Tag Archives: authentic models

Love vs. Ideology: What Motivates Us To Gather?

“If I… can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, … but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor 13:2)

Recently, my husband and I set out to do something very simple: open our home to friends and family weekly for a meal. The meals would be simple ones that we could make a lot of and keep warm, which in turn would allow people to come when they could and would accommodate whoever happened to show up. While we have kept our hearts open to where this may lead, our idea was not to have some sort of “church meeting” but rather to create a place of community, hospitality and love where all were welcome.

This gathering is really a very small beginning, and we are learning about how to create a place of community, and have much to learn, but very quickly it went from simple to complex. I don’t wish to go into details, but much of the complexity came from the thought that we should do certain things, otherwise our gathering was invalid. Without sharing any details, I wrote to some friends that I felt as if “a whole pile of religious obligation was being laid on my doorstep.” And may I say, lest any jump to quick conclusions, that the religious obligation was not “institutional” in nature, that is not related to the “institutionalization” of church life, but part of common teachings about how house churches should function. And the ideas themselves were not bad ones, but several questions arise in my heart from them, such as: What motivates us to gather? What informs the form that our gatherings take? How do we know when we really get it right?

What strikes me is that much of the rhetoric around so-called “organic” or “New Testament house church” meetings becomes about doing it “right,” “according to the Biblical pattern,” etc. I think this is laudable to desire something that mirrors the 1st century church, and is biblical. But a focus on the “the right way” becomes an ideology, and even if our form is precisely what the 1st century believers did, if that’s as far as it goes, it will be all wrong. These men and women were remarkable. They “turned the world upside down,” and indeed changed history. But I fear sometimes in our zeal to have what is “biblical” we put the cart before the horse.  For instance, we can be so bent on having a meeting where “everyone has a hymn, a word of instruction, a revelation…” etc. (1 Cor 14:26), that we miss the point of why Paul was writing about these things, which is found in 1 Corinthians 13. Over and over again, in scriptures it is emphasized that the aim is love. Love for God, love for one another, and love for the people of the earth. I have deep and high regard for the Bible, but our understanding of its teachings will only be complete when our starting place and our goal is our desire to love as Jesus loved.

The thing is we tend to speak of love as a kind of an add-on. We emphasize many other things, and then as an afterthought we say, “and yes, love is important too.” In the body of Christ when we try to emulate the 1st century church, we focus on form, structure, church government, modern day apostles, discipleship, groups of 12 (G12), cell groups, house churches, the gifts of the Spirit, church planting strategy, etc, and then because we know we should, we say, “and of course we need to love too…” And if anyone brings up the importance of love, there will be all kinds of ways to get off that subject, and back onto the important subjects like “What was the structure of the biblical new testament church?” or “What is the biblical strategy for planting churches?” or “What does a New Testament gathering look like?” All these are indeed important, but if we have not love…

When I wrote these things to some co-workers, one of them, wrote back the following:

“…the simple things are most often neglected while often being the most significant and profound. No planning, special gifts or strategy is needed, it’s something that every person can do, no matter their physical or mental condition.”

He then wrote about his sister Joy, who was severely handicapped from birth and was not able to walk, speak much, or to be easily understood when she did speak, and yet Joy had an amazing and deep ability to love everyone.

And this may be precisely why we prefer to focus on something else.  Simplicity does not appeal to our spiritual pride. We want to feel we have something that no one else can do, that we have fathomed some deep mystery which others have yet to see, but to have God tell us to do something that a child can do, or a mentally handicapped person… Well, that just isn’t good enough. We will do all the extremely dramatic things such as “surrendering our body to the flames” or “giving all our possessions to the poor” or “moving mountains” with our faith rather than do that simple thing of loving our neighbor. This we brush aside. All the while not really appreciating that truly loving as God loves is more difficult and more powerful than even the most awe-inspiring miracle. When Jesus said “as I have loved you, so you too ought to love one another” He was asking us to do the impossible. The impossible. We need this to sink deep down into our spirits.  I believe sometimes the weak are better at this precisely because they know they are weak — they are used to depending on God, and so His love flows more freely. He wants to bring us to the same point of realization of our weakness as He brought the disciples to in the days after His death. When we realize we are completely incapable of what He is asking of us, we will cry out to Him, and in that day, He will answer.

