The Church in Action

I was on craigslist.org the other day trying to find a body shop for my car to repair the massive hail damage from last week. I didn't find anyone trustworthy but what I did stumble across was an advertisement for a group called Center For Inquiry. If you are unfamiliar with this organization, they label themselves as a group driven by atheists, agnostics, free thinkers, and humanists. They discredit (and even at times make fun of) anyone who believes in God because it doesn't make sense to believe in something you can't see or prove exists. This really bothers me a lot, not because they don't believe in God, but because they promote themselves as some kind of "defender of reason" yet they embrace macro-evolution and darwinism with little or no evidence to support their claims. For example, we have never observed, either in nature or in a test lab, cross-species evolution. Yet they believe with 100% certainty that it exists. Sounds hypocritical to me.

Anyway, that's not the point of this blog post. The point is that I believe it's partly our fault as Christians that people get attracted to groups like this in the first place. I know that not everyone who is presented with the truth of Jesus Christ is going to accept Him; but I think sometimes we try to argue or debate with these groups on their level and it hurts us. What I mean is that we often try to prove that Christ is the answer by using apologetics, or coming up with counter-arguments to their rationale. But the truth is you'll never really prove that God exists or Jesus Christ has provided a way to save us from our sins by using these methods because God is not a logical being and doesn't want people to come to know Him through reason or logic. Christ's love can only be observed when it's in action. You can't observe it or study it as a stand-alone entity. If you were a scientist attempting to study gravity or air pressure or magnetic fields, you would only be able to study those things when they're in action! The same is true with Christ and His love; you can only observe it when it's in action.

How can Christ be seen in action? Through us, the Church, selflessly loving each other as Jesus Christ first loved us. When we do that the rest of our community will take notice and, at the very least, wonder why we do what we do.

John 13:34-35
"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."


Measuring Growth

I talked to a friend of mine last night about house/organic churches. He is in a house church himself currently. A part of our conversation that stuck out to me was when we talked about church growth. My friend believed, as do many of the current proponents of organic church, that if your church is not growing or multiplying (new churches) than the church is dead.

I think there are a few problems with this line of thinking. First of all, according to this logic, mega-churches are the most spiritually alive churches today which we know is almost the opposite of the truth. Just because a church is growing in numbers, it doesn't really tell us anything about the true growth of that church other than the fact the people like to go there.

Secondly, and more importantly, is that this line of thinking puts us right back into the traditional-church line of thinking that has put the current church in the state it's in already. People that think this way are still thinking about each church as its own entity rather than being part of the global body of believers that comprise the Church. If the global Church body isn't growing (if new people aren't coming to know Christ as their personal savior) than our individual organic/house churches can't grow. It's just not possible. Instead all we end up doing is swapping people from church to church. There is never any true growth; popular churches at the time only "steal" believers from other churches and the cycle continues.

Our churches cannot be thought of or used as our primary ministry tools. Actually they aren't meant to be ministry tools at all. Each church is a place for believers to congregate and have fellowship with each other, which has already been discussed in this blog. Our ministry to the unsaved needs to happen in our everyday lives outside of the church. Our churches are a place for them to grow after that.

I think the common analogy that the organic church proponents use when talking about church growth is that if an organic creature such as a plant doesn't continue to grow and/or reproduce then that creature is dead. This is a bit of a contrived example because not all organisms need to continuously grow or reproduce to be considered alive. Instead, think of the organic church more as like a cell (as in biology) rather than an independent organism. Each cell makes up a greater organism (perhaps a plant) that is the global Church body and we're all connected/related to each other. Each cell needs to continue to replenish and repair itself to be considered alive. Growth in the cell is not always necessarily a good thing. Especially not if it is simply taking resources from other cells to promote its own growth.

In summary, I'd like to say that I do agree with the fact that the Church body needs to continue to grow. I also believe that each organic church needs to grow as well. But measuring growth simply by numbers is inaccurate at best. There is so much that is ignored when we measure growth in this way. Somehow you would have to taken into account the relationships between each individual and God to truly measure the growth of each church. I'm not sure right now at this point how growth is to be best measured. I need some time to think about this one. I know Jason has had some thoughts on this subject as well, so maybe I'll ask him to share some of those thoughts on here.


