Finding Ekklesia

Several weeks ago, I was asked how to find “ekklesia” (the Greek word in the New Testament often translated as “church”).

Many today are frustrated because they can’t seem to find authentic fellowship, or feel stuck in the “wilderness” after leaving the institutional church.

As I’ve thought about this, it’s been hard for me to know how to respond. The last thing anyone needs is another “program”, “method” or “three easy steps” to find something that God designed to be authentically birthed, and sustained, organically.

You see, God intends that life reproduce life. That principle is built into the very fabric of creation. Like all things that impart life, real ekklesia is organic, through and through.

And by “organic”, I mean simply this: The authentic and diverse life of Christ in me, which is then expressed among us and through us as we become the wonderful, dynamic, multi-gifted and participatory Body of Christ.

The key to finding this, I think, is found in those two words: authentic and diverse.

So here’s my response on how to find ekklesia, rooted in my own experience of finding, and then helping others find, real life and real fellowship – not as one who’s arrived, but simply as one who has been on the path maybe a little longer.

The Authentic Life of Christ

I think the greatest challenge facing Christians today is the prevailing tendency to create Jesus in our own image – based on our own hurts, sensibilities or whatever.

Jesus in our Own Image?

Without an authentic Jesus, you will not find authentic fellowship.

That’s because the foundation for true “ekklesia” must be this, and this alone: (i) the authentic life Christ in us, which is then authentically expressed among us and through us; (ii) as confirmed by the internal witness of the Holy Spirit which is concurrently subject at all times to His authoritative external witness of Scripture.

That’s just my complicated way of saying what Jesus said much more simply: If two or three of us gather in His name (i.e., in the authenticity of who He really is and has authoritatively revealed Himself to be), He is there, alive among us. (Matt. 18:20)

Apart from the authentic life of Jesus – where we continually are being created in His image through a dynamic, transforming relationship with the Living Word which conforms to the authority of His written word – entering into true Christian community simply is not possible.

Otherwise, you are reduced to seeking “fellowship” around the need to affirm your own hurts, biases, attitudes, ideals, aspirations or even your own “better selves” – and that simply doesn’t work.

Oh, it will feel validating, comforting and even liberating at first, but eventually, at best, you will end up being just another anemic, insular “meet up” of cookie-cutter look-alikes trapped in your own shared sensibilities.

I have heard from too many Christians who can’t seem to ever find healthy fellowship. Unless they are in legitimate transition (and I’m not talking ten years, folks), more often than not they share the same characteristic – they only want or know a Jesus of their own creation.

I also have visited too many “organic” or similarly-described fellowships that are anemic and insular. More often than not, they too share the same characteristic – they only want or know a Jesus of their own creation.

Finding Fellowship

So you want life and real fellowship? Good. Let the dynamic, authentic life of Christ be birthed in you – and then seek out opportunities to share and express that life among others who share your excitement. True ekklesia will then just naturally happen, because life reproduces life.

Trust me. It really isn’t that hard. I have helped spark real fellowship time and again in different communities based on just that simple approach.

If that means letting go of the hurts that have defined you, then forgive and begin pursuing health.

If it means letting go of the sensibilities that have limited you, then let the washing of your mind through the power of His word begin to transform you.

If it means getting out of your lifeless funk, then maybe it’s time to get off your knees and start doing the things that bring you joy in the Lord – even if it is not “spiritual” – and then start expressing His resulting joy to others, because joy is life, and life is contagious.

But understand this: Seeking ekklesia to sooth your self-defining hurts or to affirm your self-limiting sensibilities simply won’t work. Never has, never will.

It’s OK to seek ekklesia as you break out of your hurts, your sensibilities or your funk – but it’s not OK to seek fellowship in order to wallow in or affirm them.

Real ekklesia, then? Simply this: The authentic life of Christ in me, which is then collectively expressed among us and through us.

Alive and dynamic…

Relational and transforming…

Yet also invigorated as we let the external standards of Scripture continually stretch our expectations, shatter our comfort zones, and confirm that we truly are conforming more and more to His image – and not Him to our image.

Hospitality

So the dynamic life of Christ is now bubbling up within you, and you want to share that life in community. How do you find community?

Like so much else, it really isn’t complicated: Hospitality.

