Saturday, March 21, 2009

Reflecting (on) What’s Wrong

(Part Four of an ongoing series. Starts with prior posts below)

So what's the story? What happened make me realize there was a theological problem with the church -- that the church didn't know what "church" meant?

It started more as a longing to experience church like I had experienced it with my friends in seminary. We shared life together. We laughed together. We cried together when a tragedy struck our campus. We went on weekend road trips together, often on a whim and for no specific reason. We were learning about God and church and Christianity in class each day. But we experienced a glimpse of kingdom life we had never really experienced before as the New Testament “one anothers” naturally sprung forth into our lives over those years.

We even planned that we would one day plant a church together. I think much of that planning was just our desire to keep this experience of Christian community alive past those magical four years.

Too Busy Doing Church to Be the Church

Amazingly, four of us did get to be part of a church plant together in Las Vegas. Yet only a year into that endeavor, we were troubled that our “project” was keeping us from experiencing true community with one another. As the church grew, the demands on our time and energy made it impossible for us to be the kind of community we had been during those magical years in seminary. And, what also hurt, was that so few of the hundreds of people who were part of our church were getting to experience that level of community with each other. It was a struggle. We tried to recapture it for ourselves and for them by initiating small group programming. We attempted it several ways. But the groups always felt forced and unnatural. And the four of us were spending less time together as we led these groups. It just wasn’t working for us or for the people who were coming.

Road Trip

Finally, the four of us and a few other trusted leaders decided to go on a road trip to visit other churches who were reaching our target group and figure out how they were dealing with this struggle we felt. We visited several churches, campus ministries, and young adult ministries during our week on the road. We gleaned something valuable from all of them. But one stood out to us. It was a Vineyard church plant in an urban neighborhood near Cincinnati, Ohio. The church had been meeting in an old Catholic Church building which the Catholic Church had recently abandoned. But the building, which had fallen into disrepair, was soon condemned until costly repairs could be made. And the young church could not afford such. So they were forced to divide into several smaller communities and meet in homes. And they ended up finding life in that experience.

We listened to their story and began to feel our hearts being tugged toward what they were experiencing in these house churches. They were experiencing holistic body life in communities that were not secondary to the larger event, but were in and of themselves, the church.

We began reading books and listening to the stories of others in North America and all over the world who were embracing the church’s original form by meeting wherever and whenever. We studied house church, cell church, organic church, and simple church. These terms are all related, although nuanced. We began to sense a strong calling to de-centralize our big “church” into smaller communities that were self-sufficient, all-encompassing expressions of church in and of themselves. Did I mention that this was an unexpected twist along the journey?

What We Didn't Know

Honestly, we didn’t know what we were doing on many levels.

First, we didn’t understand how such a community should function. To “do” house church, we just shrunk “church” down into living room version. It was kind of like “Honey, who shrunk the church?” We replaced the preacher with a Bible study leader. We replaced the worship band with whoever knew how to play a guitar. We did almost everything the same, but on a smaller version. And that didn’t work. It just lessened the quality of the program. Not surprisingly, some of these house churches didn’t make it. But some of them hung with it after the honeymoon period ended. They stayed together and dealt with the disillusion of the lower quality program. And something magical happened. Those that stayed together for at least six months, as a general rule, went through a metamorphosis and became more like a family and less like a programmed event. They started eating meals together. They started sharing life together. They started living out the one-anothers of the New Testament. And they even found a way to teach and worship, though it looked very different. They went from doing church to being church.

Next, we also did not understand how difficult it would be for many people to accept this transition in church life. Many people eagerly followed the house church idea, thinking it would be cool. But as soon as it got difficult, they ran back to the closest cool church that did something similar to what we used to do. We have often said since then, that if we had it to do all over again, we would not have tried to vision cast this new idea to several hundred people who were already largely content with their church. Instead, we would have taken the few people who longed for this alternative vision and taken them away to start something new.