What down syndrome can teach us about community

My one and only child, Barrett (we call him Bear), who is now almost 4 weeks old, was born with Trisomy 21 - a.k.a. Down Syndrome. Tonight, Morgan and I attended our first get-together with other parents who also have kids with Down Syndrome. It was a Christmas pizza party right here in town.

As soon as we walked in the door tonight, we were greeted with hugs and smiles and stories from people we have known now for 2 hours. No one there was a stranger to anyone else in attendance. Doctors, pastors, teachers, all congratulated us on our new son and they shared with us their ups and downs in, which one person coined, "this new and wonderful world". They gave us tips, made us laugh, recommended pediatricians, shared their phone numbers, and invited us into their homes. There were no cliques, no negative attitudes, no selfishness amongst the group. It was genuine community at its finest. I haven't seen anything like it to be honest. At least not at this large of scale (probably 60+ people there).

More importantly, I haven't experienced anything like this at a church function; not anything that felt this authentic. I felt like everyone there truly wanted to know us so that they could help us.

So, why don't we get this same feeling at 99.9% of our church get-togethers? Why can't churches be born out of this same need for community? It's not that Christians aren't capable of acting in a similar manner as the group we saw tonight. In fact, I'm sure some of the people there were Christians. And it's not that we don't care to help each other out.

My theory: Down Syndrome is bigger than us.
No parent in their right mind would openly choose to raise a child with DS by themself, secluded from their peers rather than join a group of people that are going through or have gone through the exact same struggles as them and are willing to help in any way possible. Christianity, at least the version of Christianity in modern times in America, is not necessarily bigger than us. We've actually somehow managed to make it quite small, and I'm guilty of this too.

Being a "Christian" is just too common of a thing. Just about everyone in America considers themself to be a "Christian" at some level. It's almost unamerican to not be Christian. It's become more of a political tie or a label we associate with rather than a life-altering, forsake-this-and-you-will-die type of bond that we need to survive our everyday life.

This is precisely why the early church thrived. They were the minority; the outcasts; the persecuted. If they didn't have each other, they had no one; utterly alone. They absolutely needed each other every day. Today, we don't really need each other to survive. Sure, we love to be around each other and we need each other to reach our spiritual potential and stay emotionally healthy but it has more of a book club type of feel to it, do you know what I mean? "Oh, what church do you go to?" "Well I was going to such and such a church but we didn't like the kids ministry there so now we've been going to such and such instead. We really like the pastor there."

You see? It's smaller than us. We've become bigger than the church. Our own agenda and happiness is more important than Christ's church body. This is not the case with the group we saw tonight. There is one and only one group in Indianapolis for parents with kids with DS. They are the minority; they are the outcasts; and sometimes unfortuantely, their kids are the persecuted. It's a bond so strong that it supercedes and overlooks almost any human imperfection or difference in opinion. It's the ultimate equalizer.

It makes the concept of niche-based churches even more logical, doesn't it? Someday we will be there.


One thing I've learned...

I had this long post written about the intricate reasons why Jason (husband) and I are comfortable with our decision to raise our kids in the house church atmosphere. But it felt boring and wordy and not like me at all. So, instead, I'd like to tell you a story -- one from our last year of service, as a part of our house church. One that made me think, yes, this is right, this is what we're meant to do for our kids.

It was a cold, snowless night in early December, and our kids were brimming over with Christmas spirit. For weeks, we'd been shopping, not just for the normal people, like cousins and grandparents and school teachers, but we'd been on the hunt for the perfect gift for each member of our sponsored refugee family, who had moved here in September from Thailand. We were busy finding little things like Barbie dolls for the girl who had admired my daughter's so much and a puzzle for a little boy who was in his first semester of kindergarten and a grown-up purse for the middle-schooler who wanted so badly to fit into American culture and silly video games for the younger men who were so blown-away by the possibility of our Wii.

The gifts were lovingly wrapped in bright colors, with bows, and the kids were so excited as we pulled them from beneath the tree and loaded them in a shopping bag. We dropped one, and it started making vrrrom noises -- a shake-up car for the little 3-year-old. My own 2-year-old almost threw a fit, but we talked again about how little Thomas had no toys, and we wanted to share some with him. Jaybin hesitated, then smiled. Whew -- the tentative Christmas spirit was back.

