A Change In The Building Plans
A few months ago, I came across an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal. The article, entitled ‘Fewer Churches Are Going Up’ reminded me of what I had written in my book, No Longer Church As Usual. Even though I love and have been inspired by beautiful church buildings, I have come to understand WHO the church is. I have concluded that church buildings may be appealing but they are functionally inept. The Wall Street article was a stark reminder and confirmation that our love affair with church buildings is coming to an end. The church building, that was once an iconic visage of American church life has now become a symbol of a system that is declining.
To be clear, our love for the Lord Jesus Christ is not declining. It is the man-made system we have encased Him in that is coming apart at the seams. The article cited several reasons for the decline in new church construction. They included: a drop in formal religious participation, changing donation habits, a shift away from the construction of massive mega-churches and, more broadly, a growing case for alternatives to the traditional house of worship.
In the article (The Church Tipping Point), I cited factors are converging that will shift the focus of ministry as we know it. These factors include: heightened communication through electronic media, the growing lack of loyalty to denominational structures, the blending of worship styles, time constraints, and personal independence. These factors are the foundation for a massive change in how ‘church’ is done, which in turn will impact where we meet.
The handwriting was on the wall several years ago, and many of us failed to see the signs. Churches began to design their buildings to appeal to the baby boomer generation. They eliminated the stained-glass windows and religious symbols seen in traditional churches. The new buildings looked more like conference centers, than cathedrals. Suits, ties, and fancy dresses were replaced by casual dress. Instead of choir stands, the stage of many churches begin to resemble those found in theater production companies – complete with lighting, screens and special effects. Looking back, this was the beginning of our attempt to hold on to those who were losing interest in an old system.
When you consider that the number of Americans who say they have never attended services rose to 25.3% in 2012, up from 9.3% in 1972, you can easily see the need for buildings is diminishing. Yet, dedicated religious facilities are found in every community, and most people still refer to them as the church. Most Christians give lip service to the fact that the church is a called out body of believers, but still identify themselves with a particular building. I hear people say, “The church is in me”, but use that phrase as an excuse not to GO TO church. In other words, in their minds they see the church as a place you GO TO rather than who they are.
Follow the money trail...
Let’s take a few moments to talk about money. This Wall Street article indicated that giving to religious organizations has flat lined. It stated that religious groups that took in half of all charitable contributions in 1990 now get less than a third amid a shift in generational giving habits. In other words, the church is competing with organizations that purport to be doing something, rather than maintaining something, and the religious systems are losing the battle.
In my book, I shared my experiences with bank executives and their conservative views relating to lending to churches. The bottom line, to them the church building in general is a poor investment from a business standpoint. They are only used once or twice a week. The return on the cost per square foot did not make sense from a financial point of view. In addition most churches are “single use facilities”. That means they are designed for one purpose – church meetings. The income source from churches for loan repayment was unstable even in the best of conditions. Churches often relied heavily on contributions from its membership. If the membership became disgruntled, the income to the church could be jeopardized.
Many in the church world have their heads in the sand...
I return to my monthly mantra, the church as we know it is changing. Outside entities like the Wall Street are seeing the shift, but internally many in the church world have their heads in the sand. It is easy to use our clip and paste theology to attribute the decline in church attendance to “the great falling away” (2Thessalonians 2:3). I would suggest that the decline is a result of divine scrutiny. When you see people leave church systems, but still cling tightly to the Lord – that should give us pause to think. You see, the falling away mentioned in scripture will be those who give up on God – not church systems. The church that Jesus purchased with his blood, is not the sectarian denominational system we embrace today (Acts 20:28). It is THAT system that people are leaving. It is THAT system that people refuse to give their money to. It is THAT system that is struggling to survive.
We competitively tout our version of Christianity in an attempt to attract new converts. But now it appears our customers are out looking for alternatives – and our buildings are emptying out. So the focus in many churches has subtly shifted from winning souls to filling the pews.
The competition intensifies through enticing methodologies. Churches now offer contemporary and traditional worship services in an attempt to attract more members. Recently, there is a video that went viral on YouTube showing a church where people were dancing during their service to raunchy secular music. The pastor tried to defend this by claiming his message had to appeal to various generations. Another bishop recently apologized for "allowing one of his pastors to make hurtful remarks" during his message at a conference. The pastor had preached against homosexuality, and several prominent people in the church were offended and threatened to leave the church. The list goes on and on.
Existing buildings will be sold and resold – some to church organizations and others will be repurposed. I am sure there will be new buildings erected, too. We own the building we have gathered in for the last 20 years free and clear. You may also know from my previous blogs that we are transitioning into a network of New Testament churches that gather from house to house. We consider the building we have to be a training and resource center. We will provide the tools believers need to be effective in our community and region. Our goal is to use this building to provide resources for 120 or more gatherings in this region.
In the end, Jesus is still building His church, His way in the 21st century. It is not being built as a brick and mortar facility. His church is not relying on programs and events. He is building His church with believers like you and me who are lively stones that become a spiritual house (1Peter 2:5); and built together for habitation of God (Ephesians 2:22); one body fitly joined together (Ephesians 4:16). Transition is tough and challenging, but I look forward to seeing the church that He said He would build demonstrating His power in the earth.
Malcolm Gladwell in his powerful book, The Tipping Point writes that there is a moment; when several factors converge that create massive changes – usually quite rapidly. I believe the church is at the precipice of a tipping point. Factors are converging that will shift the focus of ministry as we know it. These factors include heightened communication through electronic media, the growing lack of loyalty to denominational structures, the blending of worship styles, time constraints and personal independence. These factors are becoming the foundation for a massive change in how ‘church’ is done.
In 1999, I began to teach about four walls that are coming down. They are the walls that have historically divided denomination and revelation, the sacred from the secular, calling from career, and clergy from laity. Even though they are invisible, they have molded how we have ‘done church’ for years. I believe these four walls are beginning to collapse. As they disintegrate, the church will reach a ‘tipping point’ moment that will result sudden shift in how the church functions.