I wrote another essay titled “Only Love Can See.” I believe this is a key principle in understanding New Testament church life. The band of misfits who birthed the first church didn’t know how the church would be administered; they didn’t know they would meet in houses; they didn’t know even what it meant to be an apostle (except that it meant ‘to be sent”); they only knew Jesus, and His love, and that He had asked them to do the impossible: to love Him and one another with the same kind of love that He had loved them (alarming!). This is why I believe they waited for the Holy Spirit, and when they received Him, they were empowered to love. All strategy, all form, all structure, all administration, and all miracles — all flowed out of this love. Yet, we still think we can emulate the 1st century church form and what we see of their strategy and we will experience first century church life. We cannot. It is only love that gives us eyes to see the intent behind these things. We must start with love, and love must also be our aim. Anything short of that is nothing.

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“Only Love Can See”

People say love is blind, and there is an element of truth to that.  I think of the verse that says “Love covers a multitude of sins.”  But so often when the expression “love is blind” is used I think we are talking about infatuation.  Infatuation is blind.  But Love?  Love is not blind.  It is, in fact, the only force in the universe that enables us to see.

For the past couple years, I’ve been part of a small fellowship.  We’re kind of an oddity.  We’re small, and we meet like a home fellowship, but we ended up in possession (though no effort of our own) of this 182 year old church meeting house, built in 1829.  We were all somewhat puzzled.  We knew we didn’t need it, but the circumstances that brought it into our possession made us feel we had it for a purpose.  So, we met there, and kept asking the Lord “why do we have this?”  Some “meet-in-houses-only” Christians at times explored meeting with us, but the fact that we were meeting in a “church building” really was this huge stumbling stone, and so our meeting together with them never materialized.

I myself, before joining this little fellowship, found myself increasingly of that camp.  I felt so much of “building campaigns” and the like were a waste of time and money and were focused on things rather than relationships. I was increasingly of the mindset that homes were the the only model of church life that really would produce the kind of vibrant community of love that one sees at the end of the second chapter of Acts, one where people were loving each other so much that they were selling their possessions to help those among them who were in need.

But this little fellowship messed with my ideas.  I started going there because I had some old friends who were there, including the leader of the group, Craig.  I really wasn’t planning on being a part of them, but the first day I came, I remember feeling so at home just to worship with them, and I found myself being continually drawn back.  The group was in transition at that time, which meant a number of people left, but the smaller we got the more real we got with one another, and we transitioned from Craig sitting on a stool up front, to turning around the pews in a circle, to finally all sitting in a circle in the back of the room.  That was when we got puzzled.  Five or six people sitting in a circle in a vacant building.  Why not meet in a home?  Some of you reading this, maybe have the same question.  But, I now believe God allowed it to intentionally challenge my ideas.  I was so sure I knew what the “right” model was, and it was as if he was saying to me: “You’re missing the point.”

When I first arrived at this little fellowship, Craig was leading a discussion weekly on John 15, and though we have certainly had many discussions on many other books, chapters and verses since then, there is a sense that we haven’t left that chapter.  It’s helpful to understand this chapter by viewing it from the point of view of Jesus’ humanity.  He knew he was preparing to face an excruciatingly painful death.  When people are facing death, they tend to focus on the most key, most important things.  So what was on Jesus’ mind as he faced his imminent demise? In a word, Love.  If he had one parting word, one parting thought, it was that they love one another.  Yes, he said “keep my commands”, but then if there was any doubt as to what he meant, he said “This is my command: love one another.”

I wrote about this in an earlier essay on this blog.  There, I spoke of my reflections on Judas, and how heart-breaking it must have been to the other disciples to realize they were unaware of what was going on inside of him.  Only Jesus had known.  Why had he known?  Because he loved even Judas.  The disciples, by contrast, in those last moments when Jesus was pouring out his heart, still had not really learned to love one another.  They were still vying over who was better than the other, and because of all their jockeying for position, they were blind to what was happening right in front of their eyes.  Only love can see.