Throughout the New Testament, we see how the life of Christ in us is most vibrantly expressed through hospitality. It is what I believe God has designed, more than anything else, to bring us together in community.

Not structured meetings. Not programs. Not heavily-promoted seminars or the attraction of a big-name teacher.

No, just plain old hospitality.

Jesus focused on this when he sent out His disciples to bring the good news of the Kingdom to new towns and communities. The first thing they were to do, He said, was to find a person or household of peace – i.e., hospitality.

In fact, in nearly every New Testament story about how ekklesia started in a particular town, the key was hospitality. It was the catalyst – either to get things going or to kept things going.

For example, the apostles Paul and Peter often started a new fellowship around a household that had invited them in. In Jerusalem, after the influx of thousands on the Day of Pentecost, the church continued to grow as they met from house to house to break bread and fellowship.

So invite those who might be interested in sharing your enthusiasm to come and have a meal together – or maybe even invite yourself over to their house.

The main fellowship I am part of started when a friend said she knew a guy who was interested in the same kind of things I was doing. So I called him out of the blue, introduced myself, and asked if he wanted to meet at the local Panera Bread for coffee. We instantly clicked as our shared enthusiasm over what the Lord was doing in our lives resonated with each other. My wife and I then had dinner with him and his wife, and that eventually became the nucleus for a new fellowship.

Does that mean my wife and I find fellowship with everyone to whom we extend hospitality? No, of course not. But it is true that we almost never find fellowship with new folk unless we start with hospitality, and then continue to make it a key part of our ongoing relationship.

So reach out, invite, share – be hospitable. Plant some seeds and watch what the Lord then does.

(For two good, related blogs on hospitality and some practical suggestions, see Katie Driver on The Practice & Power of Hospitality and Don Davis on Looking for a House Church? It’s Not Easy If You’re New to an Area.)

Sustaining Diverse Fellowship

Those who find fellowship by pursuing Christ’s authentic life, however, often fail to sustain fellowship because they fall into a dangerous trap: They (or others) want ekklesia to reflect their legitimate, but limited, God-given gifts and even understanding of Christ.

Our individual gifts and understanding of Christ are often expressed through our differing personalities, perceptions, motivations and priorities. That’s how God created us – unique in Him!

But my gifts, and your gifts, are limited – no one person can ever have all the things needed for healthy, dynamic and sustainable fellowship.

For example, I often cringe at “church planters” who try to impose their own relationship with Christ – often under a very enticing banner like “Christ is All”, “missional” or some “grand epic” which is more a reflection of their own walk with the Lord than anything else – as normative for all of God’s people.

It’s not that any one of those concepts necessarily are wrong, but rather they are made the end all and be all of everything – including ekklesia.

I’ve been around long enough, and helped birth enough fellowships, to finally understand that Christ in me – if authentic – will look very different than Christ in you. And furthermore, my understanding of Christ, and the fullness of Christ, should naturally differ to varying degrees from yours.

This has nothing to do with me being right and you being wrong. Rather, Jesus has created us each very differently. He gives us different grace, with different gifts, motivations and perspectives – and our spiritual antennas each resonate at different frequencies.

Some relate to the Lord primarily through the heart, some through the will, others through the mind – as well as other ways that match our different God-given motivations and personalities.

I’ve also been around long enough, and helped birth enough fellowships, to know that it is only as our legitimate and essential differences are express in diversity – and not uniformity – that we start to find real community. Only then do we begin seeing the real fulness of Christ – as your unique gifts, grace, motivations and perceptions are joined with my unique gifts, grace, motivations and perceptions.

Our Differing Gifts

Too many ignore the great emphasis of the New Testament on differing grace, motivations and gifts – perhaps because they think Christ in you should look like Christ in them or that their “job” is to reproduce the Jesus in them, rather than equip you to maturely express the uniqueness of Jesus in you.

And so, if their main motivational gift is mercy, they want ekklesia to primarily reflect compassion and tolerance.

Are you willing to impart intimacy and acceptance to others in community, while sacrificially laying aside your need for everything to be about intimacy and acceptance?

If their main motivational gift is prophetic, they want ekklesia to primarily embody vision and transparency.

Are you willing to impart truth and change to others in community, while sacrificially laying aside your need for everything to be about truth and change?