The Wall Between Denomination and Revelation
The first of the four walls being dismantled by the Holy Spirit is the wall between denomination and revelation. This first wall has pitted denominations against each other and effectively divided the Body of Christ (Mark 3:35). This root of this division begins when fresh revelation from the Lord comes face to face with historical religious traditions and systems. This wall is actually between fresh revelation from heaven and denominational traditions in the earth. It is a battle between those who camp on what God has said, and those who attempting to follow what He is saying. Dr. Bill Hamon, in his book The Eternal Church wrote:
God has continued moving the church forward. There is fresh revelation being poured into the earth. The present truth being established in the earth, centers upon the saints doing the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12). This will have a profound impact on how we do and view the church. Existing systems and norms will be challenged. The form of the church will change as our understanding of the church changes. We need not advocate house church per se, as much as we advocate the saints doing the work of ministry. When we emphasize the saints doing the work of ministry, that work will impact how we gather.
Gathering in homes is a natural outcome of the saints doing the work of ministry. The auditorium style gatherings are not conducive to an active army of saints. The ‘one-another’ ministry of the saints can only be effectively done in small intimate groups.
Secular and Sacred
The second wall that is falling has separated the sacred from the secular. This wall has weakened the church’s influence in the world. It has kept us blind to the fact that the earth is the LORD'S, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein (Psalms 24:1)
Religion has inadvertently caused a separation between ‘church stuff’ and our daily lives. We have allowed this unseen wall to limit the sacred to religious activities and church related things. Anything we do that is religious in nature is our sacred life. However, when I go shopping, to school or work, this becomes my secular life. Many have been fooled into believing that any cross pollinating of the sacred and secular is taboo.
The wall between the secular and sacred is not just the difference between right and wrong, or sin or righteousness. It is the invisible wall in our minds that molds our understanding of what we believe belongs to God.
These two passages express the profound truth that we belong to Jesus Christ AT ALL TIMES. On our jobs, we are His. In the classroom, we are His. In the shopping mall, we are His. At all times we belong to Jesus Christ. I believe as the emphasis on the work of ministry matures, the wall between the sacred and the secular will collapse. Christianity will cease to be an activity for the religious and become a lifestyle of the believer. A mature body of blood bought believers will begin to infiltrate every sphere of human existence. The world will then recognize that there is an army of people who are turning the world (their secular systems) upside down (Acts 17:6).
Calling and Career
As the wall between the sacred and the secular disintegrates, the third wall that will collapse will be the subtle wall that divides calling and career. This wall has effectively separated spiritual callings and secular careers to the point that the marketplace has been overrun by the enemy (Matthew 5:14).
There are five values that guide the New Testament Church. The third of these values is the Holy Spirit and the ‘full expression of the ministry, spiritual and grace gifts’. In order for the Church to grow and mature, every believer must have an outlet for the expression of gifts given to them by God.
Unfortunately, like the wall between the sacred and the secular, many believers see their secular career as totally separate from any divine purpose. What they fail to realize is that a divine calling, expressed through either ministry, spiritual or grace gifts is an assignment for some aspect of God’s purpose to be fulfilled in the earth – not just the church. We are the light of the world (Matthew 5:14). Our lights are to shine before all, not just our particular church group.
God has set us in the Church and the world as it pleases Him (Acts 17:26; 1Corinthians 12:18). Where you are, may be an assignment from the Lord. You may be a factory worker, a retail clerk, a salesperson, or a school teacher. They may be your career, but equally so they may be an assignment from God. He may have placed you there in order to reach lost souls. In other words, what may be considered a career may in fact be a Kingdom assignment from God. The ministry, spiritual or grace gifts resident in you would be activated by the Holy Spirit to carry out God’s assignment in that place. Remember, the Holy Spirit activates the gifts for the purposes of God in the earth.
Clergy and Laity
This brings us to the final wall that will collapse – that is, the wall between clergy and laity. For 1,700 hundred years the church has been led by professional clergy. Very few of us have never known any other structure than the ‘preacher in the pulpit’ way of doing church. We have been trained to be spectators who show up week after week to watch the ‘spiritual show’. As people have become bored with this structure, new and more exciting productions have been created. Dance, media, tight musical bands and drama are being used to keep the masses spiritually entertained. After the first phase of the program, the ‘preacher’ brings a message designed to inspire the audience.
In this system you can maintain the image of success even though you go home and struggle all week. Spiritual maturity is measured by how many services you attend during the week, or how active you are in the system. In the clergy/laity system, individuals can be ‘promoted’ into church leadership because of personality or giving habits rather character and proven spiritual maturity.
In the New Testament church, leaders were recognized for their function, rather than their titles. They were to be esteemed for their works sake, not their popularity (1 Thessalonians 5:12,13). But more importantly, every member of the church contributed time, talent and treasure to the edifying of the body in love (Ephesians 4:16).
The wall between clergy and laity is an artificial divide created sometimes ignorantly, but often purposefully by church systems. As this wall crumbles, we will literally see thousands of believers coming forth in kingdom authority and power. They will move from being passive to active – from spectator to participator – from those in need to those providing solutions.
Yes, the church is approaching a tipping point moment. For some it will be painful and cataclysmic. It will catch them off-guard. For others (myself included), we are anticipating and preparing for it. Like many building projects, there must first be a dismantling of things that hinder the new construction. I believe the four walls I have discussed in this article are being demolished to make way for a glorious church that will literally turn the world upside down before Jesus returns.
Get ready! Jesus is building His Church His way in the 21st century. Blessings.
My introduction to the ‘house church’ movement was subtle. I did not wake up one day and decided I want to start doing ‘house church’. For me, it began with a nudge in my spirit that began around 2004. During that time I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the way we were ‘doing church’. I began a journey (that continues today), looking for answers.
I didn’t pursue house church because I disliked the traditional church. I am a musician. I have served several traditional churches as their musician and choir director. I enjoy good choirs, praise teams, and dance ministries. I enjoy good preaching. I enjoy some of the programs and events offered by traditional churches. They offer a corporate level of worship that we all enjoy, but end up being more entertainment for believers than ministry to reach the lost.
