This will be hard to describe. Hang in there with me.
Often we think reaching people with the Gospel means that we are busy. We teach Bible studies. We serve the poor. We coordinate volunteers to go out and share the Gospel. The list can go on.
But the more I try and share the love of Jesus with people in my neighborhood, the more I find myself doing less on purpose. Why?
Lately, maybe over the last year or a little more, I found myself having more opportunities to share the Gospel with people as I was sitting around my house. Every time I was going off to “do something missional” I found myself having to turn away kids that were hanging out in our home. It became increasingly difficult to turn away the mission field that was showing up at my house to go find some kind of hypothetical mission field somewhere else. So I’ve had to reconcile within myself that being a normal guy hanging, trimming the yard, playing basketball with the neighborhood kids, and sharing the Gospel in everyday situations is one of the most fruitful things I can do. But often it means I have to keep my schedule light in order to make room for these opportunities.
One of the events that taught us this in a real way a few years ago was an outreach to our local park. We went on a walk one morning to explore where God might have our church inhabit a place for the Gospel. We took our kids with us and found a park in the middle of our neighborhood. Every Sunday that summer we’d show up at the park, play soccer or football, push our kids on the swings, and have lunch. Quickly other adults started showing up to play games. Many people returned week after week as we started sharing our food with them. (Missional Pro Tip: People flock to food.)
Because we live in an economically depressed neighborhood we would see other churches and ministries do outreaches in the park and in the neighborhood. The people who we knew from the park would tell us how much they loved us, because unlike the outreaches would come in once a summer, hand out food or supplies, and then disappear, we never left. They weren’t projects to us. They were friends. We shared the Gospel too, but it was in the midst of everyday interactions we had as we played with our kids.
This isn’t to say we don’t do anything. We actually share the Gospel and meet as a church and serve people when the need arises. We do all those things as a response to needs that we have the time to encounter because our lives aren’t busy with Christian programs and outreaches. Sometimes, it means confronting the itch to be needed and prove “we are really doing something.” Often it means saying “No” to over-packing our schedules. Sometimes it looks boring. But many times it frees us to be able to share the Gospel with someone we would have never had the time to encounter before.
It’s the missional power of doing nothing.
Here’s a quick test to know if your expression of church is too complicated to multiply disciples. It’s called the “Bible on a Deserted Island Test.”
Imagine you crash on a deserted island and all you have is the clothes on your back and a Bible. You are stranded on the island and separated from civilized society. But the island is large enough to support several indigenous tribes of people. You are over time adopted by one of the local tribes and learn their language. Because they’ve adopted you, you now care about these people and want to share the Gospel with them.
Now, the million dollar question: Can you plant a church like you’re currently part of among them? Follow up question: Will they read the Bible and see the church you start in the pages of the Bible you have? Or do they have to have explanation of church history or your denomination?
If the answer to both of these questions is yes, congratulations! You have a simple, reproducible church. If the answer to either of these questions are no, I would invite you to consider what part of your church model might be baggage that slows the spread of the Gospel.
If your goal is to disciple the nations, your model of church should work anywhere.
Discipleship (as it was designed by Jesus) was meant to be passed on. Each of us, regardless of our spiritual status were designed to grow into spiritual fathers and mothers who encourage and raise other spiritual sons and daughters. But often we don’t because we think discipleship is more complicated than it needs to be.
In order for the Gospel to move from generation to generation, from house to house, or from person to person, it needs to be a simple message and an encounter with a person: Jesus Christ. Think of the church in China, or the church in India, or the church in the Middle East. Without seminaries, Sunday schools, buildings, and in some cases without even Bibles the Gospel has spread to more people than our Western minds can get our heads around.
Our complaint about growth like this is that these people can’t truly be real disciples. In order for this kind of gospel explosion to take place, surely the people can’t have deep walks with Jesus!
I would challenge that assumption. These people preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, taught to them by others. In these places, the act of being baptized can be a death sentence, not to mention sharing the Gospel and teaching others to obey Jesus. Many of them consider their time in prison to be a seminary of sorts, where they learn lessons from Jesus. These same people are constantly spreading the Gospel and raising up new disciples. Many have seen miraculous healing and heard God’s voice clearly. This certainly sounds deep to me.
Often what we mean by deep is a type of discipleship that is focused on our minds. We feel like if we are educated, we will disciple people better. We’ve even created programs that saddle our fieriest believers with large amounts of debt in order to learn how to be good leaders. For those who don’t go to seminary, we often provide long hours of training before we release them into “ministry.” This approach often slows the spread of the Gospel.
Friends, this is different than the model Jesus gave us. Jesus didn’t say go into all the world and teach people Greek and Hebrew. He didn’t sit down and have a systematic theology class with His disciples before He sent them out. He was looking for men whose hearts had been wrecked by the goodness of the Father and the Kingdom of God. When He had enough of them, He taught them simple stories that illustrated truth and asked them to pass that Gospel on. He wasn’t afraid to give these men the clear truth and let them run with it.
