Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Top 10 Things Every Christian Should Know #6

Number 6 - "We ARE The Church!"

Several years ago my wife and I helped some friends of ours plant a new church in Tustin, California. At the time I was longing to leave my job as a program manager at Ingram Micro in order to return to full-time ministry. As it happened, I was laid off from that job and went on staff at this same church only a few months later.

My time on staff there was a great opportunity to try new things and to lead to start ministry to the poor in our community. Personally, I learned a lot during this time and it was because of this that my wife and I began to feel a calling to start a new church-plant of our own.

At first my assumption was that we would plant another church much like the one we were currently on staff with. I envisioned a traditional church-plant with a small team of leaders meeting in a rented gymnasium somewhere in a neighboring city trying to coax the unchurched into our meeting each week.

Then something happened that changed all that. I had developed a strong desire to serve the poor during this time and I knew this would be a high value for the new church we started. However, one day I came across an article by Ray Mayhew entitled,"Embezzlement:The Corporate Sin of American Christianity". In this article, Mayhew looks at the high value that the early church placed on caring for the poor. He shares how the New Testament church considered all of the tithe as belonging to the poor and not to themselves. At no time did the offering ever go to building structures or purchasing equipment, in every case the offering belonged to the poor, the orphan, the widow and the sick. This realization galvanized my vision of establishing a body of believers who valued the poor beyond their own comfort and safety. My wife and I began to pray about how we could start a church here in Orange County, one of the richest counties in the Nation, with a committment to give 100% of the tithe to the poor and keep nothing for itself.

I can remember the day Wendy and I realized the answer. We were sitting on our bed talking about how great it would be if people could know that all of their tithe was going to help single Moms pay their rent, or to provide food for the homeless, or to assist the elderly to buy their prescription medicine. We were trying to figure out how we could realistically afford to run a church and still give all of our offerings to those in need. Wendy looked at me, and I looked at her, and almost at the same time we realized, "We're talking about a House Church". In that moment, if Wendy had laughed at the idea and told me I was crazy I think we would have found a compromise to our dilemna, or perhaps we never would have started a house church at all. Instead, she nodded her head and smiled. "You're right. It's a house church," she said.

When we first told our friends what we envisioned doing, many looked at us as if we had three heads. To be honest, I felt like I was insane whenever I tried to explain it to people. It just seemed so crazy and so "out of the box" to me, because no one I knew had ever done this before. I had grown up in the traditional church. I had been licensed and ordained in the denominational church. My entire Christian experience was totally connected to the modern, organized way of doing church. To step outside of that structure in order to follow our calling seemed uncertain at best, and downright terrifying at worst. This was what it felt like to be a pioneer, loading up the buckboard with supplies and heading West into the great unknown with only your family, a few provisions, and a lot of faith.

There are times when people say that we have left the Church. In fact, more often that not, whenever I hear someone refer to those in the house church movement, it's to say they have "left the Church". This illustrates one key misunderstanding that I'd like to clear up.

If you have surrendered your life to Christ and have an ongoing, daily relationship with Jesus, then you ARE the Church! This means you cannot leave the Church. You can decide to worship in another way, or in another place, or outside the walls of an established, organized expression of the Church, but unless you break fellowship with other believers, or turn away from your daily walk with Jesus, you cannot, and you have not, "Left the Church".

Sometimes I believe that people within the organized Church use this statement as a tactic to black-list those who dare to venture outside their established realm. Not every time of course, but if more and more people get it into their heads that they can "do it themselves", this threatens the organized expression of Church. Pastors who attended seminary in order to make a vocation out of the ministry feel as if they are no longer necessary when those within the House Church movement suggest that a gathering of like-minded Believers meeting in a living room with only The Word of God and the Holy Spirit to guide them are actually viable "Churches"; as valid and as acceptable as those with professional clergy and staff.

The other tactic I see over and over again is the claim that House Churches are vulnerable to heretical doctrine, again because of the abundance of lay people and the absence of professional, seminary-educated pastors. I find this argument especially ludicrous, honestly. If you want to create an environment that is ripe for heresy, here's what you should do: Only have one person act as the vocal spiritual authority. Have that one person speak without interruption each week and when the doctrine is spoken have everyone stand up, get in their cars and go home until next week. Do not allow those people to interact with the speaker. Do not allow those people an opportunity to discuss the message that was delivered by the speaker. That is, historically, how heresy develops. One person, usually a charismatic figure with a slanted set of doctrines, leads a large group of people
to follow his private vision and interpretation of the Scriptures. Those people do not question the leader and they are not allowed to discuss or challenge his message.

