemed humanity can live in relationship to the Father. Friends, this means you can be fed spiritually when you participate in God’s will! That can be as simple as encouraging someone or responding to a truth from the Bible or as unique as Jesus prophesying to the Samaritan woman about her various scandals and leading her to repentance. Regardless, every time we do God’s will, it strengthens who we are on the inside. Many of my friends who understand spiritual disciplines miss this reality because it can’t be done alone in a closet. But some of my most spiritually dynamic mentors and friends are people who were people who received from God and obeyed when He asked them to act. Don’t miss this powerful step!
- Pray in the Spirit. Paul had a very particular type of prayer that he stressed was important for building up our inner man. This was praying in tongues or praying in the Spirit and it was designed as form of communion between our spirit and God’s Spirit. When Paul talks about this type of prayer, he says that a believer “…will be speaking by the power of the Spirit…[and] is strengthened personally,” (1 Corinthians 14:2-4). And because of this, Paul says about himself “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than any of you,” (1 Corinthians 14:18). I think many times, we under-emphasize the role this gift has in strengthening our spiritual lives. Much could be written about this gift, but let’s start here: If you have this ability, put it into practice daily. If you don’t have this gift, ask the Lord for it. He loves to give more of the Spirit to those who ask.
The Old Testament has a story that we can learn from in regard to these disciplines. During their time in the wilderness, God would rain down manna from heaven for the Israelites to eat and told them to gather what they needed for that day. If they tried to gather more than what they needed for that day, when they went to eat it the next day, what was left over had rotted and was covered in maggots. They couldn’t live off the previous day’s manna.
So too, we can’t live off of one good day with the Lord or three good days in a week, let alone one day a week when we gather as a church. Again, much of the church is weaker than it needs to be because they aren’t daily engaging the Lord in these ways.
My encouragement to you if you read yesterday’s post and didn’t know where to start is to pick one of these disciplines that you aren’t strong in and practice it for the next seven days. Take stock on what you’ve noticed as far as a change in your walk. I want you to spend 90 days trying a discipline, but even at one solid week, my guess is you will start to see a dynamic change in your walk with the Lord.
Remember, this is important. You were created for relationship with God. Don’t miss these avenues to encountering Him and growing by feeding yourself on God and His word.