And Now, the Great Wineskin Awakening
There's one method of Christian fellowship that, although quite common in some corners of the Vineyard, is quite foreign in others.
Though quite a few American churches are willing to establish "cell groups" or "home groups," for the most part, the typical church tends to include these gatherings merely as some sort of "bolt-on program" to what most perceive as the REAL church. As with any other program of the church, members can choose to attend or ignore this one, too. With us being as busy as we are, the majority of church-attenders will choose to ignore their church's "home group" ministry and focus their attention on what they see as the REAL ministry that takes place on Sunday morning, maybe Wednesday night and, occasionally, Sunday nights.
If you will, look for a moment at Acts Chapter 16 along with my thought-provoking comments:
TIMOTHY JOINS PAUL AND SILAS
4 As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey.
5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.
COMMENT: Churches? Who was going around building these buildings? Did they have pastors, secretaries, janitors, steeples, padded pews, a children's ministry? A playground? Did Paul and his companions stick around and "pastor" these churches? Of course not!
Paul has Vision of the Man of Macedonia. Read this:
Lydia's Conversion in Philippi
13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there.
COMMENT: What...no synagogues in the area? No temples? No "churches" on every street corner? Where else would they possibly go to pray? Having failed at their attempt to find a "place" to pray, they stopped to chat with some ladies. WHAT?!! C'mon guys, stay focused! Let me get this straight...God wouldn't allow you to preach in Asia or Mysia but He WILL let you talk to the ladies down by the river... this is WAY too unorthodox!
14 One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message.
15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. "If you consider me a believer in the Lord," she said, "come and stay at my house." And she persuaded us.
COMMENT: Was there a "Sinner's Prayer"? A "Four Spiritual Laws"? A "Roman Road"? Any kind of profession of faith? Did they not have a "Salvation System" in place? No, the Scripture merely says "the Lord opened her heart." How did they know THAT? Where was Lydia's husband during all this? Was she a single woman inviting these men over to her house? What ever happened to "avoiding the appearance of evil"? What were Paul and his posse thinking? Most importantly...where did Lydia and her household go to continue their discipleship process? Church? Sunday school? Did they watch TBN or listen to Pastor Michael's "Your Town for Jesus" broadcast on radio or listen to tapes or read eMail's?
Beginning with verse 16, Paul casts a demon out of a slave girl who was earning money for her owners. They make a fuss and Paul and Silas wind up in jail. The pair were singing hymns to God when an earthquake struck and shook the jail, opening its gates and lossening all the chains on the prisoners.
27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, "Don't harm yourself! We are all here!" 29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" 31 They replied, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved--you and your household." 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God--he and his whole family.
COMMENT: Then what? How did the jailer and HIS household continue to grow in their faith? Did they read Bibles? there were none. Did they go to conferences or seminars? There were none. Did the jailer attend a seminary? There were none. They were eventually released. Now, get ready for this!
40 After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia's house, where they met with the brothers and encouraged them. Then they left.
COMMENT: O.K.! Back to Lydia's place...at least for awhile. THEN, they left! Again, who continued the discipleship process for Lydia and family? Where did they attend "Church."
BIBLICAL MEETINGS IN THE HOME
Today, when most of us refer to "the church," our tendency is to refer to the church building, what goes on there, or our particular denomination. In New Testament Scripture, it's apparent that erecting and maintaining a building, hiring a ministerial, clerical and janitorial staff was simply NOT on anybody's to-do list. When they DID pool their monetary resources, they were soon involved in expending all available funds in the service of widows and orphans. Charity was not an incidental, fractional portion of the budget. No, caring for the needs of widows and orphans WAS the budget.
No buildings, no church staff, no paid preacher. Take a look:
Romans 16:5 ("Likewise greet the church that is in their house")
Colossians 4:15 ("Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.")
Philemon verse 2, ("...to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home.").
Based on a regular series of national surveys conducted by his company, the Barna Research Group, during the past 25 years, George Barna discovered that discontent with congregational churches, changes in lifestyles, and even a desire to get closer to God, have caused many people to seek new ways of being in relationship with God and other God-seeking people.
In 2000, most of the nation's organized religious activity took place at or through local churches. Barna's research reveals that, today, the action is shifting to different forms of corporate religious commitment. Different, yes, but by no means are they new. Barna found that, in a typical week, 9% of all American adults participate in a house church. An even greater proportion - 22% - engages in spiritual encounters that take place in the marketplace (e.g., with groups of people while they are at their place of work or play, or in other typical daily contexts). Even the Internet serves as the foundation for interactive faith experiences for more than one out of every ten adults, usually in tandem with other forms of religious group experiences.
Jon Zens, editor of the quarterly publication, "Searching Together," and an advocate of New Testament church life being lived-out today, has observed a growing exodus of people from institutional churches across America. "I see three basic phenomena as to why people are exiting the institutional church," he explains. "After years of starving in the institutional church, they leave to find New Testament realities. People study their Bibles and come to perceive a huge chasm between the New Testament and the traditional church and often they leave after the institutional church disregards their pleas for change."
