WHY I BELIEVE IN ORGANIC HOUSE CHURCH

I really do, on the basis of the Scriptures and even Church history. And by grace, I and 100’s of millions of believers around the globe are today endeavouring to live and practise ‘organic church’ each day [for my own part, I have ‘pastored’ traditional-denominational churches for 38 years and facilitated organic house churches for the past 7 years – so I’ve experienced both expressions of Church].

In the mid-20th century Swiss watchmakers had cornered the world market share for watches. Everything changed when one of their own came up with the quartz watch. His colleagues laughed at him but the Seiko Watch Corporation took one look and the rest is history. Church leaders (generally members don’t battle with this), are you perhaps one of those who can’t even conceive of true church outside of the traditional parameters? I beg you, think again, and be open to the revelation of the Spirit.

[Of course it’s sad that it is even necessary to spell it out like this, but I guess given the gross misinformation concerning ‘Church’ around the world today, it’s helpful to try and re-define some basics]

Before defining each term in my title, let’s provide a general definition of what is meant by ‘Organic House Church.’ I can’t do any better than use Frank Viola’s definition in his  ‘Finding Organic Church.’ He puts it like this: “By ‘organic church,’ I mean a church that is born out of spiritual life instead of being constructed by human institutions and held together by religious programs. Organic church life is a grassroots experience that is marked by face-to-face community, every member functioning, open-participatory meetings (as opposed to pastor-to-pew services), non-hierarchical leadership, and the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ as the functional Leader and Head of the gathering.”

‘Organic?’ I am involved with an organic vegetable garden which supplies fresh veggies for a home for abandoned children and a number of soup kitchens serving the destitute. The secret is exploiting the most natural processes in the cultivating and planting – it is the Creator who ‘grows’ things (cf. church-planter Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 3:5-9, while addressing divisions in the local church). In a nutshell, any church plant is not so much a matter of methodology, a new style of church, or a new structure – the church flows naturally from the life within the Godhead, and our part is simply a matter of partnering with Father, Son and Spirit. The apostle Peter, in his 2nd Letter to the scattered saints in Asia Minor, puts it like this (2 Pet. 1:3-4), ‘His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.’ Theologian Clark Pinnock has written, ”The church is to resemble the triune life by being itself a place of reciprocity and self-giving. The fellowship that we have with one another is related ultimately to our fellowship with the Father and Son (1 Jn. 1:3)… Fellowship refers to Divine life and community life, because the community is meant to reflect the community of the Trinity, which is the ontological basis of the church.’

‘House’? It’s simple really – for the first 300 years of the Church (her most productive time in church history?), Jesus’ followers met in homes, with odd exceptions. Most believers are shocked by this. It was only in the 300’s AD, with the ‘conversion’ (?) of Emperor Constantine and the ‘christianization’ of the Roman Empire that believers began to meet in special ‘church buildings’ per se, overseen by the state and a professional OT-type clergy. This pattern has dominated Christendom for the last 1700 years.

So for example, the apostle Paul greets ‘the church that meets at their house,’ i.e. the home of Priscilla and Aquila, his fellow-workers in Rome (Rom. 16:3-5) – it’s the most natural thing. [of course you can meet in a home in an institutional way, and many have done so. Viola points this out in his concern for ‘house churches’ in N. America (note). However, for many decades House Church has been practised organically in South America, India and particularly in China, where the Church exploded from a few million believers during Mao’s clamp-down to over 100+ million today – largely through underground house churches. I met with such house church leaders during a visit to China two years ago]

Coming back to my home country South Africa, there are a growing number of organic house groups springing up across the land. Here in my home city, I have shared with one group meeting in a hospital facility. We have met in restaurants etc, but mostly in the intimate environment of the home. After all, God is family within himself, and has set his blessing on families since the days of Abraham.

‘Church.’ Not a good word. The common NT term is ‘ekklesia,’ stemming from ‘ek’ meaning ‘out’ and ‘kaleo’ ‘to call.’ Simply put, the Church comprises God’s ‘called out ones’ through the gospel (1 Cor. 15), gathering in a locality from time to time for teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer (Acts 2:42ff; Heb. 10:23-25; etc). In terms of being Christ’s ‘body’ (1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4; etc) we individually and corporately are the Church, 24/7, in the market-place, wherever we find ourselves. It’s a physical and spiritual impossibility to ‘go to church.’

