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Contentment & Joy in “The 2 or 3”

seeds

“Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife.”
– Proverbs 17:1

Today, in commenting on another person’s blog, I ended up navigating back here, and reading some of my old posts. One in particular, “Let’s Start a Grassroots Revolution of Love!” got me thinking (again) about Jesus’ intriguing statement “…where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” Like the many revolutionary statements that Jesus and his early disciples made about love, this is one that, because it is so counter-cultural to our world, we often dismiss.  Even if our minds agree, our hearts say, “yes, but…”  Something in us continually is drawn back to “bigger is better.”  We don’t just want to build a super tall tower, we want to build one that “reaches to heaven.” In business, we are often not content running a mom-and-pop shop, but must expand it to a chain, despite the fact that we slowly lose contact with those we serve until we become an impersonal institution with no personality or soul.  Walk into Starbucks and then walk into the local coffee shop owned and operated by Joe who you know, sit in both and soak up the atmosphere.  It won’t take long and you will feel the vast difference, despite whatever the original founders of Starbucks may have intended.

The same happens in church life. We enjoy life in a small gathering of believers, but (often) automatically assume that more will be better.  There is a huge industry here in the U.S. of “church consultants” that is built around “church growth,” with the assumption that bigger… and bigger… and bigger… and YET BIGGER… is better. How tragic!

“But growth shows life,” you might say, “and growing means a church is healthy.”  True, growth is a sign of health, but unbridled growth is not.  In an ecosystem, unbridled growth of a species makes it an “invasive species” which destroys the ecosystem as a whole.  In the body, unbridled growth of cells is cancer, which likewise destroys the body as a whole.

Contrast this with the above-quoted words of Jesus – “two or three” – so counter-intuitive to all we are taught and all we instinctively believe!  There is a caveat though: the 2 or 3 can not be just “gathered,” but must be gathered “in my name.”  I believe this phrase “in my name” has much greater depth of meaning than just that we profess or say the words that our gathering is “in His name.”  Let me give an example.  Suppose I were to die.  Then suppose after my death, that my loved ones were to do something (anything) “in Margaret’s name.” The assumption would be that whatever they would be doing would be some cause near and dear my heart, and that they would be making every attempt not only to do what I would have done had I lived, but also to do it in the manner I would have done it.  If I loved to laugh, and had a wry sense of humor (which I do), than an event in my name that was humorless would not fit the bill, and those who knew me best might even be angry that it was done “in my name.”  The same is true if some cause were done “in my name.”  If, for instance, someone decided to “kick kittens” in my name, or even worse “kick calico kittens,” in the world of those who know me best it would be an utter sham!  Those who know me the very best would say, “They don’t know her at all!  This is not in her name, despite what they say!”  They would refuse to participate.

Even if it was something, my friends were not generally opposed to, like eating a McDonald’s hamburger, even if it were something they would normally participate in, if it were done “in Margaret’s name,” those who know me, knowing I really hate McDonald’s hamburgers, would say “This is a horrible way to remember Margaret.  This is NOTHING like anything she would want to do.  Let’s do something else.”

On the other hand, if my friends sat in my studio, made clay pots, played music and those who couldn’t play listened or sang, surrounded by frolicking calico kittens, and cracking wry, sarcastic jokes, and laughing until tears came out of their eyes, eating grilled salmon, roast lamb, hummus and lentil salad, and drinking a glass of a full-bodied red wine, or a cup of dark roast fresh ground coffee, or a glass of clear cool water from the well, and did this all while enjoying memories and talking about things that matter in life, than at the end, those who know me the very best would KNOW that this was truly a gathering “in Margaret’s name” – no questions asked.

In the same way, two or three gathered in the name of Jesus is not just words.  It must be in a context of knowing Him, and caring for those things He most cares about. And what does He care most about?  Well, when a man or woman is about to die, the thing they speak of typically reveals what they most care about. As I have written, elsewhere, as Jesus prepared himself to face an excruciatingly painful and torturous death, He got down to what mattered most:

“Love each other.”

But here is the sad and tragic part: we so often settle for far less than love in the Body of Christ.  We settle for “general affinity” or “cordiality.”  So often we can be “bigger” but in that largeness can feel utterly alone.

“Better a dry crust where there is love.”

Today, my husband and I often meet in groups of 2, 3, 4 or 5 “in His name.” Our meetings may not be “a meeting” – we may eat, we may laugh, we may tell stories about friends or memories, we may think of something we learned, or an insight we had.  Somehow, I think that is something that Jesus looks on, as he sits in our midst, and the one who enjoyed a meal with sinners says “Yes, this is truly in my name.

Today I remembered a time when we first began meeting in this way, and though I knew it was good, though I often reminded myself that He said “2 or 3” was enough, I still felt, at times, not quite legitimate, not quite like we were really the church.  Today, as I looked back on those days, I realize I have changed.  I find myself quite content being gathered together, just 2 or 3, in His name.