Dissatisfaction prompted me to look for answers. The first place I looked was the Word of God. I was amazed at the number of references to believers gathering in houses. In my bureaucratic thinking, I immediately translated that to the ‘cell church movement’ that was popular at that time. There were plenty of books on the subject, so I assumed this was the way to go. It wasn’t – at least for me. I trained those who were interested in being cell leaders. I tried to implement cell groups; while all the time, I felt like I was putting square pegs in round holes.
I honestly don’t remember how I came into contact with some material relating to house churches in America. I had heard about the underground house church movement in China, but assumed the government oppression that the Chinese church experienced forced them to worship that way. No way could that work in America. After all, we were free to worship any time and any way we chose. We were free to ‘go to church’. Yet, hearing about house churches in America resonated in my spirit, but scared the daylights out of me. House church was so out of the norm from everything I knew.
I began to search for house churches in my area. It was more difficult than I anticipated. The few I found were unwelcoming and isolated. They appeared to me to be the typical – me, my four and no more. As disappointing as this was, I continued to look for answers. In 2009, a dear brother introduced me to a book, The Normal Christian Church Life by Watchman Nee. It blew me away. A book that was written 1939 was speaking nearly everything I was sensing in my spirit. So I really ramped up my quest for answers.
It didn’t take long for me to find more and more material on house churches, specifically here in America. It seemed to be a growing phenomenon. It appeared that more and more people were moving to this simpler more organic way of gathering. It could probably be argued that this was true for a season. But then, I began to hear of ‘issues’ arising among house church adherents that sounded eerily close to the same ‘issues’ present in the traditional church. Financial problems, isolation, racial issues, leadership dysfunction, and doctrinal error were some problems being quietly discussed behind closed doors.
Why was this so? Was it naïve to believe that the house church movement would correct many of the problems seen in traditional church settings? Yes, because as long as human frailty is involved, there will be problems. Yet, as I looked deeper, there was a greater issue. It is the reason I wrote this article. House church, as biblically legitimate as it is, had morphed into a fad.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a fad as something (such as an interest or fashion) that is very popular for a short time. I believe, something becomes a fad when the purpose for it is lost in the methodology. In other words, it became a fad because more people were leaving ‘big box church’ for ‘living room church’, for the wrong reasons. To many, house church was an antithesis to traditional church. They flocked into living rooms, under the banner of following Jesus, but more to declare their freedom from what they perceived as religious bondage. They were free – but free for what?
Within these gatherings there was singing, camaraderie, sharing of meals, praying for each other, but often within the context of being liberated from their idea of an oppressive regime called the traditional church. Frankly, very few would outwardly describe the traditional church as an oppressive regime, but the religious code words were regularly evident.
Did house church become a fad? Is it losing its popularity? Evidence of my assertion is, in the fact, that some of the key ‘house church’ proponents, I first became acquainted with, are now facing financial hardships because the ‘thrill is gone’ and the money that supported them has dried up. People no longer flock to their conferences or buy their books. Some of the early writers that, so eloquently, wrote about the joys of the house church are now writing about other popular topics of today. Some house church groups have become victims to religious extremes. And finally, some of the leaders of the movement have migrated back into the ‘traditional church’. They found ministry opportunities (code word for paying jobs) in the system they said was oppressive and unbiblical.
I am yet a strong proponent of the house church. In no way do I want you to think that I am saying that house church is wrong. House church is not a doctrine. Neither is the way we, typically, gather in dedicated facilities on Sunday Mornings a doctrine. Gathering from house to house is closely aligned to biblical practice. Yet, if we lose sight of our purpose for gathering from house to house, we will eventually lose interest in its methodology. Whenever your focus is more on WHAT you do, rather than WHY you do it, you run the risk of becoming a fad.
House church is a tool. It is one part of the tri-part nature of the church. First, house churches provide a place to disciple new believers and foster covenant relationships. Secondly, house churches within a city or region must connect and come together from time to time, for corporate worship. This reinforces the strength of the local body of believers. We must never disconnect from the greater Body of Christ. Thirdly, house church participants should commit to growing in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ and be willing to be developed for the work of ministry. I believe, it takes all of this to have a strong New Testament church.
I discovered what I was looking for. I was searching for a way to fulfill the command of Jesus Christ in the earth. I have been seeking how to be fruitful, to multiply, to replenish the earth, and subdue it within a community of believers who desire the same thing (Genesis 1:28). With them, I want to ‘go into all the world and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). I want to encourage others and be encouraged to preach the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 10:7-8; Luke 9:2-6). I want my gifts and callings to be available to serve the Body of Christ when and wherever they are needed (1Corinthians 9:19). I believe this is the vibrant living church that Jesus purchased with His blood (Acts 20:28).
Jesus is still building His Church – His Way – in the 21st Century. His church will never be or become a fad. Only those methods or doctrines we over-emphasize, potentially, become fads. We flock to them for a short season and then go looking for the next great thing. But in His Church, you never grow weary of pursuing His purpose (Genesis 1:28). Every day, there is something new and fresh to do. Every day, we are given new opportunities to touch lives through Jesus Christ. In His Church, we are empowered to carry His message where ever we go (Matthew 28:19). Then – and only then, does it make sense to gather from house to house, to share what God has done through us. We can, then, gather in the homes of our brothers and sisters to strengthen others and to be strengthened by them. This is not a fad; it is the New Testament church alive and well in the 21st century! Blessings!
The Intensive Care Unit in any hospital is where the most critical care necessary to sustain life takes place. Patients in the ICU are usually lingering between life and death. Very often, they are sedated to the point that they are completely oblivious to their surroundings. Their life is being sustained by a plethora of artificial means. The doctors and medical personnel monitor the patient, and work around the clock in an attempt to keep them alive.
The church is often referred to as a hospital. It is supposed to be a place where those who are broken and damaged can go and be healed. But what happens when the hospital itself is fighting for survival?
Gradually, the level of patient care becomes motivated by the needs of the hospital. If the hospital is attempting to sustain its own life, I would like to suggest that, its patient care and life-support systems (as elaborate as they may be) have become more self-serving than patient healing.
