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.
Organic Churches Should Learn the Wisdom of House Churches (House Churches and Organic Churches Part 3)
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 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
As I wrote yesterday, I have a pretty long history in the charismatic expression of Christianity. I truly treasure my past because I wouldn’t have come to Christ apart from seeing and experiencing the power of God in the present. I truly believe that the power of the Holy Spirit is critical to seeing apostolic Christianity restored to the Earth.
So it was curious for me several years ago when I was reading Alan Hirsch’s book “The Forgotten Ways” that he mentioned a missing ingredient of the missional church was the Pentecostal experience:
What is still largely missing from this emergent phenomenon is any sustained and explicit Pentecostal presence, with all its passion and fire. While it’s true that Pentecostalism taught us the true value of apostolic ministry, the Pentecostals have not been a noteworthy expression of [emergent missional church], as far as I am aware. This is probably because Pentecostalism is still basking in the relative success that church growth praxis brought them.
Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways (Page 270)
I would say that Hirsch’s experience of a lack of Pentecostals or charismatic experience in the emergent missional church mirrors my experience with house churches largely outside of our network. And while I may be off on this, my perception is that very few house churches are started with those from charismatic backgrounds.
This is sad to me because charismatics should feel the most at home in house churches. House churches exist to allow every member of the body of Christ to participate in the gathering. The meetings are small to intentionally facilitate interaction, especially the sharing of gifts. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:26 “When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you.” The kind of organic church Paul describes here allows for the power of the Holy Spirit to move among different members of the body.
Pentecostals and Charismatics should believe in the democratization of the Holy Spirit. That’s a big five dollar word that describes that idea that the Holy Spirit gives Himself to each and every believer. Because every believer gets a measure of Christ’s gifting through the power of the Spirit, every believer should be participating in a meeting of believers with the Holy Spirit leading like the director of an orchestra. The democratization of the Holy Spirit means every believer can participate in the work of God.
Peter best articulates this for us in his famous message to the Jews in Jerusalem after Pentecost:
No, what you see was predicted long ago by the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days,’ God says,
‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young men will see visions,
and your old men will dream dreams.
In those days I will pour out my Spirit
even on my servants—men and women alike—
and they will prophesy.
What Peter is saying in this message is that a day that the prophet Joel had predicted has come to pass: God is pouring out His Spirit on everyone. Prior to this, God had poured out His Spirit on special anointed individuals, mainly kings and prophets. The Holy Spirit’s activity was unique and happened only among select people. But now, because of the sacrifice of Jesus, everyone could have access to this elusive Holy Spirit. Men and women, young and old, even the servants–all would be able to move in the gifting of God.
These are the verses that launched the Pentecostal movement in the early 20th century. A desire to be filled with the Spirit and experience God personally marked places like the Azusa Street revival. But over the last 100 years, the movement has grown increasingly comfortable with letting ‘anointed’ men and women do the hard work. It’s not uncommon for attenders in charismatic congregations to have never experienced the Holy Spirit in any way outside of the pastor or preacher’s ministry.
All of this, then, is a giant appeal from me to those who believe in the gifts of the Spirit to put into practice the democracy of the Spirit. Do you believe God gives gifts to His church? Good! Then gather believers together in their homes and have meetings like they were described in 1 Corinthians 14. Let members of the church practice sharing their gifts from the Holy Spirit with each other. Don’t be content with someone else exercising their one gift for the entire body. Keep pressing into the Spirit until every member of the body of Christ is participating in a meeting of believers with the gifts God has given them.
The result will be the strengthening of the church.
I came to Christ in the midst of a spiritual revival that was sweeping through sections of the church in the mid-90’s. I watched my mom get miraculously healed of cancer in front of my eyes and it was shortly after that I gave my life to Christ. It was during this time that Brownsville, Toronto, and other places were experiencing moves of the Holy Spirit. We treasured that season because we were watching things that happened in the Bible regularly occur before our eyes. For us, this was what Christianity was supposed to be about.
Somewhere around the year 2000 many of those movements faded a bit and it was during this time I started feeling called to church planting. After college I moved to Kansas City to learn church planting and how to follow the Holy Spirit like I had seen others do. I got a bit more than I bargained for, though. Not only did I learn church planting and following the Holy Spirit, but I got introduced to the concept of house churches and my thinking about the body of Christ was turned upside down. Shortly after this I moved back to Iowa.
