Organic Spiritual Communities Rooted in Households, Families and Social Networks
Our default mental picture when we hear the word “church” involves church buildings and worship services. We think of pews and pulpits, preaching and worship teams or choirs performing from platforms or stages. This is part of our cultural heritage and has been used of God in the past to impart blessing to his people and the world. It should be noted, however, that there is nothing sacred about these traditional forms or structures. There are actually some inherent weaknesses and even hindrances to the process of discipleship and the advance of the Gospel within these traditions.
- They require a significant investment in time and resources to reproduce and maintain (trained and skilled ministers, musicians, buildings, mortgages, audio-video equipment, and salaries, etc.).
- They tend to limit ministry to a minority and passivity to the majority. In fact, professional ministers are tempted to foster dependence and postpone maturity (often without realizing it). Success is often is measured by the size of the audience gathering to experience the ministers’ teaching, preaching or musical abilities rather than by how effectively people are equipped and released into their callings. Large churches often “grow” more by having the best show in town, recycling saints from one church to another, rather than by making new disciples.
- They tend to isolate Christians from non believers by replacing community based social networks with a church culture. The more time one spends attending a busy church calendar, the fewer non believers are in their social network. The majority of our resources are spent on the “99%” safe in the fold, while “1%” of our time and resources are spent on finding lost sheep. Heavens priority (more rejoicing over one sinner who repents than on the ninety-nine in the fold) is reversed.
- Unbelievers are less likely to “come” to Church. The Master told us to “go” and make disciples. Since we are the church we can structure our church life around going to where they are, rather than expecting them to come to where we are.
- The more complicated and busy our church culture the more difficult it is to reproduce, and the more retarded its growth. The church has seen exponential (almost 100 fold) growth in places like China, without church buildings or professional ministers. Church life is simple, organic and explosive, moving organically within households and social networks.
- It seems that management and control from top down leadership can actually delay the development and release of disciples. One would think that less control would lead to all kinds of error. The opposite seems to be true in China. Ordinary believers with the Holy Spirit and with very few copies of the Bible have, for more than 50 years, maintained greater purity of doctrine and more unity of faith than we enjoy.
A Return to Simplicity
The way we structure our church culture is the way our spiritual descendants will reproduce it. The simpler it is, the more naturally and quickly it will reproduce. The less it isolates us from the culture around us, the greater the impact upon that culture.
Jesus told us to go and make disciples and He would build His Church. We make disciples by teaching obedience to the commands of Christ (one of which is to go and make disciples). So, we can define “ministry” as making disciples who make disciples. Jesus showed his disciples how to reveal the kingdom of heaven to the world. Then he imparted the Holy Spirit to them and released them to do the same. His purpose was to model for them a corporate lifestyle which they were to reproduce after he was gone. They were never to be just spectators, following Jesus around to watch him perform.
The technologies and strategies we use give an outward form to the church. We tend to call those structures “churches” but they are not the church. They are wine skins, not the wine. We can judge their value by how they facilitate or hinder the work of discipleship.
A Movable Feast
Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is about who comes to dinner (Luke 14). Do we just invite our friends and family or do we include those who are marginalized from religious society (known as “sinners”). Jesus “ministry strategy” was like a movable feast. He took “church” with him and ate with people who were not usually welcome to the “worship services” in temple or synagogues.
The strategy that Jesus and the apostles used is worth revisiting. Jesus followed a very simple strategy. Most often he taught his disciples in a public place or in a home around a meal. The apostles followed the same methods. This is not just for evangelism or missions. This was how “church” was done for the first 300 years before the Roman church began building cathedrals and establishing a professional clergy and priesthood.
“Greet the church which meets in your house” was a common greeting of Saint Paul to various churches. (1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philemon: 2, Rom. 16:5 and so on)
Apostolic teams visited house to house and taught them (Acts 20:20)
They served food and discipled the new believers (Acts 2:42)
“And the Lord added to the church daily those who were saved.” (Acts 2:46-47, 4: 1-4)
Each household and social network was potentially an intentional community of disciples. The life and affairs of the church were concentrated primarily within these groups. Each group functioned as part of a larger community of groups within a city.
Heads of households hosted the presence of God. They were not restricted by spiritual gifting, or gender. They may not even have been believers yet, only “men or women of peace”.
The larger community of households was served by selected overseers who provided accountability, coaching and spiritual oversight to the house churches. These overseers were chosen by the apostolic team from among the household gatherings.
What Happens at a Movable Feast ?
We eat together, pray, sang, worship, heal the sick, share communion, read and discuss the scriptures. We intercede and look for “lost sheep”, love one another, encourage and build each other up in the faith and cared for the poor.
I suggest that we consider limiting our reliance on frequent large gatherings, large events and stage performances. These can actually slow down the growth and development of disciples if they become too frequent. Equipping ministries (apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers and evangelists) should focus on giving away ministry by appointing elders and mentoring overseers, and key leaders. Keep the groups small, simple and rapidly reproducing. When they become too large for an average size house, divide the group, open another home and release more people into ministry.
My purpose is not to be critical of the church but to increase her exposure to the world. The world longs for the revealing of the children of God. We are “the light of the world”. That light must not be hidden behind walls but rather placed in full view (lights set on the hills) of family, business, education, government, media, arts, religion, etc.
By: John Cooke