GOING TO vs BEING THE CHURCH
The New Testament writers referred to the PEOPLE of God as God's building (1 Corinthians 3:9, Ephesians 2:19-22), God's temple (1 Corinthians 3:16-17), God's house (1 Timothy 3:15, Hebrews 3:6, 10:21, 1 Peter 2:17), God's household (Ephesians 2:19, Galatians 6:10) and Christ's body (Romans 12:4-5, 1 Corinthians 12:12, Ephesians 3:6, 5:23, 30). Though most Christians - even ministers - would say 'Amen" to that, such a response is generally little more than mere lip service.
I can recall an "emergency meeting" years ago when I was on-staff at a huge metropolitan church. The elders got wind of an associate pastor who had held a meeting at his home and, without him being present, ordered a meeting of the entire staff, from deacons to janitors - some 35 strong - to call their friends and "warn" them about the associate pastor's "evil" actions. I spoke up, unable to contain myself any longer amidst the accusations and escalating concerns. "We can all see the call of God on this couple's lives to lead people. Why can't we simply bless them and move on...or is this fear-motivated...is this all about losing tithers?" Needless to say, no one spoke to me again after that and I was asked to step down within two days. I immediately joined the ranks of the former associate pastor as HIS associate pastor.
Did Christians in the New Testament GO to church. No, the thought never entered their minds. They WERE the church! They understood that they WERE God's dwelling place. They were His temple! As Howard Snyder writes in "The Problem of Wineskins Today," "A church building cannot properly be "the Lord's house" because, in the new covenant, this title is reserved for the church as people. So, if church buildings have any justification, it can only be practical; simply a place to meet and carry on essential functions, as necessary."
The Book of Acts is STILL being written, my friends.
RUNNING THE CHURCH LIKE A BUSINESS
What we in the West typically refer to as "The Church" is taking its toll on the people we hire to run these organizations. Zens said, "Divorce, suicide, nervous breakdown, burnout, etc. abound among clergy. The average pastorate in the Southern Baptist Convention is under 18 months. The high-pressure altar call tactics have proven to produce "converts" that rarely last. Even with all the empirical evidence that many things are amuck in the traditional model, the real issue is 'what does the New Testament teach?' If any model contradicts or stifles the New Testament pattern, it should be jettisoned for such reasons alone. The early church had no clergy and no sacred buildings, and in this regard was radically different from all other religions, including Judaism. The proliferation of expensive church buildings constitutes a fundamental compromise of what Christ intended to build. Thus, believers gathering in informal settings [in] homes, rented store-fronts, outdoors and apartments apparently provides the best context for the 58 "one anothers" [in the Bible] to be fleshed out."
In his article entitled "Four Tragic Shifts in the Visible Church, 180-400 A.D.," Zens writes. " I think the primary theological point of the New Testament in this regard is that under the New Covenant there are no holy places. Contemporary Christianity has almost no grasp of this significant point. Taking a cue from the Old Covenant, people are still lead to believe that a church building is 'the house of God.' Believers are free to meet any place in which they can foster, cultivate and attain the goals set before them by Christ. The problem today is that many church structures neither promote nor accomplish Christ's desires for His body. Homes are a neutral place for believers to meet, and the early church flourished well into the first and second centuries without erecting any temple-like edifices. But the issue is still not in what type of place believers gather, but what shape their committed life together takes as they wrestle with the many duties and privileges flowing out of the priesthood of all believers."
Christian Smith, writing in the journal "Voices In The Wilderness," adds, "God intends church to be a community of believers in which each member contributes their special gift, talent, or ability to the whole, so that, through the active participation and contribution of all, the needs of the community are met. In other words, what we ought to see in our churches is 'the ministry of the people,' not 'the ministry of the professional.' The role of the clergy is essentially the centralization and professionalization of the gifts of the whole body into one person. The problem is that, regardless of what our theologies tell us about the purpose of clergy, the actual effect of the clergy profession is to make the body of Christ lame. This happens not because clergy intend it (they usually intend the opposite) but because the objective nature of the profession inevitably turns the laity into passive receivers."
THE CORPORATE PYRAMID IN THE CHURCH
Passive laity? Pew potatoes? Their existence is borne out in such passages as Romans 12:4-8, 1 Corinthians 12, and in 1 Corinthians 14:26, the latter stating: "What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church." Ministry in the New Testament church was not centered on one individual, but involved each member of the "ekklesia" (that's you and me, "the called out ones") as a functioning "priest" (1 Peter 2: 5, 9) under the headship of Christ and directed by the Holy Spirit exercising his/her gift for the mutual strengthening of the body.
The New Testament refers to no spiritual hierarchy, but calls all Believers 'saints.' Neither does it recognize a special priesthood in distinction from the people, as mediating between God and the laity. Clearly, there is only one high-Priest, Jesus Christ, and the New Testament clearly designates a universal royal priesthood, as well as universal kingship of believers (1 Peter 2:5,9; Rev. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6).
