Before I Became a Man
I grew up an MK (missionary’s kid) and a PK (preacher’s kid). With that came all the Evangelical Pentecostal baggage that comes with being raised in a fundamentalist rigid religious environment. Everything from church meetings on multiple days of the week, and multiple times on the “Lord’s Day”, and always being “busy for God” through “winning souls for Christ” and getting people to “experience the power and life in the Holy Spirit”. Although the message was the Gospel message of salvation in Christ alone, through grace alone, for the glory of God alone, there sure were a lot of “add-ons” added for good measure. I grew up thinking that being a Christian was a full time occupation, and that working, getting married and having kids, was just an add on to your life of serving God. Before I became a man, and before I really began to deconstruct my faith, and explore and discover what it really was about, this “Christian life” seemed to be all about work and working hard for God and to see people saved from hell, as if it all depended on my contribution to that effort. If I did not do what I could do for God, I would be letting God down and people were going to be going to hell. A lot of this belief was embedded in how people were discipled into the faith, and how they were nurtured, to reach out to their friends and loved ones with the Gospel. A lot of the ministries that arose in the church, were foundational in getting people trained and equipped to be soul winners, know and understand and apply the Bible to life. In the early 1970’s when the Jesus People arose on the scene in North America, and when I was entering High School, in what seems long ago, in a galaxy far away, my father got exposed to the use of cell groups, using small groups to build up the church. It began a revolution of how people perceived and experienced church.
My Long Way Home
For myself, that journey took me in my high school years through ministries like ISCF (Inter-School Christian Fellowship) which was the high school equivalent of IVCF (Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship), an international campus ministry for college and university students and faculty. I quickly rose through the ranks of this ministry, city wide and regionally. I became involved in province wide activities through ISCF. Most of the activities were centered through small group meetings, be they at school after classes, or before classes, or meeting in homes for gatherings, sharing a meal, and some kind of activity together that would bolster faith, and discipleship in Christ. It was inter-denominational, and at the time, I was one of the few Pentecostals actually involved. It was at a time when Pentecostals and Charismatics were viewed as “fringe” Evangelicals, the kind that were, “Evangelicals, but kind of weird kind of tongue talking Christians”.
This small group activity accentuated and reinforced the cell group ministry teaching my own father was beginning to embrace. My dad viewed it all as a great add-on to the ministries of the church. When my dad and mum had planted new churches, be that on the mission field or here in Canada, they met in their home, or another home, until the group got too large and would then look for a new bigger building they could rent and renovate into a new church facility, and move all the meetings to that new site. I recall my mother lamenting more than once, that she missed the intimacy and the fellowship and the dynamic times of prayer and ministry they had known when they met in their home and started a new church. I remember saying, “Why did all that intimacy have to end?” My journey in faith, began at home, grew in the “church system” of “organized religion”, but really flourished when “I came back home”.
Discovering Church Life is More than Cells and Small Groups
I discovered that small groups are used throughout society and is now just the purview of the Church. All organized societies have a ways and means and necessity to break down learning and working and socializing activities into smaller units of people. This happens in education, where even in classes, the class breaks down into smaller units. In class settings, people often do class presentations as a small group, researching and working together and each member of the group contributing to the presentation to the larger class. This happens in the work place as well where smaller units of people do work projects together or become a specialist team working in a particular area of expertise. It is the same in the military, as I found out when I became an infantryman and was assigned to a section of twelve men in a platoon of three sections, and that platoon was one of four platoons in the company, and that company was one of three companies in the regiment (battalion). The division into smaller units became ingrained in me through my education, and through my church and military life.
Small groups just work well with people and people work well in small groups.