And how did Jesus know that the Pharisees were plotting to kill him?  Was it because he was just so wise in the wisdom of this world?  So often we read his words to them – the “eight woes” they are often called – and we hear the way we might say those words.  For years, I sort of heard Jesus saying “You guys are real jerks.  I really don’t care for you very much.”  But slowly as the Lord loved me in my own moments of hypocrisy (play-acting, pretending), I realized his tone of voice, even then, even in those eight woes, was far different than I had ever imagined.  Now when I read those eight woes, I hear a gentle, loving, chiding voice, pleading with everything in His power for them to see themselves, and cease from their destructive murderous behavior.  Was he serious?  Dead serious.  He knew how terribly harmful their behavior was, but his viewpoint was absolute and complete love.  It was for this reason that Paul the apostle, who was a self-proclaimed “pharisee of pharisees” could write “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

“You’re missing the point.”  Yes, I had been missing the point.  Where I met with other believers was not the point.  No more than the many things the pharisees brought up were the point – whether or not you wash your hands before eating, whether or not you fast, whether or not you consider picking stalks of grain to be “breaking the sabbath.” All these things missed the point.  The point, the message of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was Love.  Love God.  Love one another.  Love your enemies.  Far from making us blind, Love, true agape love, gives us eyes to see.

Experiencing Authentic New Testament Christianity

Author’s note: Sorry to have been away so long.  The better part of this post was actually written last May, but the last year turned out to be very eventful, so my musings got put on hold.  This morning, I woke up with some thoughts that I wanted to put down in writing, but found the draft of this post instead, and realized it said a lot of what I had on my mind.

In my observation there seems to be a huge upsurge of people within the both the evangelical and charismatic Christian traditions seeking something more authentic in their Christianity.  Many are looking to the 1st century church and asking themselves: does what we do line up with what they did?  Does what we are doing look like what Jesus meant for the church to look like?  These are good questions, but at times I fear in our quest for “authentic New Testament Christianity” we may miss the point. Here are some of the points I hear from various different camps looking for authentic Christianity:

  • We should meet in houses, because that’s what the first church did
  • We should have spiritual fathers, like Paul’s relationship with Timothy
  • We should have/recognize modern-day apostles like there were in 1st century
  • We should be experiencing miracles like the 1st century church
  • We should be experiencing church growth like the first century church
  • We should have church structure that matches the first century church
  • Our church government needs to match the first century church

I don’t wish to argue the validity of any of the above statements.  They may all be true, but my concern is that all these points miss the main point.  And if we miss the main point, then our perspective on every other point (which includes those above) will be be wrongly skewed.

So what’s the main point?  When the first century church started out they didn’t know how they were going to do any of those things.  They had only three things, (1) Jesus had loved them in a way that completely broke them to the core, and ruined them for all else, (2) He had told them that they were to love one another in this same way (!), and (3) they knew they will completely and utterly incapable of doing so in their own power!  Point #2 ought to alarm us!  If it does not, than we do yet have a revelation of the depth and power of God’s love.  As I have said on other posts, the greatest miracle on Pentecost was not the tongues or the miracles that followed, but the fact that this group of misfits who just a few short weeks before had been vying for position, now miraculously began to love one another to the point that they were “selling their property and possessions and sharing them with all as anyone had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)

So, it seems to me if we want to experience a Christianity like that which was experienced by the first century church (and I’m not sure we fully do, but that’s another subject altogether), we need to experience the same kind of love they did, and if we want to experience the same kind of love, then our only path is to gather together in prayer with others of like mind and ask Him to send His Spirit into our midst and empower us to be like, and to love like Him. (Acts 1:14)

“If only one flower stands out, it is not truly spring”

The following article was published on the Serving China Prayer Blog.  Though it was originally written to help foreigners more effectively pray for and serve the Body of Christ in China, it is really full of many lessons that we can learn from them as well.  Enjoy!