If their main gift is teaching, they want ekklesia to primarily focus on knowledge and Bible study.

Are you willing to impart understanding and stability to others in community, while sacrificially laying aside your need for everything to be about understanding and stability?

If their main gift is encouragement and exhortation, they want ekklesia to primarily revolve around unity and relationships.

Are you willing to impart peace and harmony to others in community, while sacrificially laying aside your need for everything to be about peace and harmony?

If their main gift is administration, they want ekklesia to be all about goals, discipleship and mission.

Are you willing to impart structure and order to others in community, while sacrificially laying aside your need for everything to be about structure and order?

If their main gift is giving, they want ekklesia to be all about redemption and life.

Are you willing to impart resources and creativity to others in community, while sacrificially laying aside your need for everything to be about resources and creativity?

If their main gift is serving, they want ekklesia to be all about tasks and meeting needs.

Are you willing to help and bless others in community, while sacrificially laying aside your need for everything to be about helping and blessing others?

No doubt, there are many other things that also can become our all-consuming, and thus limiting, goal for ekklesia.

It could be a particular attribute that resonates deeply with you – and so you try to make ekklesia all about love, or justice, or a secure haven, or serving the needy. Those hopefully will be among the various attributes shared by any healthy fellowship, but they can not be made THE attribute of a healthy fellowship – because Christ has many facets, and thus so will the Body of Christ.

Any one attribute, no matter how noble, will destroy ekklesia when out of balance.

Or it could be a pet doctrine, like your own views on what the centrality of Christ must look like, or the “grand epic”, or the new covenant, or proper leadership, or even what it means to be an “organic” fellowship – as though every community of believers in all cultural contexts will look, believe and function the same!

Yes, I believe in certain core principles. But I can also tell you from personal experience that it is a tragic mistake to make even your perfectly valid concepts of ekklesia more important that ekklesia – because I once did it and ended up killing a fellowship I helped start when I was still new to all this.

Trust me, you and your gift, motivation, ministry, pet doctrine, vision, understanding of Christ or whatever – no matter how good and legitimate – can never be the basis for ekklesia. At most, all those things may be a part of a local fellowship but nothing more – and even then, they may only find expression among some segment of the overall fellowship, but not all of it.

Who’s The Head?

Jesus is the head, not you or your “stuff” – as good as it may be. Get over it.

It is not about your gift, your motivation, your grace, your pet doctrine or even your grand vision. It is about all of us coming together with our individual gifts, motivations, grace, understandings and callings to edify one another, build up each other, and go forth to all spheres of life as we demonstrate Christ through our various callings to a waiting world.

If I have ever been harsh in my blog, it is to counter those who want to enforce their group-think and out-of-balance imitations – even when it involves something that is otherwise good – on the Body of Christ.

You see, unity is not uniformity. That is a lie by those trying to peddle their own measure of Christ as normative for all.

I have yet to meet another brother or sister in Christ who, no matter what my own strength, did not exceed me in some other aspect of Christ. When we are in fellowship, I must see how I need you often more than you may ever need me – while still sharing what I have to give. That, then, becomes the beginning of healthy fellowship.

Diverse, sustainable fellowship comes only when I realize I am but a part, based on the measure of Christ given to me. Neither I nor my gift, motivation, understanding, ministry or vision can ever be allowed to become the key, the head, the focal point or the unifying attribute. Otherwise, it is not ekklesia, but just another self-perpetuating institution with “church” in its name.

A Final Caution

Finally, a word of caution.

If you want sustainable, healthy ekklesia, be discerning: There are too many bloggers, “church planters”, organic church advocates, detached itinerant “apostles” and other self-proclaimed whatevers who seek to limit the Body of Christ to their own measure of Christ.

There’s nothing wrong with imparting to others the measure of Christ which you have received from Christ, in the context of the diverse Body of Christ. But it is totally wrong to make Christ in you normative for all.

Receive what is good from them, but don’t let them define you.

Looking back, I thank God daily that we avoided the trap of associating with those who peddle their own agendas, theories, doctrines and pet issues in the name of “organic church” and “ekklesia”.