[Besides the Bible of course, books I have found helpful in my journey include (for the average reader): Robert and Julia Banks’‘The Church Comes Home’ publ. by Hendricksen Publishers; Wolfgang Simson’s radical but prophetic ‘Houses That Change the World’ publ. by Authentic Books; Frank Viola’s ‘Re-Imagining Church’ publ. by David C Cook; Tony Lambert’s ‘The Resurrection of the Chinese Church’ publ. by Harold Shaw Publishers. In terms of ecclesiology, I have been impacted by the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jurgen Moltmann, F.F. Bruce, Howard Snyder, amongst others]

As Dr. Billy Graham used to say, ‘God bless you real good’ on your church journey with the living Christ!

 

 

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MONKS AND FERRARIS

ImageForty-something Robin Sharma is a Canadian lawyer who has accellerated to world fame as a leadership guru, author and speaker. One of his books, ‘The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari’ (at least he had one!), sold 3 million copies. Recently I picked up on the title of another of his books, ‘The Leader Who Had No Title.’ He was suggesting that you don’t have to be a leader with a title or be at the top of an organisation, to be successful – anyone with a little bit of faith can do it. 

 

Last night, reading through John’s Gospel and the plot to kill Jesus following the raising of Lazarus, I wondered if the leading priests and Pharisees and the Sanhedrin (dept. of Religious Affairs), huddled together in an emergency board meeting, would have bought into Sharma’s leadership principles. Hardly. They could no longer deny Jesus’ miracles but at the same were terrified that he might spark a revolution which could potentially cost them their belief-system, position, power and identity:  “‘What are we going to do?’ they asked each other… If we leave him alone, the whole nation will follow him, and then the Roman army will come and destroy both our Temple and our nation!” (Jn. 11:47-48/ NLT). At which point the opportunistic, pompous and bullying committee chairman Caiaphas exclaims “‘How can you all be so stupid? Why should the whole nation be destroyed? Let this one man die for the people!'” (v. 49ff). Little did he realise that he was accurately prophesying how ‘Jesus’ death would be not for Israel only, but for the gathering together of all the children of God scattered around the world’ (v. 51-52) (Ironically ‘Caiaphas’ means physiognomist or even ‘prophet’). Coming back to the committee meeting, from that time onward they began to plot Jesus’ death (v. 53ff). 

 

Too often it still works like that in organised Christianity. We have to make a choice as servant-leaders and servant-members in Christ’s body:  personal prestige or Christ, committees or the Kingdom? I have before me a Boardroom Basics newspaper editorial written by Prof. Piet Naude, theologian and business ethicist at Nelson Mandela University, captioned ‘Meetings are a waste of time.’ He writes of too many board members, predictable agendas (and outcomes), the pretence of significance and busy-ness, etc. Like fraud, the higher up board members climb the more damage they do.

 

Church meeting attenders and constitutionists and officers often over-rule the Bible and Jesus’ Kingdom interests. I’ve witnessed this first hand and been on the receiving end. One faithful church attender, when a church meeting (by simple oversight) took place a few hours before the time stipulated by the constitution, told me that even if a child was crossing the street, if the traffic light showed green he as the motorist would proceed no matter the consequences because that was the rule of the road. In disbelief I asked him to repeat his statement, and he did. Fortunately he resigned. 

 

My fellow-leader and member, what are our priorities? What are our values? Are they shaped by Jesus and his Kingdom? It was Winston Churchill who, in an address to the British Parliament at the time when the bombed House of Commons was being rebuilt, declared ‘We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.’ Fellow-blogger Maurice Smith is right when he points out that we all begin with values which guide us as we shape our buildings and structures, but at some point along the way our ‘structures’ begin to shape us and our values. 

 

It happened with Israel’s religious leaders and Caiaphas the high priest. Jesus’ first disciples had been shaped by the deeply-ingrained religiosity of those very leaders – until Jesus turned those disciples’ values and lives upside down. 

 

Often in the organised Church we are unwittingly shaped by our structures, committees, religion, traditions, denominations, Judaistic legalism (cf. Galatian Letter), church brands, etc – instead of by Christ and his kingdom values. Dear friends, let’s come out of Babylon and be free, for we are free in Christ! 

 

Jesus, in his home synagogue of Nazareth, clearly indicated his national and global purpose:  “The scroll containing the messages of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him, and he unrolled the scroll to the place where it says:  ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me for he has appointed me to preach Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the downtrodden will be freed from their oppressors, and that the time of the Lord’s favour has come'” (Lk. 4:18ff/NLT).

 

You see the kingdom is not about committees and constitutions and rules etc – YES it’s about obedience, even costly obedience, but ultimately its about JESUS (the NT version), a love relationship with him and our neighbour, grace, his divine life within us, and his royal rule on earth!  

‘MY CHURCH’ – RETARDED OR MATURE?

In at least three of Paul’s Letters to specific congregations, the apostle outlines in detail how to go about ‘body life’ in community gatherings. By ‘body of life’ we mean of course body ‘members’ functioning under the headship of Jesus, in accordance with their spiritual gifts, for the maturation of all concerned.

