…I believe its an instruction manual.
There’s a big swath of Christianity that would disagree with me. Acts is history, they say. It’s meant to describe the earliest days of the church. It’s meant to link Jesus to the work that was carried on first by Peter, then by Paul, they’d argue. In some circles the book of Acts is just an inspired record, having more in common with the book of 1 Chronicles or Judges than something containing instructions to be learned from.
I have a few problems with that line of reasoning…
First, Luke clearly sees the book of Acts as a continuation of the Gospel of Luke. Go ahead and read Acts 1:1-2. Week in and week out the same people who teach that Acts is just inspired history will teach the book of Luke without issue. Granted, Jesus was perfect, the apostles weren’t. I get it. While not perfect, Luke clearly paints the apostles as changed men when the Holy Spirit has come upon them. They are the continuation of the work that Jesus started. The Bible is also fairly good at pointing out in historical narratives good examples to follow or bad examples to avoid. Acts clearly paints the apostles as an example to follow.
Secondly, I believe Paul when he says that “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives.” No one arguing that Acts is divinely recorded history would argue that it isn’t Scripture. Many will argue that Acts is Scripture in one breath and argue that we shouldn’t draw conclusions from it in the next. If Acts is Scripture (it is), then Acts is both inspired and useful for teaching and correction.
Lastly, Paul argued in several places throughout the New Testament that we are to follow him as he followed Christ (see 1 Corinthians 11:1, for example). For the first century believers, Paul lived a life for believers to see and pattern themselves after. For us, post-Paul’s death, Acts is one of the only places we can actually see his life lived out as an example to follow. We need to make better use of it.
Why is this such a big deal?
The book of Acts is crazy. It tells a story of a people who had their lives turned upside down by the resurrection of Jesus and then were radically filled with the Holy Spirit. These people started as a small group of people hiding and went on to become a missionary force that would convert the Roman Empire. Acts should convict us about what is possible when God is central and convict us about the places in our hearts where He’s not.
Not only that, but there are truths about the nature of the church that are designed to show us how the church should operate. Acts is a record of a missionary church planting movement that multiplied at incredible speed with minimal complexity. While we want to balance the truths found there with the truths found elsewhere in Scripture, we’d be foolish to ignore the tremendous story of the expansion of the church just because it was presented to us as a historical record and not as a systematic teaching.
We have to learn from the book of Acts. We have to sit at the feet of the apostles as they are presented to us and learn how to follow the risen Christ by the Spirit like they did. We cannot keep believing Acts isn’t for us. It’s for us and our children and people in the far future (Acts 2:39). If we believe that we can learn from Acts, we will begin to live like the apostles and early church did then, following Jesus by the Spirit.
If we can believe it is an instruction manual and not history, we can begin to enter into the lifestyle of apostolic Christianity and not just relegate it to the past.
Okay….okay…I get it. It’s not as catchy nor anywhere near as intense as Shark Week. I mean, who in their right mind would try and top Shark Week? I did want to announce, though, that in October (one month from today) we will begin Starfish Month here at Pursuing Glory.
What’s Starfish Month, you ask?
Well, nearly nine years ago this October, I was part of a conference that was hosted by some dear friends in Kansas City. These friends had invited a long-time inspiration of mine, Wolfgang Simson, to come and share about what he felt the Lord was doing in the Earth. Wolf, as some of you know, wrote Houses That Change the World and at that time was putting the finishing touches on a new book that he eventually published himself called the Starfish Manifesto.
Houses That Change the World helped birth the idea of house churches in the hearts and minds of many early adopters within the house church movement. The Starfish Manifesto was kind of a next step. Where Houses was a micro level view of how churches should function, the Starfish Manifesto was the macro view of how a movement of house churches could reach the world for Jesus. It was next level thinking beyond anything I had come across at that point.
