From Leighton, a servant of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to all those who have an interest in a simpler path to following Christ as a community. Blessed are they that are comforted by the love of our Lord and have beheld the riches of his grace. Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Over ten years ago I deliberately put my aspirations of becoming a traditional pastor or teacher to the side and participated in small fellowships that meet primarily in homes. Some people call these fellowships house church, organic church and simple church. I use the terms interchangeably.
Right from the beginning I loved it. I never felt completely at home in conventional churches and was eager to be part of something new. Like many others I’ve been concerned about the health of the church. I set out to explore what might be the key to transforming church for the better. I discovered that there is no organizational key or universal model that transforms church but that there are many wonderful things in scripture that have transformed my concept of church. I do believe that scripture does help us understand what the church is and how we should relate to each other which should then inform what we do and how we do it.
When people ask me what is the best book on house church I always say the bible. There are a couple of reasons for it. Every church mentioned by Paul met in homes. Even the church in Jerusalem met in homes and the temple until persecution forced them to disperse not long after Pentecost. Every instruction in the New Testament was for a simple church. Most of what we have for instruction about church is from letters from Paul addressing specific problems. No author in scripture clearly and plainly illustrates how they “do” church. There is no owner’s manual for church in the bible. Curiously the authors spend most of their time helping people understand God, the good news, and how to relate to one another. I think we are altogether too obsessed with finding the right model or technique when the more important questions are about how we relate to each other and God.
My approach to being biblical
In the evangelical world we consider being “biblical” the litmus test for any ethic, belief or action. We want our teaching, our morals and our churches to be “biblical.” I’ve found that the way we try to be “biblical” has its limits. It is very easy to find scripture to support whatever we are doing. Take a look at 10 different churches that do things 10 different ways and they all find passages in the bible to support their particular practices. I can start a church where everyone gets a kiss as soon as they walk through the door. There are 4 passages where Paul instructs the people in the churches to give each other a holy kiss. We find more about kissing than we do about being “born again.” Just because we find ways to call a practice biblical doesn’t mean it is important or directly relevant.
Trying to understand Jesus, Paul and the rest of them isn’t always the easiest of tasks. So much of how we interpret the bible and tradition depends on how we start. In my approach I try to strain out the camels and perhaps swallow a few gnats. In short it means that I’m attempting to major on the most important stuff and minor on the least important stuff. One of the reasons why I’m such a fan of simple expressions of church is that they make it easier to focus on the most important stuff the authors of the New Testament tell us about church. I consider something really important if it is repeated a lot or if the author clearly states it is an important point.
The biggest question I think we need to process is not “how do we do church?” The more important questions are “Who is God?”, “How do we know God?”, “What is the message he has given us?” and “What is the nature of ministry?” While I won’t attempt to write a theological essay on the nature of God I do pick up a few points on how it relates to the nature of ministry.
What is the most important ministry we have to each other?
I took one summer looking for the strongest theme about church in the New Testament and I was surprised at what I found. It is love. It isn’t teaching, preaching, prophecy, tongues, sacraments or evangelism. It is love. Every major author in the New Testament identifies love as the most important activity in the life of God’s people. Jesus equates it with loving God. Paul regarded love as an essential element in all ministry and as the only obligation we have and the path to fulfilling God’s law. John equates loving each other with the gospel. Peter instructed people to make love their highest priority because it covers a multitude of sins.
This lead me to process a very important question. If engaging in loving relationships is the most important aspect in the life of the church what would church look like? Can love develop while sitting in rows all facing forward? Can love grow in an environment where people are too afraid of judgment to be sincere? Even small groups or simple churches can be a toxic environment for genuine love if led by dysfunctional people or they are overly structured.
Jesus often spoke in parables and metaphors and the meaning of his words weren’t always clear. There is one place in scripture where Jesus spoke plainly about those who would believe through the message of his disciples. In other words, us. We find it in John 17. Jesus prayed that we would be one in him just as he is one with the Father. Love is important to God because God strongly desires to include humanity in the fellowship of the triune God. At its best the church is an extension of heaven where everyone is valued and loved and they are accepted despite their faults and shortcomings.
What does this love look like?