We arrived at the door in santa hats, excited. As always, it was a bit awkward to be there. Lots of bodies were packed into the small apartment and the unfamiliar scent of strange spices filled the air. The room is sparsely furnished with second-hand furniture and strange handwritten papers are taped to the wall. A lone calendar hangs behind the couch. A clock, still in its original Target box, is nailed above the window. And a little boy with bare feet and shorts peeked up at us from under his father's arm.

"We brought presents!" we said needlessly. Of course, they didn't understand. We don't speak the same language, but they could see the brightly wrapped packages. Hurrying awkwardly now, we passed them out. Everyone received two presents, one from us and one from the Zoellers, and their cautious smiles showed us that this wasn't a ritual they'd taken part in before.

Fast forward 20 minutes, with balls of wrapping paper lying around the floor and loud pockets of conversation saying we-had-no-idea what. We snapped photos and enjoyed the festive atmosphere. Someone broke out the gallon-sized orange drink and various mugs. I glanced over to where my 5-year-old was playing with a 10-year-old's first Barbie doll. And as I eavesdropped, I heard my daughter say, "Shoe, shoe, Tae-ae, can you say shoe?" And a tentative voice echoing of the names the clothing items as the Barbies got dressed for, well, the ball, according to my daughter. I don't know where Tae-ae thought they were going.

I learned something that evening -- children's church, in it's most basic form, isn't about flannel graphs or cute songs or banks filled with pennies for missionaries. It's all about learning to love others -- even those who don't look like us. And whether that happens in a classroom environment with a teacher and a chart keeping close track of attendance or a real-life experience of actually befriending a 10-year-old who can't speak a word of your language, the end goal should be the same. At least, for me it is. I want my kids to grow up to be lovers -- not sympathy lovers, who feel superior to the little boy without shoes in India, but true lovers of all people, even those with worlds completely apart from their own.

And if they can truly learn to have a natural reaction to love those who are different, rather than judge or feel superior or even just feel awkward, who knows, maybe a little bit of it will wear off onto their mom and dad.


Expanding on the "Why House Churches?" question

To really get to my answer to this question, I need to explain some things I've come to believe about the current, more institutional, structure of church. I believe that the existing structure, as it stands in most organized churches, is flawed. Like it or not, the current structure encourages and promotes passivity.

Services are a passive experience, no matter what time of day they are. The church body assembles and is led in a time of worship. While there is participation in this worship time, it is the responsibility of the worship leader to take the church body into the presence of God. Once they "arrive" the speaker proceeds to share the Word of God with the church for that week. Upon completion, most churches typically ask the body to actively offer their tithes to the church. Later in the week, a smaller committee assembles and determines how best to utilize these tithes. Small groups, or home groups, are often setup with a specific leader who takes as his/her responsibility the burden of preparing a lesson and leading the group through a study of some sort.

Commonly quoted statistics are that 20% of the church does 80% of the work. In other words, 80% of the church is passive. They are waiting for somebody else to take responsibility for their spiritual journey. They are waiting for their pastor to share the Word of God for the week in his sermon rather than engaging and actively pursuing the Word on their own. They are waiting for the church committee to decide what mission to support instead of actively throwing themselves into a heartbreaking environment and getting their hands dirty.

Granted, the church didn't set out to become this. It wasn't on purpose, it is just the by-product of the existing structure. Pastors are encouraged to increase numbers through passionate speeches and sophisticated programs. They are rewarded, both in prestige and monetarily, for doing so. That is why I have become excited about the home church structure. You can't be passive. It's almost impossible, just based on the way it is structured. If you don't engage the Word, it's your fault - not the pastor's. If you are not supporting a mission that you are passionate about, it's your fault - not the committee's. If you are not growing spiritually, it's your fault. The structure of a house church surrounds you with people who help hold you accountable to actively engaging what God is doing in and through your life.

Frankly, I don't care if it is a house church or a small group inside a larger church or even a huge mega-church as long as everyone is 100% engaged and actively involved in pursuit of God and his mission. From what I have seen, the house church is best equipped to encourage total commitment on every front of one's spiritual life. Doesn't mean it's the only way to do this, but structurally it is the easiest.


Why house churches?