Also during this conference, I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes here and there chatting with Wolfgang. I remember him saying very firmly at one point that if we wanted to understand the true nature of what the Lord was doing in the church in that hour, we had to go and read a secular book called “The Starfish and the Spider” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. When the conference was finished I hurriedly ran to my nearest bookstore and picked up a copy with a gift card I received. The book, which was all about the power of leaderless organizations, blew my mind and changed the way I’ve thought about the church ever since. Don’t let the fact that this is a secular book throw you. There is so much here gleaned from history and nature that you will quickly see the Lord’s inspiration in this book, whether the author’s meant it that way or not.
Needless to say, that month of October all the way back in 2008 was a formative year. Much of what came from that time formed the basis for what was to come as we worked to plant and raise up house churches here in Iowa. Every October, as the weather gets colder here, I look back sentimentally on that season and wish I could share it with you all. So, this October, I plan to do just that.
Starting Monday, October 2nd, I’m going to host a sort of book club here on the blog. Mondays and Thursdays in October I’ll share a brief synopsis of a chapter here on the blog with my thoughts on the content. Tuesdays and Fridays during October, I’ll take some of the thoughts and apply them to how they relate to the church. Throughout the week in October, I’ll also be sharing short excerpts from the condensed version of Wolfgang’s Starfish Manifesto, the Starfish Vision, on my Twitter feed. All of this adds up to us talking about how Jesus designed his church to function like a starfish.
Why am I telling you all now? To get you prepared, of course. First, I would love it if one or two of you joined me in re-reading “The Starfish and the Spider.” If that sounds interesting to you, now is the time to pick yourself up a copy of the book. You may also want to jump straight to Wolf’s Starfish Vision booklet and dive into what you find there. Regardless, I hope you join me in Reformation month reading and thinking about how there is still more reformation left ahead for the church and strategizing about how we can be part of it.
It’s not Shark Week…but it might just cause you to change the world.
This morning as I was scrolling through social media, I saw one of the people that I follow talk about how modern church is like a school and it should be more like a support group (think AA). Both of these are true statements. While I agree with both parts of this statement1, I believe the pattern for church was built on something much more ancient: family.
This shouldn’t surprise us. God is a Father and a Son in relationship with each other. Jesus emphasized the brotherhood of all believers (Matthew 23:8). This wasn’t just a term of affection, but a call to really act as brothers of a family. New Testament churches were often started in the homes of men or women of peace (see Luke 10:6) who would give a church planter an audience to his or her extended family. The spirit of family within each church would be greatly aided by the fact that most of the early members were part of the same family. Paul himself saw his apostolic ministry in the context of being a parent to the churches he planted (see 1 Corinthians 4:15, 1 Thessalonians 2:7). The church functioned first and foremost as a family.
I don’t think it’s surprising to most of us that the early church acted like a family. I think what surprises many is when churches today act as family towards each other. Often we pick other organizing principles, particularly those of business and education and structure our time around production and education instead of what builds us up as family.
So how does the church act as a family together?
They love each other. This starts with spending time together in a way the builds and facilitates relationship. There is plenty of time and space for relationships to develop, trust to form, and support to be given. Many times this love is expressed through serving each other in ways that reflect how Jesus has loved us and laid His life down for us.
Commitment is seen. Often church is seen as something that can be walked away from when it becomes inconvenient. If the teaching becomes stale, I’ll look for something better. If the worship becomes out-dated, there’s a more contemporary worship gathering down the street. But when churches act like families, the members don’t bail at the first sign of conflict or the opportunity to get a better experience. They commit to the bonds of love that the Lord has called us to.
There is mutual give and take. In every family, each member fulfills a roll of some kind. Rare is the family gathering where one member of the family does all of the talking. There is a back and forth kind of conversation that happens. Not everything everyone says in a family is of equal value. There are various levels of maturity, but conversation is the main method of learning and interaction and it produces well-rounded disciples.
There is growth and reproduction. Every family that doesn’t grow and reproduce will die off. I’m part of a large extended family in the natural, helping raise the fourth generation of Kolders that have come from the line of my Grandpa and Grandma Kolder. But each generation has had to grow up, move out of mom and dad’s house, and have little Kolders of their own. The same is true for the church. Family can seem safe, but there is a responsibility in family to step out, grow up, and pass on what you’ve received as part of your family to the next generation. Churches do this when they reach the lost, make disciples, and pass on the dynamic of Christianity as family to those they are discipling.