The Word of God is like a lion. You don’t have to defend a lion. All you have to do is let the lion loose, and the lion will defend itself.
– Charles Spurgeon
Our discipleship has to be able to work with only a Bible and a willing heart. We should be able to teach others how to follow Christ by our example and by teaching them how to read and apply God’s word. This not only spreads rapidly but if done well will create the kind of believers that make disciples who make disciples.
Often, our responsibility is to not let things get too complicated. If we can do that, the Gospel will spread further than we can possibly imagine.
For more on discipleship, check out these posts:
Yesteday I had a follower on Twitter ask me a question in response to a quote I posted by John Wesley. (This is a great time to mention, if you’re not following me on Twitter, you should.)
This was followed up by the following comments:
First, let me say that these type of questions are fairly common within the body of Christ. The sister from above was talking about a split between what average believers can/should share and the type of teaching that can/should happen in a church building. Even within the house church movement, I’ve met brothers and sisters who don’t believe they can make disciples or start house churches.
Much of this thinking comes from an over-complication of roles within the body of Christ. Somewhere along the way, each body seems to decide that there are certain people who could/should “lead” others and deal with difficult truth, while the rest should leave that job to those who can/should. This type of thinking keeps us from reaching the God-given potential, not just that we as individuals have, but that the body of Christ as a whole has.
Let’s start with some facts: Jesus tells the apostles that they are to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything that Jesus has commanded them. Most of us think that involves things like loving our neighbor, forgiving, etc. And while all of that is true, we often forget that one of the commands of Jesus that we are supposed to teach is the one where He commands us to teach others to obey everything He commanded. The task hasn’t been completed until we’ve taught others to teach still more people to obey Christ in every way.
If you think about it, this has been happening, to some degree, for hundreds, nearly thousands, of years. Obeying Jesus is being passed from one person to another so that to this day there are still millions, if not billions, following Christ. Paul described this same process in 2 Timothy 2:2 where he told Timothy “[t]he things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Paul wanted the Gospel to get passed down to multiple generations of believers because he had learned from someone else that his job was to disciple the nations the way Jesus commanded.
Brothers and sisters, that command hasn’t changed. There isn’t a lack of need for that kind of obedience just because there are many churches in our cities or because we have books, podcasts, and seminaries. The whole body of Christ should be walking out the Great Commission in some way in their lives. If you are a disciple of Jesus, you should be able to fully disciple others to the place where they can disciple still more people. This is a function of maturity, not special gifting and we should all want to grow up in Christ to the place where we are discipling others.
So while I’m hugely encouraged by churches that empower believers to share the gospel and teach the basics of the faith, I long for the church to empower believers to fully disciple and raise up believers wherever they are. Its only when we do this will we reach people who would never darken the door of the church. When we live out this reality we become the movement Jesus started and intended, doing the things he commanded.
*For the record, I actually love the passion in our sister’s question, because she is taking sharing the gospel and simple discipleship seriously.
Often I have conversations with brothers and sisters in the West about house churches. After enough conversations about house churches with people, you start to recognize the books people have read already by the way they talk. And I inevitably have the same advice for people: Learn from the church around the globe.
Why do I tell this to those interested in house church? I find that in the United States, the house church movement1 is a movement of choice. We don’t have to be a part of a house church in order to survive as believers. It’s voluntary. There are very few economic realities that force meeting in homes. And I think because of this, those who chose to be part of a house church come in for a few different reasons: pain or purpose.
Pain is a regular reason people I know choose house churches. They express it different ways. Sometimes they express it through tears with stories of how more traditional churches have hurt them2. Others express it through stories of burnout that begin in a traditional church and end with them swearing never to do what caused them to burn out again. Often those I talk to have a sense of being cheated when they find out church can exist without the traditional trappings. Sometimes, not always but sometimes, I’m concerned about the level of bitterness in these discussions.
Purpose is the other reason people find their way into house churches in the US. This is usually expressed in the fact that people began studying the nature of the church and realized that many of the churches they see don’t match what the Bible describes as church. These purists attempt to build a church that is faithful to what they see in the New Testament, with differening results.
Regardless of which of these two doors3 people choose, the result is often pride. Whether that pride is expressed in “I’m not going to be the same kind of church that hurt me” or “I’m more biblical than the church I used to be a part of” or “We have the true angle on what church is,” the result is an attitude that Jesus says leaves us unjustified before God.
Which is why it’s so important for the house church movement in America to learn from the church around the world. There are precious, precious saints in China, Iran, India, Africa, and South America that have practiced church that meets in homes because they love Jesus and this is the only type of church they have known. They are stunned by the love of God that they have found. They know what it means to live in true community. They aren’t ashamed of the Gospel and are willing to give their lives for their fellow brothers and sisters to hear it. Being part of a house church and coming to Christ are the same experience, without any pride.