A question I'm often asked by friends and family is why do I choose to attend a four person house church instead of joining a well established traditional church and starting my own program to carry out the ideas I have and therefore have a bigger impact? Well the short answer is that that type of thinking makes me cringe for some reason...but here is a more thought-out explanation of why I think the house church works:

  • Financial Flexibility. As a church that meets in a house (or other alternative locations such as coffee shops) we don't have to pay for a building. We also don't have to pay a full-time pastor. The impact that our tithe/giving money can make under this structure is at least 10 times greater.

  • Deeper Learning Experience. Often times when we meet, we will listen to a podcast from a well known national or local speaker. One of my favorite things about doing this is that we can pause and discuss in greater detail at any point. There are times when I'm listening to a certain speaker and I'm bored (to be honest), but then someone else will pause the podcast and make a profound point about what had just been said that I never would've thought of on my own and it totally changes my perspective. I think we miss out on moments like this in a traditional Sunday morning service where everyone quietly listens to one speaker.

  • Higher Accountability. If you like to blend in at church and slip out when the service is over, you will be uncomfortable in a house church. When we meet, everyone is expected to contribute in some manner. It can be anything from praying, reading a psalm, sharing an experience from the past week, teaching an insight, or sharing an idea not directly related to church (I Corinthians 14:26). This higher accountability has caused me to study the scriptures with a passion that I've never done before because I can't wait to share my ideas the next time we meet.

  • Shared Responsibility. In a traditional church, we normally pay or designate an individual or small group to be in charge of things like visiting those in the hospital, bringing meals to the sick, etc. It never made sense to me why that isn't the responsibility of everyone in the church. Why do we have to name specific people to do that? If we all aren't doing that, then what is the point of a church anyway? If you were in the hospital for a week would you rather get a visit from a pastor who was paid to be there or from several individuals that you've shared dreams with, prayed with, and sat down for meals with?

Well, there are more than just four advantages to the house church model but these four are the main elements that make the house church attractive to me. It is important to note these four elements can be present in the traditional church but the traditional church model makes it hard for these elements to be common among all members of the church body.


You say you want a Revolution

I hate the Beatles and it caused me pain to write that title but it's catchy and related to the matter at hand. I hear the term "revolution" used all the time now by churches across America. Some churches even give themselves the name "Revolution Church" or just "Revolution". For example there is a church in New York City that caught my attention called "Revolution New York City" (there is also one in Atlanta and Charlotte if I'm not mistaken). The reason they caught my attention is because they have a big sign on their home page that reads "As Christians, we're sorry for being self-righteous, judgmental bastards". I thought - ok, I guess Christians have earned a bad reputation in the media and we have done things that I'm not proud of. But hating the traditional church and/or denouncing christianity does not constitute a revolution. Neither does podcasting your sermons, or being accepting of homosexuals.

So what DOES constitute a true revolution then? Well for starters, here is how Webster defines Revolution:
a: a sudden, radical, or complete change b: a fundamental change in political organization ; especially : the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed c: activity or movement designed to effect fundamental changes in the socioeconomic situation d: a fundamental change in the way of thinking about or visualizing something : a change of paradigm

Ah yes - a change of paradigm. That sums it up nicely. Taking a traditional church out of its physical building and restructuring it into a series of house churches is not a change of paradigm. Taking an existing church and opening the doors to a "rough crowd" is not a change of paradigm. They may be great ideas but they are not a revolution.

The revolution of today's church, which I feel has already begun on a small scale, has to start with the individual. When you think about all the great revolutions in history, both religious and political, they always have a small group or one individual that is full of so much passion for the cause that they will do anything for it and therefore make the revolution successful.

This is what I envision "the revolution" being:
Imagine a group of, let's say, 200 believers in your city that all get together because they want to experience authentic community and a deeper relationship with God. Now imagine if you could take that group and form a tightly knit community of niche-based churches - maybe a group of 20 are passionate about evangelism and they form a house church; another group of 15 want to focus their energy on serving the poor and they form another house church; another group are all in their early 20's and single, they form yet another house church; and so on. Now imagine if these groups could all get together as one large group every couple of weeks or so (aside from their normal house church meetings together) and share the experiences they have been through on their journey together! The relationships would run so deep. These niche based communities would allow each person's talents, passions, knowledge and ideas to be wonderfully weaved together into an organic and fully-alive church body! Now that is a change in paradigm! How exciting! This kind of stuff gets me fired up.