Since that time, I’ve mostly given myself to starting house churches in our region and raising up disciples that will make disciples. And even if you’ve read my blog, it’s largely focused on the idea that the church is a people who meet simply and make disciples.
Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about revival, the movement of the Spirit, and how that all functions in the context of movements and making disciples. You could think from posts I’ve written like Awakening, Harvest, and Broken Nets Part I, II, and III that I don’t believe in revival anymore. But that’s not the case. I believe (and am asking) for a movement of the Holy Spirit in our country, I just think it looks different than what most people are expecting.
What I mean is this: revival and awakening have typically happened in the context of existing structures of church. Because of this, these movements of the Spirit seem to draw people to a location, a church building, one or more dynamic leaders, etc. Men and women are born again, miracles happen, existing believers are convicted of sin, and renewal comes to the church. But the outpouring of the Spirit is based around a place, a few places, or a few dynamic individuals. The everyday person doesn’t expect to participate, other than to help or receive from those who are leading the meetings. And when trouble or turmoil comes to the places where the Spirit is moving, the revival or awakening inevitably ends.
But even yesterday as I was reading St. Patrick’s Confession I was reminded that movements of the Spirit happen in the context of disciple making movements that change whole nations. These empower every believer, not just the anointed few, to take the gospel to every sphere of life. This type of awakening can be passed to others with a simple version of church that allows the Gospel to spread like a virus among the lost. Instead of a few places experiencing awakening, it can move from person to person and have a much greater impact.
The Holy Spirit isn’t confined to our church meetings. He’s not just interested in elevating the spiritual intensity of the existing church for four or five years every decade. He is interested in the Gospel touching the hearts of lost men and women who don’t even know how lost they are. Imagine a movement of the Spirit that is able to invade a gang-ridden inner city that would never darken the door of your local Assembly of God or Vineyard church. He WANTS to release his power for miracles AND godliness among them as well. Holy Spirit even wants to spawn church planting movements that are filled with dreams and visions and signs and wonders and people coming to Jesus in every context!
How do I know this? Because it’s the testimony of church history. It happened with the first century church: THERE WAS BARELY A CHURCH TO REVIVE! All there was were lost people who needed this kind of movement of the Spirit. It happened again with guys like Patrick, It happened in this country with a couple of guys named Wesley. It’s been happening in China since the 1950’s. It happened in this country as recently as the late 60’s and early 70’s. We call it the Jesus People movement. And all over the world it’s currently happening in countries where you can be killed for following Christ. These are normal movements of the Spirit!
Friends, I believe God still wants to send the Holy Spirit in unprecedented ways*. But the way that that we package the outpouring will affect how far it will go and how deeply it will impact us. So let’s keep asking and keep believing for a movement of the Spirit, but let’s contend for it knowing it will not be something that shouldn’t look like a more zealous church service. It looks like a grass-roots movement of people coming to Christ, churches being formed, and missionaries being sent out.
*For example, I believe Joel 2 was fulfilled partially in Acts 2, but I don’t we’ve seen the ultimate fulfillment of “I will pour out my Spirit on all people,” yet (see Acts 2:17-21).
In case you missed it, today is my annual trek to the McDonald’s in my neighborhood to drink a Shamrock shake and read the Confession of St. Patrick. I do this regularly because of the impact Patrick’s life has had on me. Reading his story stirs my heart to live the kind of life he lived and be part of a movement that leads many people to Christ.
First, a brief summary of Patrick’s life: He lived in Britain and he was the son of a deacon of the church of Rome. At 16, he was kidnapped and taken to Ireland where he worked as a slave herding pigs. Prior to this he didn’t know or acknowledge God, but during this time he began to pray a hundred prayers during the day and a hundred prayers at night. The love of God began to capture his soul and he began to seek God early in the morning in the snow because “the Spirit was burning in [him].”
It was after this relationship with God took root that the audible voice of the Lord told him to run away from his master. He escaped and joined a group of barbarians. He was later recaptured and the Lord told him he would be captive another 60 days. At the end of 60 days he escpaed and came back to Britain. After some time there, he had a vision of a man named Victoricus (an angel? the Lord?) bringing him a letter from the people of Ireland begging him to come back and bring the Gospel to them.
He said yes and became a missionary to the unbelievers of Ireland. This is the Patrick we celebrate. It was during this time that he baptized thousands of new believers. Patrick himself speaks of ordaining many who would go and preach to a hungry people. Many of the chiefs’ daughters became celibate to follow Jesus and churches and monasteries sprung up every where. Patrick became the catalyst for an Irish church planting movement.
