It’s a story that I hear over and over again.
Go down the street to a church that has had a measure of success and grown fairly large and talk to the people who have been there since the beginning. Those people will tell you about the days when the church was small. In the days when the church was just planted, everyone knew everyone else. It was like a small group. They knew each other like family. “Man, I miss those days,” is how I hear people sum up those beginning days.
What changed? Well, the church was able to attract people. More people kept coming. They had to get a building. Then they had to get a bigger building. The number of people caused the feeling of family to disappear. There were small groups, sure, but they didn’t feel the same. There was more business that needed to be attended to. The pastor was busier. Those who were around at the beginning had responsibilities to help the new people who were coming.
They grew out of that season.
There is a way to grow without losing that close-knit family. You can make more disciples without giving yourself to keeping the doors open and the lights on. It starts with a commitment to meet as a house church, to birth more house churches instead of growing large, and to make disciples who make other disciples instead of growing a crowd. Not all church plants have to lose the spirit of family and discipleship.
It’s a path we chose.
“House churches should stop arguing with the institutional church and start planting Kingdom gardens.”
I wrote this over a week ago in my journal about ideas for this space. It’s been the running theme of everything I’ve been writing from “The God of the Mustard Seed” to “The End of the Argument” to “How to Share the Gospel Without Inviting Them to a Building.” The point is this: Instead of crusades against the past and other believers, let’s focus on Jesus and His Kingdom, making disciples and reproducing house churches.
How do we plant Kingdom gardens? We sow the Gospel message among our friends and neighbors, always combining Good News with good deeds. We invite those that respond (because there will be those who don’t) to become disciples of Jesus. As these new believers respond to the invitation of discipleship we continue to encourage them to grow by the power of the Holy Spirit, love others the way that they have been loved, and share the Gospel with others they know who don’t know Christ.
There is so much here to talk about. Very little of the house church movement focuses on growing up in Christ and what that looks like, but most of the New Testament focuses on this reality. That topic is too large for one post, but the effect of growing up in Christ and growing out through outreach and discipleship is a Kingdom garden. What started as tiny, laughable seeds has blossomed in the right soil and taken over some desolate patch of earth in order to beautify it.
These Kingdom gardens are the proof God is working in our midst. They speak more than our arguments. They speak more than our judgments on the rest of the church that doesn’t do things the way we do. The fruit and the beauty of what God is doing speaks for itself.
My prayer is that we, as house churches, can plant Kingdom gardens and leave the old arguments behind.
If you, like me have participated in house church discussions for any length of time, either online or in person, you’ve experienced it. One minute everyone is talking about Jesus and encouraging each other to follow Jesus and the next minute the conversation turns to the evils of the institutional church. Like an atheist bitter at a god he claims not to believe in, the house church folks begin to argue with people who aren’t even there.
There are a million topics that can turn the topic this direction:
Authority in the church
…the list goes on and on. But for whatever reason, these are the most popular, uniting, fervent conversations within the movement. It’s almost as if the unifying element in these groups is not Jesus, but our opposition to some form of traditional Christianity.
Let that sink in for a moment.
This type of attitude can become a problem. Left unchecked, we become evangelists for organic/simple/house churches among traditional church members instead of fishers of men among those who have no hope in Jesus.
Now, I’m an advocate for house churches. I write articles frequently where I talk about the advantages of house churches and why they make sense in light of Scripture and history. Hopefully you’d identify me as a friend of the house church movement. But as a friend of the movement, let me say that we need to leave behind our arguments with the traditional church. We need to stop arguing with those who are no longer part of our lives and let Jesus cleanse us of the bitterness of the past.
Most importantly, we need to start having conversations that encourage and strengthen the type of church that Jesus is building. We need to start becoming evangelists for Christ who both saved us and led us into this organic way of living out Christianity. We can let new followers of Jesus and new, healthy churches be the evidence of what Jesus is doing in our midst instead of our arguments.
So can bury the arguments with the past and move forward building the church called us to? I think we’ll be better for it.