Love is important. While I can thank DC Talk for reminding me “Love is a verb” the divine love described in the scriptures isn’t something you can just do. It isn’t something we can fake or just do out of duty or obligation. It is love that is rooted in God’s love for us. We cannot truly love until we know we are loved. Conversely those who hate themselves or view themselves as worthless commonly view others through same harsh judgemental lens. Together Jesus, Paul, John and Peter describe a sincere, sacrificial, love that brings us together.
Both Jesus and Paul make the point that if we loved we would fulfil all the just requirements of the law. Higher than any law is God’s nature and identity. He is love, and to be in relationship with love makes us loving. In Christianity many people believe God’s personality is split between two poles. On one side God is loving, gracious and merciful and on the other he delivers harsh unyielding punitive justice on all those who don’t live up to his impossible standard. Because we see God this way we act that way with each other. We have a habit of switching from mercy to punishment when relating to each other and ourselves. God however doesn’t switch back and forth between these two poles. Love is a manifestation of holiness not something that competes with holiness. Unfortunately many Christians simply don’t believe that God’s grace is big enough for our sin. While we acknowledge that Jesus loves us, we believe the Father is waiting and watching for some infraction to punish us for. We simply don’t believe that through Christ’s death he made peace with us. We fear that we don’t measure up, that we aren’t enough for God and we experience shame. We never quite reach the place John describes where perfect love casts out all fear.
Shame is to love what Kryptonite is to Superman
In the church nothing undermines love more than shame. Shame is the first symptom of sin we find in the creation account. As soon as Adam and Eve tasted the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil they hid from God because of their shame. Shame is the emotional pain that comes from not living up to a certain standard. It makes us feel unworthy of connection to God and one another. When we begin to feel like we are not enough we hide, we pretend and often seek to numb our pain. So much of what we regard as sinful activity is the soul of a broken human trying to remedy their own feelings of worthlessness. We can talk about drugs, sex, porn, abuse, pride, materialism etc. These activities lead to a cycle of destructive behavior and varying levels of self-hatred. Our sin and shame create a great wall of hostility in our minds towards God and often to each other.
Society is constantly bombarding us with the message that we are not enough, and many churches are no different. If we as the church were to affirm the dignity and worth of every person it would unravel the shame that leads to dysfunctional coping. If we know we are loved, if we know we have value, if we believe the good news that Jesus really did erase our sin, that it was an expression of his love towards us, and that we really don’t have to be afraid any more, then we don’t need to numb our pain with sinful pleasures. When the church loses sight of the gospel, when they stray from a simple devotion to Christ we end up compounding shame instead of defusing it. Our fervent hope must be that we become a community of genuine concern, compassion and empathy.
Why simple church?
The heart of life changing fellowship is found in relationship, not in group meetings or programs. These kinds of relationships develop in all sorts of churches big and small. Being intentionally simple makes it easier to place a priority on building and sustaining those relationships. While churches big and small can have a focus on loving God, loving each other and making disciples conventional churches are also concerned with buildings, assets, clergy, programs and services and the financial resources to fund all of it. There are a lot of sincere devoted church leaders and pastors that have their schedule so consumed by all of these things they have little left over for people. What personal resources they do have left over for people are often directed to people in crisis.
I personally love simple church because there so much room and opportunity to develop deeply engaged relationships. I don’t feel compelled to go through the motions to meet the shared obligations of the community. I know the love of God and God has given me love for his people and I love to be with them. When I’m in a room full of people that I can’t talk to I don’t feel connected, I feel disconnected.
By stripping away all but the essentials of loving God, loving each other and making disciples we can encounter life changing fellowship.
What are the values of simple church? What does it look like?
We are so used to thinking of church as a building, an organization or an association of people that worship together that we have lost sight that the church is a description of people in relationship with each other. Many people are looking for the right model, right kind of meeting or the right program that will be the key to explosive church growth. This is misguided. Our ultimate goal can never be organizational success. Some types of meetings are better than others and some structures are better than others but these are just a means to an end. What matters is whether people are becoming more like Christ. Unlike many in the house church movement I don’t believe there is one right model. I believe life giving fellowship occurs in churches big and small. There are things churches big and small do that make it more difficult for people to connect with each other. What is missing in most churches is love because love has a catalytic effect on all the other ministries of the church. In 1Cor 13 Paul said tongues, prophesy, giving and sacrifice are worthless without love.