Those who worship in church, as we most commonly know it, did not label themselves as the institutional church. Maybe some have referred to the ‘institution of the church’ to describe its long history. However, the moniker ‘institutional church’ seems to have been popularized by those who have left it in search of other forms of worship. I have read many statements, articles, and blogs from those who attempt to expose all of the ‘evils’ of the Institutional Church. Within those groups there is, usually subtle and, at times, overt negative connotation associated with the term ‘institutional church’.
The Lord saved me in an institutional church setting and I suspect the same applies to the great majority of you reading this article. Yes, there are problems that need to be addressed, but there are just as many problems within the organic, house, and simple churches, too. As long as people are involved in any form of church – there will be problems.
I believe that the large corporate gathering, commonly known as the institutional church, is one component of the tri-part nature of the church. It is incomplete without the organic house to house gathering of believers, combined with the 'equipping of the saints' by ascension gift ministers. The large corporate gathering without the latter two components is like trying to ride a tricycle with only one wheel. This month, I want to take a look at the Institutional Church. I want to look at it on three levels as being Unplugged, Uncovered, and, most of all, Underestimated.
The Institutional Church Unplugged I have one of those cable company bundles. My telephone, internet, and television cable are all interconnected. Occasionally, there is a problem and I need to contact customer support. It is amazing that many times I am instructed to disconnect my system from its power source – wait a few moments – and then reconnect it. What is more amazing is that this simple procedure often corrects the problem.
What is powering the institutional church? Most would declare their power is from the Lord Jesus Christ. Others would say they are powered by the Holy Spirit. And still others will cite the Word of God as their power. May I suggest that although Jesus Christ is in their messages, the Holy Spirit is recognized, and the Word of God is used, that none of these are the source of their power? Most are using alternative power sources to stay alive. What are these alternative sources? Churches are creating more and more programs and events to attract new members. More time is spent entertaining than evangelizing. Space will not allow me to write of the many quirky things being done to fill the pews.
The only source of power should be the preaching of Jesus Christ alone (Romans 1:16; 1Corinthians 15:1-6). Jesus said, “If I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32). If people are not being saved, equipped and set free, it may be a reflection of what we are preaching. Yes, I am an advocate of the house, simple, and organic church. But my prayer is that I spend more time preaching Christ - His death, His burial, and His resurrection - more than I preach ‘it’ – a church methodology.
The Institutional Church Uncovered There is times that what you see on the surface does not reflect what lies underneath a thing. Very few churches would openly say that their primary goal is to survive. It would appear disingenuous for them to admit that everything they do is framed to insure they remain in existence.
A few years ago I sat in a board meeting of a mega-church as they grappled with advertising strategies. They were intending to release a series of television ads designed to reach various segments of their immediate area. The thing that stood out to me was a comment made by one of the associate pastors. “After all,” he said, “The real issue is to get more butts in the pews!” It soon became clear to me, that to them ‘more butts in the pews’ equated to ‘more dollars in the coffers’. It was a graphic illustration of survival. Throughout the meeting, there was little or no discussion of the impact of the gospel in the lives of men and women.
Although this example was a poignant one for me, I suspect that many churches are having similar discussions behind closed doors. The pressure to meet the weekly, monthly, or annual budgets is intense. Salaries, mortgages, and operating expenses must be met. Churches silently compete with each other, each one trying to find their niche to out-perform the church down the street. On the surface, we boast about the number of souls saved and the number of baptisms we had. Underneath, we are calculating the financial gain new people will produce.
The danger in all this is that often the gospel is in jeopardy of being compromised. These institutional churches are in a Catch-22 position. They walk a tightrope of not offending existing members, while at the same time being provocative enough to attract new comers. They want to appear relevant without being religious. It creates the danger of turning a blind eye to the infractions of big tithers. Sanctification is, at times, sacrificed on the altar of survival. This has unwittingly created a culture where those who attend our churches have very little desire to do more than come and be entertained. "Going into all the world and making disciples" has become the task of professional clergy rather than the body of Christ as a whole.
The Institutional Church Underestimated Whether or not you agree with what I have written, we must never lose sight of the power of the institutional church system. It is a system so ingrained into our religious psyche that the very thought of changing it creates a sense of fear. For those of us who are pursuing organic, simple, or house church, we often find it difficult to use language that expresses our current paradigm. It seems as though everything we say evokes images of familiar patterns and practices found in the institutional church system.
What do you think of when you hear the word church? Do you think of a dedicated place of worship or a covenant gathering of believers doing the work of ministry? Do you think of where you go rather than who you are? Your view of the church determines whether or not you believe it needs to be changed. If you agree that there are problems that need to be addressed, then your view of the church will determine how you approach these issues. If you underestimate the power the institutional church system has on the mindset of most believers, it will be impossible to change it for the better.
So what do we do?
As radical as it may appear, I believe we need to do three things. First, we must not underestimate what the power of all we have learned in the past has on our minds today. Change is not easy. It requires effort and courage to admit that you may have been doing this ‘church thing’ wrong. Second, we must be honest with ourselves. We must uncover our motives for doing what we do. Does my need to keep our church alive supersede our mission to make disciples? In other words, are disciples equated to new members for our church rather than believers who are going to all the world?
This article appeared in the March issue of The American Church Magazine. Get your free subscription today!
I was recently in a mall in Indianapolis, Indiana where one of the major anchor stores was remodeling a section of their main floor. The area was cordoned off and covered to the ceiling with a tarp to protect shoppers from the construction taking place. We may have all probably seen signs that read, ‘PLEASE EXCUSE OUR DUST WHILE WE ARE REMODELING’, or ‘CAUTION: THIS AREA IS UNDER CONTSTRUCTION’. The store was still open, but clearly there were improvements being made out of view of the shopping public.
The improvements this store was making were physical. Yet, often these same stores spend millions of dollars implementing new policies and procedures they believe will enhance their business. Such changes address how the employees think about the business. They are unseen because the implementation begins in what is understood over what is done. While new policies and procedures are being formulated, the store remains open using the old policies and procedures.
My ministry work at this time is spent transitioning the church my wife and I founded twenty years ago into a network of interdependent house church gatherings. The finished product will, undoubtedly, be different from what most of us have ever seen. We have been ‘under construction’ for nearly eight years, because like most, we are ingrained with the traditional church system and change is not easy. At times it has been challenging, but it has never ceased to be exciting. Like the store in the mall, we remain open in a traditional manner while the construction is going on behind the scenes.