I’ve sat across the table and listened to the stories of discouraged pastors describe in great detail where the ministry took a wrong turn. Often it wasn’t from an evil decision or a judgment from God. People stopped coming. The recession happened and people stopped giving. The church plant didn’t work out like they thought. In all of these cases, the result was the same: We’re shutting the church down.
My heart breaks every time this happens. Sometimes there are good, godly men and women doing their best in whatever capacity the Lord has called them to serve the church and circumstances cause there not to be enough money. Sometimes other resources are the issue, like a lack of volunteers. Regardless, the point is that churches with true believers and well meaning hearts close down all the time. Current statistics estimate roughly 3,700 churches close their doors every year.
But there is good news! First, because of the Gospel of Jesus, no matter what capacity you served your church in the past, you are not a failure. God loved you regardless of the outcome of your work for Him. His death and resurrection means that the work that you carried on for Him was not in vain. Paul, after spending an entire chapter in 1 Corinthians on the subject of the resurrection says this: “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless,” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
But there’s even more good news: Just because the money and the volunteers and the resources dried up, doesn’t mean your church needs to close. It might mean the church needs to change. The fact of the matter is the Kingdom of God doesn’t run on money, so even though resources are tight, the ministry can continue. Just because the resources have disappeared doesn’t mean the relationships and family of an existing church need to end.
How does this happen? For a church that wants to continue on but doesn’t have enough money to pay for a building or staff or the have the resources to support such things, house churches are a viable option. The existing church would transition to a church or a network of related churches that meet in the homes of its members and continue the work of sharing the gospel, building up the church, and making disciples.
This would mean a lot of changes for a church that was used to meeting as a traditional church on Sunday morning. It will most likely mean the pastor would forsake a salary (if he or she hadn’t already), it will mean that the format of the meetings you’ve become accustomed will change, and the ministry of the church will have be taken up by whatever members of the church remain, not just the pastor. Also, not everyone will want to make this jump, so be prepared for some who would be okay in any other traditional context to not make this jump with you. For those who feel God isn’t done with the church yet, but don’t see a way forward, it’s a viable alternative.
If you’re facing this moment in the life of your church, feel free to contact me at PursuingGlory at gmail dot com or check out my resource page featuring the best books on house churches.
More than that, don’t give up hope in God, the gospel, or the family of God. God loves you. You and your church haven’t failed. He has a plan that continues regardless of the cash flow. God, who raises the dead, can take what seems like has died and transform it into something new.
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?… Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
This may come as a shock, given what you’ve seen and what you heard from Christian ministries in the past, but the Kingdom of God is not dependent on dollar bills in order to keep expanding. Let me explain.
When you came to Christ, regardless of the context you heard the Gospel in, the critical element was the exchange of the message of Jesus from one human being to another. Now, there were probably multiple things involved in that moment that were paid for: a Bible, possibly a building, maybe a paid speaker or pastor, but at a basic level the Gospel was freely given to you.
In China and in many other countries around the world, the Gospel spreads not because the people are able to give exorbitant amounts of money–they can’t. The Gospel spreads there because people received the true Gospel and they are willing to give up every part of their life so that others can hear the same transforming Gospel. So without buildings, paid pastors, and often without Bibles, the true message of Jesus continues to spread.
But in the West, we’ve become so consumed with money and the place it plays in our lives, that to suggest that the Gospel could spread without it is met with charges of heresy. Who will shepherd us? Who will teach us? Who will share the Gospel with others if we don’t pay someone to do it? And what about the building? How does that work?
The reality is these things can and do work without money. House churches, for example, work regularly without paid staff, dedicated buildings, or a ministry budget. Small groups of believers meet in each others’ homes, teaching each other, caring for one another, and sharing the Gospel all without any cost. Missions? That can still happen, depending on how you define it. Locally is easy, non-locally is tougher but can be achieved through relationships, hospitality, and tent-making.