The best small group meetings you can think of can only take a community so far. Real connection, real friendships develop in groups of two or three because that is the most fertile soil where love grows. It can’t be structured, forced, manipulated and programmed. Relationships grow like plants in a garden. All you can do is make sure they get enough sun, moisture and nutrients in the soil and keep the weeds at bay and they grow all on their own.
A healthy church will be a conglomeration of intersecting and interconnecting relationships. There will be a cluster of these connections full of people that genuinely like to get together. When they do, their first agenda is to be with each other. Many will end up singing, or teaching or praying or prophesying but whatever they have planned for the meeting can be cast away in a second to respond to someone in need. Whatever organization or structure exists is subordinate to the needs of God’s people. When people starting propping up rituals or structures out of religious duty or obligation then the life will just drain out of the whole experience.
The network of relationships isn’t neatly contained like a bunch of sardines in a can. They spread out like a web and overlap with other clusters. Sometimes people are part of more than one cluster of relationships. This is normal and the urge to divide people into silos for organizational clarity has a divisive impact on the body.
Each church is unique
Each church community is distinct. Cookie cutter franchise style churches send the message that the organization is more important than the people. That is exactly what we want to avoid. Simple churches can reflect a regional community, a community of interest or an ethnic subculture. This means you could have a neighbourhood church, a church dedicated to seniors or a church dedicated to Vietnamese immigrants. Whatever shared experiences you plan to have should reflect the people in your group and be relevant to the people you believe God wants you to reach.
Church is participatory
Simple churches gather regularly for mutual encouragement, support, teaching and fellowship. That isn’t an exhaustive list. The simple churches I’m familiar with have a range of practices. Many follow the example of the New Testament “love feast” or “agape meal” and eat every time they gather. They predominately meet in homes (thus the name “house church”) and have a period of time where they share, pray, teach, and discuss. Following Paul’s idea of the church as a body with different essential members simple church works best when everyone has a significant role. Simple church is broadly participatory. In all groups some people will feel more freedom to talk than others. A handful of people will teach and frame discussions while some others are perfectly happy to meet with people one on one or bake wonderful things for dessert. Usually there is much more dialogue than monologue but if someone has a long message to share there is room for that.
Church needs to be safely engaged
In order to have a positive impact on people, fellowship needs to be sincere. For sincere fellowship to develop people need to feel safe. When people feel safe they have the freedom to open up about the real issues in their lives. It is often assumed that if we just give people good principles they will apply them to their lives and they will change. This helps some people at certain stages of life, but for broken people (and many people are far more broken than they realize) it doesn’t work. Most of our deepest hang ups aren’t rational and we are too ashamed to admit them to anyone we because we are afraid of being condemned or rejected. When broken people hear more principles it ends up being more ways they don’t measure up which only results in more shame. However if you develop relationships and group fellowship that is safe, accepting, and loving, people can start to talk about their brokenness, their irrational fears, their deep seated regrets, and healing can come to the core issues that cause so much dysfunction.
Some people believe there is a contradiction between being loving and challenging people with difficult truths they need to hear. I don’t see a distinction. A loving relationship creates an environment where we can engage with each other and challenge each other with much less chance of getting hurt.
Have you ever injured a finger that you wear a ring on? The swelling makes keeping the ring on uncomfortable but trying to get it off is worse. If however we use some oil or cream to make our finger as slippery as possible we can get the ring off with a minimum amount of discomfort. In the same way love says “your ring needs to come off because it is hurting you” and it also says “here let me get some ice to reduce the swelling and some lotion to help slide the ring off.” Love isn’t just being nice, it is speaking the truth while caring deeply about the person you are speaking to.
There is only one way to get to being lovingly safe and engaged. The leaders need to be transparent about their own problems. Set the tone and the example. Be safe and be honest. It doesn’t work to tell people to open up, nor will it work to try and convince people to open up, what we must do is be open ourselves. I know this is the opposite of what many pastors have been taught but it is very biblical. Consider Paul’s approach with the Corinthians in his 2nd letter. He wasn’t afraid to share his weaknesses, even in the face biting criticism because he is like a fragile clay jar containing a great treasure. In our weakness the power of God shines through (2Cor 4:7).