They may talk a good talk, but look for the fruit of real ekklesia: Are they rooted in the authentic, multifaceted, multi-gifted life of Christ found in real community? Do you see the local, dynamic and participatory expression – both internally and to the surrounding community – of the diverse Body of Christ?

Because only life can reproduce life, and they ain’t gonna give birth to what they ain’t living. That’s just a law of creation, and I don’t care how nice, personable, inspiring, charming or whatever else they otherwise may be.

There are some valid voices of experience and wisdom out there, who are not trying to build fellowships around themselves, their pet issue, their gifts, or their personal understanding of Christ.

Instead, they are rooted in actual, healthy, functional local fellowships – even when they travel to help others. In fact, that’s likely why they are not out of balance: Healthy ekklesia just naturally seems to keep you grounded and integrated.

So there you have it: Go and be fruitful, multiply and enjoy some good ekklesia along the way.

~ Jim Wright

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36 responses

  1. When Jesus said He was building His ekklesia it had nothing to do with fellowship but everything to do with dominion. This is something that the church in America has no concept of because we have been taught it is all about fellowship. If the church in America understood this then our nation would be on a much different path than we find ourselves on.

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    • Robert, there’s only so much that can be included in a single blog – and this one was too long as it is. However, although I would not use the word “dominion”, I do believer that as we are being equipped through ekklesia and fellowship in our various gifts and callings, we are to go out into all the world – and into all spheres of life in our communities and elsewhere – to advance the Kingdom of God. That’s why I am so vocal against anemic, insular expressions of fellowship. They deny the world changing power of Christ in us and through us – everywhere and anywhere. We don’t coerce anyone, thus I reject “dominion theology”, but we nonetheless have confidence that His word will not return void.

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  2. Jim
    When I was a young christian in the early 70’s, just apprehended by the Lord, I fell in with a group of 40 or so youth that had abandoned their parents churches for gathering together, sometimes every day.
    We all came from very diverse backgrounds, had very little common experience other than boredom with church and were all looking for meaningful relationships.
    With no creed, leader, song book, pet doctrines etc, our one abiding common denominator was Jesus, personally and corporately expressed, obeyed, talked of, talked to and loved about all. He was present in our midst in joy, sacrifice, wisdom, peace, power over sin and satan, and we came to know one another very deeply thru the years.
    And that’s my point.
    I think we must encourage christians to keep the main thing, the main thing and let the rest go. Jesus said the main thing is to sit at His feet and learn, like Mary.
    He told Peter that it was Father that had revealed Jesus as the Christ to him, and not flesh or blood.
    The church has taken to calling that the deeper life, implying that there is shallower life available for some who have not had a revelation of Jesus that burns the love of the world and the flesh from their souls.
    Most of the problems mature christians are writing, counseling and blogging about are actually explaining the ways of the Lord to those who have not had, but could have had a revelation of Christ, if we were living daily as Jesus did.
    I suppose the only way out of this present wilderness is through it, and of course the Lord is with us as He was with the Israelite’s as they took 40 yrs to get through what could have taken a few weeks.
    But there must also be a separation between those who will enter the land of giants and battle and those who are content to hang between Egypt and fullness.
    In our small fellowship, we were young, proud at times and struggled with knowing the will and direction of God when there was no template or leaders, and opposition as well.
    We used language that we found in scripture to describe our journey to ourselves. Words such as bondage, slavery, sin, disobedience, carnality, blindness, self etc peppered our otherwise joy filled journey together.
    More often words such as love, peace, joy, meekness, forgive me, let me help and thank you Lord were heard among us, with singing all the time.
    We didn’t have meetings, as much as we met daily or very often, everywhere and for any reason, including meetings.
    I don’t hear leaders teaching that the church grows thru adversity and iron sharpening iron.
    Neither are they calling all of Jesus followers to lay down their nets (evangelism?)and take up their cross and follow Him, daily dying.
    The point I’m making is that I think leaders need to publicly call bondage and blindness, disobedience and carnality for what they are, and likewise, call obedience, faith and His ways for that they are as well.
    I think there is altogether too much carefulness to offend, maybe as a leftover from the fallout from ecumenism, but nevertheless, if folks don’t have a clear trumpet call and a definable destination, they will continue to run around with one foot nailed to the floor.
    Am I hearing the Lord from where you are?
    blessings
    Greg

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  3. Great stuff Jim. I also read the post on modern day Paul’s. It’s very useful advice for Christians who are already in fellowship and are trying to find their way.

