“ANOTOMY OF A MOVEMENT”
September 5, 2008
I thought I’d take a break from my usual devotional thoughts to give you a brief synopsis of where I believe the organic/simple church movement is currently situated and where it might be headed. As most of you know I just returned from attending my fifth National House Church Conference which this year was held in Dallas. It has been truly fascinating to observe how this movement has been evolving over the past five years.
When I first started attending these conferences our collective self-image was that of a group of pioneering mavericks, exiled from normal religious circles, huddling together in order to validate our hope that we were not the only “crazies” out there. Then, two years ago, George Barna gave us some startling statistics compiled from this country alone.
…9% of adults attend a house church during a typical week. That is remarkable growth in the past decade, shooting up from just 1% to near double-digit involvement. In total, one out of five adults attends a house church at least once a month. Projecting these figures to the national population gives an estimate of more than 70 million adults who have at least experimented with house church participation. In a typical week roughly 20 million adults attend a house church gathering. Over the course of a typical month, that number doubles to about 43 million adults.
I have no doubt but that these figures have increased steadily in the last two years. Although some of these house church attendees may also continue to attend a traditional church, a growing number look to their home group as their only church. We are seeing a mass exodus from the institutional church in this country, one million adults per year according to George Barna, all of whom are searching for a more intimate, hands-on expression of worship. Clearly something is happening in the body of Christ.
Around the world the organic church movement is growing at a phenomenal rate. We are familiar with the reports coming out of China where over 100 million faithful now gather in homes and caves and fields to worship Jesus. 25,000 people are coming to Christ every day in that country! But now we are hearing amazing stories of church planting movements in Southeast Asia, India, Africa, and yes even the Middle East. The Chinese churches are committed to sending missionaries to the west across Asia all the way to Israel in their “Back to Jerusalem” project. By comparison the movement is just barely getting started in this country. That may be due to the prevailing culture of the institutional church in this country which is difficult to breach. But even here the walls of institutionalism are coming down. We are hearing of increasing examples of traditional churches transitioning into house church networks. Other institutional churches are partnering with house churches in order to more thoroughly impact their communities. We know of several mega churches which are sending out house church missionaries to plant organic churches in surrounding communities. What only a few years ago was looked down upon as a small cult of radical anti-church malcontents is now considered mainstream.
Early on our conferences were mostly about house church mechanics, how to get started and what to do when you gather together. This year such basics were relegated to one of four tracks in our break-out sessions. The remainder of our schedule revolved around world missions, market place ministries, new ways to reach out into our communities, and building relationships. By far the greatest emphasis was on intimacy with God and with each other. It is exactly where you would expect a maturing movement to be headed. We must learn to hear “Papa’s” voice, as individuals and collectively in community in order to discern His guidance for our lives and for the future of His kingdom.
Along with this increased focus on intimacy with God and with each other we are seeing a loss of focus on our own differences. The Lord of the harvest is gathering saints from virtually every corner of the kingdom and placing them side by side in this movement. Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Charismatics, members of the Church of Christ, those from non-denominational backgrounds, high church, low church, and no church, we are all discovering how easy it is to forget our differences when we focus on the King. Only the Holy Spirit could be drawing together such a diverse group of individuals and showing us how to genuinely love each other and partner together in advancing the kingdom.
Along with an increased emphasis on building relationships and unity within the body, we are experiencing a complete change of direction in our ministry focus. In answer to the Lord’s request in Luke 10:2—“Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”—we are discovering that we ourselves are being sent out, beyond the four walls of our meeting places, into the surrounding community. It is here that we are colliding with the unsaved world and find ourselves watching in awe as people are won to the Lord and churches are being planted. For 1700 years, ever since the emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire, the church has largely been operating in an attractional mode, attempting to attract the world to us. The problem with this approach is that it is also extractional, extracting people from their own homes, families, cultures, and removing them from the harvest field. This may be good strategy if your goal is church growth, but it is devastating if you are seeking kingdom expansion. If you want to experience a great harvest, you need to be out in the harvest field.
Finally, we are seeing a new type of leadership evolve; a servant leadership which operates from underneath, lifting others up and helping them achieve maturity in Christ, rather than from above, controlling and “Lording it over others.” Leadership in this movement is decentralized and based upon one’s gifting, not one’s position or title. Although we are learning to function within the five-fold ministry team described in Ephesians 4:11 (apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers), we tend to shy away from using titles. An individual’s role in the kingdom will become obvious as they begin to function in their own gifting.
So are there any pitfalls lying ahead for the movement? Yes, but such dangers won’t come from the outside. All great movements of the past, every revival the world has seen, have all experienced a limited lifespan. Some have disappeared completely; others have slowly become mainstream and transformed into just another denomination. But primarily, the forces which stalled the forward progress of these movements came from within, and this is where we need to exhibit the most vigilance. We must never allow the emergence of a special clergy class of individuals. The moment this occurs those who are not included in the clergy will cease their labors and become passive toward ministry. The result will be disastrous bringing the movement to a standstill. “…you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood…” – 1Peter 2:5. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…” – 1Peter 2:9.
An even greater risk is the tendency to become inward focused, bent on building up each individual church gathering rather than advancing the kingdom. There seems to be a tremendous temptation to strive to organize the outward thrust of the Gospel, to tame the Holy Spirit, to control the forward progress of the Kingdom. If any such attempt is successful this movement will die. Three times in three verses the Lord emphasizes the outward direction we are to take in advancing the Gospel. “After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.’”—Luke 10:1-3.
This brings us to perhaps the greatest threat of all, the failure to listen to the Lord of the harvest. If we lose our intimacy with Christ and strike out on our own, following our own plans and strategies, this movement is doomed. For whatever reason, we seem to exhibit the tendency to reduce the forward movement of the kingdom to a set of rules, formulas, and strategies. “Just follow the formula set forth in my book and you, too, can plant a church,” we cry. But so far every church we’ve seen planted in this area has begun in a different manner. It would seem the Lord is deliberately keeping us from coming up with an all-encompassing strategy. Besides, the best book on church planting has already been written some two thousand years ago. The only formula we know of involves listening to the Lord and obeying what we hear. “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” – John 10:27.
I am convinced that this movement is far more than just a passing fad. As House2House magazine declares, “Watch out! A tidal wave is coming.” As one who has been engulfed in the wave I invite you to take the plunge.
Bill, a child of God still listening and learning