Monday, December 17, 2007

A Multiplying House Church in Columbus, OH

I use a Google search tool to monitor blogs for the keywords "house church" and find interesting things that way. Here's part of a longer post from a HC in Columbus that has multiplied once, and doubled in size just because of a change in venue.

Our house church has been meeting at our house for almost two years now. We've had a great time, we've grown, even divided/multiplied and commissioned one couple to keep planting house churches in their neighborhood. All very good things. Then just in the past two weeks we had a few things happen that seem to be showing us that we need to move on, move out to where God is working.

Luis and Laura are a sweet couple from Ecuador who are friends of Maria's that she invited to come to our house church. They have been coming for about the past three months, to our house. Then a little over a month ago they had a baby and since it is cold, they don't want to take their baby out any more than they have to. So we had church at their house a few weeks ago. Then this past week we asked them if we could just start meeting at their place every week so they wouldn't have to take their newborn out in the frigid weather. They also mentioned that they had some neighbors that might want to come to the meeting. Well when we met on Friday evening, their neighbors not only came but they brought two other families with them! So, our house church practically doubled in size in one night! The one couple came specifically because their 5 month old daughter has a blood infection and they wanted us to pray for her. (Which we gladly did!) Keep praying with us that she is healed completely.

I've been reading about how if we want to start a church planting movement we have to get out on other people's turf and the new disciples will bring others to follow Jesus as well. Now we're seeing it get started.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Accountability Without Objective Truth?

I lurk a lot and participate occasionally in an online forum hosted by Easum, Bandy & Assoc. In a recent post, someone brought up an article from The Ooze that was wondering how accountability will be affected now that people move so freely (and frequently) among different denominations and teachers.

I was caught by an underlying issue that relates to Postmodernity and posted this reply:

Interesting material.

Just as an observation, and not directly to the question of post-denominational accountability (or the lack thereof) let me point out one thing:

The author refers to "...thinking and behaving in ways that are consistent with various authors, and not simply the Biblical truths."

That's way too facile and frankly a false dichotomy, because there is no absolute consensus on what are "The Biblical Truths." Even there, you still have to wade into the opinions of "various authors," denominations, traditions and so on.

There has always been a plurality of ideas in the Church, even about "the basics," but I think we've insulated ourselves from that by staying siloed in our own denominational cohorts. Now that the denominational lines are being crossed and fading out, we're encountering the diversity that was already there.

I'm left musing, though, that maybe lurking below the question of accountability to whom is the issue of accountability to what. What I mean is, there seems to be an assumption that accountability to this teacher or that needs to be resolved by appeal to revealed, propositional "Truths" found in the Bible. Now, setting aside my point above (that you still need to choose your teacher who can tell you what the BTs are), one can also question weather BT is the only possible ground for accountability.

There is at least one alternative ground, which is accountability to a person, namely Jesus, who doesn't just reveal true facts but somehow is Truth.

Of course, it's still messy in practice. Especially since the Biblical witness is intricately involved in mediating our relationship with Jesus. But I think this is one of the main things that the Postmodern critique of the Modern mindset is raising: Objective Truth is not the only way to conceive of the ground of reality and faith.

Anyone have thoughts to share on that? I'd love to hear them.

Monday, December 3, 2007

House "Church" Emerging Outside the Church?

Do these quotes have a familiar ring to them?

  • rainy Friday night, the young worshipers sat in concentric circles in the basement of an office building, damp stragglers four deep against the walls. In the middle, Megan and Rob played guitar, drums and sang, leading about 120 people through the liturgy...

  • Without a building and budget...

  • (They) have shrugged off what many participants see as the passive, (clergy)-led worship of their parents’ generation to join services led by their peers...

  • (Participants) are looking for “redemptive, transformative experiences that give rhythm to their days and weeks and give meaning to their lives,” experience they are not finding in traditional... institutions

  • "there’s a joyfulness to the singing, the community, the breaking of bread together.”

  • “My friends who I play football with and have beers with are leading service here. I feel like if I wanted to lead a service, I could, too.”
If you've been reading about things going on the the house/simple/organic church movement, or event the emergent church more broadly, you've probably encountered plenty of statements just like these. Except for one thing. None of the quotes above are referring to the Church and none of the speakers are Christians.

They're Jews.