I strayed from the Lord after high school and when I was in the Canadian Forces and my university years, but I was always active in small groups of people, be that in my university classes, my military activities or in socializing. I just loved being with and hanging out with small groups of people. While I worked at an engineering lab at the University of Waterloo, I was invited to a campus meeting of a campus ministry, Maranatha Campus Ministries, a ministry founded by Bob Weiner in Gainesville, Florida. This was a growing campus ministry, and this is where, in a prophetic meeting, Bob Weiner prophesied over my life. I had run away from God because of what had happened to me five years previous, and yet God had never abandoned me. I still read my Bible, and I still loved God, but I could not stand organized religion of what I saw as “the church”. I had walked to the meeting that evening and I had talked out loud to God (something I started doing as a young child) and I told God about five things in my life and if He would deal with these five things, then I would be His forever. At that meeting, I was the only man with a beard, and Bob Weiner pointed me out and said, “You, with the beard”. Silly me, I got up on my feet and he began to prophesy, and he listed all five things in the same order I had told the Lord on my way to the meeting.” I broke down and cried, and sat in my chair, as others gathered around me to pray for me. That is the night I returned to God, and have never strayed since, February 14, 1982.
I got involved with this ministry that met on campus as well as in homes. I started a college and career small group ministry at my dad’s church as well as a small group ministry for youth. When I married my wife in 1983 I went to Emmanuel Bible College and we were involved in small groups with fellow students and their spouses, as well as got involved in small groups that were part of the congregations we joined during those college days. The small groups ministry focus became a big focus of what I saw the faith to be, and how the faith could best be formed and shaped and shared. It became the incubator for the Christian life and church life. It provided accountability, community and belonging, as well as discipleship and mentoring, and a safe place to explore the Christian faith and share it with pre-Christian friends. For over 15 years this was the bread and butter of my Christian life, no matter what fellowship we were a part of, there was always some kind of small group ministry, and if there wasn’t, I would work with the church leadership to start one, and if there was one, I would work to create more small groups, for various ages, genders, and issue or interest focused (dysfunctions or Bible study).
Then it happened… I discovered church is simpler than and more than small groups
In 1999, I had the best situation imaginable. I was on a pastoral team in a local Vineyard church. I was involved directly in small groups leadership and formation as well as children’s and Jr. High ministries, incorporating a lot of small group work with each. I was in the middle of what I thought was the best church life experience imaginable. Then I had an encounter with God while reading Tommy Tenney’s book, The God Chasers, and it wrecked my life. It destroyed everything I knew and understood about God, the Church, and my life with God. I realized that I could no longer do what I was doing in the church. I realized that all the changes we had just implemented in the church, was superficial and not real. All we were doing was rearranging the furniture. I resigned from the church and that began a 15 year journey of discovering that there is more to church than small groups and all the other church ministries. I went on a journey discovering intimacy, authenticity, belonging and mission, in a context of church as family, and gathered simply in homes, without forced structure or programs.
Church is simple. You meet with God, with other people, in an intimate setting conducive to interaction over a meal and fellowship. The same way you gather with family and friends at a barbecue, you come together. Each person brings what they can to the shared meal. Not only do they bring what they can for the meal, but they also bring what the Lord has deposited in them that week, to share during our time together. People will gather around the meal time, sometimes preparing the shared meal together, sometimes it is like a pot blessing meal and all you have to do is set the table. God is present from the outset. Nothing is staged or arranged in a particular order. But we will eat, and we will fellowship, laugh and celebrate around the food. We pray and we often have communion as part of that shared meal, just as Jesus did with his disciples.
We move around and clean up, and leave the extras on the table along with the deserts and drinks, that people can consume as the evening flows. We usually are in a circle, with couches, chairs, and we look to the Lord, and we will sing songs, sometimes a Capella, or with audio or video tracks with the stereo or TV screen, and sometimes with musicians. No matter, we simply worship the Lord, and the Spirit will lead the gathering from the very beginning and you see the imprint of God. There is no agenda.
No agenda. No hierarchy. No personal glory.
We find the Spirit leads best in a yielded and mutually submissive environment, where we seek to bring glory to Christ, honor and prefer one another, and make room for everyone to share what is on their heart. There are testimonies, prayer times, ministry times, and a fluid and interactive flow. We have seen people explore the faith in this safe environment. We have seen people come to faith, and be baptized. We have seen people mature in their life with God, and grow in their gifts and calling. We have seen people discipled without the baggage of religion and the heavy burden of religious works and being busy for God. We have seen people set free to be who they are in Christ Jesus. Gatherings may start at 6:30 pm, but they can last to midnight or after. Such is the extended family of God that gathers intimately together, without a structured agenda, other than to meet with Jesus and each other.