We also did not understand the price we would pay, especially those of us who were vocational church leaders. It is not easy being trained to be a church leader, and then embracing an idea of church that really can’t justify paying its pastors. In a few weeks, I will describe that journey in more detail. I ended up going through a nerve-racking five-year transition into another career as a result of these convictions. Even after the transition, it is a never-ending tension to be a church leader who is not a vocational pastor – on purpose. I’m misunderstood by those in my old profession and by those in my new profession.

Finally, we did not understand that we would not be the glory-receiving leaders of an innovation in church leadership, but we would be equals with hundreds and thousands of other people who, in relative anonymity, would be called by God to take similar journeys without getting credit for anything. I remember one day as we planned our transition into house church. We dreamed about the day we would have 1000 people in house churches. We were so trapped in our old church model thinking. It turned out that we became a network of several house churches that functioned well and enjoyed being linked together. And, we “bumped into” dozens of other networks of several house churches all over the country who had stories somewhat similar to ours. We sometimes were able to encourage and help those others by sharing our story. But we began to realize that we were not the experts who were leading the revolution nation-wide. This isn’t another version of the Willow Creek or Saddleback story where a few notable leaders come up with model and become often-copied heroes. Instead, we humbly got to play our part, as did dozens of others, by sensing what God had for us, then obeying and becoming something different. We only realized that something big was happening when we met others who shared our own journey.

An Unexpected Scattering

Related to this, we did not understand that we would be asked to scatter from our hub in Las Vegas. Many of us, whether still living in Vegas, or having relocated, are still wondering what that scattering was al about, even today. About three years into our journey of meeting in simple, home-based church communities, a mass scattering began. Family after family after family left Las Vegas to move to other places, for various reasons.

Some left to move back to where they originally came from. Others moved to live closer to extended family. Still others moved because of job situations. Some were relocated by the air force. Family after family.

And many of them key, core, leadership families. House church hosts. Visionary leaders. Servants. On and on an on.

At one point, we estimated that over 300 people moved away from Las Vegas in the course of less than five years. At first we despaired, felt sorry for ourselves, and asked God “why?” But eventually we caught on that something was up. People were being scattered. And they were all taking some part of what we experienced together to their new destinations. People applied it in various ways. Some set out to be simple church, meeting in a home, in their new destination. Others ended up in more traditional church contexts, but took a vision with them of what the true essence of church really was.

And eventually, as I will describe later, I too would relocate to a new city – quite by surprise. We came to see that God seemed to be scattering us, to take what we had experienced and apply it all over North America (and in some cases beyond).

But Wait, This Isn't the Whole Problem With the Church! There's More . . .

But the puzzle was not complete. The journey had yet another twist. As if the theological issues were not radical enough . . . . I'll get to what came next in a future post.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Reflecting (on) What’s Wrong

(Part Three of an ongoing series. Starts with prior posts below).

3. Theological Issues

Christ-followers love to debate theology. Just turn in your local yellow pages to “churches,” see the multitude of denominational labels, and you will realize that nobody agrees on the fine points of theology. Catholic vs. Protestant. Mainline vs. Evangelical. Pre-mils vs. Post-mils. Calvinist vs. Arminian. And literally thousands of others distinctions. Is this a problem with the church? Of course. But all of this has nothing to do with what I mean by the label to this section: “theological issues.” I began to realize that the church has a huge theological problem – and it is not any of the debates like the ones I listed above. It is infinitely more primary than any of those debates.

The Church Does Not Know What "Church" Means:

Stated more specifically, I began to see that the church has an ecclesiology problem. Ecclesiology is just a fancy way of saying “theology of church.” What I mean is that the church doesn’t understand what the word “church” means – at least not from a Biblical, theologically sound, point of view.

Most church leaders, including myself up until around the year 2000, would deny my accusation that the church doesn’t know what “church” means. Most church leaders are able to write a terrific theological essay about what “church” means. But, as the cliché says, actions speak louder than words. Church leaders and church planters don’t do what their theological essays would say. I know – I have been among them.

