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.