For those who don’t understand what we are doing, I wish I could post a sign that says, PLEASE EXCUSE OUR DUST, OUR CHALLENGES, OUR ISSUES AND OUR MISTAKES – WHILE WE ARE BECOMING THE CHURCH JESUS WANTS US TO BE. For those who are trying to figure out the difference between house church gatherings and cell church, I want to post a sign that reads, CAUTION: THIS AREA IS UNDER CONSTRUCTION. I would like to enclose this area of our work off so that passersby and curious onlookers won’t wander into the ‘construction area’ until it is ready for view.
But the reality is we remain open to the public until the work is complete. My brother once stated our situation this way, “While we are building the unusual, we must keep the usual in order.”There are two types of renovations – the physical and the policy and procedural. We are doing both. The physical renovations are the house gatherings we are developing. It is easy to gather a few people in a living room to sing, pray, and share with each other. But the policy and procedural changes are more challenging. It is more of a challenge to teach why we are doing this, and to equip people with the purpose over the practice. I find that people tend to measure any new idea against old practices.
In each article I write, I state that Jesus is still building His Church – His Way – in the 21st Century (Matthew 16:18-19). Jesus declared to His disciples that He would build His Church. He is still building His Church today with lively stones that have a revelation that He is the Christ, Son of the Living God. His building plan requires that Christ be formed in every member in His Church. When this happens, the glory of the latter house will be much greater than the former.
He is building her after the values from which she was birthed on the Day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is leading believers to resurrect the simple methodologies that were so effective in the first century. These methods must include the ‘policy and procedural’ changes necessary to sustain our outward activities. These are expressed in the core values we embrace. That is the purpose of this article, to outline the five core values that I believe is the heart of the New Testament Church. I believe values are the foundation of sound doctrine. In our ministry, these are the ‘policies and procedures’ we are learning in our renovation project.
In my book, No Longer Church As Usual (Second Edition), I give greater detail to each of these values; but, I pray, this brief summary will give you a glimpse of the heart of our Lord’s glorious church.
This article appeared in the February issue of The American Church Magazine. Get your free subscription today!
What do we call ourselves? House church? Simple church? Organic church? What's in a name anyway? When we were children, our little immature spats would often involve calling each other names. “You are ugly”, “You have a big head”, or “You have big ears” were verbal weapons meant to embarrass our little opponent in front of our friends. The classic childhood response to these taunts was “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” Names may not hurt physically, but they do have an impact on us, often in ways we may have not considered.
There is an old African proverb that says, “It’s not what you call me that matters – it is what I answer to.” A name evokes an image. When you hear a name it creates a picture in your mind that creates a good or bad emotional response. In this edition of the NTCD Blog, I want to address two names – the first is the name or title ‘Christian’, and the second is ‘church’.
Many people have proudly adopted the name (or title) of being a ‘Christian’. However, the image of what a Christian is has become distorted in modern times. The term is not often associated with being Christ-like. Almost anyone you ask will claim to be a Christian – regardless of what they believe or how they live. When you combine this with the fact that many of these ‘Christians’ are no longer attending a ‘church’, which for years has been closely tied to those calling themselves Christian, it should alert you to a change in the religious atmosphere.
The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:26). There is some dispute among theologians as to who gave them this name. It is not, generally, known whether the name Christian was intended to be derisive or complimentary, but it is clear that this name was given to the disciples in order to separate them from the other religions of the day.
No longer are we simply Christians, but we are now Christians that are defined by a particular belief system that makes us distinct from other Christians. We identify ourselves as Baptist Christians, who attend Baptist churches, or Methodist Christians who go to Methodist churches, or Pentecostal Christians who go to Pentecostal churches, and the list goes on with names like Lutheran, Presbyterian, Holiness, Apostolic, and hundreds more. We generally worship with ‘Christians’ with the same beliefs. Our denominational names, whether we realize it or not, often lets the world know the parameters of our beliefs. Our labels are a reflection of our form of Christianity, and serve to subtly divide the Body of Christ.
A greater distortion comes when you hear of those who claim to be homosexual Christians, New Age Christians, liberal Christians, and the like. These people often redefine Christ to fit their beliefs. You see them in the media spewing their ‘live and let live’ philosophies under the banner of being Christian.
In recent years, a new name ‘non-denominational church’ has arisen. Like the other names, non-denominationalism points to a belief system. Think about it. What usually comes to your mind when you hear of a church calling itself a ‘Christian Center’, a Family Center, or even a ‘Worship Center’? These names often imply that such churches are Charismatic or possibly Pentecostal.
A recent study by the Pew Forum found that nearly one-fifth of the U.S. public and a third of adults over 30 are religiously unaffiliated. The assumption for those in the ‘church world’ is that these unaffiliated are not ‘true Christians’. But studies show otherwise. Many are firmly committed to Jesus Christ, but find no spiritual fulfillment in church systems. Some have migrated into small groups that meet in homes. Again, the tendency to camp around certain ideologies comes to the surface, as even among these groups labels are beginning to surface. First, the message coming forth was house church-ism. Slowly, I have seen the message regress into various forms of house church-ism. There are ‘house church groups’, ‘simple church groups’, ‘organic church groups’, ‘hybrid church groups’ and probably a few more. I understand the reason for the adjectives organic, simple, and house being used to define a particular type of church, but the fact remains that these adjectives have the unfortunate potential of creating new sects in the Body of Christ. They have the same impact as identifying a church by its denomination. Our names inadvertently and sometimes willfully separate us.
Recently, I was in a phone conversation with a woman who had left the denomination she had been part of for years. Her previous church had a strict dress code for women. In her new church, she bragged to me that she was ‘free’ to wear pants because she was now in a ‘Word’ church. Her statement made me think, “Aren’t all churches supposed to be ‘Word’ churches?” Shouldn’t we all be teaching the Word of God? By claiming to be a ‘Word Church’ was she inadvertently implying that other churches did not teach the Word of God? Even when we innocently say that we are ‘full gospel’, are we implying that other groups are ‘partial gospel’? Every time we embrace a name, it has the potential of creating another line of division in the Body of Christ.