I'm very excited about what I see happening among my fellow Christians these days, but I find I have a particular delight to discover that similar things are stirring in the Synagogues as well.

Apparently, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is up to all sorts of interesting things these days!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Evangelism in House Churches

My friend AnnMarie posted this question in another thread:

Have you seen or heard of a house church that is effectively reaching the lost? I would love to hear about it!

I don't have any experience of my own to draw on in answering that question, although Julie Jacobs has told me that about 1 out of 10 people in her HC network has come to faith through the network. I'm going to e-mail the people I know who have HC experience and invite them to post here and share some of what they've seen about evangelism in the HCs.

  • How often do people come to faith through their involvement in the HC?

  • If you frequently have people who are not believers attending, how does that affect what you do and how you do it at your gatherings?

  • Is anyone leading groups where most of the people are not believers? If so, how is that going?


Friday, October 19, 2007

Virtual Coffee (100 Cups #2) with AnnMarie

I ran across AnnMarie's blog and found that she was, like me, transitioning from some of the familiar ways of church life towards... something else! Both of us are interested in house churches, so I invited her to join me here for a virtual cup of coffee and a real conversation that others are welcome to join in on as well. I' delighted that she said yes, so away we go!

I started her off with these general questions: "Tell me about your journey! Where do you feel you're "from" and how did you get interested in house churches?

And here is her response:

My Journey:

Twenty-nine years of my life consisted of gathering with Christ followers in a church building on a Sunday morning. Around nineteen of those years took place in a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. I had no desire to go after God during those years and I went to church out of mere duty. In my second year of college, a man that God placed in my pathway told me straight out that I was going to hell which shook me up spiritually. God used this man to introduce me to what it means to believe in God and to walk in communion with Him. That is when I decided to commit my life to Jesus Christ and walk in radical transformation. I buried my old scummy self and rose up as a new creation. I continued to go to the traditional church setting at a non-denominational church. In the meantime, I interned for a college campus ministry called His House Christian Fellowship during my senior year and took on a position with them right after graduation. I served in the role of Women’s Minister as well as an Evangelist/Outreach Minister. I was introduced to the Assemblies of God during that season in my life. In that season, God took me to a sweeter relationship with Him and hit me hard with His Spirit. I became crazy about Jesus Christ and the people here on earth. I quickly caught on to the heartbeat of what God wants to do here on earth. I wanted everyone to hear about who He is. I wanted everyone to meet up with Him. I wanted to reach out to the unchurched, the lost, and the backslidden.

I hung onto the Assemblies of God Church and I have been taking ministry classes with the Michigan District Assemblies of God. Currently, I am a credentialed minister and I am in the process of applying for my license to preach. In the midst of the past few years, I have served in many roles at the traditional church. I served as a sunday school teacher, a small group leader in the marketplace, an intercessor, an altar call worker, and a welcomer. I have also preached in the church setting and also at retreats. Around 2 years ago, I took on a staff position at a church plant as the Network Director which is a non-churchy title for an Evangelist. I networked with those in the church and those outside of the church. I led (and still do) a Bible Study with around 15 non-Christians in a coffee shop. Most of these individuals have never stepped foot in a church until that group was started. Most of them do not own a Bible. Half of the group believes Jesus is God but they are not ready to commit their lives to Him. The other half do not feel as if Jesus was God but they are looking for spiritual truth. I also served in many other areas at the church. On the weekends, I roamed the streets of the downtown area prayer walking and networking with the lost. I prayed that God would move powerfully in that land. I prayed that His Kingdom would come. I prayed that lives would be resurrected.

After twenty nine years of my life, I have decided that it is time to transition out of the traditional church for a season or maybe even for good. I am in the process of praying and asking God for specific direction in this area. There are a few reasons as to why I am taking this transition. First of all, God said, “Leave!” In a small way, I can relate with Abraham when he was told to leave his country. He was told so that he could be a blessing to others. I feel as if that is what God wants me to do. Secondly, when I first accepted the position as Network Director I felt it in my spirit that it was only for a season. Thirdly, God has instilled in me a different type of heartbeat for ministry. If I stayed in the traditional church I was in, I would remain paralyzed which would not be healthy for me. I can honestly say that I have a joyful expectancy for what God has in store. I stand before my God and I humbly commit this transition and my life to the Lord. As of right now, I am homeless when it comes to church and it is extremely out of the box for me.