Note in all three, viz. his Letters to the Romans, Ephesians and Colossians, Paul lays down foundational truths in the opening chapters and then goes on to apply these in the latter chapters (note, information is not enough – as a missionary friend of mine recently remarked, if ‘facts change people’ why do so many doctors smoke?). Consider for example Romans 1-11 and 12-16; Eph. 1-3 and 4-6; Col. 1-2 and 3-4. In 1 Corinthians Paul deals with specific issues in the life of the Corinthian ecclesia (lit. ‘called out’) in ch. 1-11 (e.g. divisions, immorality, etc) and then guides his readers in the practical use of spiritual gifts in ch. 12ff so that the body may function effectively.

Now having said that, let me throw in a pungent challenge from A.W. Tozer, shared with me recently by by son. Tozer lived from 1897 to 1963, hailing from a tiny Pennsylvanian farming community, a largely self-educated American Christian pastor, author and mentor. He was a sharp pencil indeed, and for his writings received two honorary doctorates, from Wheaton and Houghton Colleges. He was part of the well-known Christian and Missionary Alliance family, with whom my son and his wife did a church-plant in S. California a few years ago. Are you sitting down? Here goes: ‘The modern church is an asylum for retarded spiritual children. It’s a nursery for overgrown spiritual babes, most of whom do not have a clue about how to function spiritually with their fellow brethren in a coordinated way.’

In other words, so many believers and church leaders, for the most part from institutional-traditional churches, have no or little idea as to how to fellowship and function organically, according to the principles and practical guidelines of Scripture. From a lifetime as a ‘pastor’ and ‘senior pastor’ in a mainline denomination and then some seven years outside of the institutional church, I can certainly confirm that.

Now what would some of the reasons be for such a dysfunctional state in the Church at large? (if we know some of the causes, we may be led to some of the cures)

  • Believers are often poorly instructed in biblical truth. They don’t understand the meaning of Jesus’ ‘good news’ and his kingdom message. From many pulpits and platforms they’re being fed consumer candy and pop psychology. We’re seeing the negative effects even in Africa, courtesy of popular American TV preachers and ‘teachers.’ 
  • The ‘clergy-laity’ divide:  where those who get to minister are the preachers up front while faithful but bored-to-death members in the toaster-rack look on passively. Did you notice that the NT Letters, apart from those addressed to a particular person (e.g. Titus – though it is still a ‘pastoral letter’ requiring the participation of all), are addressed to a corporate body of believers – NOT to the lead-elder, or elders, or bishop, or pastor or even ‘senior pastor.’ Thus vital participation by one and all is replaced by minimal participation by most. 
  • The unscriptural focus on ‘preaching’ and specifically ‘preaching to the choir/converted,’ as practised commonly around the world for the last 1,700 years or so. Jon Zens, in his journey from institutional to simple church, tells of a Christian brother who challenged him over a meal following a gathering in the late 1970’s as to why he always made the sermon the centre point of the meetings. At first he was offended, but after researching this man’s remark that ‘preaching’ in the NT largely referred to evangelistic effort outside the body of the get-togethers, conceded the point and radically altered his ministry. Note: we are not saying there is no place for input from gifted ‘apostles, prophets, teachers and evangelists’ – Eph. 4 clearly shows that there is. But those who from time to time minister as ‘apostles’ (i.e. foundation-layers/pioneers/missionaries) and ‘prophets’ and ‘pastor-teachers’ etc do so as functioning members rather than office-holders. Their input is horizontal rather than hierarchical, as servants and not masters. I personally ‘teach’ on biblical and theological issues as required, but our house church members know me by my first name rather than some clerical title and they understand that they all get to contribute in our gatherings according to their giftings. It’s called ‘the priesthood of all believers.’
  • The size of congregations often militate against body function. It’s much more feasible in smaller groups of between six and thirty members. Beware churches obsessed with numerical church growth.
  • At the end of the day, NT churches are planted and grown by the Lord himself, and they grow organically, i.e. from seed to plant, from ground-level up. Even as I write I recall the elders of my last congregation insisting that I be the chief vision-caster and driver. It was unnatural, painful and unbiblical. Yet this is how it happens in a host of churches, especially those of the larger and ‘successful’ variety.

So what are some of the cures? How will we move from ‘asylums for retarded spiritual children’ to smaller mature ecclesiae functioning as Jesus’ healing body in a broken world? I believe there are enough clues in the points above to act as starting-points. Be warned and encouraged: it may require radical obedience on your part (perhaps with negative fall-out), but the ‘road less travelled will (once more) make all the difference!’