Saturday, July 04, 2009

Reflecting (On) What's Wrong

(Part Thirteen of an ongoing series. Started below. This post related to last post.)

More Thoughts on Reducing Church to Its Relational Essence

As I reflect on the experience I had with the house church described in my last post, I realize that the word “church” is really just plural for term “Christ follower.” Let me explain what I mean. I am using the term “Christ follower” on purpose, though some might say instead that church is plural for “Christian” or plural for “disciple.” The term “Christian” is so broad and has come to mean any person who considers himself a member of the world religion called “Christianity.” That is not what I am referring to, so in order to be clear, I am not using the word “Christian.” The word “disciple” is more accurate of what I am talking about, but that word can also be confusing because it is used in the Bible to refer to the few chosen ones who followed Jesus while He was physically present on the earth. To avoid confusion, I am not using that word either. For the sake of clarity, chose the term “Christ-follower.” Church is really plural for Christ-follower. As a result of my experience of seeing a house church go through a wonderful metamorphosis, I now believe that “church,” in its simplest form, is nothing more than plural for Christ follower.

Church Relational . . . Plural for Christ-Follower

In previous posts, I referred to the “church universal” and the “relational church” as the two ways in which I believe God sees His church. I am referring to the relational church when I say that church is plural for Christ follower.

Why do I embrace this definition of church? I do so because it helps us understand some wonderful realities about the church that are often hidden from us. I think we already understand that a Christ follower is not primarily defined mainly by what he or she does. Instead, we understand that one is identified as a Christ follower by who he or she is. Or, stated more accurately, we understand that one is identified as a Christ follower by whose he or she is or, in other words, to whom he or she belongs. This is because we Christ followers are not perfect, sinless people. Sometimes what we do would not properly fit within the definition of Christ follower. But we still are Christ followers despite our inadequacies. It is because of His love that we are Christ followers, not because of we do the right things all of the time. We are Christ followers primarily because of who/whose we are, not primarily because of what we do.

As It Is In the Singular . . .

So, when I am praying, serving, worshipping, studying the Bible, or using my spiritual gifts (“doing” things), I am a Christ follower. It is obvious. But the reality is that I am still a Christ follower when I am watching TV, driving my car, eating my lunch, mowing my lawn, or getting dressed in the morning. And I don’t mean that if I am being a good little witness when I am mowing my lawn then I am a Christ follower. I am one regardless. I am a Christ follower even if I am grumpy and rude while I am mowing my lawn. The identity of being a Christ follower does not come from my particular activity at a given time, but it comes from who I am, or more accurately, whose I am. I am His. Of course, our actions will be transformed as we follow Him, but that still does not mean that we are Christ followers because we do certain things.

I have long understood this. This is good theology about the grace of God being what really saves us, not our own goodness. I think many have come to understand this about the meaning of being a Christ follower.

. . . So It Is In the Plural

Now let’s take the idea and apply it to the plural of Christ follower – church. Something amazing happens to our perception if we come to understand church as plural for Christ follower – assuming that we understand that a Christ follower is primarily because of who/whose we are, not because of what we do.

Now we define church by who/whose it is, not by what it is doing at any given moment. This is a critical and life-changing realization.

When we are worshipping, serving, studying, using our spiritual gifts (“doing” things), we are the church (plural for Christ follower). But also, when we are playing games, watching TV, eating a meal, or doing any other mundane life activity together, we are the church (plural for Christ follower).

For some reason, in our culture it is much more difficult for us to understand this theological point when we are talking about church than it is when we are talking about a single Christ follower.

We are a people. We are not defined by the activities and programs in which we participate. We are primarily defined by whose we are. We are the church when more than one Christ follower comes together. Just as I don’t cease being a Christ follower at the moment I close my Bible and start brushing my teeth, we don’t cease being the church at the moment we close a time of worship and go out to dinner together.

Why is it more difficult to accept this is true when we are discussing Christ followers in the plural (“church”) instead of in the singular?

It's That "Place Where" Assumption Again

It goes back to our cultural assumption that church is a “place where” certain things happen. It goes back to the subtle reality that we act as if church is really a non-profit organization. It goes back to the fact that when we look out and see church, we see boxes, not the glow of kingdom community.

As others have put it, church is more like an organism than an organization.

Infectious Diseases Versus Broken Bones

Or, as I once crudely put it, if church were an ailment (which it isn’t, I am just making a crude analogy) . . . If church were an ailment, it would be more like an infectious disease than a broken bone. Broken bones are abrupt ailments. They can be readily detected by an X-ray exam. They can be splinted or placed in a cast. Sometimes, they must be repaired surgically. I have watched enough cable TV medical specials to know that surgeons use tools made by Black and Decker to repair fractured bones. There is nothing subtle about the process. After a while, if properly treated, broken bones grow back together. A doctor can take a subsequent X-ray and determine whether the bone is healed. It is, relatively speaking, easy to define the existence of a broken bone. There are tests that show exactly if a bone is broken, exactly where the break is located, and whether or not the break has healed. And it takes a blunt force of some kind to cause a bone to brake. We usually know exactly when and how a bone gets broken.

Infectious diseases are much different brands of ailments. We usually have no idea when or how we contracted an infectious disease. Even if we figure it out later, we are never aware of it at the exact moment it is happening. Infectious diseases are more tricky to identify. We usually discover them based on their symptoms, not based on an X-ray showing some abrupt change in our bodies. Pain, or loss of some bodily fluid, or increased white blood cell counts, or some other indicator leads us (or our doctor) to suspect that we have been infected by such a disease.

And these diseases are frequently contagious. They pass from person to person, until an entire nation is impacted. This is quite different from a broken bone, which never spreads. It comes from a sudden, identifiable impact, while an infectious disease passes unnoticed from person to person. It can multiply rapidly.

When we see the church by seeing boxes, it is kind of like looking at a blunt impact, then looking at an X-ray of the affected area, in order to determine the ailment. What if we saw it more like an infectious disease that quickly passes from one person to the next, yet at a glance remains invisible to the naked eye? How powerful it would be if we could see the church for what it really is! Just like what power we would have medically if we could look at people and see infectious disease as it spreads!

If only we had understood church as plural for Christ follower, or as more like an infectious disease, at the time we stared our first house churches in Las Vegas, then we wouldn’t have taken our broken bone version of church and shrunk it down to a living room size. But, by God’s grace, the disease eventually spread even in spite of our bone-headed behavior! We were his church all along, even though we didn’t understand it.

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.