I love the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. I want to emphatically make it clear that I am not against any group. I am not anti-denominational as much as I am pro-Jesus Christ. I grew up in a Baptist church. Soon after I was married, I joined a local Pentecostal church. For many years I served as a musician for a Methodist church, and before launching out on my own, I was the assistant pastor in a Charismatic Church. Among these wonderful people I often was involved in discussions of their doctrines. These discussions were often an interpretation of scripture that was intended to prove why they didn’t do things like the church across town. Or worse, in some cases they implied that their beliefs made them better Christians than the church across town. The early church dealt with this issue. Paul wrote “For it has been reported to me concerning you, my brothers, by those who are from Chloe's household, that there are contentions among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you says, "I follow Paul," "I follow Apollos," "I follow Cephas," and, "I follow Christ." (1Corinthians 1:11-12). These first century believers were personality driven, which caused unnecessary division among them. Yet, in the twenty first century we are still repeating this same error. We continue to have a propensity to huddle around our favorite personality, doctrine, or style of worship. I wonder if we realize that the world around us could care less.
We can separate ourselves from each other with our names, but the world sees us as one and the same – and too often in a negative light. The world has attempted to define the church and what it means to be a Christian. People will attempt to control you by defining you first. We must not accept the world’s definition of who we are. I believe we must work to restore in the minds of all what the church is, and what it means to be a Christian. We must follow the non-compromising example of the disciples in the first century church whose lives earned the right to be called Christians.
In my book, No Longer Church As Usual (Second Edition), I espouse the importance of embracing the values of the first century church. The first value we must embrace is the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Remember, ‘DISCIPLES’ were first called Christians in Antioch. The foundation of being a Christian is first to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. The more you sit at the feet of Jesus, the more likely you are to be dubbed a Christian by the world. You and I are not Christians because we proclaim to be one; we are Christians solely because of our relationship to Jesus Christ.
Jesus is still building His Church – His way in the 21st century. He is building His Church on the revelation of who He is – not with our myriad of eclectic beliefs. His building materials consist of lively stones that collectively form a spiritual house (1Peter 2:5). These lively stones are you and I who must embrace the truth that we are many members, but one body (1Corinthians 12:20).
My introduction to the ‘house church’ movement was subtle. I did not wake up one day and decided I wanted to start doing ‘house church’. For me, it began with a nudge in my spirit that began around 2004. During that time I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the way we were ‘doing church’. I began a journey (that continues today), looking for answers.
I didn’t pursue house church because I disliked the traditional church. I am a musician. I have served several traditional churches as their musician and choir director. I enjoy good choirs, praise teams, and dance ministry. I enjoy good preaching. I enjoy some of the programs and events offered by traditional churches. They offer a corporate level of worship that we all enjoy, but end up being more entertainment for believers than ministry to reach the lost.
Dissatisfaction prompted me to look for answers. The first place I looked was the Word of God. I was amazed at the number of references to believers gathering in houses. In my bureaucratic thinking, I immediately translated that to the ‘cell church movement’ that was popular at that time. There were plenty of books on that subject, so I assumed this was the way to go. It wasn’t. I trained those who were interested in being cell leaders. I tried to implement cell groups, while all the time I felt like I was putting square pegs in round holes.
I honestly don’t remember how I came into contact with some material relating to house churches in America. I had heard about the underground house church movement in China, but assumed the governmental oppression that the Chinese church experienced forced them to worship that way. No way could that work in America. After all, we were free to worship any time and any way we chose. We were free to ‘go to church’. Yet, hearing about house churches in America resonated in my spirit, but scared the daylights out of me. House church was so out of the norm from everything I knew.
Quietly I began to research house churches in this country. I read many books – pro and con. It became clearer and clearer to me that gathering in the homes of believers was the norm for the first century believers. I found nothing in history that justified any other way. The shift that created our current way of gathering appeared to be prompted by human intervention for self-serving reasons. Even so, my conclusion was that what has become the traditional church system was not wrong – but I found it to be incomplete. It was a system that generally failed to release believers to pursue their individual calling, purpose and ministry. Their programs and internal ministries were substitutes for what should be our real focus – the advancing of the Kingdom of God by making disciples.
I began to search for house churches in my area. It was difficult than I anticipated. The few I found were unwelcoming and isolated. They appeared to me to be the typical – me, my four and no more. As disappointing as this was, I continued to look for answers. In 2009, a dear brother introduced me to a book, The Normal Christian Church Life by Watchman Nee. It blew me away. A book that was written 1939 was speaking nearly everything I was sensing in my spirit. So I really ramped up my quest for answers.
It didn’t take long for me to find more and more material on house churches, specifically here in America. It seemed to be a growing phenomenon. It appeared that more and more people were moving to this simpler more organic way of gathering. It could probably be argued that this was true for a season. But then, I began to hear of ‘issues’ arising among house church adherents that sounded eerily close to the same ‘issues’ present in the traditional church. Financial problems, isolation, racial issues, leadership dysfunction and doctrinal error were some problems being quietly discussed behind closed doors.
Why was this so? Was it naïve to believe that the house church movement would correct many of the problems seen in traditional church settings? Yes, because as long as human frailty is involved, there will be problems. Yet, as I looked deeper, there was a greater issue. It is the reason I wrote this article. House church, as biblically legitimate as it is, had morphed into a fad.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a fad as something (such as an interest or fashion) that is very popular for a short time. I believe something becomes a fad when the purpose for it is lost in the methodology. In other words, it became a fad because more people were leaving ‘big box church’ for ‘living room church’, for the wrong reasons. To many, house church was an antithesis to traditional church. They flocked into living rooms, under the banner of following Jesus, but more to declare their freedom from what they perceived as religious bondage. They were free – but free for what?
Within these gatherings there was singing, camaraderie, sharing of meals, praying for each other, but often within the context of being liberated from their idea of an oppressive regime called the traditional church. Frankly, very few would outwardly describe the traditional church as an oppressive regime, but the religious code words were regularly evident. “I’m no longer under bondage.” Think about it, you never consider anything that held you captive in a positive light. “Only Jesus leads His Church.” This subtly says that “I don’t need someone preaching to me, or you can’t tell me what to do.” “Tithing is Old Testament.” In other words, this becomes a pseudo-biblical excuse for not giving. “Elders are just older men.” By diminishing the biblical role of elders, you can dismiss their authority in your life.
Did house church become a fad? Is it losing its popularity? Evidence of my assertion is in the fact that some of the key ‘house church’ proponents I first became acquainted with are now facing financial hardships because the ‘thrill is gone’ and the money that supported them has dried up. People no longer flock to their conferences or buy their books. Some of the early writers that so eloquently wrote about the joys of the house church, are now writing about other popular topics of today. Some house church groups have become victim to religious extremes. And finally, some of the leaders of the movement have migrated back into the ‘traditional church’. They found ministry opportunities (code word for paying jobs), in the system they said was oppressive and unbiblical.
I am yet a strong proponent of the house church. In no way do I want to think that I am saying that house church is wrong. House church is not a doctrine. Neither is the way we typically gather in dedicated facilities on Sunday Mornings a doctrine. Gathering from house to house is closely aligned to biblical practice. Yet, if we lose sight of our purpose for gathering from house to house, we will eventually lose interest in its methodology. Whenever your focus is more on WHAT you do, rather than WHY you do it, you run the risk of becoming a fad.
House church is a tool. It is one part of the tri-part nature of the church. First, house churches provide a place to disciple new believers and foster covenant relationships. Second, house churches within a city or region must connect and come together from time to time for corporate worship. We must never disconnect from the greater Body of Christ. And third, house church participants should commit to growing in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, and be willing to be developed for the work of ministry. I believe it takes all of this to have a strong New Testament church.
I discovered what I was looking for. I was searching for a way to fulfill the command of Jesus Christ in the earth. I have been seeking how to be fruitful, to multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it within a community of believers who desire the same thing (Genesis 1:28). With them, I want to ‘go into all the world and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). I want to encourage others and be encouraged to preach the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 10:7-8; Luke 9:2-6). I want my gifts and callings to be available to serve the Body of Christ when and wherever they are needed (1Corinthians 9:19). I believe this is the vibrant living church that Jesus purchased with His blood (Acts 20:28).
I received the following statement that has been attributed to Billy Graham. Reverend Graham is in my opinion one of the most powerful preachers of our time. What he said in 1965 speaks volumes to the condition of the church today.
"Multitudes of Christians within the church are moving toward the point where they may reject the institution that we call the church. They are beginning to turn to more simplified forms of worship. They are hungry for a personal and vital experience with Jesus Christ. They want a heartwarming personal faith. Unless the church quickly recovers its authoritative Biblical message, we may witness the spectacle of millions of Christians going outside the institutional church to find spiritual food."
From Reverend Grahams statement, it appears that the deterioration of the 'institutional church' was beginning to show nearly 50 years ago. Years before he spoke these words, another writer Roland Allen, began to confront the missionary methodologies of the 20th Century church. His book Missionary Methods St. Paul's or Ours was first published in 1912, six years before Billy Graham was born. Roland Allen accurately predicted that the contents of his book would become more accepted in later years. Fifty years later in 1962, 15 years after he died, there was the first resurgence of his teachings. I believe the patterns of Paul he wrote about are critical to the church today.
One clear statement in his book reveals a probable source of the institutional problem. He wrote, "St. Paul's methods is not in harmony with the modern Western spirit". In other words, we do church our way and assume it is suppose to work like the church in the first century. In 1961, Elton Trueblood wrote in his book, The Company of the Committed, "It is hard to exaggerate the degree to which the modern Church seems irrelevant to modern man. The Church is looked upon as something to be neither seriously fought nor seriously defended." Nearly a half century ago, men like these were seeing structural problems arising in the church.
I believe there is a powerful church in the earth. It is not the buildings we see peppered throughout our communities. It is not the well structured religious organizations that offer contemporary programs and events. It is a church that the gates of hell has no power against (Matthew 16:18). It is a church that proclaims and demonstrates the wisdom of God in the earth (Matthew 24:14; Ephesians 3:10) It is a church that stands in the earth as the pillar and ground of truth (1Timothy 3:15). This is the church found in scripture - not the structures devised by men. I believe the latter house will be greater than the former (Haggai 2:9; Ephesians 5:27).
It is amazing that a dysfunctional church system formed in the fourth century has only served to weaken the Body of Christ. The enemy of the church, has used 'comfort' to lull it to sleep. I am not a doomsayer, but I have to take note of two scriptures, Daniel 8:25 and 1Thessalonians 5:3.
And through his shrewdness He will cause deceit to succeed by his influence; And he will magnify himself in his heart, And he will destroy many while they are at ease. He will even oppose the Prince of princes, But he will be broken without human agency. (Daniel 8:25 NAS95)
For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. (1Thessalonians 5:3)
The enemy uses peace and comfort to destroy believers. Many, in their comfort, they believe they are doing God's will by simply showing up 'to church' week after week. In the typical church:
The comfortable church is more concerned with fitting in and pseudo-relevancy, rather than confronting the forces of darkness in their region. Even those of us who espouse 'house church' must be careful not to retreat into living rooms for 'little bible studies', but rather to come together to edify, exhort, comfort and provoke one another to good works (1Corinthians 14:1-5; Hebrews 10:24-25). Our house church gathering must not be antithetical to the institutional church, otherwise we may find ourselves simply defending a style of gathering rather than the purpose of the Kingdom to be fruitful, multiply, replenish the earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:28). If we become more enamored with worship methodologies, we could easily miss our mission to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20).
Billy Graham said that multitudes of Christians within the church are moving toward the point where they may reject the institution that we call the church. He said they are beginning to turn to more simplified forms of worship. They are hungry for a personal and vital experience with Jesus Christ. They want a heartwarming personal faith. I believe that each of us were created by God to experience His presence, power and to know His purpose. I believe that can only be achieved when we experience the power of God flowing 'THROUGH' us as we touch lives in our families, communities and region. Sitting week after week in a pew waiting for His power to come 'TO' us only serves to weaken and distract us. The authoritative message of the bible has not diminished. Simply put - God is still on the throne - the devil is defeated - and Jesus is Lord!