Keep in mind there is such a thing as too much transparency and some issues are best talked about in groups of two or three. Too much transparency too soon will frighten people. It takes time to develop trust and developing trust takes longer in larger groups. One mistake conventional churches make with their small groups program is they will create groups made up of 8 or 10 people from the start. It takes a long time for a group of that many relative strangers to grow in love and feel safe with each other. It is much better to start the group small with a core of people that already trust each other and to let them add a one or two people at a time.
Simple church meetings are participatory and conflict is inevitable. This might seem a little crass but it is easier to avoid people getting upset with each other when no one is allowed to talk to each other. In a simple church everyone talks, and everyone is encouraged to talk which inevitably leads to tension and disagreements. One of the key tasks in setting the stage for simple church is embracing the multifaceted wisdom of God. In Ephesians Paul talks about this. No one person has the whole truth and sometimes people see different facets of the same thing but from each angle it looks like they contradict. How you guide your gatherings goes a long way to establishing a safe environment. When people grow accustomed to seeing truth interpreted as a body they grow in discernment, understanding and graciousness.
Leadership looks a lot different in this context.
In the New Testament we see several leadership activities on display. Peter encouraged elders to be good examples and Paul invited people to follow his example. In more than one gospel account Jesus instructs his followers to be servants. Those who are greatest in the kingdom are those who serve everyone. We see from Paul, Peter, John and Jesus how they used every opportunity to teach and reinforce the gospel. In my experience 98% of my leadership activity involved these three things.
All of these ways of exerting influence can be very gentle. Christ and Paul both modelled gentleness and I think gentleness is an essential element of leadership and is far too underrated.
In scripture we do observe leadership groups exercising authority. The church convened a council to determine how gentiles were to be included in the church. Paul rebuked certain individuals. This however seems to be a last resort in scripture. I think it is because forcing people to comply with a top down decision by a group or an individual always carries some kind of cost. People get bent out of shape, fractures can form in the community. I only leverage my position when the potential damage of not using my position is higher than using positional authority. Leaders must avoid using the leverage of fear, manipulation or coercion. It might sound simple but leading without using these forms of influence is actually more tricky than it sounds. I believe it is legitimate to use the leverage of authority in an organic church community when people aren’t being safe.
You will inevitably encounter heart breaking hardships. It is important to become resilient to these hardships.
Interpret and apply scripture as a group
I love scripture. There is a way to teach scripture that empowers and equips people to understand scripture and there is a way to teach to make people come back to you for more. In my tradition, the tradition of Anabaptism we hold to (or at least give lip service to) a community hermeneutic. We believe that scripture is best understood when a group of people are trying to figure it out together rather than having one learned person doing all the work for us. In a simple church context this can easily be done. There are a number of ways to do it but most of them involve framing an issue and walking the group through scripture in order to process it. It is teaching and equipping and it affirms everyone’s voice in the group. This approach brings an incredible richness because you get perspectives from people from wildly different backgrounds and experiences. We don’t lose the hard truths of scripture engaging in this way, we just deliver them in the context of a relationship. It is more precise and more effective because people are less defensive in a community they feel loved in.
Growth in Christlikeness most certainly involves understanding the scriptures and having them applied in our life to understand the nature of our sin as well as convince us of God’s love. I’ve emphasize love because people can acknowledge their own sin and brokenness more readily if they know they are safe and loved. I used to be a much more polemic in your face with the truth kind of person. I’ve come to realize that if people are guarded or afraid their ability to process what they are hearing is impaired. Unless we can be at rest our hearts will be hardened and defensive.
One common practice is a weekly shared meal. The earliest gatherings of the church weren’t called worship services, they were called love feasts although the only reference in scripture using that name is Jude 1:12. They did many of the same things we do like singing, teaching and reading but it was all the context of the home after a meal. Most simple churches I’ve experienced follow this pattern but not all do.
What does bearing fruit look like?
This can be a tricky question because the ultimate question of what really matters isn’t always clear. Worldly measures of success have been adopted by many churches and it is important to keep our perspective of what matters to God.
