[This is part of an ongoing, irregularly published series on the reasons we started a house church. Reasons #1-3 will be listed at the bottom of the post.]
Christianity has a dirty little secret: The people within the church often live with significant parts of their life hidden and unchanged.
Much of this is due to people within the church only knowing each other as participants in events. Our modern church experience, for the most part is busy, full of events to be a part of and then left. There is very little lingering afterwards to build relationships where we know each other and are able to help each other with our weaknesses.
Which is exactly part of the reason we started a house church. The Christianity described in the New Testament is a relationship with Christ and a relationship with the people who follow Him, not an event people came to. This is why most of the New Testament descriptions of the church are about how Christians should relate to one another, not how a meeting should work. I’m not against meeting together but the emphasis is not on the meeting.
In fact, when we started our first house church, we decided that we would have meetings, but they would support relationships. We would focus on Jesus and the people who were meeting together, not just singing the right amount of songs or having a certain type of teaching happen. This frees up time both inside and outside the meeting to love one another well, to hear the stories that inform so much of each others’ lives, and to be with one another in everyday situations where we can truly see how each other live.
Here’s a brief, made up example: We allow our children to participate in our house churches. This presents a tremendous challenge as a house church if kids are too loud or distracting in the meeting. But suppose a parent disciplined their child too harshly during a meeting or didn’t correct a child who was being too unruly. This would rarely be addressed, let alone seen, in a large event but would be open for everyone to see within a house church. If a brother or sister takes up the issue with the parent in question, other issues might come up, including how the Gospel applies to parenting, the parent’s past issues with their own parent’s discipline, or even issues in the parents’ marriage.
House churches have the time and space to love one another and walk through these issues together. They don’t have a specific agenda which needs to be followed. They exist for moments like these, where the issues of the life come to the surface. Will the issue be resolved within one meeting? No. But it will come to light there. It may get some resolution there. It will be walked out with the believers who are there over the days and weeks to come.
Relationships are some of the keys to both recognizing issues in peoples’ lives and helping them resolve those issues. House churches can’t stop people from hiding their lives, but they do allow us to live close enough to each other to recognize where Jesus is touching issues and to be part of the process of bring healing to them.
Which is why we started a house church….
Today is Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Since there’s not much to write about the day where Jesus laid in the grave, I thought I’d take today and reflect a bit on how the cross affects the life of the believer.
The cross and the resurrection began a revolution in the life of humanity. Humans, who had lived under the thumb of sin for thousands of years, finally were freed from its dominance. They could have a relationship with God! We can draw close to God in a way that was never possible. But the cross changed more than just our position before God. The cross changed how we live with one another.
Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God.
-Paul, Ephesians 5:2
Paul (and the other apostles) constantly call us to not just accept the work of the cross in our life. They also call us to follow the example of Jesus in how we relate to others. Many of us will read Paul’s letter and hear a call for Christians to “be nice.” Paul points us to lay our lives down in love for one another in the same way Jesus gave up His life on the cross.
This is a whole different level than just doing good to others. Jesus’ example means giving up our lives for the betterment of others. It means entering into situations others have created for no other purpose than to love and serve them. It often means you absorb the cost for others’ actions.
I remember a time back in college when we planted our first house church. I had just gotten done taking care of all my bills with my meager college income and I had just gotten paid and had a little extra cash in my pocket for the first time. It was at this exact moment that a single mom in our house church shared a need she had. She was behind on her electric bill and needed to come up with the cash to pay it. Somehow between all of us we came up with the cash, but the lesson I learned was this: My money isn’t just my money. In order to love like Jesus, I needed to lay down my life for others. In this case it was my excess cash that I was so happy about.
Friends, Jesus didn’t owe us anything. He entered our world and paid the price of our sin because He loved us, not because we deserved it. In the same way, He calls us to follow Him into the lives of others and love them in the same way.
Today (and tomorrow, and the next day, and the next…) as we remember the price Jesus paid for our sins, commit yourself to share the kind of love you’ve received from Him with other believers in your life. Share the love you received in the same way He showed it to you.
[Update] Frequent commenter Dan left this well stated truth in the comment section:
He died once for sin but daily, moment by moment, gives Himself to us. We died once to sin, but daily, moment by moment give of ourselves to others.
But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.
-Jesus, Matthew 23:8
Unfortunately, many are unfamiliar with what brotherhood looks like. Far fewer know how to achieve brotherhood. Because brotherhood helps level the playing field, I think it’s important to answer this question: how do a group of believers become brothers and sisters?
First, the obvious: Brotherhood starts when you have the same parents. I know this seems elementary, but the church can only achieve brotherhood with other born again believers. There can be no brotherhood where God is not our Father through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s through Christ’s atoning death that we are adopted into the family of God as sons and daughters.
But once adopted, there is a practical reality that must be achieved. It does us no good to be brothers and sisters in name only. There are many churches that exist where everyone is called brother so-and-so and sister so-and-so, but the term is only one of false honor and doesn’t hold up in real life.