A House Church Pastor’s Perspective

By Brother Dong

EDITORS’ NOTE: This month we are so glad to present you with a letter written first-hand by a leading Chinese house church pastor himself! “Brother Dong” is a premiere Christian leader on a nationwide scale, involved in a very wide spectrum of Christian work across many provinces. Recently, he spoke to us by phone, giving us his insights on what we as a foreign servant ministry in China should focus on in the months and years ahead. It was so profoundly valuable that we asked him to put it in writing, which he agreed to do and then let us share with you also.

When Brother Dong first shared with by phone, his framework was how we could better pray for the church in China. Later, when he wrote the article, the same comments focused on how to best serve the church in China. Finally, when we read the article ourselves, we couldn’t help but notice how much we here in the West could learn from the church in China. It is our prayer that this excellent article will aid you both in better interceding for our brothers and sisters in China, as well as inspiring all of us to learn and apply lessons from the church in China to our communities of faith at home.

God’s work in China in the past fifty years has surprised many–Christians and non-Christians alike. Restricted circumstances and non-existent religious structure have birthed a homegrown movement, which does not easily fit into any traditional model. Maybe now for the first time Christianity has taken root in China. For the church to flourish within and without China, it is important for the Body of Christ to engage church in China in a holistic way.

First, help her stick to the essentials that sustain and grow a Christian or a church. There is a continual need for Bibles, and literature on spiritual life, preaching, and teaching, gospel tracts, world mission history and missionary biographies. Particularly in the current circumstances, these types of literature can reach many people at many places.

Second, help her return to the basics of Christian faith. The simplicity of Christian faith is the vitality of God’s church. The essence of Christ’s gospel needs no more than a mouth and a breath to spread. As the educational level improves in Chinese society, there is a temptation to develop elaborate theologies and practices, which are not only incomprehensible to many Christians and cause divisions, but also divert and waste the energy that should have been utilized to expand God’s Kingdom.

Third, encourage her to pick up the zeal and vision for world missions. The Chinese rural house church will be an important model for the future of world missions because 1) it is homegrown, which is non-threatening to local community and culture; 2) its strategies and methods are indigenous, mostly free of Western denominational influence, and so are flexible and adaptable; 3) its operation, without the burden of church building and clergy, is least resources-dependent, which in turn enables her to focus the resources for outreach; 4) it remains communal and relational, which is the nature of many societies/cultures in Asia and Africa; 5) it is of the lower class, which comprises of the majority of world population. This will potentially result in a shift in Christian missions and social development from “the strong reaching out the weak” to “peer help”.

Fourth, interact with the urban church productively. This requires Western believers to be especially wise, using caution in this effort. The urban church has experienced significant growth in the last fifteen years. It tends to be strong in education, affluence, skills, and resources, thus often self-sufficient. The strong background of leaders and limited exposure often result in isolation of churches. Intellectual ability often hinders urban churches from coming together because disagreement on certain doctrine or practice. Advanced training offers the urban church competence in managing efficiently, which could lead to some mega-churches. This may not be a good thing. There is a Chinese saying, which says: “If only one flower stands out, it is not truly spring.” In the same way, efficiency of one entity may not mean effectiveness of the whole Body of Christ. To gain recognition, urban church tends to institutionalize through legal/structural effort and purchase of property, which is resource-draining. The consequences may be unexpected: when the Spirit is there, everybody cares for one another; but when the Body of Christ becomes institutionalized, each person becomes just one of many which often results in insensitivity and indifference. It is our hope that urban church would not fall into Western denominational structures and theologies.

Fifth, build dialogue and partnership between urban and rural churches. Because of societal and cultural differences, China exists in two very different worlds: the rural and the urban. Despite rapid urbanization in recent years, the influx to cities is mainly of rural outlook. The feelings of inferiority among the rural versus those of privilege among the urban often hinder interaction between the two worlds. This bears similar impact on the churches as well. They need to be pushed into dialogue and partnership to utilize their respective gifts. Rural churches typically are strong in dedication, human power, time, and contextual adaptability, while urban churches possess finance, knowledge, and advanced skills. Doing projects together may offer a good venue to develop dialogue and grow partnership.