The ultimate hangout.
This is so much simpler than a structured small group, and so hassle free, and so rewarding, it is beyond words or the imagination. I have learned that I want more than just a small group. I want a shared life with Christ and other Christ followers, who just want to hang out with Jesus and each other, just like the Early Church did. If it was good enough for them, it is good enough for me.
~ John Eldredge, Waking the Dead
For Further Reading
Beyond Small Groups Resources – Simple Church Life
The Church Comes Home, by Robert Banks and Julia Banks. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson; new edition, 1998 (paperback, 272 pages).
From the CMA Resources website: “The Church Comes Home is a handbook for those interested in home churches. It is both visionary and practical. It describes how home churches can be formed, how they should grow and how networks of home churches can develop. It examines such issues as how to make decisions; how to determine doctrine; how to include children, singles, elders; and how to reach out to the community at large–and offers practical suggestions for their resolution.” Banks earlier book, Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Cultural Setting, Revised Edition(Hendrickson, revised edition, 1994) is also an important and helpful book.
Getting Started: A Practical Guide to House Church Planting, by Felicity Dale. Karis Publishing, 2003.
Stetzer notes that while there are many books available on house churches “this one is unique in that provides a clear and reproducible (dare I say ‘simple’) method for planting churches that meet in homes. As Felicity describes it, anyone can do it, which is sort of her point!”
Leading Life-Changing Small Groups, by Bill Donahue. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002 (paperback, 208 pages).
Donahue is director of adult education and training at Willow Creek and has years of experience developing and leading small groups. This is just one of many tools that he has created to help develop vital, life-changing small groups (his Coaching Life-Changing Small Group Leaders: A Practical Guide for Those Who Lead and Shepherd Small Group Leaders may be of interest as well). Some of the topics covered in this book are group formation and values, meeting preparation and participation, leadership requirements and responsibilities, discipleship within the group, the philosophy and structure of small groups, and leadership training.
How to Meet in Homes, by Gene Edwards. Seedsowers Press, 1999.
Reviewers on Amazon either loved or hated the book (with no middle ground), apparently because it takes a rather confrontational approach to the way church is usually practiced in America. The book is more of an argument for doing church in a new way than the “how-to” guide that the title suggests, but it may still be helpful to some.
The Church in the House a Return to Simplicity, by Robert Fitts. Preparing the Way Publishers, 2001 (paperback, 120 pages).
This is another classic on the subject of home church. Evangelize the world quickly by planting millions of house churches every-where – this book tells you how. Earlier editions of this book have already gone around the world. We are thrilled to be able to publish this new, revised edition.
House Church Networks: A Church for a New Generation, by Larry Kreider. Ephrata, PA: House to House Publications, 2001 (paperback, 120 pages).
Kreider describes the emerging house church movement without disparaging other types of churches. In fact, while presenting the principles for establishing such networks, Kreider acknowledges the need for three main types (and sizes) of churches: house churches (8/10 to 50/60 members), “community” (or neighborhood) churches (60 to 500/1000 members), and mega-churches (1,000 or more).
House to House: Spiritual Insights for the 21st Century Church, by Larry Kreider. Ephrata, PA: House to House Publications, 1998.
Starting a House Church: A New Model For Living Out Your Faith, by Larry Kreider. Gospel Light and Regal Books (April 15 2007), 192 pages.
There’s a new way of doing church and it’s taking North America by storm! Here, a recognized authority on the house church movement and a popular speaker and pastor share their expertise in starting and maintaining a healthy house church. Together they look at current and future trends in the house church movement and provide best practice models for planting and leading house churches. Also, they explore how house churches are not always the same as simple cell-groups or small groups, especially in the areas of leadership and money. Readers will discover all the information they need to begin a house church in their community.
Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens, by Neil Cole. Jossey-Bass; 1 edition (Sept. 8 2005). 272 pages.