I am currently in the position of wondering what church is. Over the past year, I have been asking myself several healthy questions when it comes to church.

What is church? Why do we have church? What is church suppose to look like? Are we in line with what God wants? If so, why are some churches shrinking and not growing? Why do we see so little salvations and life transformations? How are we to reach out to the unchurched, lost, and backslidden?

I do want to be part of the local body of Christ. I am just in the position of trying to figure out what is church and where do I fit. As of right now, I am in the midst of doing some research of house churches and praying about becoming part of one. House churches seem to be more and more on the rise these days. The house church looks attractive to me for many reasons. First of all, there is a great level of intimacy with those that gather and even with God. That intimacy leads to authentic and real relationships. That intimacy brings about a strong accountability and even discipleship. Secondly, house churches seem to have the freedom and a passion to be actively involved in the community without trying to get the “church name” out there. Thirdly, house churches have the freedom to be lead by the Spirit and not by mere programs. The traditional church tends to run by a minute by minute schedule which is ordered by one person. Fourthly, There seems to be a depth when it comes to the diving into the Word, prayer, worship, and even fellowship in the house church setting.

Just recently I ran across a quote that sums up how I feel right now when it comes to “church”.

“Acts 2 is a virgin church, unblemished by 2000 years of schism. It is a church at its most zealous, most spirit-filled, most connected, and most unified. If only church could be like it was during those times.” Mike Bishop

Oh, how I desire to be at that place!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Peek Inside a House Church in Omaha

In my daily browsing of blogs that mention the phrase "house church," I've just come across If I had to describe my church I would say something along the following lines. "We are a Christ-centered, biblically-informed, reflective, conversational, alternative Christian community that seeks to be Spirit-led, Spirit-transformed, and committed to life-togetherness in our day-to-day witness for Jesus." this one by Gary Nebeker who is an Associate Professor of Bible at Grace University in Omaha. The post I read (dated 10/10/2007) had a great section describing what goes on in the house church he's been involved in since 2003. Here's that section:

If you ever visit one of our gatherings, here's what you will observe. We meet for a communal meal in someone's home every Sunday evening around 5:30. We celebrate the Lord's Supper every Sunday at our communal meal. Sometimes we will sing some hymns or spiritual songs with guitar accompaniment. There are no youth specific ministries; the kids, from infants to teen-agers, are integrated into the meeting. In the first three years of our history we went through Dallas Willard's Renovation of the Heart video series, studied the DISC profile, read and discussed chapters out of Richard Lovelace's Dynamics of Spiritual Life, and studied the Book of Acts. In the past year we have examined the New Testament texts that pertain to elders and deacons. We are currently studying the virtues depicted in 2 Peter 1:5-7.

Several of the men in the group have provided leadership and some general "structure" for the others. We don't have "a pastor." There aren't any expository sermons. Usually a person prepares some thoughts based on a text of Scripture. After this person shares the group then spends some time discussing what this text is saying to us today. In addition to the time we spend together on Sunday evenings, we do a lot of "life-together" things during the week in groups of twos and threes.

He also writes this about the group of about 20 adults as well as children:
If I had to describe my church I would say something along the following lines. "We are a Christ-centered, biblically-informed, reflective, conversational, alternative Christian community that seeks to be Spirit-led, Spirit-transformed, and committed to life-togetherness in our day-to-day witness for Jesus."

I'm sure it's risky to generalize about house churches, but this does seem to be a nice vignette that has the feel of what I've been encountering among others who are following Jesus in this way.


Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Explaining "House Church" in 60 Seconds

This morning I found myself trying to explain to a stranger what house church is, in about 60 seconds.

The Backstory

I was at a doctors appointment to meet with a specialist for the first time who was going to take a look at my hand. (I have some odd stiffness in some finger joints but it doesn't look like anything to be too concerned about, thankfully.) One of the parade of people who saw me in the exam room before I actually met the doctor noticed the catering logo on my shirt and asked me if I worked for a caterer. I do, part time, and had just come from setting up a breakfast. So I told her that I was actually a pastor, on leave from call and working for a caterer while mostly being a homemaker and parent while my wife brings home the bacon and pays the bills. We chatted briefly about catering and then she was done with her tasks and left the room. Later on, after I met the doctor and she had finished discussing the concerns I had about my hand, she mentioned that the other person had told her that I was both a pastor and a caterer which was unusual. So I went ahead and talked about how I was not serving in a church but was now exploring the house church movement. To this, she replied;

Oh, that's great! - like visiting sick people in their homes?