Any wonder why he’s my hero? 🙂
So, here are today’s takeaways:
- Probably the thing that struck me this time that I had never seen before in this letter is the fact that Patrick was insistent that everything that happened to him was a divine gift. He took no credit it for it at all. He didn’t point to the ten steps that made him “St. Patrick.” Over and over again he points at how the Lord helped him when he was unable to help himself. The movement that started was God’s, not his, and Patrick was just thankful to be a part of it. In fact his words say this: I entreat those who believe in…God…that nobody shall ascribe to my ignorance any trivial thing I achieved…but accept and truly believe that it would have been a gift of God.” I think many of us who hope to be part of a movement can learn from this. We need to learn to depend on God for the things we want to see happen like they are a gift from Him, and we need to not grow proud if those things actually happen. All of this is a gift from Him.
- I love, and I hope I never stop loving, how Patrick became a believer. He prayed a hundred prayers a day and a hundred at night. This was the season in which he said “more and more did the love of God, and my fear of Him and faith increase.” This is so crucial because we always believe that apostolic mission starts with strategy and outreach. But it ALWAYS starts with prayer and a heart burning for the Lord. We cannot write this into our strategies. It doesn’t happen just because we know it’s the gateway to a movement. But we can start by praying and asking God to make “the Spirit burn within” us. Whether we start movements or not, the Spirit burning within us is crucial.
- I’m again reminded how supernatural all of this was. All of the crucial moments in Patrick’s life were accompanied by a vision, an audible voice from the Lord, or a prophetic word. Most movement strategies have very little room for this in their methodology. Obviously we can’t control it. But more and more I’m convinced that these are necessary to see the Gospel penetrate a hard and rebellious people. We can’t control it, but beloved, we can pray and we can ask the Lord for the gift of the Holy Spirit to be active in our lives. As we do and begin to share the Gospel with those who don’t know Him, the power of Jesus will be displayed for all of us.
These are some things I learned today. How about you? Oh, and by the way, the Shamrock shake, while not the healthiest thing, was delicious. 🙂
Jesus asked us to go and make disciples of all the nations. For this to truly happen like it was intended, we need a simple and reproducible model of discipleship that empowers every believer to make disciples. We struggled for awhile in how to do this before we adopted a model of meeting in groups of two and three people. These groups read lots of Scripture and build relationships around accountability and confession, but they also spend time developing and strengthening apostolic mission in each other.
What is apostolic mission? Apostolic refers to someone who is sent as a representative of another. Jesus sends us to share His love with the same power and authority that He gave the apostles and that He Himself walked in. The mission refers to the unfinished task of sharing Christ’s love with those who don’t know Him. Part of us learning to follow Christ is learning to follow Him on the mission He embarked on of preaching the Good News of the Kingdom of God.
Why is this so essential? A mature disciple shouldn’t be able to just know all the details but reproduce him or herself. Just like in nature, a mature fruit or flower or human or animal has the biological capability of reproduction, so it is with disciples. Disciples reproduce disciples. As Alan Hirsch and others have said, we don’t have an evangelism problem in the West, we have a discipleship problem that comes to light in our inability to evangelize and disciple others.
When we gather in groups of two or three people, it could be tempting for it to become a bible study or an accountability group. Focusing on apostolic mission keeps our eyes turned to those who have still not encountered the Lord and off of ourselves. To do this, every time we get together, we bring a list of two or three people we have been praying for individually throughout the week and we pray for them as a group. This can take anywhere from 5 minutes to 20, but it’s important.
It’s so important, in fact, that I recommend making this the first thing you do when you gather. This keeps our purpose–reaching the lost–in front of us. Everything we do within these groups of 2&3 is not just for ourselves, but is for these others who we are praying for to be a part of once they turn their hearts to Jesus. Praying for these folks early in the meeting also keeps it from being the last thing on the list that there is no time for.
As with all the other disciplines, apostolic mission will need to be walked out in greater detail in the life of the church and the life of the individual. This is just the expression of it within our 2&3 meeting. Again, make this real. Pray real prayers that move God’s heart. It’s important.
When you add all these disciplines together, it looks like the following:
And when we get the DNA right, we are on the cusp of multiplying cells of an organic organism called the church. We can achieve the multiplication of disciples, leaders, churches, and movements that we’ve all seeking.
My hope, whether you follow the format or not, is that you find what it takes to multiply.