My point isn’t to glorify house churches in writing this, but to open our eyes that ministry can happen with little to no budget. If you are a traditional church with a building and staff, that’s not an evil thing. It’s just that often I’ve seen ministry stop when the money stops flowing, but it doesn’t need to be like this. We need to lower the power of the dollar in the minds of the church and lift up the ability of Jesus to not only to sustain the church, but extend the Kingdom, with or without money.
The same Jesus that told us to look to the birds and the flowers for our personal natural provision is the same Jesus that can bring ministry forth with very little (and even no) money. May God help us see that there’s no amount of money that can achieve God’s purposes, only hearts fully surrendered to Him.
Whenever I have a conversation about joining or starting a house church with someone who has never been part of one before, there are a number of things I tell them. But I always mention one thing every single time: Be prepared for things to take longer.
Why? Because relationships aren’t efficient. And for those of us who are part of the business world, or part of a highly structured church, or even just those among us with Type A personalities, this can be more than a little frustrating.
But relationships are built on things like trust, respect, and love. All of these elements require time: time to be shown, time to be earned, and time to develop. None of these happen quickly.
Think about your best friend. You’ve probably gotten things done together. But the times you remember best…the times that make that relationship more worthwhile than others…are the times you spent together doing things that didn’t accomplish much outwardly. Whatever those times were they communicated more than just a task. The times you look back on are the ones that say to you “You are important to me.”
A few years ago I had a disagreement with a brother who was part of our house church network about how we were going to make disciples. We went around and around talking about methods, but when we got to the heart of the matter, his real concern was that I was more concerned about our “church” succeeding and not about him. It was a real learning moment for me. I had put our mission above our relationship and I was wrong.
I wish I could say I never made that mistake again. I can say I’ve made it less and I work to deny that part of me that just wants results. But it’s meant letting projects and work take a back seat whenever a serious need comes up. It’s meant stopping a conversation when it becomes obvious we aren’t arguing about strategy, we’re missing each others’ heart. It’s meant meetings that should take an hour or two sometimes take three or four. But it’s been worth it.
I’m not saying things shouldn’t get done. Quite the contrary, we have a mission friends, and that mission is very important. But how we do the mission is just as important. If we devalue people as we pursue it, we invalidate the very mission we set out to accomplish. If we use people to accomplish our mission, we may accomplish a mission we set out to do, but we’ll leave a trail of broken people in our wake.
My goal in saying this is not to persuade you that relationships are bad or that they hurt mission. They just come with a cost that you need to recognize up front. They are time consuming and don’t always move in straight lines. But over the long haul, if you stick with them, they pay off both now and in eternity.
Just don’t expect them to be efficient.
Yesterday I told the world I was going to write a book.
Today I’m hoping to give a little perspective.
Six months to a year ago I had a friend call. My friend is prophetic, which means that he hears from the Lord very accurately and will often be used by God to communicate messages to the body of Christ. He was calling with something the Lord had spoken to him about the book I was writing.
He started to talk to me about Mephibosheth from 2 Samuel 9 and how David made a place for the son of Jonathan to be taken care of all of his life. This story is remarkable because David showed kindness to a potential political enemy out of his loyalty to his fallen friend. But it’s even more remarkable because David welcomed Mephibosheth to his table even though as a cripple, he was basically unclean (see Leviticus 21:16-23). David made a place at his table for an outcast.
“God is calling you,” my friend said, “to start a book club for the club-footed ones. He’s calling you to make places at the table for those who sit on the outside and feel like outcasts. It will be a book to empower those who live at the margins and those from the inner city. They need a seat at the table of the church.”
And so here I am, still writing.
But make sure you don’t miss the message. There’s a message for me in what was said, but there’s also a message for you. Maybe you don’t feel like the person who should be leading people to Jesus or starting churches. But God is raising up unlikely people from the margins of society to take the Gospel where it hasn’t gone.
You may feel like a cripple. You may feel like an outcast. You might not come from right education or even the right side of the tracks. But Jesus has mercy on you and invites you to eat at His table. You are invited to the book club for the club-footed ones. You can be used by God in this hour.
Don’t miss the invitation.