So, what are we afraid of? Most Christians react more out of fear and a sense of loyalty to tradition than a commitment to Biblical truth as they poo-poo any such notions as being nearly heretical. Craig S. Keener points out in "The IVP Bible Background Commentary-New Testament," "Believers met in homes rather than church buildings for the first three centuries of the church." This eventually changed in 312 AD when the Emperor Constantine was dubbed Pontifex Maximus, head of all things spiritual, including paganism and Christianity simultaneously. When he made institutional Christianity the state religion in Rome, he converted pagan temples into Christian "churches" and used state funds to support the clergy making ministry another elite "job" to which many would aspire. In this atmosphere, politics reared its ugly head in a supposedly Christian context as wealthy people would lobby to get "junior" a coveted post in the church world.
Howard Snyder, in his book "Radical Renewal: The Problem of Wineskins Today," writes, "A Biblical conception of the church will make it clear that the church is essential to the gospel, for it is the body of Christ...At the same time, it will be clear that human institutions and structures are not themselves the church; they are not hallowed. These are days when Christians must be clear about what the church is and what it is not. Just as many false Christs will come in the last days, so many counterfeit and apostate "churches" will litter the spiritual landscape. The church must be prepared, both as persons and as the Christian community, for the lash of persecution and the lure of the antichrist.
This means the necessity for doctrinal clarity and authentic community - for both orthodoxy of belief and orthodoxy of community. Under the threat of persecution, life in community becomes both more difficult and more essential. Thus the priorities of structures which are flexible, mobile, inconspicuous, and not building-centered."
A THING OF THE PAST RESURRECTED
What we are so committed to here in the Western Church is simply not working. That should be our first clue. Anyone can read the facts regarding the church: Most modern conversions are in third-world nations. Our churches close at a rate of 3800 annually. Eighty percent of what we refer to as "church growth" is little more than "transfer growth" as people leave one organization for another like we change political parties, sports teams and spouses. 53,000 Christians are walking out weekly, many claiming they had to leave the traditional church in order to find God.
Is this "house Church" thing just a fad? No, it's been around a long time. A significant home church movement began in Australia in 1968. For decades, home meetings have been the norm in China, Latin America and other places. If persecution erupted in America, the house church model could suddenly be very common, as churches that require immense weekly overhead to operate could fold virtually overnight. It will take a catastrophic event to awaken the church to what is important in the Kingdom.
The Church flourishes under persecution. When that happens, the shape of believers' lives together will change rapidly. Zens writes, "As long as our affluence continues, the informal approach to church will remain. But whether something is minority or majority is hardly the issue. Our concern must be, 'how will we follow Christ in all areas of our lives? Are we going to obey the New Testament or not? One brother in our assembly has said, 'our way of doing church is not popular. It requires hard work and commitment.' The home church movement, of course, is not monolithic," Zen's pointed out. "... no movement will prosper long if it does not center on exalting Jesus Christ and obeying His Word."
Although it goes by many names (e.g. house church, simple church, open church, organic church, etc.), it is simply a group of people getting together with Christ as their center, and the Bible as the ultimate authority. These groups can gather anywhere--homes, workplaces, coffee shops, anywhere that people naturally gather! "Where two or three are gathered in My name, there I am, in the midst of them," Jesus said.
PERSONAL HOUSE CHURCH EXPERIENCES
I have never seen the depth of intimacy between friends, the transparency, the lives that have been so radically changed, in traditional churches in the way that I have seen it in home groups with which I've been associated the past 15 years. In one home group, once the word got out that miracles were happening there, it was not uncommon for visitors to drop by, pen and paper in hand, taking notes in order to examine what it was we were doing differently. Quite simply, we regularly experienced the power of God's presence resulting from unconditional love and unity. Cancers healed, leukemia gone, demons cast out of people and animals, a young man removed from life support now feeding himself, talking and walking, regular manifestations of the gifts of the Spirit as well as an unconditional acceptance and permission to "mess up...," this describes my experiences with house church groups; Baptists, Catholics, Lutherans, Pentecostals meeting together, accepting one another and allowing the Holy Spirit to show up freely and with power.
So, don't be afraid to think outside the edifice. God will meet you there. Right now, across the globe, millions of committed born again Christians are choosing to advance their relationship with God by finding avenues of growth and service apart from a local church.
And it's O.K. So much more than O.K.!
Michael's mission is to bring Discipleship and Encouragement to the Body of Christ. Since 1999, he has broadcast nearly six hundred inspirational articles and a dozen booklets on subjects that will interest the thinking Christian, all designed to accelerate the process of spiritual development in God's people.
He is the founder of t.e.a.m. ministries . An Author, Pastoral Counselor and Teacher, his eMail broadcasts, known as "Your Town for Jesus" are reaching millions around the globe WEEKLY. Write firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like to SUBSCRIBE.
A licensed/ordained minister, a Certified Workplace Chaplain, and a Professional Member of NIBIC, he has ministered in Methodist, Pentecostal, Charismatic, Baptist, Disciples of Christ, College and Cowboy churches. He is also a Speaker on the Christian Speaker Network and may be available to speak to your church or Christian group.