Sunday, June 28, 2009

Reflecting (On) What's Wrong

(Part Twelve of an ongoing series. It start down below and works its way up)

Reducing Church to Its Relational Essence, Revisited

In Las Vegas, we discovered that the church had a theological problem, that it did not live out what church really was, but was stuck within the non-profit organization model, or the “place where” assumption.

After six months of praying and discussing that, we decided to de-centralize our “church” into a network of house churches, a community made up of smaller communities.

Yet we really did not understand how to do that. We were convinced that, for us, it was the right thing to do. We were inspired by other groups who had done this. We had sought their counsel. We had, as church leaders, prayed together for over six months about our decision. We had discussed, argued, and struggled about decentralizing our church until we were convinced that this was what we were supposed to do.

Honey, We Shrunk the Church

So we started down the road to decentralization. We did so the best way we knew. What we did was that we took what we know as church and “shrunk” it down to living room size. Only years later when I reflected on that time would I realize that we had merely shrunk our flawed idea of church down to a smaller version. At the time, we were just doing what we felt we were called to do.

When I say that we shrunk the church, I mean that quite literally. Previously, our church services consisted of preaching, worship singing, communion, and the taking of an offering. Some variation of that pattern was our weekly routine. So, when we launched out to decentralize our church and begin meeting it homes, we took that same weekly routine and shrunk it. Our only idea of how to do house church gatherings was to take the same elements that we used to do in larger worship gatherings and do them smaller. I think that was a tragic mistake, but the truth is that we just did not know any better.

The Shrinking of the Sermon

We just assumed there should be something similar to preaching. So we shrunk the sermon down to living room size, and it came out as a Bible study discussion. That discussion was usually led by the most Biblically literate person in the room, who was sort of like a shrunk-down version of a preacher.

The Shrinking of Worship

We also assumed there should be something similar to the worship singing we did in our larger gatherings. At those larger gatherings a worship band would lead singing with the assistance of a Powerpoint presentation displaying the words to the songs. So we shrunk down the concept of a worship band leading singing by Powerpoint, and it came out as an individual strumming a guitar, leading choruses with the assistance off of song sheets. Some house churches were particularly clever and had someone also playing hand drums – a shrunk-down version of the worship band drummer! We even developed a house church start-up kit that included, among other things, a set of hand drums that could be played by a shrunk-down drummer! I am not saying that this was a total waste of effort, but when I look back on it, we were misguided in our well-intentioned efforts to shrink church down to living room size.

The Shrinking of the Offering

Of course, we also had to figure out how to collect the offering since, after all, passing the offering plate was unmistakably part of our larger worship gatherings. So we shrunk down the idea of passing the offering plate, and it came out as a designated jar cleverly placed somewhere in the living room for the purpose of tithing. We even developed procedures for house churches to use in sending portions of that money into the church office so we could ensure we could afford to keep the operation running.

I could keep going with more humorous examples of how, in the early days of our decentralization process, we just took everything we had known as church, shrunk it down from auditorium size to living room size, and called it “house church.”

How Dare We Not Provide Excellence

The problem we encountered with our shrinking efforts was that the shrinking often lessened the quality, or as church folks like to call it these days, the “excellence” of what we were doing. Not every Bible study discussion leader was as entertaining as our large gathering speaker. Not every house church guitar strummer was as musically gifted as our large gathering worship band leader. And so on. We quickly learned that a lot of the people in our “church” were really coming because they liked the quality of what was happening in the larger gathering. To say the least, they were not happy when the shrinking down meant that the quality diminished.

We found out people really liked our best preacher’s entertaining teaching much better than their house church leader’s teaching. We found out our people really liked our professional sounding worship band much better than whoever could play a little guitar at their house church. We found out because many people complained. Initially they used words to make their complaints known. But ultimately many of those people used their actions to make their complaints known . . . they left our cleverly decentralized church and went out to find another non-decentralized church that had high quality programming.

As many people left in search of the quality they were missing, some of our house churches did not survive. Within a few months, some communities simply disappeared. Other house churches merely dwindled down to a few remaining core people who had no intentions of leaving. For them, it was somewhat disillusioning that so many other were abandoning them. They struggled to figure out what this meant and what they should do about it. For example, the house church that my family and I were part of had quickly grown to more than thirty people in attendance in its early days. Because it had grown so rapidly, we needed more space. So we converted our host family’s garage into a meeting room in order to accommodate everyone. I guess you could say we shrunk down the idea of an auditorium/sanctuary, and it came out as a converted garage. But due to the lessend quality, many of those thirty people soon left seeking more excellent pastures. After the dissenters left to go find the quality programs they were missing, we were left with just a few families. We were in shock. We could not understand why people would give up on our wonderful decentralization experiment. After all, we had re-modeled a garage for those people, and now they were gone!