In my experience, once we’ve established the common ground of the cross of Jesus Christ as the rallying point for our family, the next step is to open up to one another about our weakness. But someone has to go first. In every case, whenever I’ve had a group of believers around me and I haven’t been afraid to show the very ugliest parts of my life to them, it’s allowed them to see me as human. They help me. They lift me up. They are given courage to to show their weakness as well.
And this, friends, is the most basic form of communitas we can achieve as the church. We go from being people competing against each other for superiority into being people who love and support each other in our journey out of brokenness. When we admit we are all messed up–all more ugly than we want to admit–and we all equally need a savior, this is fertile ground for true brotherhood to emerge.
And it’s this true brotherhood, this love that finds one another at the foot of the cross that protects us from believing you or I are higher than the other. And it sustains brotherhood through the glories and successes because we know where we came from and we know we helped each other get there.
So, brothers and sisters, I know I sound like a broken record, but if you don’t have people like this in your life, please find some. Please gather together with broken people who have found Jesus and admit your brokenness. Bring it out into the light. This is what John is saying when he says this:
…[I]f we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another…
-1 John 1:8
Hierarchy ends when brotherhood begins. Brotherhood begins when we gather as broken saints around a saving cross. And this is the birthing of true fellowship.
Community. We all want it. Some of us want it so much that we’ll chase from church to church, person to person, trying to find it.
But community for community’s sake is flawed. In the end it actually kills us. If we pursue community for the sake of having a community for ourselves, we’re really just pursuing an idol that we hope will take care of our us.
But instead, I want to suggest we search for communitas*. For most of us, communitas is a strange word, but it describes the very essence of community that is formed among a group of peers when they go through a dangerous or disorienting experience.
That’s a lot of jargon for something we all know: When you go through something difficult with a group of people, the experience changes you. And it doesn’t just change you, but every person in the group is linked more tightly because of what they’ve experienced.
Think of the WWII or Vientam vets who haven’t seen their fellow soldiers in decades. Yet you put those same guys in a room and give them a little space and it seems as if only minutes had passed since the last time they were together. It’s the same way with guys who have been part of a stable and healthy recovery group or those friends that went with you on that missions trip that one time.
In each scenario, a group of people find themselves in a risky or unknown situation and work through it. You all learn to depend on each other, compensate for each others’ weaknesses, and know each others’ strengths. You bond with each other because you’ve been through some things together. It’s communitas, and it beats community every single time.
The problem with church is that it can look a lot more like a book club than a mission trip. There’s no risky venture attempted with a group of people. Many churches lack the faith of leap. And so they can have as many potlucks and Bible studies as they want to, but community never forms.
I’ve watched house churches struggle with this as well. They’ve pursued perfecting their community before they try to reach out to the lost. They really wanted to be united and built up to the place where they feel they can go on mission together. They pursued community and missed communitas.
But I’ve also seen house churches catch the Lord’s heart for the lost in a way that compels them to take the gospel to dangerous places. These people probably are just as young and immature, but they leap together, putting their trust in Jesus to fill in the gaps. Do things always go perfectly? Rarely. But communitas–the true spirit of community–gets formed in those house churches and a lost world gets reached in the process.
There is a world out there looking for community. They’ll do anything they can to get it. Jesus promised us that if we tried to keep/save our lives we would lose them, but if we laid down our lives for His sake and the sake of the Gospel, we would find it. I believe if we seek community for its own sake we will never find it. But if we lay down our lives and do the dangerous work of bringing Jesus’ message to those who are far from Him, we will find community in deep and rich ways we never thought possible.
So don’t look for community, look for communitas.
* I am again indebted to Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch for their profound book on this subject: The Faith of Leap (affiliate link).
The most transforming relationship that you’ll ever be a part of is a relationship with Jesus.
But once in a relationship with Jesus, He leads us into relationships with His followers that have a transforming affect on our lives.
Transforming relationships are transparent, relational, and accountable.
They begin with transparency. You open up about your weakness and failures, your struggles, and your great need for a savior. Frequently this gives permission for others to be honest about their brokenness in a way that few have ever had. This is usually the missing element in transforming relationships.
Built on transparency, true brotherhood or sisterhood emerges. What wrecks relationships is jealousy, competition, and ego. So with the newfound transparency a true relationship is born. You help each other, not to get, but because you see and understand each other. Mutual relationship gives birth to love which gives birth to serving one another.
And finally (but usually the part we want first) is accountability. Once we have been honest about our weakness and have been in a relationship of love and service to one another, we can hold one another accountable. This isn’t the kind of accountability where you say “Try harder or I’m done with you,” but an accountability that’s birthed out of genuine care for a weak and broken human being. And because it’s birthed out of love and mutual understanding, this type of accountability (along with the power of Jesus) births transformation in the human heart.
We all want these types of relationships. The mechanics of these relationships aren’t difficult. The reason we see so few people enter into them is they are costly. Someone has to go first. But once you’ve had one or two, you’ll never go back.
Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. ‘The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared’ (Luther).
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community
Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer,