I have a story about house churches. My wife and I spent six years working with other church members to nurture and plant new house churches in our neighborhood. Together with a handful of other families, we dedicated ourselves to a vision of community life. Very few of us were paid staff, and we did not have formal theological or pastoral training.
We were taught that the Kingdom of God was different from Religion. In Religion, you have hired clergy and a passive congregation. In the Kingdom, we are a family of brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. Everybody is empowered to be a “priest and a king ” (or queen). This means that normal people in the church rows are just as qualified to provide biblical leadership as someone with a seminary degree.
For me, this was the first time the church had ever offered me a compelling vision of community life. I was coming out of a background in community and economic development, and I knew firsthand how important it is to build strong community leadership.
What I didn’t know at the time was how difficult it would be and that it would require a high price from my wife and I.
The End of the World as We Know It
Many people are dealing with an overwhelming sense of anxiety. We feel like the world is falling apart. There is greed, war, and a growing sense of catastrophe. Many people run wild with this, and there are even “end times” groups whose people are preparing for total social and environmental collapse.
I can’t hardly blame them. Every time I turn on the news I see more war, more environmental destruction, more orphaned children, more poverty, and almost everything else you can think of. Old fashioned hospitality is hard to find, depression is up, and people are overdosing on opiates. There may be no better description of this than Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam’s book Our Kids.
Putnam describes a world where the everyday working class is falling apart at the seams. Unemployment is problematic, divorce is rampant, communities are falling apart, and kids are falling through the cracks. We have never seen this level of dysfunction, among so many people, on such a wide scale.
To confront these challenges will require much more than government programs. It will require more than increased school funding. It will require us to gather together and fight for the future of our world. It will be people working together, sharing their lives, and raising their children in an atmosphere of love and positive support. That’s what our house church ministry was supposed to be.
This vision was comforting. I imagined an oasis, safe and protected from the outside world with its wars and its poverty. I studied economic development and entrepreneurship, and I often pictured how small businesses would take root around us. I believed that eventually we would take in refugees from the wars and conflicts around the world. We had to be the change that we wanted to see in the world.
So we were understandably excited. We were expecting a revolution in which small, tightly knit groups of people would spread throughout their cities, sharing their lives with their neighbors and redefining the concept of Religion.
Ultimately, our community fractured, and my wife and I found ourselves in a difficult place, hundreds of miles away from our families.
Cynicism and Hopefulness
Growing up in Generation X, cynicism was my standard orientation. But I knew that eventually I would have to confront the problems I saw in the world. So in my mid twenties, my wife and I both joined the Peace Corps. We were stationed in a coastal village in El Salvador, where I spent time teaching English, coaching boys basketball, and working on eco-tourism projects.
Like many younger people, I thought that nonprofit work was more authentic than the pure pursuit of the American Dream. I wanted to “make an impact” and “build community.”
In the small coastal village where I was stationed, the church was the bedrock for the community. I eventually found myself courting the church, since this was where the people gathered most frequently and where most of the leadership was to be found. This was new for me. Even though I had grown up in the church, I was skeptical of the church’s dogmatic and authoritarian tendencies.
To make a long story short, I soon became tired of human-centered institutions, with their data-driven impact and their messianic undertones. I found that Christ promised a truer, more beautiful vision of human flourishing than the mission statement at the NGO. I experienced a powerful conversion experience, and I returned to the States with a strong desire to walk out my faith in obedience to Christ and the truth of his teachings.
The Exodus Away from ‘Institutional Christianity’
Upon our return, my wife and I searched for a place where we could participate in the life of the church. If you have ever been church shopping, you know that the church also has its flaws. I did not want to join the “nominal Christianity” that I was familiar with. I wanted to join a church that was committed to both the Gospel and a better future. I did not believe that the promise of heaven gave us an excuse to run away from the problems in the world today.
Luckily, we were not the only radicals in our neighborhood. My wife and I found a small-but-growing group of Christians who were organizing a local house church movement. We were soon joined by a senior pastor who had written his PhD on the topic. An excerpt:
Relational alienation among youth has occurred in the two settings most critical for the formation of their healthy physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual lives: the natural nuclear family and the Church. Births out of wedlock and rampant divorce have left children love-starved in their own homes. Many children have not received the benefits of being raised by the same two loving healthy parents from infancy to young adulthood. The Church’s programmatic, institutional approach to ministry has contributed to the problem of relational deprivation among young people. Youth can attend church services and programs but never receive personal love and mentoring.
I knew immediately that he was right. Church programming often leaves very little room to actually get to know other people. We are so busy in our busy U.S. lifestyles that we don’t have time for community or for mentoring the next generation. The result is a very superficial Christian community that has no real answers to the problems we are facing.
I was disillusioned with church-business-as-usual, and I felt so strongly about this home church vision that I moved my family to the church’s inner-city location. A group of people was building a missional community in northeast Kansas City. My wife and I bought a home about five blocks south of Independence Avenue, which is home to the city’s most diverse neighborhoods.
There is a theological term known as incarnational theology. You can find the word carne in the root. Literally in the flesh. It means that instead of arguing about the love God, and about his purposes for the world, we have to become the love of God and demonstrate His compassion for others.
About 15 families bought houses in the same eight-block radius, and we began to work toward community revitalization. We had bought an old Catholic campus, complete with a seven-room school building, a convent, and a rectory.
We held weekly house church meetings, and the numbers grew. We saw new people joining with us, both from within the neighborhood and those who relocated into the area. We spent a lot of time together. Along with Sunday morning services, we held regular house church meetings and weekly prayer and leadership gatherings.
Needless to say, this was a very demanding schedule. If you were a house church leader you would be attending as many as three or four meetings per week. Most of us had families and worked normal jobs. The one salaried person—the pastor—was also acting as the director for our nonprofit, which was where our community development work was taking place.
My wife and I partnered with some other members of the community to launch an urban farm, and we soon had an aquaponic fish farm and some fruit trees. The city had taken notice, and they sold or donated parcels of land to us for next to nothing.
Were We Demonstrating the Love of God?
For all the work and time and relationships, I’m still not sure if we had fulfilled the theological mandate to become the love of God. It turns out that “loving people” is easy to say and hard to do. By this time we had a core team of leaders—probably six or seven families—and a congregation of about 80 people that met on Sundays.
We wanted to be salt and light to the surrounding neighborhood. I witnessed drugs, violence, and prostitution on a weekly basis. For a white kid from a small Wyoming town, this was new territory for me. I got to know my neighbors, and we barbecued together in the front yard. I drank beer and rooted for the Chiefs. My neighbors were precious friends, and they trusted me enough to call me when they were going through trouble.
If the story ended here, it might be a beautiful and inspiring example. We need this kind of commitment. We need this kind of leadership in our communities. But this was not the end of the story. It was not so neat and tidy.
As time went on, I became aware of a number of problems within our community. Church politics began to take on a prominent role, and I found myself discussing them with my wife almost every night. Looking back, I can now see the cracks in the foundation of our community.
Here are three issues that affected our work in the trenches of that community.
Problem #1: Nobody knows what community means.
There is an archetypal community where we all share the same language. In this place, you are a part of a tight knit community, yet deeply independent. You are known and loved by others, yet their expectations of you don’t define your identity.
In a traditional community, you knew you belonged because you looked the same as others, talked with the same vocabulary and accent, shared the same traditions, ate the same kinds of food, enjoyed the same music, and talked about the same current events. There was something stable about life. This is almost the textbook definition of culture.
It’s hard to fathom how far we have come from this picture. This was a time when people lived together in the same community, from birth until death. This is not what most of us experience today. We find our community in our interest groups and hobbies (Crossfit!).
But the imprint of community life remains with us. We long to be a part of a community with a distinct identity, shared traditions, and a sense of our own place in it. We want to build our lives in a place where we can be recognized and respected for 0ur contributions. We want to belong.
The problem is that we live in a postmodern, multicultural world where nobody shares the same assumptions about anything, let alone concepts of faith, community, and family. Often times the only shared culture we find in our lives is with our families or at work.
Problem #2: Everyone has different expectations.
I found that people had very different expectations about what community life means. I had come to the community with the assumption that my wife and I would both find friends and soulmates within the community, ready and willing to share their lives with us. Boy that was naive.
We did eventually find friends, and we slowly developed a sense of belonging in the community. But it took much more time than I had anticipated. I had to let go of my preconceived notions about how quickly friendships should develop or how often I should be included in small gatherings or leadership events.