Beat the Clock

So there it was. How do I explain house church to a doctor I just met, in the few moments for conversation available in the exam room after my appointment? In a nutshell, here is basically what I said:

In a regular church, the primary event is when you gather together a large group of people who mostly listen while one person talks, namely me - the pastor. But if your main goal is to help people grow and change, and through that to change the world, this large group/lecture mode is really not very effective. You'll really do much better with a smaller group - say 10 or 12 - who can really get to know each other and be involved in each other's lives. And that is what house churches are about.

She picked up on that right away and enthusiastically compared it to her own experience of helping to train other doctors on how to diagnose things. She said that while it's useful for her to initially just explain it to them and tell them about it, what really helps is when they then go and practice it and check back with her to see how they did: experiential learning in a small group vs. a lecture.

I then added that another reason I was interested in house churches was because of the high cost of doing regular church. To support that large group event takes a whole lot of money for the building, and the salary of a graduate level professional and so on (and pay for insurance, she chimed in, never far from the mind of a doctor these days to be sure). I said that it just takes an enormous amount of time and money to keep it going and in the end you don't get a lot out of it. She was right with me, and saw what I was getting at, saying "So the ROI (return on investment) is low. I'll be the people in charge don't like to hear that." "Well, yeah..." I replied.

Then she made one more interesting comment. She remembered that she had actually attended a house church meeting - or something much like it - perhaps 10 or 15 years ago. She recalled that it seemed very strange because it was so different from a regular church service, which she was familiar with.

That was it. Time was up. I went home and she went on to her next patient.


1. Amazing how these conversations get started! I imagine it's more likely for me to find entry into these topics because it's an easy offshoot from the basic "what do you do for a living" question.

2. I was struck by how quickly she made the comparison to her work with training doctors. But actually, the whole idea that effective teaching and training needs to be more interactive is pretty commonplace these days. What seems more striking now in retrospect is that it's taking the church so long to catch up with this. Mentoring, coaching and participative learning really ought to be the norm for our practices of faith formation.

3. Lastly, I noticed that my quick-draw explanation was largely negative and reactive. That is to say, my first move in talking about house church was to contrast it with what it isn't: conventional, Sunday-morning-oriented church life. To an extent, that's understandable. Conventional church is certainly my own most familiar reference point. And I understand that when an idea is in its early stages, it's often expressed in terms of what it is reacting against or emerging from. It can take a while to learn how to articulate what you're for but it's not so hard to describe what you're against. (Brian McLaren has pointed out how this is taking place in the emergence of Postmodernity - easier to contrast it with Modernity than to give it a positive definition of its own. The very term "post-modern" itself illustrates that point.) But it really begs the question: how would my answer be different if tried to say what house church is and what it's for rather than what it isn't?

So, let me close by giving that a try.

House church is when small groups of Christians get together regularly - typically in a home - and that gathering is their primary faith community. They may or may not also go to traditional church services, but this small group essentially is their "church," their congregation. And so these people share life together, and they help each other to grow, to be more like Jesus, and to change the world.

That leaves a lot unsaid, and "primary faith community" feels unwieldy... too much like a technical term, but it's a start.

I look forward to my next conversation and a chance to try it out.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Talking about Truth with "Evangelicals" and "Emergents"

Well! I've had quite the hiatus in my blogging and it certainly wasn't my intention to start up again with a thick theological piece, but.... oh well!

I came across a discussion of Truth on the up/rooted Weblog that gave me just the occasion I needed to make myself write down what I've been thinking about Truth. Truth, it turns out, is a very challenging topic of discussion these days, particularly between Evangelicals and Emergents. I won't attempt to describe what each is saying, or what they think the other has said. For a peek at that, you can read the weblog by following the link above.

I ended up writing a fair bit about the topic myself, but from a perspective that I haven't heard others articulate. So, if you're interested in that - read on!

Here's a copy of my post to the Emergent discussion, addressed to three others who had been contributing.:

Postmortem, Gordon and Jon –

Thank you for your willingness to personally give voice to a discussion that is important, emotional, and simmering hard within and among a whole lot of people these days, myself included. I admire and appreciate your courage.

I am not prepared to or interested in critiquing anyone else’s thought today, but I did want to share a bit of how the issue has been rumbling in my head.

Postmortem, you put your finger right on the pulse of my current musings when you made this comment:

"Instead you've grounded yourselves in weak suggestions like "Perhaps the truth of the Bible are not directly tied to factual accuracy. If that's the case, or if you'd care to show how that may be the case...please show me from God's word where you get that."

The scripture that I keep returning to in thinking about all this is John 14, where Jesus says; “I am… the truth.” Let me put up the verse and the two around it:

5Thomas said to him, "Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" 6Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him." John 14:5-7 NIV

I’m a scientist by training so I’m very, very comfortable with the Modern, scientific way of thinking about “Truth” as being related to facts, information, verifiability and so on. So it’s completely jarring to hear Jesus say that he is truth, because “truth” is not something you can be. You can know truth, discover truth, share, record, express, discuss, debate and even be mistaken about truth. You can also be true but you can’t be truth.

So, in making that claim, Jesus shatters the category of “truth” in applying it to himself. It’s not just that it’s hard to understand what he means (we all agree there’s plenty of that), it’s that the statement is formally nonsensical - if - you are using the Modern/scientific categories for understanding the word “truth.”

That, to me, is where Jesus himself forces me to go outside the arena of factuality and accuracy (and inerrancy) in how I am going to deal with him and relate to him and, I pray, trust in him and obey him. These are, I believe, the things that matter most. When Jesus says “I am the truth” it compels me to move out of the Modern/scientific (and Greek/philosophical) arena and back into the Hebraic realm, where it has never been about facts and Ideas but love, life, and above all relationship as the “category of ultimate concern” if you will.

But when he says that, it also opens the door for me intellectually to all of the discussion I am finding so lively among the Emergents on issues of language, culture and so on. Truthfully, I’d have to say it actually compels me to go through that door so that I will be more cautious about interpreting scripture since so much hinges on the categories and definitions I bring to the table, knowingly or unknowingly.

Let me go one step further. When the word “truth” is used in the Modern/scientific sense, then the word “know” also has a particular sense which corresponds to a cognitive condition. Scientific “knowing” is about having access to actual facts in your mind. But in the Hebraic sense, “to know” is also often used in a relational way. So we get the classic “Adam knew Eve his wife…” in Genesis 4:1. This means that there is at least an interpretive option in how we understand what it means to “know”

This profoundly shifts the sense for interpreting a foundational verse such as John 8:31 “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” In a Modern/scientific frame, that translates into something like “You shall actually have access in your mind to the correct information, and that correct information will set you free.” But in a more Hebraic frame of meaning, and following what I think is the sense in John 14, it comes out more like this: “You shall be united in a relationship with me, and I will set you free.”

For me then, these explorations into the discussion of Truth and so on have resulted in an even more powerful shove towards focusing on my relationship with Jesus. And rather than make me less interested in investing time into reading and studying scripture, it has made that more important as I want to hear what my forbears have to tell me about living a life with God in the way of Jesus.

Well, that’s what’s been on my mind. If it’s of any use to others, then thank God for that!

Blessings –


Friday, June 8, 2007

100 Cups #1: Julie Jacobs

Julie Jacobs – Frontier Fellowship Church

One of the first people I met who is actually doing house/cell church ministry locally is Julie Jacobs, so I’m pleased to have her as my first profile for the 100 Cups of Coffee thread on my blog. I was introduced to her by John Mayer who publishes the Cityview Report, a comprehensive summary of religious demographics and trends in the Twin Cities, MN.

About Julie

Julie leads a small network of cell churches called Frontier Fellowship Church based primarily in the East Metro area, with monthly celebration meetings on the East side of Saint Paul. She and her husband Robb are graduates of Christ for the Nations, and she is an ordained minister who also serves as a Presbyter in their Fellowship of Ministers and Churches. The two of them are partners in a variety of ministries dealing with audio/visual technology, global missions, worship music, and homelessness prevention through their organization Rivertown Christian Ministries International. She has traveled internationally to train pastors in cell-based ministry, most recently in 2004. She also works bi-vocationally as a manager in the health care industry.