There is a lost generation of men and women all across our country. Not only are they far away from God, but they have a hunger in their heart for something they’ve never had: family. The answer starts when a person enters into a life-transforming relationship with God as their Father. It’s fully recognized, though, when a flesh and blood spiritual family adopt this new believer as one of their own. This is the reality that drives out the orphan spirit in us once and for all. To do that, the church may need to stop acting like a school or a business and devote themselves to becoming a family once more.
1Church as we know it has largely adopted a meeting style from the educational system (one person teaching, rows of students, listening-based). Support groups such as AA have much to offer the church as a means for growing their body (high accountability, high intimacy, intentional mentoring, etc.).
Often when we meet other believers and they find out we meet in homes, they begin to tell us about their experiences in small groups that are part of their church experience. Often, I’m actually thankful for this, because I recognize that this is their way of trying to relate to what we do. It’s a bit of verbal and social hospitality that is an attempt to bridge the gap between what we do and what they do.
While I appreciate all of the kindness and I totally see some of the similarities (especially as they relate to size and group dynamics) I think it’s really important to point out that house churches are a bit more than small groups. Yes, they meet in homes like small groups. Yes, they are small groups of people, just like small groups. But that’s where the similarities start to end1.
House churches are a different animal because….
….they are responsible for extending the church in their relational networks and their region. They grow through evangelism and witness, not through attracting new believers from the larger church.
….they are spiritual families. They live life together and support each other, like families do. They are more than just a meeting once a week.
…they are responsible for each other. There’s no other immediate group of believers that will encourage, support, rebuke, love, or edify the members of a house church. It’s up to each house church to take care of the members of its body.
…the curriculum is the Bible. There’s no Bible study manual or teaching series spread around to the other house churches. The content that is produced results from each member’s time in the Word and relationship with the Holy Spirit.
…they don’t have a program. They are the program. Gathering together and following the Holy Spirit wherever he leads as He builds the church is the program.
…they do what a church does. They devote themselves to the gospel, they fellowship together, they eat together, they pray together, they baptize new believers, they practice communion. Whatever a church does, they do.
Why is this important? Why the need for distinction? Clarity helps us pursue the right things. I want you to plant a house church, but you’ll take different steps to get to a house church than you would to start a small group. How you build up the church, make disciples, teach each other, and take communion will change depending on whether you believe your group is a church or just a short term collection of Christians who may be committed to other things.
So, are you part of a small group or part of something more?
At the heart of Christianity is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. This doesn’t mean that everyone who becomes a Christian has to have an experience like Paul did on the road to Damascus, but it means that everyone who is truly born again will encounter Jesus by His Spirit. Often that begins by faith, accepting the truth of the Gospel and the work of Jesus on the cross and then as we grow in faith we learn to interact with Jesus as a living being as we grow up in Him. But make no mistake, every believer (whether they feel it or not) encounters Jesus.
When I first became part of the organic church movement, there was a lot of talk about encountering Jesus. Many of those I learned from had taught us how to encounter Jesus by waiting on the Lord in silence and prayer. As I’ve been exposed to more and more parts of the house church movement, however, I’ve noticed varying degrees of emphasis on encountering Jesus in prayer, usually less. To some degree I’m sure this has to do with some who have tried to call the church away from religious prayer routines.
While I applaud leaving behind dead religious traditions, I’m often saddened by the hardness towards people who try to encounter Jesus within the organic church/house church movement. Our lives were never designed to be lived outside of a regular encounter with Jesus, so while we need to leave behind the trappings of religion that really were more like hiding than meeting Jesus, we also must position our hearts to regularly encounter Christ. Jesus tells us to do this individually in secret prayer routines where we meet the Father (see Mathew 6:5-6).