I remember being in a coffee shop with an Ethiopian before I ever traveled to Ethiopia. He told me of the glories of Ethiopian coffee, explaining how the use of coffee beans to make coffee started in Ethiopia and then was exported around the world. In each place around the world, the beans began to take on the flavor of the particular new soil in which it was planted. For example, one of the places it went was to an Indonesian island called Java and since that time the island has faded into obscurity, but it’s impact on coffee continues. Today you can buy Brazilian Coffee, Kenyan Coffee, Columbian Coffee, etc., each tasting a bit like the soil it came from. But the truest coffee, my friend argued, –coffee the way God intended it–was grown and prepared in Ethiopia.
This is a fun story. Whenever I think about it, I’m reminded that churches, like coffee beans, take on the flavor of the culture around them. Often, we’re not aware of it because we’ve only “tasted” our flavor of church. Now, we don’t have a church we can go back to in order to see the original, unlike my Ethiopian friends and their coffee. But if we were wise to learn from our friends in the underground house churches around the world, I think we would perhaps get a little bit closer to the church that God designed, untainted by our American experience.
Tomorrow, I’ll share a little about how the church around the Earth has informed what we do. For now, I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you’ve been part of a house church (or even a traditional church) how has your experience been informed by the soil of American culture?
1 I’m going to speak in broad generalities here. Please understand there is no way I could ever speak about all house churches as a single, similar unit. That would be like saying all of my kids are the same.
2 Note, by saying this, I’m not saying every traditional church hurts people. Though, I’m sure if we’re humble enough to admit it, every church hurts people, whether it’s their intent or not.
3Again, I’m speaking in generalities. Not everyone comes in through these two doors.
Over the last ten years, God has had me on a journey learning from the Church in the global South and East. Many of these lessons I’ve been able to learn directly from those from other parts of the world. But while I have had the privilege of spending time in other countries with believers I would never meet here, not everyone will have that opportunity. Thankfully, in order to learn from the church in other parts of the world, you don’t need ot be able to afford a plane ticket, you just need to be able to read.
Even earlier than my trips overseas, God was beginning to teach me about His Kingdom through books that were written by saints from other nations. For those of you who haven’t experienced or read much beyond your own borders, the following books can be helpful:
For those of you who remember that my story started in the midst of revival, it shouldn’t be a surprise to you that the topic of revival was near and dear to my heart. Early on I started reading books on revivals in the West, but I quickly discovered there were books that talked about revivals going on in other nations of the Earth. This book documents the story of the revival that took place in Argentina over the 80’s and the early 90’s. This revival had ties to what was currently happening in the United States in the mid-90’s and talks about how Argentina was affected by this move of the Spirit. C Peter Wagner’s book not only talked about revival, but it sowed a vision for apostolic church planting in the midst of a move of the Spirit that I had never conisdered before.
I picked up this copy shortly after I read “The Rising Revival.” Carlos Annacondia was featured in that book in a short way. This book is his story of becoming the Pentecostal Billy Graham of Argentina. I think the draw of this book is Annacondia’s reliance on the Holy Spirit to direct him and draw in a harvest, not just hold revival meetings. His meetings were marked by demons being cast out, the sick being healed, and the Holy Spirit filling new converts. I loved seeing how the movement of the Spirit was playing out in a fairly modern nation like Argentina. I should note, while many of the things mentioned in “The Rising Revival” and “Listen to Me, Satan” were pivotal to my spiritual growth, I probably no longer hold to some of their views on how the church is structured like I did back then.
Technically this breaks with my theme of learning from the church of the global South and East, since this book was written by a German. However, much of the insight that Wolfgang shares comes from studying house church planting movements all over the Earth. Most notably, Wolf spent a number of years in India trying to understand what the Lord was doing through the house church movement there with a goal of applying the lessons learned to the church in the West. This book changed my understanding of the nature of the church and I would recommend it to anyone who wanted a good book on house churches.
I read this book a year after I read “Houses That Change the World” and these two books helped change the direction of my life. While Houses was more of a “how to” manual for meeting as a church like in the New Testament, the Heavenly Man read like the book of Acts. This book tells the story of one of the leaders of the underground house church movement in China. Through persecution, Brother Yun spreads the gospel, raises up leaders, and mobilizes the Chinese church to take the gospel back to Jerusalem, the very place that it came from. You will not walk away from this book without being personally inspired and challenged. And, as a bonus, for the first time in reading, I saw a house church movement and the power of the Holy Spirit tied together in a way I hadn’t read about outside of Acts. In many ways it’s why I’m still able to contend for the fullness of the Holy Spirit in the midst of a church planting movement. Many of us hear about how God is moving powerfully in the Chinese Church. This book give you a front row seat.