Sixth, network churches from different background and areas. Because of the current circumstances, churches, big or small, often operate within their own circles. It would be beneficial for them to cross the boundaries which they have placed between themselves so that they can catch a big picture of God’s work and His call upon the Chinese church. This is usually not easy for nationals to initiate. Foreign believers are a good third party to initiate and sustain this kind of interaction. Only through this effort can real growth and expansion happen. Then many small and solid churches will bloom all over China, rather than a few big ones in a few centers.

Seventh, help her grow in the understanding of social witness and cross-cultural outreach. The one-sided economic development in the past thirty years has left out many in society. Most of the marginalized live among or are from the rural area. Christians have won approval through their upright living in their community, but they need to actively enter the society to reach out to the needy. Churches need to open their eyes to see the needs of orphans, HIV/AIDS, prostitutes, and the poor. Another area is cross-cultural: many churches have little experience or understanding of other cultures in China’s predominately Han Chinese society. As a result many Chinese missionaries are not effective in their work among ethnic minority groups. There is a need to understand cross-cultural issues and their practical implementation in order to include those people groups in fulfilling the Great Commission. Chinese churches are rich in resources, which can be effectively used for reaching out people outside of China, such as North Korean refugees and people-groups in Southeast Asia.

Finally, rekindle dedication to and sacrifice for Christ. As China develops economically, comfort, security, and stability begin to set in. Programs and strategies become increasingly sophisticated. There is a need to return to simplicity and rekindle the spirit of dedication and sacrifice. That is the most sustainable strategy in bringing the whole world to Christ!

“Alternative Church… Organic Church… what?”

I wasn’t sure what to name this blog. I had other names that stuck out at me more than Alternative Church, but they were already taken. My favorite is Organic Church, a term I coined for myself, but found someone else also coined the same term for themselves. I think I like that term because it paints a picture of what I want to be rather than what I don’t want to be. The word “Alternative” indicates there is something that one is reacting against — that is, an alternative is always an alternative to something. There has to be something you don’t want to have an alternative.

Organic on the other hand speaks of a vision of something that is as natural as breathing. Nothing artificial, nothing man-made. Growing naturally, being tended not cultivated. Not manipulated, but allowing it to be what it is naturally.

Still, alternative has some positive connotations for me, and most “alternatives” I have been exposed to came from a desire to have something more authentic, more “organic”, if the truth be told. Growing up, I spent more half my school years in what were called alternative schools. These schools were born out of trying to find methods of education that worked more effectively than the traditional methods. During what would have been considered grades 1-4, I was enrolled in free schools, except for 1 year when I was home schooled. No we were not Christians, which is what most today associate the home school movement, we were hippies. My Dad was an atheist, and my mother agnostic. The home schooling occurred because there were no good alternative schools available where we were living for that year. I have fond memories of trying to dodge the truant officer (we were certainly ahead of our time)!

The Free Schools you can read about at the link (but it’s wikipedia, so take it with a grain of salt), but to summarize, they were schools with very few rules or expectations. The idea was to give freedom to kids to learn in their own way at their own pace. Though the schools themselves had age ranges, they did not separate the children into grades, give grades, or have traditional classrooms. Teachers all went by their first names (yes, you could say it was a “hippie school”).

I can honestly say there were some major drawbacks to this method of schooling, though some aspects of it worked well for me personally. Being naturally inquisitive, I sought out opportunities to learn. I remember when I was 8, I had a math teacher named Lou Fabrizio. All the students loved him. We all thought he was “super cool” – long hair he wore in a pony tail, and an easy teasing manner that went over well with everyone. One day, he happened to mention Algebra, and I asked him what it was. He explained it to me in such a way that I understood and actually found fascinating. So at the age 8 I had my first exposure to algebraic equations. It was only years later in the public school system that I found out that Algebra was not typically introduced until 7th or 8th grade at least (I don’t know if that’s still true, but it was then).