Churches have tried all kinds of ways to attract new and younger members – revised vision statements, hipper worship, contemporary music, livelier sermons, bigger and better auditoriums. But there are still so many people who aren’t being reached, who don’t want to come to church. And the truth is that attendance at church on Sundays does not necessarily transform lives; God’s presence in our hearts is what changes us. Leaders and laypeople everywhere are realizing that they need new and more powerful ways to help them spread God’s Word. According to international church starter and pastor Neil Cole, if we want to connect with young people and those who are not coming to church, we must go where people congregate. Cole shows readers how to plant the seeds of the Kingdom of God in the places where life happens and where culture is formed – restaurants, bars, coffeehouses, parks, locker rooms,and neighborhoods.Organic Church offers a hands-on guide for demystifying this new model of church and shows the practical aspects of implementing it.
Reimagine Church: Pursuing The Dream of Organic Christianity, by Frank Viola. David C. Cook Publishing (July 2008), 320 pages.
A revolution is moving through the body of Christ, challenging the spiritual status quo and redefining the very notion of corporate worship. A movement inspired by the divine design for holy fellowship. A fresh concept rooted in ancient history.
Pagan Christianity: Exploring The Roots of Our Christian Practices, by Frank Viola & George Barna. Tyndale Momentum; Rev Upd edition (Feb. 14 2012). 336 pages.
Have you ever wondered why we Christians do what we do for church every Sunday morning? Why do we “dress up” for church? Why does the pastor preach a sermon each week? Why do we have pews, steeples, and choirs? This ground-breaking book, now in affordable softcover, makes an unsettling proposal: most of what Christians do in present-day churches is rooted, not in the New Testament, but in pagan culture and rituals developed long after the death of the apostles. Coauthors Frank Viola and George Barna support their thesis with compelling historical evidence and extensive footnotes that document the origins of modern Christian church practices. In the process, the authors uncover the problems that emerge when the church functions more like a business organization than the living organism it was created to be. As you reconsider Christs revolutionary plan for his church―to be the head of a fully functioning body in which all believers play an active role―you’ll be challenged to decide whether you can ever do church the same way again.
Houses that Change the World, by Wolfgang Simpson. Emmelsbull, Germany: C & P Publishing, 1999 (printed 2001 by OM Publishing; reprint 2003, by Authentic Lifestyle; reprint 2004, by Authentic Media (paperback, 303 pages).
Simpson discusses many aspects of house churches, including their nature and necessity (e.g., to develop a “persecution-proof structure”), how the five-fold ministry (of Ephesians 4) works and is necessary to their success, and their role in history. In making his case for this type of church, he is sometimes critical of traditional churches and their structure, but don’t let that deter you from appreciating the insights in this book.
Dick Scoggins and the Rhode Island house churches are the best known home-based church planting movement in North America. The book describes the indigenous church planting methods of Fellowship of Church Planters, a network of house churches in Rhode Island and southern New England. It is the only resource this reviewer knows of that deals with indigenous house churches from a North American perspective.
Nexus: The World House Church Reader, edited by Rad Zdero. William Carey Library Publishers (January 1, 2007). 528 pages.
Welcome to the Nexus, your point of connection to the world house church movement. Grassroots Christianity is exploding all over the world. Northern India sees 4,000 churches planted in just a decade. China witnesses 160,000 new believers baptized in a single year. Cuba’s petrol crisis catalyzes the birth of almost 10,000 churches. What is happening in all these places? Saturation church planting through simple, inexpensive, participatory, reproducible, and missional communities of ‘house churches’. Over thirty-five leaders, practitioners, and academics from all around the world have contributed their insight and experience in over sixty provocative articles. Let them inform, challenge, and invite you to start your own network of multiplying house churches no matter where you live.
Letters to The House Church Movement: Real Letters. Real People. Real Issues. By Rad Zdero, Xulon Press (March 18 2011), 168 pages.
God is raising up the simple, organic, house church movement. And this book gives you, for the first time, a real-life inside look at the controversies, struggles, victories, and personalities emerging from within this revolution. This book is a collection of real letters to real people facing real issues. This 10-year collection of over 40 real-life letters will challenge, persuade, and encourage. They address theological issues and practical problems. They were sent to friends, acquaintances, strangers, radicals, and critics. This book will not just satisfy your curiosity about today’s house church movement, but it will propel you to complete the task to which Jesus Christ has called you.