About the Network

Frontier Fellowship Church is comprised of five main cells, one of which has a daughter cell and another in development. There are roughly 10 people in each of the main cells so the overall network involves about 50 people. Of these, Julie estimates that about 35 see their cell as their primary faith community. The others look to conventional congregations as their primary community and participate in Frontier cells in addition to that. The network emerged around 2004-2005 out of several groups that Julie had been working with, including an initial cell group of pastors she formed in 2001.

About the Cells

Each cell is distinct in the group it serves: one is a neighborhood group, another is made up of couples, and others are made up of men or women only and so on. Meeting frequency varies from weekly to monthly. Julie does not lead the cells herself. Some of the cells she visits rarely, others more often, especially the newer ones so she can help to “imprint” them with the values of the overall network. The cells are formed with growth and multiplication as a stated goal from the outset. Conversions and baptisms are taking place in the cells through the relationships there, rather than through people attending the large group gatherings. About 20% of the members currently in the cells were baptized through the ministry of Frontier, with about half of these being new conversions. It bears pointing out that if you were to translate that to a conventional congregation, it would correspond to having 10% of your members as adult converts who came to faith through your ministry.

Julie refers to the groups as cells intentionally. In the cell model, each group is fully Church and not just a part or segment of the larger, “real” church/congregation. This is in contrast to the way that conventional congregations typically segment their life into separate groups that are responsible for fellowship, evangelism, education, care and so on. This also applies to sacramental life which is not limited to the large group gatherings, again in contrast to the norm for small groups in conventional congregations. In practice, Julie reports that the cells in her network tend to invite her to join them when they are celebrating a baptism or Communion.

Large Group Gatherings

All of the cells have been gathering together monthly for a “First Sunday” celebration service which Julie leads. A second monthly large group gathering is just now being added. Part of the impetus for that is coming from the members who are not also involved in conventional congregations and want to gather more frequently. This second gathering will have a greater focus on ongoing training of the cell group leaders. It will probably be modeled after a typical cell gathering rather than just a second monthly Celebration-type service.


Julie uses a well laid-out process for discipleship that extends from conversion and baptism to leading your own cell group. Along the way are various lessons, retreats, spiritual gift discovery and so on. An outline of the whole process is available on the RCMI website. They use materials from a variety of sources such as Bethany, Dove, Global Leadership Network and the G12 model. In her experience, it takes about a year to help a member grow to the point that they are ready to lead a cell and disciple others. When people have become involved in one of her groups, she always encourages them to retain whatever ties they had to existing congregations. However, some of her leaders have progressed in their training and now are feeling drawn to lead their own churches and even seek licensing.

In Her Own Words

Julie has agreed to spend some time with us on the blog and answer a few questions! I've got three that I'm going to ask. Here's the first:

How did you come to be involved in cell-based ministry and what fuels your passion for this work?

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Coffee's Ready!

Welcome to 100 Cups of Coffee, a collection of profiles of people who are active or interested in the house church movement in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul Area.

Even in the short few months that I've been meandering along my new path, I've accumulated a good batch of contacts of people to be in conversation with. Many of them I haven't even called yet or sent my first e-mail. Even so, I've noticed that among the people I have met, most of them are not aware of each other. So I hit on the idea of collecting and posting these little profiles as a way for me to keep all these folks straight, and to help them learn about each other.

I'm hopeful that my blog can also serve as a place for conversation. I'll be asking the questions that I'm interested in of course, but I encourage you to be a part of the conversation as well. If you prefer, you can e-mail me directly and give me suggestions for improving the profiles. That would be great. In fact, just the other night I got some helpful guidance from my wife Kisten. It was about how to make my writing more, um, well... interesting. I forget exactly how she put it. It was very helpful, though! No, seriously. You have no idea. And she was very tactful, too. What a good wife! How am I doin' hon? Are you still reading?? Whew! ;)

Anyway, coffee's ready. Cream or sugar?


Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Evangelical Effectiveness

A friend of mine who leads a small cell group network tells me that about 1 out of 10 people in the network is an adult convert who came to faith throgh the minstry of the groups.

