Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Organic Church: Too Inwardly Focused

One of the criticisms often hurled at those of us in the Organic Church is that we’re too inwardly focused, and that we can become too closed or even secretive, preventing newcomers from entering into our little clique, or sometimes even scaring them away entirely.

Our little group isn’t a closed group, and I don’t think we’re “secretive” or anything, but I have visited a few groups that were more inward-focused and there are a few things I'd like to say about this here.

Too Inwardly Focused?
I have to say that it's awfully hard to resist the temptation to be inwardly focused. I mean, no one has to be trained to be more inwardly focused. But we do need to constantly work at becoming more outwardly focused. It's a constant battle that we have to fight to take our eyes of ourselves and to look up to see the fields white unto harvest.

When my family first entered the wilderness to plant our little house church, it was primarily because we felt a strong calling from the Lord to plant a church where 100% of the offering could go to help the poor in the community. Because this was our goal, and our passion was to serve those who were trapped in poverty here in Orange County, California, we started a house church in order to allow all of the offering to be spent this way. Most house churches don’t have such a story, and maybe that’s why they tend to lean more towards isolation and inward-focused church life.

Being self-absorbed is an easy thing to do, really. The house church community is made up of people who, in many ways, feel like they’re on the outside looking in when it comes to Christianity. Many of those who are attracted to house churches either have felt exploited by the traditional church, have felt a strong sense of unrest in the institutional church, or either feel called to explore a more organic form of church found in the New Testament. These factors can create a sense of being an outcast from other Christians, not to mention the world itself.

I know many, many people involved in house churches now whose stories are filled with tales of lost friendships, damaged relationships with those in their previous traditional church who called them heretics, or who shunned them in grocery stores, or what have you.

These experiences are painful, and they are real. They also tend to create an isolationist mindset, because no one wants to get hurt in the same way again. Once you’ve found a like-minded group of Christians who can share your pain and who understand your grief at the loss of relationships in the church, it’s easy to pull the shades, lock the doors and bask in the glow of those select few brothers and sisters who really “get you” and who understand where you’re coming from, and where you’re going.

I think the people who are part of our little house church family at the Mission are largely not the “hunker down” type. Some of us can indeed share stories about lost friendships, or church leaders who threatened or mocked us for pursuing the house church model. But, thankfully, we are not a group of wounded soldiers.

Most of us have been in leadership ourselves at the traditional churches we once attended. We’ve seen first-hand how broken the American version of Christianity can really be and we’ve made a conscious decision to move away from that top-down hierarchy model (of which we were once among the leaders), into a more shared version of church where members of the Body submit to one another and to Christ as our Head. At the same time, we know that it’s important for us – as the Body of Christ – to “be the Church” to our community as well as in our regular weekly gatherings.

What To Do?
For those organic churches who are too inwardly-focused, and who are interested in becoming more outwardly-focused, I’d recommend a few things:

*Partner with another house church, or traditional church, to serve actual people in your community. Your goal is not to find a charity to write a check to. That’s not going to change your inward focus into an outward focus. Look for ways to touch real human beings who need help, food, shelter, hope and the Gospel.

*Talk together about ways your group can serve the community. It doesn’t have to be huge, either. Think simple. Maybe host a pancake breakfast in the neighborhood to start with, or visit a local senior home together with your kids once a month.

*Find a local charity, non-profit, rescue mission, etc. to volunteer at as a group.

*Read my series, “How To Start A Ministry to the Poor in Your Community” found

The goal of becoming more outwardly focused is not to lose your inward focus. There’s nothing wrong with having an inward focus when you’re together. That’s called “community” and it’s one of the primary strengths of the church. It’s not that inward focus is bad, it’s that not having any outward focus is tragic, and it’s an incomplete picture of who we are called to be in Christ.

Too Secretive or Closed?
I do know of a few house church groups that are closed; meaning that they do not accept any new people to visit or to join the fellowship. While our group isn’t one of these kinds of groups, I must confess that I have secretly thought about starting just such a group myself. Why? Because there have been times when my family really wasn’t getting as much out of our current house church experience as we needed to. Specifically, our two sons were not growing spiritually and my wife and I were also beginning to feel distant from the rest of the group. So, for a while we fantasized about leaving the church we started in order to gather with just one or two other families so we could really focus on going deeper with fewer people.

Eventually we changed our minds about that idea, but if we had decided to take such a step I don’t think it would’ve been such a bad thing. I think, sometimes, there is a need to create a more intimate and intense space for people to pour into one another more directly. Although I’d quickly add that I think these sorts of groups should only be entered into seasonally, and that there should be an agreed upon expiration date for when the closed nature of the group will end and others will be welcomed into the fellowship. Perhaps this is where some groups fail? They start out with an inward focus to address specific needs of those within the group and then they just can’t bring themselves to rock that boat and risk losing the good thing they’ve got going with one another. I don’t know since I’ve never been part of a closed group like that myself. But I can see where the temptation to stay closed might come from.

Embrace the Mystery
One thought I had when considering the secretive nature of the house church to those on the outside is that it might be possible to leverage this perceived secrecy in a positive way. I mean, if we're never going to advertise our house churches in the newspaper or on a billboard, or set up a big sign in our front yards, then why not go the other way? Why not play up the secretive part and use it to intrigue people into finding out more about why we meet in homes, and what we do there, and what makes it so different from everything else? People are naturally curious. What's wrong with appealing to their built-in desire to learn more? Especially if what people want to know more about is why you have to escape the man-made religious systems of the day in order to follow Jesus more and love your neighbor as yourself.

As followers of Jesus we are called to be set apart- to be different from the world around us. If being part of a house church creates an even greater opportunity for us to set ourselves apart from the world and to live different sorts of lives among others, we might as well make the best of it.


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