    The problem we seem to have in the UK is that there are many people who want organic fellowship, they’ve read about it, but they don’t know anyone locally who they can fellowship with.

    My wife and I spent five years searching and hoping to find and/or initiate authentic organic church life. In the meantime we remained faithful to God by attending IC. Thankfully God waved His magic wand (after all our ineffectual efforts), and put a few of us together 2 and a half years ago and since then it has been an interesting journey.

    Hopefully now, life will produce life, but our story of getting started isn’t a pretty picture, especially when you hear some of the details. Have you got a better story of starting without any outside help? And have you got any practical tips and advice I can give to people here in the UK who are out on their own? You may want to private message me on FB

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    • Thanks, Pete. I had been thinking about what to say in this new blog for several weeks. I hear where you are coming from.

      The blog likely does not provide enough “method” for some – but maybe that’s the point. Are we pursuing Christ and the authentic expression of the life we have in him, or something else? When we are motivated by the authentic life we have in Christ, there will be the enthusiasm that attracts community as life reproduces life.

      Many people, here in the U.S. and elsewhere, want “organic fellowship” but they don’t seem to have that spark, that dynamic element that says “wow, God is doing something in my life and I need to find someone to share it with.” They seem to want the form, but without the power of the vibrant life of Christ in them.

      I have found that when we let His life surge through us, it can’t help but resonate with others and find fellowship – even if only with two or three others initially. But then, “when two or three are gathered in my name…”

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      • Jim. I wasn’t thinking of method really. I just think perhaps we can learn and benefit from each others real life experiences.

        All born again believers have the Life of Christ inside them. The problem in the UK is finding even two or three who want to experience ekklesia.

        My wife and I could’ve been counted as two, I suppose; but neither of us felt right being church with just the two of us. I’m not sure why, but my guess is that it might be something to do with the two becoming one flesh.

        If we only had one other, we would’ve called ourselves a church. We read Tony and Felicity Dales “getting started” and tried everything in there. We tried lots of other things too, but none of it seemed to produce any fruit. It all became very disheartening. If we had one other Christian with us, the failure wouldn’t have mattered because we would still be a church.

        Personally I wonder if it is even possible to get started at all without there already being 3 or 4 of you, especially if you are married. Maybe it is POSSIBLE, but my wife and I couldn’t do it.

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  4. I appreciate your posts…partly because you seem to present a balance regarding ‘organic’ churches as opposed to institutional ones. “Finding ecclesia” is not easy…even in one household. My wife wants sensitivity to those in recovery while I want clear teaching and careful handling of Scripture. Most of my recent experiences seem to be training me to accept the varying needs and gifts you listed out. But, isn’t it difficult to sit in one place when your particular “motivational gift” doesn’t seem to be represented in the diversity mix?

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    • Tom, don’t you have the liberty to be the one who adds your particular motivational gift to the mix? If not, then it’s not true ekklesia – whether organic, institutional or whatever.

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  5. Jim, thanks for the blog article Finding Ekklesia. Apparently, finding ecclesia, is mostly about die-ing to self? That is good, and needful. I think there is a bit more, and may I add something? Organic is about simple principles that reproduce. Die-ing to self is more about soil prep and receptiveness, and openess to have God move, and man diminish. So you have this perfect soil, and proper moisture, what is missing to produce a crop? Seed. You plant, Appolos waters, but God gives the increase. Where do we get the seed, and how do we sow it?

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    • My focus is not so much on dying to self as the end point, but rather getting to the point where the dynamic life of Christ springs forth. I think I need to do a follow up blog on how that life is then expressed through hospitality, which is the thing that brings others together to share that life.

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  6. Pingback: Finding Ekklesia | Crossroad Junction « Rough-Hewn Blog

  7. I appreciate the experience you shared and agree with your principles to a great extent. I know you weren’t trying to offer these principles as a formula that is somehow “foolproof” or “guaranteed”, but your statements about how simple it is did seem a bit formulaic at times, and that was discouraging. We have been following these principles for several years and haven’t found other people willing to share this experience with us. We are practicing them to the extent that we can in our own household. I only want to point out that God has people on different trajectories, and even though I agree in principle that life begets life, I think we need to be careful about judging the life of Christ in another person, or even in ourselves. God sometimes brings living things through long periods of dormancy, and we can easily judge wrongly about what he is really doing below the surface.