It became obvious that the vision was long term. In other words, it was a generational vision. We might not see “the fruit” of our efforts for years or decades to come, after we had successfully mentored the next generation of young leaders (my own kids were all 5 years old and under).
I began to see my commitment to the community in terms of decades, not years. I read about missionaries who would pack their belongings in a coffin, expecting never to return to their homeland.
This was a little bit of a shock, and I think this type of commitment freaked my wife out a little. She had really only signed on thinking it would be two years of my graduate schooling, and she was not prepared to make a lifetime commitment to this group. This was a failure on my part to establish healthy expectations with my wife, and the confusion only grew as we faced a crisis in church leadership. Our community was in turmoil.
The pace of life was also a source of conflict among senior leaders. One wanted to keep a fast-paced rhythm, with new leadership development programs taking place regularly. The other leader would say “slow is still too fast,” and he was urging us to abandon further leadership programming so the community had time to heal from past hurts and to form new relationships.
We talked about how the wine represented the true life of the community, while the wineskin represented the structure or hierarchy of the church. Some people were more oriented toward natural or organic growth (the wine). Others were more oriented toward programmatic growth (the wineskin). Some leaders wanted to go slow, others wanted to go fast. Some wanted to have open membership with less programming, and the other wanted to have disciplined orientation to the community, with training and programming to move the process forward.
While this is oversimplified, I believe these tensions contributed to the eventual split of our community.
Problem #3: De-centralized leadership is difficult.
As more house churches grew out of our efforts, we found ourselves with a good problem: Here was a group of young, motivated, Bible-believing Christians, all wanting to take on more responsibility and to plant a flag for Jesus in their own neighborhood.
The reality on the ground was a little different. To start a house church (which could also be described as a potluck), you had to go through a lengthy process of leadership training. This felt a bit too much like church-as-usual which was a frustrating realization, to say the least. But the concern was that you might have unqualified leaders holding house churches.
I can see both sides of this discussion. We wanted to protect these fledgling communities and to support the leaders of the church with proper training and mentoring. It was not an open invitation for everyone to plant their own neighborhood church. On the other hand, this process was restrictive, and in all the years I attended, I was never in a position to invite my friends into community with me.
The real root of the problem may have been that we were simply short staffed. We were almost all volunteer, and the more mature leaders worked long hours to hold leadership trainings. They just didn’t have enough time to bring on more young leaders.
The result was that many of us were not allowed to participate in leadership. We felt relegated to the B team, where we sat on the bench, hoping someday to be put in the game. This was a bit of a letdown since, after all, we were being taught about “the priesthood of all believers.”
This Is the Kingdom
In the book of Matthew, Christ teaches about the Kingdom of God. He says that the Kingdom is worth more than you can possibly imagine. It is the pearl of great worth. Surely, we are taught, something so valuable would require our ultimate commitment. We are to sell everything we have and to seek first the Kingdom.
When the church issues a call to “sell everything, and seek first the Kingdom,” it should not be surprised when people actually do. The result is a glorious, chaotic mess of lives, all wrapped up together.
Ironically, I sometimes find that my secular friends are ahead of the church in their pursuit of community. Liuan Huska, writing for Christianity Today, says:
“Communes, monasteries, and intentional communities of all sorts have been around for ages in the margins of many societies. Today, however, a concept called “cohousing” is bringing group living more into the mainstream. Alice Alexander, executive director of the Cohousing Association of the United States, describes cohousing as a blend of private homes with shared common space. Cohousing groups don’t require the shared finances or surrender of privacy that is commonly associated with communes. Yet they bring people to live in close proximity while emphasizing the values of sharing, community, and sustainability.”
I am sure that these cohousing communities are inspired by many of the same ideas as I was. I am also confident that they are facing many of the same challenges. People come to the community with different expectations, and they get hurt.
When done properly, everyone will feel safe within the community. It will be a refuge from the problems that surround us. My experiences in the trenches of our community taught me that the church is not immune to conflict. Sometimes, we don’t feel safe because we aren’t safe.
The church has incredible resources available to address these challenges. These are often referred to as the “one another” verses. (Ephesians 4:2 comes to mind.) We will need to learn how to use these resources. While the church will always be imperfect, we continue to be inspired by a vision of a beautiful and perfect city. Every tear will be wiped away, and we will learn to love each other the way that we are meant to. Until then, we should not be too cynical, proud, or hurt to get down in the trenches. This is good work, and our world needs it.
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