Last Friday was a holiday here in the United States, and Marianne and I opened our home, yard and pool for a day of family, friends and fellowship.
Fortunately, following my heart operation and extended hospital stay two weeks ago, several brothers in a couple of fellowships we relate to stepped forward and organized things – including a great cookout.
Afterwards, Marianne and I both said that this was one of the nicest days we’ve had in years – not because the past few years have been bad (they’ve been challenging due to some of my health issues, but not “bad”!), but because we’re seeing solid maturity arise among those we’ve been pouring our lives into.
Although we’ve always loved them deeply, now it’s actually fun to spend time with them!
In addition, we now have the profound pleasure of watching them reproduce their life in Christ among others.
As they step forward and do the work of mission, discipleship and strengthening our various fellowships, it seems more and more that God’s role for Marianne and me is to step back and serve through simple hospitality, unassuming encouragement and quiet mentoring.
Yup. It’s true. I killed ekklesia (the Greek word often translated in the New Testament to mean a local “church”). Now, several years later, it’s time to finally come clean and confess.
Although we all love the “glory stories”, we also need to tell of our failures – because it’s our failures which often teach the most.
So here’s my sorry story of having killed a fellowship.
Maybe, by owning up to my failures, it will help others trying to form an organic fellowship, home group, simple church – or whatever you want to call an open, participatory gathering of believers ministering one to another in smaller, relational fellowships.
David Lim, an international leader in “organic” missions, wrote an important and probing article called Towards Closure.
Basically, he discusses (from a more academic but still very pragmatic standpoint) the difference between an “imperial” and an “incarnational” approach to church planting, the Great Commission and bringing Christ into new communities and contexts.
Like me, Dr. Lim is an advocate of organic (or simple) churches because he sees them as not only faithful to New Testament examples and principles, but as best able to fully express Christ in all His gloriously diverse ways in different communities and cultures.
According to him, when such churches emerge within the context of local communities, Jesus then becomes more fully “incarnational” (i.e., embodied and alive) in and through those communities.
He also makes another very important point: By allowing the Lord to adapt to each culture and setting, without imposing some intense, cookie-cutter concept of Him – and how His Church must look and operate – we avoid the trap of “imperialism”.
“Church” too often means forcing others into our own molds, in order to support the sensibilities and biases of our own cultural perspectives.
In contrast, we have been learning to let “church” emerge in all its splendid diversity, as the life of Christ takes root in the rich soil of different cultures and communities.
This originally was part of a longer post, which I’ve now split in two. If you haven’t yet, I recommend you first read Part 1.
Small is Beautiful
These days, “small” seems to be the new buzz word – and I generally agree with that focus. When our gatherings become too large, it is impossible for folks to participate in sharing and ministering to each other and freely expressing the life of Christ with one another.
In the New Testament, the imperative to participate – to express the life of Christ in us, among us and through us – extends to our meetings, as well as our throughout-the-week relationships.
I’m not anti-big. There are times when larger gatherings make sense – but not as the main expression of the local Body of Christ, with small groups as mere adjuncts to the big Sunday show or some leader’s grand vision.
Also, if “small” becomes mini one-man shows in someone’s home, community center, jail unit, coffee shop, homeless shelter, work cafeteria or wherever, that misses the whole point.
To keep these problems from happening, we need to restore a proper concept of leadership within the Body of Christ.
Last night, two other men and I met with one of the indigenous churches some of us helped start in the jail four years ago.
This fellowship is one of several that we have seen emerge in various housing units within the local jail.
That particular church (typically numbering six to eighteen men) has been a powerhouse for God, as the guys have learned to express Christ to one another through open, participatory fellowship.
Literally hundreds of men have come to the Lord because of them, and they’ve been effectively discipling each other in the faith
In addition, many, many other fellowships have sprung forth from them, as the men in that indigenous church – rooted in the specific cultural dynamics present in any jail or prison environment – are then transferred to other units and facilities.
Nearly a year has passed since I’ve been with the very first fellowship I helped start here in Virginia. I’ve missed them dearly.
Last night I got to be with them, share some stories of their beginnings, and convey a sense of God’s special pleasure and love towards them.
We all laughed and listened and talked – and there was life.
Two new fellowships, comprised of about twenty new believers, stood on their own two feet today.
Two of us did some foundation laying over the last month, but today we just sat back and let ‘em go – and they did! We literally had nothing to say, and there was no opportunity to do so even if we wanted.
Life was popping out all over the place among them. They were amazed, but I wasn’t. God moves among us when we let Him. :-)
Next week, I’m expecting the same with several more new fellowships we’ve been helping to start, comprised also of mainly new believers.
God is good!
Have you ever noticed how those who heavily promote organic food and natural health with the most enthusiasm and sincerity, sometimes look the most sickly and anemic and seem to have the most health problems?
They are reacting to real problems, but have turned their idealistic and seemingly good-sounding concepts into an all consuming idol – to the exclusion of real health which comes from a balanced life.
I’ve also see this among some who are the most ardent proponents of organic church. They’ve fallen prey to unbalanced reactions and aspirations which prevent authentic life and sustainable, healthy fellowships.
I believe a new “organic” move of God is emerging in the West, which affirms the good things about organic/simple church but rejects the crazy stuff of the past.