In the House Church it is much more difficult to introduce heretical doctrines such as this. If one person begins to suggest a set of ideas or teachings that are in conflict with the clear teaching of Scripture, there are many others within the group who can challenge these thoughts and point out other Scriptures to correct any errors of doctrine. This keeps us from being lead astray by one person with a private agenda.

This is why the first Christians, meeting in homes, lead by the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures, actually preserved all of the creeds and doctrines of Christendom for over 300 years! Whenever heresy developed it was almost always lead by one individual who had a different doctrine or a particular spin on an existing one. Those people attempted to lead others astray after their own brand of the truth. But the New Testament House Church (and there wasn't any other kind of New Testament Church), maintained the teachings of Christ and the Orthodox Faith we hold so dear
today without ever resorting to any other form of church. I find that fascinating, to be honest. I think that God revealed His genius when He inspired the eary Church to form a family-based, Spirit-lead group where love for one another, and for others (the poor, the sick, the outcast), was the main goal.

So, if you ever feel called to change the location of where you worship, or if you feel the need to change churches, or perhaps even to join a House Church, please never forget; You ARE the Church! Church is not a meeting you attend or a building you gather in. You are the Church as long as you have surrendered your life to Christ and you daily seek His face and follow His teachings. If you gather with other believers, in a gymnasium, under a tree, in a home, by the beach, etc., then you are the Church and you can never leave it, unless you completely turn away from Jesus and abandon the Faith.

One of the most amazing things I've discovered in leading a House Church has been in realizing that we are called to be the Church and not to attend one.



Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Keith.

I particularly agree with the section on heretical doctrine. I think it's far more likely to happen in an institutional form of church.

The other thing to note too is, if a house/organic/simple church does go AWOL, it's isolated to that one small group; it doesn't affect a huge group of people, as could be the case in a mega church or denominational network.

I also believe that when the Body functions properly, with everyone sharing what God has shown/spoken to them, we gain a corporate understanding of God that we would never gain in the old way of doing things (with one person leading).

On the same topic, whenever I pass a church building now, I refer to it as a 'church building', not a 'church'. I'm trying to teach my kids that we ARE the church; we don't go to it!

paul mckay said...

Chris, with all respect, I don't think it's helpful to teach your kids that "we ARE the church" by referring to a traditional church as "a church building", not a church." (And please don't remind me that the first churches were house churches and are the "real" traditional churches.) I don't think it's helpful to alienate your children from the millions of people like myself--an ordained United Methodist ministers serving as a hospital chaplain-- who attends church in church buildings with that kind of spiritual smugness. I respect the movement toward house churches and "being" the church and that whole thing raised up by Keith here every day. I have been intrigued by the whole house church movement for 10 years or so and it appeals to me. In fact, when I was in seminary 10 years ago I frequently visited a "house church" that was "being" the church. They were hypercritical of what they saw as "indoctrinating" by the big churches in the "church buildings." They couldn't see the logs in their own eyes, however. They were indoctrinating their own kids, and each other actually, by a form of bashing and spiritual pride and arrogance. I pointed this out to them and, to their credit, they agreed that they were being less than grace-filled in their language and attitudes about churches and toward seminary-trained clergy. I think there's a place for all kinds of churches, even those big bad denominations that build the best hospitals in the country and around the world with their resources, that build schools everywhere, that provide relief around the world--the outreach and mission work of a house church is limited, but and I AM the church when I'm on a Methodist mission trip other church members in the middle of Siberia teaching partnering with Russian Methodists struggling to learn how to "be" church in such an atheist country. Sorry to run so long here. Grace & peace, paul

Anonymous said...

Hi, Paul.

I think you've misunderstood what I've said. I wasn't AT ALL suggesting that people, such as yourself, who meet in church buildings are not also part of The Church. We all--those who put their faith in Jesus--are part of The Church. And that's my point: it's not a building that is 'the church', it is the people. We don't go TO it; we ARE it.

I'm simply changing my language to be Biblically accurate, and teaching my kids to do the same.

I hope you can see where I'm coming from now. I really was just agreeing with what Keith was saying.

Grace and peace to you, too.

paul mckay said...