This may be cheating to have two books by the same author. This follow up is not really a sequel, as much as it is Brother Yun’s attempt to teach after having told his story. If you finished reading “The Heavenly Man” and were left wondering “How, then, should we live?” Living Water is the answer. It’s full of solid teaching on the Kingdom of God in the life of a Christian, from a Chinese perspective. Reading this book is like asking Brother Yun to disciple you a little bit each day for a month. It’s well worth your time.
It’s hard to put into words how refreshing this book was. I picked this up last year at the recommendation of some friends. It follows missionary Nik Ripken as he tries to grapple with horrible darkness and incredible fruitlessness that he encounters in Somalia. When he leaves the mission field for a season, he and his wife use the time to meet and research how the church survives and thrives under persecution. The stories he encounters and the people that he writes about are some of the most inspiring stories I’ve heard recently. They pages are also filled with a challenge to endure for Jesus under long-term sustained pressure. This is truly a global book, starting in Africa, moving to Russia, China, and the Middle East. Reading this book will convince you that God can work on your behalf anywhere you go. Because of all of this, this book was my number one book recommendation for last year.
This one deserves a mention though its a book I’m currently working through right now. The book is written by a church historian and a missionary to Thailand. Both of them use their background and education to reveal how we in the West read the Bible through lenses that the original audiences of the Bible never wore. When we do this, according to the authors, we come up with a different message than the one the Bible was intending us to hear. This book has been a fascinating look at concepts like honor/shame and individual/corporate interpretations that I think most Western believers never get exposed to. There is a lot of eye-opening thoughts here. Reading it with an open mind will change (for the good) how you interpret Scripture.
Well, that’s enough for today. I could go on. But my point in listing these books was that you see you can learn from the church around the world without buying a plane ticket.
Many of you have already written me some of the books you’ve read about similar things. If you’ve read a book from an author from a dramatically different part of the world that has strengthened your walk with Christ, leave a comment for us and tell us the name of the book and how it impacted you.
Over the last ten years the Lord has taken me on a journey of learning from the church in other parts of the world. Part of this process has involved me realizing that while there are many good churches here in the United States, there are places in the Earth where the gospel is exploding unlike anything we see here. China, India, and the Middle East are the easiest examples of this. I don’t want to just cheer on the church in other countries, though, I want to learn from their example and take the lessons that are universal and apply them here.
So, in no particular order, here are a few things I’ve learned from the church scattered across the Earth:
- They take the Gospel seriously. Maybe it’s because many of my friends live in a world where the people around them don’t know Jesus, or maybe it’s just that my friends believe the Great Commission more seriously than we do. Whatever the case, I’ve been inspired by friends in Africa who travel many miles into remote villages to share the Gospel with unbelievers.
- Their lives are not their own. Needless to say there is plenty of risk in sharing the Gospel in hostile environments. Some of our friends have taken the Gospel to the least reached places at the risk of losing their lives. These are people with wives and families and yet they trusted God to be with them, and if things go badly, to be with their wives and children.
- Prayer is the foundation of all they do. I’ve never met a fruitful servant of the Lord in Africa who hadn’t given themselves significantly to prayer. The apostolic men that I’ve met in Africa spend time praying for the churches they serve as they travel to those churches. Others have regular times of prayer from midnight to five in the morning. And it’s encouraging to hear the insights they have gained and the fruit they have seen as they continue to persevere in prayer.
- Faithfulness under persecution and in the harvest has formed them. Those who I’ve had the privilege to work with came to Christ in the context of either terrible persecution or incredible awakening. Many had to learn how to follow Jesus when others resisted them. Others learned how to follow the Holy Spirit during seasons where He was moving mightily across their country. But these believers’ consistency in following Jesus during tumultuous times has lead them to be fruitful servants of Jesus.
- They do not see America as the Kingdom of God. This may sound elementary, but I think sometimes Christian Americans still believe that America is a gift to the Earth second only to Jesus Himself. While my African friends and I are thankful for the good America has accomplished, they (and I, because of their example) understand that America has a fair share of weakness. One friend I have regularly reminds us that many of his co-workers who served alongside of him in persecution and revival are now living dull lives chasing the American dream here in the US. Others have clearly warned us about the dangers of the American church condoning sexual immorality. Because they aren’t in the boiling kettle of America or American Christianity, they have helped me to see where our culture doesn’t reflect God’s Kingdom.
The list could continue, but the reality is I’ve been greatly impacted by the church around the Earth. My hope is that by sharing a few of the larger areas where the church in other countries has challenged me, it will encourage you to learn from the church somewhere else. Read a book, listen to a testimony, or better yet, go on a trip to another nation and learn how much bigger God’s Kingdom is than the church in your country.
I guarantee you will not be disappointed!