With this new move, we are finally climbing out of our ruts and catching up with our “organic” brothers and sisters in the rest of the world – who never fell prey to the crazy stuff and thus moved far beyond us.¹
We also are seeing healthy connections form between fellowships in different regions, as locally-rooted leaders use Skype and other Internet tools to build mutually helpful relationships with each other.
As I delve into the history and status of the organic church community in the U.S. (and to some extent Europe), I’ve been impressed with how some “church planters” are able to help diverse fellowships emerge. Each fellowship they help looks very different based on the context of its own local community.
Others, however, seem to forge fellowships that look strangely the same – and like them – from locale to locale.
When we teach folks to be the church, God’s Kingdom can’t help but ripple out into all sorts of improbable places through improbable people – impacting whole communities, towns and cities. Here’s just one related, amazing story, among many …
Life reproduces life. That’s true in nature and it’s true spiritually. Where there is vibrant mature life, there is reproduction.
Last week, we saw that truth confirmed yet again as a third-generation fellowship emerged among what some consider a “disreputable” segment of our county.
This new community of believers is in a subculture where Christians and other churches previously lacked the courage to go. Until now, they had been written off as beyond hope.
These new believers found life in Jesus because some cared enough to go where most feared to tread.
I’ve been thinking a lot about why significant segments of the organic church community in the Western hemisphere have failed to achieve Biblical viability – becoming instead anemic, self-focused and insular.
Even a casual observer must acknowledge that “organic” or “simple” churches in the West (unlike other parts of the world) seldom exhibit dynamic spiritual power; consistent reproduction, growth and maturity; or tangible, transforming impact.
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.
I spent Sunday afternoon with the guys in one of the churches that we planted three years ago in the local jail.
My voice went hoarse from singing along with them and my fingers became sore from playing the guitar as they took the initiative in starting song after song and leading forth.
For nearly an hour and a half they sang non-stop praises to the Lord, and were so loud and enthusiastic I’m sure they could be heard throughout the building.
They were stompin’, clappin’ and rockin’, with lots of laughin’ and cryin’ in gratitude before the Lord!
Now, I don’t want to shake up anyone’s theology, but the Holy Spirit also was grooving to some powerful, spontaneous rappin’ that was going on!
Many tout themselves as modern-day apostles and church planters like Paul, but where’s their Antioch?
Although Paul functioned as an apostolic church planter, his self-expressed credentials included the fact that he continued as an elder – meaning he remained grounded in and part of the local leadership of his home church in Antioch. All too often we ignore the fact that Paul was commissioned and sent by his local church on his apostolic missions, but only after having proven himself over many years in the context of that local, functioning fellowship.
He would then return for a season to his home church in Antioch at the end of his various apostolic, church-planting journeys (except for his last, where history says he was beheaded in Rome), before being sent out again.
Beware of gifted but itinerant men and women who want to “help” your local church as modern-day Paul’s, but lack ongoing community with, roots in, commission from and accountability to another functioning local church.
Some of us have been around long enough to see past incarnations of such floating, unattached “ministries” to local churches.
In the 70’s and 80’s, they proliferated within the Charismatic movement – mainly among those who were certainly gifted but nonetheless could never succeed at finding healthy church with accountable community in their own lives.
Often, they were authors or good aspirational communicators who had exciting ideas, but only answered to themselves. Sometimes, however, they’d form loose associations where they only answered to each other in lieu of having any Antiochs in their lives – which only tended to reinforce the shared theological or dispositional idiosyncrasies which attracted them to each other in the first place.
Without exception, over time problems emerged with each and every of them – and with the churches that affiliated with them. (And I mean that – I can’t think of a single one who did not fall prey to one disqualifying problem or another, often related to pride or just becoming increasingly weird!)
There’s too much of this stuff starting to emerge again today, especially within the “organic” church community. It is fraught with danger, unbiblical, and will only lead to disaster.
~ Jim Wright
It’s amazing how ekklesia takes root in the fringes of society when you empower Christ in existing community rather than trying to bring “church” to them, take them to “church” or do “church” for them.
When some of us started changing our perspective, we started seeing dynamic, participatory, indigenous fellowships emerge in the jail, among the homeless, and with ex-offenders – as well as other improbable existing communities.
The life of Jesus that is evident in those fellowships at the fringes of society is now attracting “normies” to come and be part of their times together. It is amazing to see the spread of the Gospel through those whom society scorns, for the redemption of society.
When you introduce people to the freedom to find and express Christ in them and through them – and thus allow them to relate together as a fully functioning and participatory Body of Christ – Jesus just naturally happens!
This morning, as I was pulling out of my driveway to meet with some guys in the jail, I felt the Lord say it was time to plant a church among them.
I’ve been mentoring and building relationships with a group of thirty or so men in the jail, as we periodically meet to discuss the things of God. Some are believers, and some are believers in the making.
This morning, I was prepared to share with them about slaying those giants in their lives which stood in the way of God’s promises.
But I felt the Lord say, instead, that it was time to actually start an indigenous church in their housing unit.
This sense that it was time to plant a new church among them did not strike me as the least bit odd. I am part of a fellowship that has planted various sister churches that are thriving in other housing units in the local jail, as well as in other improbable places. So the sole issue for me was simply being receptive to the Lord’s timing, by acting only when and how He says.