Whether we like to admit it (or even are aware that we are doing it), we have bought into the popular culture’s assumptions of what church is over the theological definition. We have bought into the assumption that church is, at its most basic level, a “non-profit organization.” Or, put more crudely, a “business.” Or, put more eloquently, “God’s enterprise in the world.”

No good church leader or church planter would admit that church is, at it essence, a non-profit organization, but their actions always give them (us) away. We play along with the cultural assumption that church is an organization. Or, as one writer has stated it, we have a “place where” assumption about church – that church is a place where certain things happen.

Once we rid ourselves of our denial that we really assume this, a question arises. What’s so bad about such an assumption? The answer is that the assumption is a logical staring point that leads to logical outcomes. A non-profit organization that wishes to reach out to culture does so by putting on programs. In the North American context, the culture is frequently busy, distracted, and pre-occupied, not to mention overly-targeted by various organizations. So in order to successfully reach out to that kind of culture, a non-profit organization (ie – the church) must put on high quality programs in order to compete with other competitors, both sacred and not-so-sacred.

Otherwise, a non-profit organization will merely get lost in the vast sea of voices. In order to put on extremely high quality programs, organizations require: talented staff, large numbers of committed volunteers, and first-class facilities. Mediocre staff leads to mediocre programs which don’t get the attention of the busy, distracted culture. Inadequate facilities are too inconvenient for the average person. And great programs require so much work that even a talented staff is overextended without an army of volunteers.

In order to attract and maintain a highly talented staff, and in order to build and maintain first class facilities, non-profit organizations need huge budgets -- really eye-popping amounts of money. Not that any of this is bad in and of itself. But it is reality. The culture’s assumption that church is, at its essence, a non-profit organization leads to this chain reaction which essentially requires huge budgets to have a chance to succeed in the present culture.

To question the need for huge budgets, talented staff, armies of volunteers, and first class facilities without first questioning the place/where assumption is . . . to kill a church! So we don’t dare.

If we hire mediocre talent, settle for less than impressive facilities, etc. – we stifle church growth. But that is really because we have bought into a false assumption to begin with. Because if we went back to our theological essay on what church is, nowhere does it say that church is primarily a non-profit organization, a business, or a place where certain things happen.

Then Who Are We?

Instead, we more accurately portray the church as God’s people (even His family) on God’s mission. We are really a sent people. Not that non-profit organizations are bad or evil in and of themselves. Sometimes true church thrives in such a structure. But it is not the essence of who we are. And because we’ve lost sight of this in North America (or at least in our loud-speaking actions we have, even if not in our words), the church has a problem: a theological issue. The church no longer knows who it is. Or, stated more accurately, the church no longer acts like what it knows it really is. Church has become more of a non-profit organization than the missional people of God. And that changes everything. The remedy to this problem is not subtle. It is drastic.

To fix our generational problem, we just change or music and preaching styles. In other words, we alter our programs.

To remedy our cultural problem, we educate everyone about the culture and encourage everyone to get out into the culture and become missionaries.

But to remedy our theological problem, we have to go to the root, to the very essence, of all that we know as church and ask frightening questions. Frightening, for example, for a church that has built a multi-million dollar auditorium to ask if the missional people of God really need, or ought to own, multi-million dollar auditoriums! Frightening for a church leader, who went to seminary training, built his career ambitions around pastoring at the exclusion of all other opportunities, to ask if professional clergy are what the people of God really need, or ought to spend their dollars on. And so forth. These questions are so frightening to the established church that it will find forceful arguments to try to immediately quash any attempt to raise them. Proof-texting is a helpful tool in this endeavor.

That is where I found myself – squarely faced with the reality that the church had a theological problem, and that the remedy would require radical change. Not to mention that I, myself, had always enjoyed getting paid at least a modest salary to do ministry.

Where Did All of that Theory Come From?

But I’ve skipped what happened to show me this theological problem with the church. There is quite a story behind the theories I have just written about. I will dive into that story in my next post.