One of our hopes in coming together as a church is that we will see people become more like Christ. This process usually isn’t sudden. Sometimes when people get to know Christ for the first time there are several dramatic changes but these are rare. We must accept that we need to be in it for the long haul. If it took Jesus 3 years to prepare the disciples I wouldn’t assume we would average any better. The protestant/evangelical church operates as if the primary way to help people change is to interpret the bible and apply biblical principles. Unfortunately merely giving information, even timely relevant information, isn’t enough to help fundamentally broken people and we in the church are far more broken then we readily admit.
Sometimes we confuse influence with fruit. Paul contrasted his ministry marked by vulnerability and weakness with that of the strength and rhetorical power of the “super-apostles” in 2Corinthians. The way forward for the church is to set aside the tools of human influence to manage people and build organizations. We have to become reliant on God to transform people and let him do it in his time. This requires that we learn what it means to rest in Christ and rely on God’s grace, not the power of shame.
Submission is an essential component in church life. When people voluntarily submit one to another it can be a powerful vehicle for support and can facilitate growth and healing. However there is a huge difference however between voluntary and involuntary submission through hierarchy. We must remember the human heart is a fragile thing and even though some of us have grown some callouses around our hearts it is only by treating each other like we are precious, like we are incredibly valuable that we tend to broken hearts and soften hardened ones.
Making love primary requires reconsidering our ministry mediums
What would church look like if love was our primary value? What kind of meetings would we have? How would we welcome people in? What would our posture in the community be? What would it mean to be a part of this community? These are all questions that each individual community needs to process.
We would be a lot less worried about how to organize ourselves and what programs to choose and much more concerned with our relationships with each other. When I look at the bulk of the instruction in the New Testament it isn’t about how to organize church, but how to relate to one another. I take issue with those who say the primary thing we need to do is return to a “biblical” model of church. I’ve returned to a very New Testament model of church and I can say with great confidence that it doesn’t solve all our problems.
That isn’t to say organization or structure doesn’t matter. Whatever mediums we use they should match with the heart of the gospel message and our values. Society has known for about 50 years the medium is the message. The content of our messages might affirm the giftedness, value, potential and uniqueness of each church member but not all mediums do. In many ways these mediums can completely undermine the message.
We spend so much of our time organizing ourselves in to groups to receive bible teaching that there is little left over for vital life giving fellowship. Even church programs designed for building community and relationships like “small groups” are often dominated by a teacher teaching. The last thing I want to suggest is that there isn’t value to good theology, it is the reason I’ve created this website and others. The way we teach shows that we have more commitment to having people teach than having people learn.
In the evangelical world we place incredible weight and importance on preaching. In the Protestant world we’ve been taught church just isn’t church without the sermon. The problem is this assumption is false, there is no solid biblical basis for making a sermon the center of church gatherings. There are two common words translated preach. One means “to share or announce the good news” and the other means to “proclaim” something. We have falsely assumed the words we translate preach actually instruct us to proclaim gospel with oratory. The bible instructs us to share the good news and proclaim the gospel message. The bible doesn’t tell us how or which medium to use.
The modern sermon is essentially a monologue constructed and delivered using certain rhetorical methods. While there are a number of speeches found in the New Testament, the kind of oratory common in modern sermons isn’t found in the New Testament. Paul deliberately refused to use oratory because he feared that influencing people with the power of rhetoric would take away from the message of the gospel. The use of rhetoric was very common in the era of the early church and many of the early church fathers refused to use it. We see the Jesus and the apostles using several ways to proclaim the gospel including some that look like contemporary preaching. The venerable sermon should be regarded as a medium like any other with its own inherent strengths and weaknesses. As a teaching tool it isn’t particularly effective and overcoming the inherent obstacles that restrict our ability to learn new information.
Organic church is about living in God’s love together more than it is about a certain type of meeting or structure. It can be expressed in a multitude of ways, even some that exist within the framework of conventional church forms. At its core it changes the focus of church from an organization providing instruction to a cluster of relationships sharing in the love and communion of the triune God. At the centre we find the good news continually affirming Gods love for us and undercutting the sin and dysfunction in our lives.
If you have any questions or comments feel free to leave them below.