I also believe the schools were very positive for fostering creativity. I wrote and bound my first book during that period. It was called “The Cat Who Had Too Many Kittens”, and was about a cat that had an astronomically large number of kittens, and all the trouble it caused her. My best friend and I wrote and starred in a musical that we performed for our families. I also wrote poetry, many short stories, and was apprenticed for a time to the improvisational theater group Living Stage. Where we did “miss it” was that we went to the far extreme in the other direction. Believing structure was the enemy, we had almost no structure. For me that worked okay, since I am fairly self-directed, and thrive in that kind of atmosphere, but for other students not so well. Structure was not the enemy. Killing the human spirit and the natural exuberance of the children was.

After that, from 5th to 9th grades I went into the normal public school system. Talk about culture shock! To make matters worse it was a public school system in a rural area, which had been largely untouched by the social movements my family had been so much a part of. I instinctively knew that my past life did not fit into the frame of reference of those around me, and for most of my public school years hid my previous school experience from even my closest friends. Nonetheless, I did well academically. My brother not so well. However, not fitting in with the “brainy” crowd, who all thought I was a little weird, I soon was hanging with “The Outsiders” (S.E. Hinton was a novelist I and a number of my friends read back then, and we all related to “the Outsiders”. We didn’t call ourselves that really, but remembering I find the term and the mindset fits us well).

My mother seeing that I was languishing in the public schools suggested private school, but I didn’t want to go to a school with a bunch of “preppies” (the word at that time was a term of contempt among my crowd). Thank God for the “alternative” that presented itself, which was an alternative school I ended up attending for grades 10-12. This school had taken the best ideas of the free schools and yet added necessary structure. It was far from “preppie” (though we did have one or two token preppies in our student body, but they too were part of our community).

We had classrooms, but they were small, and had round tables at which everyone sat instead of desks in rows. We had grades, but the entire community of the school had daily and weekly interactions with each other across grade levels through school meetings at which everyone, student and teacher alike had a voice. Our classes emphasized traditional subjects of math, English, history, literature, and foreign language, but also gave equal importance to philosophy, art, music, drama and environmental studies. We had no “study halls” instead students all had several “free periods” each day which we could use as we saw fit — hanging out, studying, working in the art studio, playing music, or debating philosophy on the back porch (my personal favorite). And, as in the free schools, all the teachers were known on a first name basis (to this day some teachers I can only remember by their first names: Roger my English teacher, Tom my biology teacher, etc). I honestly believe that school changed my life. Instead of languishing, I thrived, and my heart came to life again.

What does all this have to do with church? Am I saying that we should have “hippie churches”. No, not exactly. Wouldn’t exactly work since the hippie movement is by and large gone. It’s really kind of a parable of church life today. Maybe we can learn lessons from these folks who went before us who were looking for more authentic and organic in models for educating children, in the same way that many today are looking for more authentic models of Christianity and Christian community. Can we learn from their mistakes as well as their successes? The free schools made the mistake of seeing “structure” as the enemy. Today I think sometimes we in the “alternative” Christian community are making the mistake of seeing “institutions” or “programs” as the enemy. In fact, neither is the problem. You may beg to differ, but actually it is possible to experience true community in an institution. I did at my alternative high school (yes, isn’t a high school an “institution”).

We run the risk of thinking the answer lies in finding the right model. We also run the risk of becoming reactionary. The free school movement didn’t keep kids from getting damaged, we just got damaged in different ways from what happened in the public schools (just as we did also in fact thrive in different ways).

In the same way, if we develop new models of church life, new models of Christian community only as a reaction to what we see not working we may find ourselves throwing out necessary components which in our minds we attach to what didn’t work, but may in themselves be neutral, just like the free schools threw out all structure because they saw certain school structures stifled natural childhood creativity and exuberance. History is full of many more examples. Instead we may need to see structures as subservient to function, just as the alternative high school I went to embraced the structures that helped them while throwing off the ones that did not. The catch is we’ve gotta know what we are for, and not just what we are against.

So what are we for? I’m still learning myself, but I believe Hebrews 10 hold as clue. I’ll write about that next time. I’ve rambled enough for now.