Goodbye Garage -- Letting the Cars & Mowers Have Their Place Back

I remember the week we decided not to go out to the garage. There was no longer any reason to do so. A few families can hang out in a house quite comfortably without resorting to hanging out in the place where cars and bicycles belong. So one week we gave up on meeting in the garage and decided to just sit at the kitchen table together and eat a meal. After cooking, eating, and cleaning up, we decided to retire to the living room for a very informal meeting time. We all fit quite comfortably in the living room as well.

As we sat and talked in the living room, many of us thought that week was the beginning of the end for our house church. Little did we know how that week was really the beginning. That week when we convened in the place where real human interaction occurs instead of meeting in the place where work benches and lawn mowers belong, we began to discovery what “house church” was really all about. That evening we quite unsuspectingly began the metamorphosis from being a “thing” to being a “family.” I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I remember that we began gathering each week in the kitchen to prepare a meal together. That’s right, we cooked food together and called it “church.” Then we did what came natural. We ate that same food. And we called it “church.” Then, because we really appreciated our host family opening up their home to us, we did the next thing that seemed natural. We cleaned up the kitchen together. And we called it “church.” As we cooked, ate, and cleaned together, we really got to know each other more intimately. Somewhere between the stove and the kitchen sink and the refrigerator and the kitchen table, we began to trust each other. We began to care about each other. We began to love each other. We started hurting together when one of us was hurting. We started celebrating together when one of us succeeded. We started finding out what really mattered in each others’ lives.

There was no longer a set time when our meetings had to end. Back when we met in the garage, we would automatically get up to leave at the set time when “church” was supposed to be finished. No longer. People showed up as they were able, and people left when they needed to go. The rigid start time and finish time we had once adhered to became only vague reference points for when we, as the church, would gather together.

In fact, we found ourselves finding ways to get together more often than just for our official weekly meeting time. There was no guilt involved. Nobody felt compelled to meet more often. Nobody felt like it was another obligation to add to their weekly schedules. It just happened naturally because a group of people found more meaning in sharing their lives together than they did in many of the other activities that formerly cluttered their schedules.

We went on a few weekend getaway trips together. When someone’s father died, we bonded together and helped him through. We laughed together. We cried together. One guy and one girl fell in love with each other. We all got to be involved in their eventual wedding. All of us became a tight-knit family, in Christ’s name.

This all started happening on the night when we feared our house church had begun to die. It had not. It was only being born that night. Our hosts also got to move their car back into the garage.

Other Garage Abandoners Were Out There, Too

Later we learned that a handful of other house churches in our “network of house churches,” as we had begun calling ourselves, were experiencing something very similar. As the masses left those house churches in search of more programmed pastures, the few remaining families in those house churches also gave up on the set order of service and started being the church together instead of trying to do church. As we compared notes with those other house churches which had gone through a similar metamorphosis as we had, we discovered a common thread: as a general rule, the people that stayed together for at least six months went through this wonderful metamorphosis and became families – real living communities – spontaneously living out the one another commands of the New Testament. They had transformed from things into families. They had gone from being little organizations to living organisms. Sadly, though, most of those house churches who gave up meeting together before six months had passed were never able to go through this wonder transformation.

We ended up not needing most of those hand drums, after all! But seriously, more refections on all of this will be in the next post.


Blogger tera harshman said...

greg- tears stream down my face, thanks for writing these memories--but you missed one thing....we never stopped being family even though we are spread all over the country. when i hurt, i still lean on the same people i proudly call family. wishing you were here for dinner and then to "defend" us and call it church too! :)

9:22 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

I remember the worship “kits”. Still, it makes me giggle. It was the best two car - church garage one could hope for complete with an air conditioner that worked only for the people sitting in front of it. 30+ plastic chairs that would shatter occasionally sending it’s occupant and typically the food crashing to the floor.

I think you hit on something there – we began to trust each other and out of that was born love. Between the “Fight Club”, “Snatch” and the frequent trips to the Santa Fe bar and grill for wings, nachos the exceptional cold beer and pool tables, we couldn’t stop looking for a time to hang out. Work was just the funding of our community. Come 4-5:00 we started making plans for that night in vain hopes that we just might get Gene to pass out asleep on the couch and attempt to waken him was our little version of “Fight Club”.

The weekend cabin retreat was truly an experience with politics and noise pollution followed by the dark lava tunnels. Good times.

Even though we had been apart for some time, and my world was rocked by the passing of my dad, you and Gene arrived at the funeral in California unannounced. Deep inside I was looking for you two to show up. It meant the world to me. I don’t recall if I told you two what that meant to me or not. It truly was the highlight of that day for me. I knew that my Father loved me but now He provided two brothers to hold me up when I couldn’t find the floor. My joy is unspeakable.

Thank you for the ridiculously long road trip just to see me cry.

Andrew Harshman

8:06 PM  

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