The life of the body, however, is not just the coming together of the individual lives of the believers that make it up. Christians have always believed that because of the blood of Christ they have had direct access to God themselves, personally (Hebrews 4:15-16), but they’ve also always believed that something different happens when believers come together and pray. Jesus said that He would show up in a different, more significant way when two or three believers gather together and pray. Part of the promise of Him showing up when those two or three gathering and agreeing in prayer is that He will answer their request (Matthew 18:19-20).
So this encountering of Jesus through prayer, this agreeing together, this listening and obeying Christ, must be done both individually and corporately. If we try and obey the commands of Jesus without it, we will find ourselves continually wearied and unequipped both individually and corporately, because we were never designed to live the life of Christ outside of being fueled by encounter with Him. While this must happen individually, it must certainly happen corporately. If we don’t teach our churches how to pray, we stop successive generations of disciples from learning how to pray together (we don’t pass it on) and we lose the promise Jesus gives us when we agree together on anything.
Friends, our brothers and sisters from the house church planting movements around the world almost unanimously agree that movements do not start without a groundswell of prayer. This may begin with one person, but it culminates with many, many people praying for God’s Kingdom to come to their neighborhood, city, and region. When they gather and pray in a significant way, God answers. These are the people that have put their dependency on God answering their prayers and because of that they see people healed, raised from the dead, and most importantly lives transformed by the Gospel. I believe we have much to learn from these brothers and sisters, not the least of which is their dependence on God answering their prayers.
Friends, we serve a God who desires to encounter us. He will do this both individually and corporately, but He will encounter us differently with a group than He does when we are all alone. So let’s not stop gathering together with other brothers and sisters to pray, as some are in the habit of doing, but let’s begin to gather to ask Jesus for the harvest that He desires to bring in.
He will respond.
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.
…you can’t always see what is happening beneath the surface.
The call for many of us who are planting and participating in house churches is a call to the underground. In China, this is by necessity. They have to hide their fellowships, their worship, and to some degree their walk with Christ in order to survive. Here in the West, we participate in the underground by choice. House churches are one way we participate, foregoing some of the flash to focus on the essentials which happen under the surface. Regardless of whether it is by choice or by necessity, we are part of an underground movement.
The price you pay to go underground is to be misunderstood. It can seem like you’re not growing. It seems many times like things are at a stand-still. Often it seems like you are being lazy and not producing very much. In reality, deep below the surface of the Earth, where no one is watching and no one sees, there is a life being formed that will sustain and produce fruit.
It’s just that no one sees it. No one notices. Sometimes you aren’t even aware of the deep work that is going on inside of you. You just know you aren’t seeing the results you thought you would see. Jesus compared this process to death: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the Earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” (John 12:24). Every individual must go through this process, but each house church must go through this process as well.
It’s in this season that the foundation for life and fruitfulness is being laid. Everything depends on this season happening the way God designed it. So don’t be discouraged if you don’t see fruit as fast as you’d like. Don’t think that God isn’t working just because you don’t see results as quickly as others. If God has called you to His underground, He’s called you to grow deep so you can be fruitful in season and out of season.
I started to write this out yesterday and in the midst of writing it, a dear friend sent me a prophetic note that he had sent me about a year ago. In it, he describes the Lord showing him how apostolic works need to have shoots and roots. In the vision, the shoots could only go as far as the roots. The level of fruitfulness was determined by our level of rootedness.
Friends, don’t be discouraged by a rooting season. Give yourself to it. Grow your roots as deep as you can. God has a fruitful season for you, but your ability to sustain it will be determined by the depth of your roots.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ around the country,
Recently a brother in Christ who is dear to many of us hear in Iowa suffered a massive heart attack. Rick Lumbard is the Director of Wind and Fire Ministries, a man of prayer, and a servant of the Lord that has been used in a number of peoples’ lives throughout our city and the state. He currently is unconscious and in a hospital in Des Moines. Would you join us in prayer for Rick as we believe for healing for him? He has a wife and several children that would be thankful for the prayer support.