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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.

Let’s Start a Grassroots Revolution of Love!

Beautiful does not always mean the big and the “spectacular.” Beauty is also found in the small and “insignificant” places that others might walk by and never notice.

Recently I was reading this blog post entitled “a letter from an exhausted/exasperated young person who has a complicated love/hate relationship with the church” by a blogger named Ron.  As I was reading, I started thinking about the many people I’ve talked to and  blogged with who have experienced similar frustrations to Ron.  What hit me as I was reading is the the theme I hear again and again, which is people looking for authentic, genuine community.  Ron speaking of his own generation put it this way:

…there are a couple things young people simply won’t tolerate. They will not put up with what they deem to be a lack of community and/or authenticity, and they will not abide anything that appears to simply be going through the motions or the semblance of just being part of some spiritual/religious club. They aren’t interested in towing the party line that has no bearing on their social and cultural experiences.  And–most terrifying to previous generations–they aren’t threatened by threats of “It has to be this way or nothing at all.”

Why?

Because this is a generation of self-starters and micro-entrepreneurship. They have no problem whatsoever starting up their own things. And they have been. And they are. And they will continue to do so.

[Note: I encourage reading the entire blog here.]
 This particular passage got me to thinking about a theme I’ve been ruminating on  for some years, the whole idea of grassroots movements.  The term grassroots is a fascinating metaphor if one thinks about it.  It is a picture of something working and spreading beneath the surface and below notice.  We don’t need anyone’s permission to love one another, and we don’t have to have an established “institution” to create a place of community.  Actually to be the Church, it appears we only need two or three to gather in His name, so there is no reason not to start a counter culture movement of love and community.  In fact, it seems to me that a grassroots movement is already underway of people who have gotten worn out by dead religion, and want to really experience the kind of life that Jesus, Paul, James, Peter and others talked about.
So, let’s just do it!  Let’s just decide that we are going to live this way even if we can only find one or two other people who want to live in authentic community with us (“two or three… in My name”).  Not saying it will be easy, because learning to love isn’t as easy as we like to think (even our closest friends and loved ones do stupid things that make them hard to love at times, and, dare I say it… so do we).  But that being said, and drawing on the same illustration as Ron did in his blog, we can decide to be Joshuas and Calebs, who saw the same giants that the other 10 spies saw, and yet were able to believe that they could enter the Promised Land.  We too have a Promised Land: a land described in John 15, 1 Cor 13, 1 John 2, Hebrews 10:22-25, John 17, and many other places.

 

“We are surely able to take possession of it!”

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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.

A “New” Command

I’ve found myself meditating on love quite a bit lately. About a month ago around the time that I posted the Beatles video, I felt the issue of love (or lack of it) in the Body of Christ came into sharp focus for me.

I had been meditating on a number of painful events I had experienced in different communities of faith, which had resulted in many wandering from their faith, including in each case triggering a “crisis of faith” in my own heart.  The events were so different that I had a hard time finding a common thread.  One was a church split, the others were not.  Some were attacks against leaders, some were leaders abusing people.   Some were in institutional settings, at least one was not.  As I considered each of these events, it seemed that none of the teachings I have heard about how to avoid such problems seemed to answer every one of these situations, and yet they seemed tied together by a common effect, which was  wavering faith in the hearts of believers.  Interestingly, in some cases those who struggled the most were not necessarily those being attacked or abused, even those on the “sidelines” seemed to suffer.  Why was this I wondered?  And if there was a common effect, might the cause in all these disparate events be the same?

Which led me to Jesus’ compelling words:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:34-35

Then it hit me: Jesus said “all men” which includes me!  “All men” includes not only those outside the community of faith, but those inside it as well.  In other words, our own confidence as his disciples is directly affected by our love for one another.  When we don’t love one another, we are not only affecting the person or persons we have the direct conflict with, others in our community of faith may end up casualties as well.

As if to drive this point home, I recently realized more deeply the context of Jesus words when he gave this command:  Jesus had just spoken of his own betrayal, and Judas had just departed to sell Jesus’ life for 30 pieces of silver (John 13:20-30).  As Jesus felt the aching pain of betrayal and impending accusations, he plead with his disciples “Love one another!”  He is still pleading today.  After 2000 years of church history, the most important command of all is still neglected.  How can this be?

So for me, these recent reflections have put Jesus’ love into sharp focus.  As Paul so eloquently expounded in 1 Corinthians 13, everything else counts as absolutely nothing without it.

“Beloved, let us love one another…” – 1 John 4:7

“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!

I LOVED this…

Okay, one of my favorite bloggers has outdone himself.  Great little article.  “Why I Don’t Like Church Names” —  Check it out!