Thanks, my brother in Christ our Lord and savior.
And please allow me a few more comments and I'm out of this discussion.
I hope you and your kids are engaging churches of all kinds and being in dialogue with them, not shutting them out, because we can enrich and bless one another and learn from each other and grow in our faith journeys together, complete with some critical thought and engagement.
And anyway, the universal church needs a lot more unity and lot less division.
Besides, I've been to United Methodist house churches and storefront churches and outdoor churches here and all over the world and we're planting more of them than ever.
But frankly, I do detect a little bit of a superiority complex, of the very sort house churchers left behind in denominations or tall steeple churches, among the house churchers I know and have known--and I detect a bit of that at this very blog. It's built into a lot of language that Keith himself and his readers put up here in their comments, and I'm sure that's not the intent of the language. But a lot of it comes across as smug and self-righteous and "puffed up" and smacking of "we are New Testament Christians--we got the right stuff!" I minister at a Baptist Hospital and did two years of chaplaincy training at a big Methodist hospital. The early New Testament Christians didn't build hospitals because hospitals didn't even exist in such primitive times. Realistically, being a "New Testament" house church today is nothing whatsoever like what a New Testament house church and communal living was like for 300 years, and yet I sense a lot of smugness here because, supposedly, house churches are living and being the church like New Testament Christians. Really? I don't think that's even remotely possible, but that's just my, uh, humble opinion. We're all broken people -- and broken churches!(my beloved UMC most of all, of which I'm a severe critic who thinks every day about leaving my UMC in frustration with all its ridiculous "programs" and baggage, but just can't and won't divorce it!) -- in need of God's love and grace and healing power wherever we're doing and being the church. I think we can indeed agree on that, and I'm always open to civil disagreement with my opinions. Thanks and grace and peace to you Chris and all here and God bless you--and I hope my critical language comes across as constructive or thoughtful criticism and not my own puffed up-ness--we all just have to be really careful with our language I think. (I ran way long again, sorry, Keith.)

Anonymous said...

Hi, Paul.

Thanks for your comments. And yes, sometimes those who are part of the house church/organic movement can have the wrong attitude. I've had to deal with it in myself.

I would say, though, that it goes both ways. I, and many others who choose to meet in the way we do, have experienced some pretty appalling attitudes from other parts of The Church too.

You're right, though, we do need to keep the lines open, as much as possible.

And to answer your question, yes, I and my kids frequently rub shoulders with people (friends) who are still part of a traditional form of church.

I will admit, it's difficult, though, as we see 'church' in quite different ways now.

paul mckay said...

I'm sure there's a lot more putting down and condescending toward your way of being church than in the behemoth institutions, Chris.
I guess what rubs me a bit--and only a bit-- is language like "it's just a church building."
It just strikes me as diminishing and even dismissive.
Obviously a church is just a building--in one sense. A house is just a building unless it happens to be your home sweet home-- your "castle," your sanctuary.
I see a church as a consecrated House of God, not unlike the Temple that Jesus grew up in and held so sacred as his Father's House.
That's certainly not to suggest that Jesus as God is not fully present wherever two or more are gathered in his name--or that God is not at work here, there and everywhere that we broken people aren't shutting Him out and ignoring or questioning his presence.
All that said, institutional churches are increasingly being chastened by movements like house church, simple church, Emerging Church and all those movements that I and a lot of others are convinced can be correctives rather than threats to the institutional churches.
Ironically, Methodism is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa and Latin countries while American denominational churches are hemorraghing members. They are closer to the New Testament "Way" of being church that we've strayed from.
That's why I'm urging everyone I can to come to this very web site with an open mind and think about and discuss and yes, debate it.
We Wesleyans love a hot debate; theology divides us; but worship unites us, which is why we stay in connection with each other--that and through God's grace that connects us all as Christ followers.

Anonymous said...

I understand what you’re saying, Paul, but my honest view is still that it’s just a building. I don’t say that to offend you, or to diminish what happens in that building; I just say it because my understanding, from the New Testament, is that we are now the building, the temple, the place of God’s residence—the place that is consecrated to him.

And while I understand what you’re saying about a house being “home, sweet home”, I still think, in reality, what makes it “home, sweet home” is the relationships between the people that live in it. They, or those relationships, are what is truly your ‘home’.

Also, I think the idea that we ‘go to church’, or that a building is ‘a church’, has substantially undermined our (and the world's) understanding of what church is, and in turn, our growth as Christians. And that's why I've changed my language.

Anonymous said...

I’ve been part of a number of different churches and I love them all. I really relate to what Keith says about the way churches use money. How we use money shows reveals our priorities. If you want to know what a church values, all you have to do is look at their budget. One church spends over 50% on bricks and mortar and salaries of church staff. One spends over 50% on missions and the poor. I really love the church I’m part of that gives 70% of its income to overseas mission. I’m a new member there, and it’s not a perfect church, but I love that. It shows me where their heart is. REALLY shows me. It’s not just words. It’s action. Sustained action. Every month. Dan

Anonymous said...

That (70% to overseas mission) is cool, Dan.