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    • The great limitation with a blog is space, and there often is so much you can’t say in a single blog because of size limitation.

      In our journey, it took several years to go through the “wilderness” phase before we were ready to start finding new fellowship. Even then, I ended up starting and pulling the plug on a group meeting in our home because they were depending too much on me – not because I wanted it, but because the group had formed around my vision and mission. The group was growing, but I had no interest in becoming just another church with me as the “pastor”. My vision and mission were legitimate, but only for me. It was wrong, I came to realize, for me to seek fellowship as an extension of my own gifts and calling. Some of that is reflected in this particular blog, but I still need to tell that story in more detail to help others.

      Anyway, after that fiasco, my wife and I were back in the wilderness for about another six months. Only then, after God had totally purged me of the things that kept getting in the way, did he start opening doors and did sustainable fellowship start happening.

      All together, though, it took several years before I could cross the Jordan river out of the wilderness after leaving the institutional church. I was easy to leave Egypt, but hard to get Egypt out of me.

      I will say this, though. As hard as it was being in the wilderness, once it finally “clicked” because my wife and I were ready, it became relatively easy to help other fellowships emerge in different segments of our own county. But it took lots of time and lots of God working on us to get there.

      I know this one blog doesn’t capture that journey, but you may want to look at an earlier blog, Crossing Jordan.

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      • Thanks for elaborating further. I know other peoples experience aren’t predictive of how God will work in our lives, but it’s easier when people are honest about what they have been through to get where they are.

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  8. Pingback: Letting go… to find real fellowship in Christ | The Assembling of the Church

  9. Ekklesia is sort of meant to be hidden Jim. In China for instance it has amazed all investigating agency. I agree Finding Ekklessia is difficult in the USA because it is practically nonexistent. I think for most Americans, we need, rather than finding ekklesia, we need, creating ekklesia.

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    • That’s kind of my point. Rather than bemoaning the lack of “ekklesia”, go out and find it by creating it. As I traveled the world, I saw these principles work in both oppressed cultures where there was active persecution and I had to dodge the secret police to meet clandestinely with local believers, and in the “freedom” of the West.

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  10. I tried to find ekklesia in two simple type churches. Each of them proved to be simply gatherings of folks who brought all their issues and preconceptions with them. One lasted two years, and the other lasted 4 months. I was at much at fault as anyone, more in some ways. After just staying out for a few months, my wife and I have found a group that is committed to Jesus as he reveals himself in Scripture, and where every indication points to true ekklesia. Your post is encouraging and helps me see that we are on the right track.

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    • Fred,

      I would be very interested in when you said “my wife and I found a group”…. How did you find them? Were they an already existing group or were you there from its formation? If they already existed how did they come to be together? These are the stories I am most interested in – how groups get started.

      you can message me on FB if you like…. http://www.facebook.com/pete.hall.796

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  11. Jim, although you’ve written within a somewhat ‘this is frustrating’ tone, there does abide a huge joy gap among many ‘seeking fellowship’ and within movement-inspired gatherings.
    Last weekend visiting ekklesia, a brother was asking, “What is it that you do [as you travel from place to place.]” My honest answer: “It’s always different.” (Sometimes I’m just to help with the dishes.)
    There are matters universal-needful, as your writing identifies: Christ’s authentic Life in His own; Christ as Head; welcoming His “differing grace” among us… With these, also much for which we may freely encourage one another (with stories, Scriptures…) There remain still far too many divisions inherited through denominational & ‘church shopping’ practices. But how to dissolve so much ‘circle the wagons’ and walls of preference, surely God knows.

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  16. Jim,

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this. Just one comment if I might.

    What you say makes it sound as if its okay to believe or do whatever one feels is of the authentic life of Christ in us. As if there are not solid principles of ekklesia that we all need to apply and live by. Principals that will help lead to real ekklesia and principles whose absence will make it near impossible to find it.

    Any further thoughts or clarification on this would be appreciated.

    Carlos

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