Kicked out of the Nest
by John White
After I graduated from Fuller Seminary, I was ordained as a pastor in the old United Presbyterian Church in 1973 and was hired as the Director of Youth Ministry for a church in Denver, CO. Over the following twenty years I served in three different Presbyterian churches in various positions: Director of Singles, Director of Small Groups, Director of Adult Ministry and church planting pastor. (I had a lot of experience in "directing" things.)
The paradigm shift
Somewhere in the mid 1980's, my understanding of church (my ecclesiology) began slowly to change. I can only see this clearly in retrospect but there were at least three factors that were moving me out of the "system" I had grown up in and toward house church ministry.
First, I began to develop a discontent with traditional church in America. It began to dawn on me that never in the history of Christianity had there been so much activity (conferences, seminars, mega churches, parachurch ministry, books, etc.) with so little impact. Since I had become a Christian in 1963, it seemed to me that level of activity had steadily increased but our impact on the culture had steadily declined. As someone has said, the church in America is about a thousand miles wide and a half an inch deep. George Barna's research continues to show that the morality of the average church person is not much different from the morality of the average pagan. Certainly, there were some very positive and productive churches and ministries. But, taken as a whole, I began to feel that the church in America had pretty much failed in fulfilling the Great Commission (Mt. 28:19-20). There was lots of activity but a surprisingly small amount of transformation.
Second, I began to hear reports of what God was doing around the world through a form of church called 'house church'. The China story was particularly compelling. In 1950, there were 1-2 million Christians when the Communists took over. Missionaries were thrown out. Churches shut down. Pastors thrown into jail. Would the church be completely obliterated? Of course, the answer was quite to the contrary. During the same 50 years that has seen the influence of Christianity decline in the US, the church in China has grown to perhaps 100 million in the midst of great persecution. Why was that? It seemed to me that at least part of the answer was the form of church. The house church was relational, participatory and persecution proof. It was producing a much more powerful form of Christianity than that generally produced by the American church.
Third, I began to reread my New Testament. In the 1980's, I discovered 1 Cor. 14:26. "What shall I say then, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a psalm, a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation. Let all these things be done for the edification of the church." Here was a description of how the early church functioned and yet I had never in my twenty years of being a Christian heard anyone teach on it or even mention it. (Of course, all of that has changed now. Every house church book discusses this verse.)
I was particularly stunned by the word "everyone". This one word pointed to a way of doing church that was fundamentally different from what I had grown up with and was now leading. All of my experience was that "church" meant meeting in a building with pews or chairs (the more the better) facing the same direction. In this "church" almost all of the talking/leading was done by a few people (preacher, worship leader, etc.). Everyone else was largely a spectator. As spectators, it was natural that people would gravitate to the "best" preacher and the "best" worship team. We (unintentionally) taught people to be connoisseurs of "fine church".
By contrast, the church in the New Testament was participatory in nature. Everyone contributed. It was a kind of "spiritual potluck". Everyone was expected to bring "a dish". And everyone ate from what was on the table.
The implications were huge. First, it was clear that you couldn't have this kind of church with a large number of people. If everyone was going to participate, then 10-15 would be close to a maximum number. Second, the quality of discipleship would go up. People who contribute (teaching, praying, etc.) grow far more than those who merely watch someone else do the same thing. Third, this kind of church was much more like an organism than an organization. It functioned as a kind of extended family. Relationships were everything. No more sitting in a pew where no one know who you are or what is going on in your life.
As I reread my New Testament, I realized that every local church that was mentioned met in a house. The Epistle to the Philippians, for instance, was not written to a church of a thousand that met in a building on Main Street. It was written to a collection of house churches. It was in these house churches that instructions on spiritual gifts and on the "one anothers" made the most sense.
I had believed in small groups for a long time. I knew that this was where the best discipling took place. But in my paradigm, small groups were secondary. "Church" happened on Sunday morning in the "church" building. "And, by the way, we would like you to be in a small group if you can make the time." The very best churches might have 40-50% of its members in a small group. More likely the number was 10-20%.
Now, I saw that everything was reversed in the early church (or maybe we were the ones who were reversed). The small group was the church. If you weren't in one of these small groups (house churches), you weren't in a church. These house churches seemed to come together occasionally for a larger gathering. But the larger gathering was secondary. The small group, the church meeting in a home was primary.
"Kicked out of the nest"
I didn't come to all of this quickly. In fact, I seem to be an amazingly slow learner. The preceding paragraphs took place over 10-15 years. Even then, I might not have completely embraced house church were it not for a church split that occurred in 1998. The split resulted from these very issues. From ecclesiology. My wife and I found ourselves without a church building and without a church organization. I had been "kicked out of the nest" of the traditional church that I had been in for 35 years. We found ourselves meeting in a home on Sunday morning with a small group of people who wanted to "hang out" together. It was as though the Lord was saying, "It's time for you to actually do this. To make house church your primary expression of church."
In the beginning we really didn't know what we were doing. Someone described our group as "a bunch of drowning rats clinging to the same piece of wood". Slowly we began to understand what the Lord had in mind for us. One of the important tools that He used in this was Wolfgang Simson.
I had never heard of Wolfgang. A friend gave me an article by him in 1999 and that lead me to a website where I found a book that he had written. I downloaded the book (Houses that Change the World) and read it. I had read a lot of books on "the church" but this was different. It was a Biblical and historical examination of the "church in the home" that confirmed and extended my own vision.
Since the book had not yet been published in English, I emailed Wolf for permission to make copies. He graciously granted that permission and I went to the local Copy Max and asked them to make 10 copies for me. I began to use the book both for training new house church leaders and for informing others who were thinking about moving in this direction. Over the next year, I had 110 copies made.
The growing movement
Since that time, I've had the privilege to watch this amazing "revolution" begin to grow. Through Mike Steele and DAWN Ministries (stands for Discipling A Whole Nation), I've been able to connect with the growing number of men and women across America who are being "thrust out" (Luke 10:2) to plant house churches (we sometimes call them "vibrant families of Jesus"). In region after region, I've seen these family-like churches spring up sovereignly. Time and time again, I would hear something like this, "I love Jesus but I just couldn't keep doing church the way I had been. A few of us have begun meeting in our home. We didn't know anyone else was doing this."
It's also been wonderful to walk closely with Tony and Felicity Dale at House2House Ministries. They have done such a great job at connecting so many who are a part of the "revolution" through their magazine and website and through the National House Church Conferences.
I've discovered that my own role is that of helping to encourage and connect and coach the apostolic church planters that are appearing. It has been the thrill of my life to see the Lord once again re-forming His church!
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