Jesus is still building His Church - His Way - in the 21st Century!
Jesus is still building His church – His way – in the 21st Century. Unfortunately, religion has taken over the ‘building’ project and completely changed the architectural design.
Instead of ‘lively stones’ built up into a spiritual house, we use brick and mortar to erect man made cathedrals (1Peter 2:5). Instead of a holy people being built together for a holy habitation, we pride ourselves in providing padded pews in air conditioned sanctuary’s. Instead of equipping believers for the work of ministry, we corral the masses for our weekly religious performances (Ephesians 2:22). Rather than a living body that is fitly joined together and building each other in love, we build congregations that we entice with events and pacify with programs (Ephesians 4:15-16).
Church has become a ritualistic weekly event, more than a catalyst for a divine cause (Genesis 1:28). Programs and fund raisers have trumped the command to “go into all the world”. Jesus gave us clear a directive. Matthew 28:19-20 is not a suggestion, it is the marching orders of the kingdom. We must make disciples of every nation. The church has been empowered to carry this mission out in the world. But unfortunately, we have been fooled into placing more emphasis on the ‘church’ we go to, rather than the church we are to become! It is more acceptable to be seen in church than it is to be sent into the world through the church.
Before I go any further, I want to shout emphatically that I love the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. I want to see her become the beautiful bride Jesus will return to. However, I believe that our view of ‘church’ must drastically change in these last days. I submit to you that what we call church in the 21st Century is completely different from the church seen throughout the New Testament.
Jesus said the gates of hell will not prevail against His church (Matthew 16:18). Yet, in our quest for social relevancy, the modern day church has embraced hellish philosophies that completely undermine the Christ and His Kingdom. Paul declared that ‘principalities and powers’ would know God’s wisdom through the church, but we battle each other with denominational sectarianism and wonder why we are ineffective (Ephesians 3:10). The Apostle Paul later said that the house of God is the ‘pillar and ground of the truth’, but our religious version of the truth is so dysfunction that most people cannot discern between New Testament Christianity and New Age deceptions.
I want you to re-think what you may believe about the ‘church’. I want you to be empowered to ‘be the church’. I am committed to planting New Testament Churches that reflect the values and practices of the church that was birthed at Pentecost!
“JESUS IS BUILDING HIS CHURCH – HIS WAY – IN THE 21ST CENTURY! Are you ready? www.ntcdonline.org/blog.html
Whenever the Lord does something new in the earth – why is it that only a few people seem to understand it?
And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy (Acts 2:17-18)
Fresh revelation never fits into the current status quo. Fresh revelation often challenges our religious comfort zones and forces us to re-think patterns and belief systems. True revelation often produces conflicts. Those who have a vested interest in the current traditions and religious system are many times the most vocal against the new revelation. It was the religious leaders who resisted Jesus and the apostles (John 11:47-48; Acts 14:1-4). Jesus himself pointed out that there is only one force, one stronghold that “sets aside” and “nullifies” the revealed will of God – human traditions (cf. Mark 7:1-23; cf., Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, p. 42).
To some, fresh revelation is no more than ‘religious information’. These people often have a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude. They ‘take it’ if they receive some personal benefit, but ‘leave it’ if they have to leave their comfort zones. They forget that God does not give suggestions. He expects us to obey His Word. Our comfort is not His motivation – the accomplishment of His will is.
In the last days, God promised that He would pour out His Spirit upon ALL flesh. The evidence will be dreams, visions and prophecy. Some of the prophetic utterances is the release of fresh insight into the purposes of God for this season. Pouring out His Spirit is 'God-Speaking' His purpose for the His Church. His purpose has already been revealed in scripture (Genesis 1:28; Ephesians 3:10-11), however how it will be manifested is being released as we are able to handle it. What we consider 'fresh revelation' is in fact the unveiling of God's already established will for this generation. The problem is that we often become so enamored with the last revelation that we become blinded to any new truth.
Again, fresh revelation that is new to us has always been in the mind of God. He desires “…to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ (Ephesians 3:9). Our carnal nature, our traditions, our fear of losing our position in the church, and satan often blinds us from seeing what God is saying. God will never stop revealing His purposes and His will. You must decide if you will hear and obey.
The church as we know it is in transition. This is a prophetic fact. The Barna Group has done research showing a growing restlessness among believers in the traditional church. Two of their articles that explore church attendance and the growing house church attendance are recommended reading. In the mind of many, there is something missing in the church. People are seeking a more meaningful experience in church.
Is there something we are missing? Yes, it is the New Testament Church. It is the church we see demonstrated in scripture. It is a church that is governed by elders, developed by ministry gifts and where the believers primarily gather in homes rather than dedicated buildings (Acts 2:46; 14:23; Ephesians 4:11-12). It is a church where the Kingdom Mandate is a lifestyle (Genesis 1:28). This type of church has always been in the mind of God, even though to us it may seem to be new.
What causes us to miss all that God is pouring out? It is our traditions and our flesh. For the natural man is not able to take in the things of the Spirit of God: for they seem foolish to him, and he is not able to have knowledge of them, because such knowledge comes only through the Spirit (1Corinthians 2:14 Bible in Basic English). Fresh revelation regarding the structure of the New Testament Church is being released by God through apostles and prophets (Ephesians 3:5). I am one of many with a mandate to release this revelation in the earth. You must determine how much your traditions rule you. Only you can determine how you will respond to what God is speaking.
The Apostle Paul prayed that your eyes will be open to see all that God is doing in the earth today (Ephesians 1:17-20). Are you committed to obeying God at all cost. I believe you are. Yes, the revelation being released in the earth regarding the Church may be new to you, but rest assured that God has your best interest in his heart. How will you respond?
Ask yourself: If you found that you were not doing something that the bible said you should be doing – what sacrifices would you make to obey God?
Tim Kurtz is the founder of The Center for New Testament Church Development. The ministry was formed in 2010 with the mission to plant regional churches that reflect the values and structure of the first century church.