Now, in my local group of 14 ELCA congregations, the combined average worship attendance comes to about 6,000 people per week. If 1 out of 10 of them were adult converts, that would be 600 people. But a study I did of the annual reports from the congregations found a total of 72 adult baptisms over the past 6 years. In fact, the average number of adult baptisms each year per 100 worshippers among these congregations comes to 0.2.

Put another way, every batch of 100 worshippers in our congregations takes, on average, 5 years to bring one person to Jesus.

This is one reason I'm interested in cell groups and house churces.

Now, is this really a fair comparison... networked cells and conventional congregations? Probably not. It's apples and oranges, I admit it.

But it does make me think.

Perhaps we should be planting apples.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Transitioning: A Desert Passage

About a week ago I was at a conference here in the Twin Cities for people involved in the house church movement, put on by the folks from House2House. One of the topics that came up repeatedly was how difficult it often is for people to transition to life in the house church when they are used to being in a conventional church. Some people talked about spending years in a transition phase and the image of a desert or valley experience was often used to describe it. Some of the issues people encountered were:

Isolation - Often there was a lag time between leaving conventional church and finding a house church. You can’t just look them up in the phone book.

Guilt – Some felt guilty for not going to church even when involved in a house church. This was complicated by friends and family members who may not regard the HC as “real” church so it “doesn’t count.”

Loss – For some, there were clearly things they missed from conventional church life, such as the broader community of friends, large group worship and music, the rhythms of the church calendar and so on.

In the face of these struggles however, people were clear about the value of making the switch. There was a strong sense that what they found in their house church experience was so valuable that it was well worth the struggle to transition and change. Part of that was summed up by one leader who said that transitioning is not just about finding a different way to “do church.” It’s about moving into a different way to live.

That was a key observation. House church is not just a different way to do church; it’s a different way to live as church.

I should note too, that the transition issue is most relevant to people with a history in the church as opposed to new converts. At the conference, I was not aware of any people who had come to faith in a house church. That’s probably to be expected at this point, with the movement still relatively new in the US. Most of the people likely to come to a conference like this are probably house church leaders and have come from established churches. But this is something I want to look at intentionally as I begin to profile various actual house churches: to what extent are they seeing growth through evangelism and not just “transfer growth” from other churches.

In my own journey, which is coming up to the 10 month mark since I left my congregation, I can certainly relate to a lot of the issues around transitioning. It’s unsettling not to know how and when I will find intentional community again. Fortunately, I am blessed with friends who are companions and encouragers for me along the way, and it’s good to have an active faith life at home with my wife and kids. In fact, paying more attention to “home church” has been a real plus even at this early stage of my journey. But without the outward involvement in the work of a congregation to engage in, it does press the question of where I am at in the inward involvement of my life of faith and how that is finding outward expression.

The leaders at the conference – the ones on the “other side” of the transition – encouraged us not to look at it just as something to endure and get through. Rather, to enter into it as an opportunity for spiritual formation. I wrote in my notes:

Transition is about letting God change you. Your role is to cooperate. Let the internal work be done so that you can emerge “with the goods” ready to give what others need. It’s like Bill Easum’s advice for those who would be spiritual leaders: ‘Put on your own oxygen mask first.’

Well, there’s certainly plenty of precedent for things happening to God’s people in the desert. It will be interesting to see what happens to me.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Do You Have Joy?

Well, I posted a question about evaluation on an e-mail forum for missional church leaders... asking if anyone was doing evals, if so what are they like etc. and guess what - no one even responded! What's up with that?! Meanwhile they're having a conversation about how clergy can't define "success" or even ask the question. Hellooo! I tell you, it's a good thing I'm nobody of any importance or I'd really be irritated for being ignored like that. ;) Anyway, I reposted my original question so we'll see if that helps.

For now, let me see what I can do. For a framework, I'm going to use Rick Warren's Five Purposes (Worship, Fellowship, Discipleship, Ministry, Evangelism). To be fair, I sould point out right away that Rick actually does have an evaluation tool based on the Purposes. What I'd like to develop is something a bit simpler and not linked to some of his other specialized terms. You can read my take on the Purposes presented in a Tree metaphor here.

So, if we start at the "roots" of the tree, that would be our realtionship with God, and for me, the best thing to look for there is joy. Jesus said he wanted us to have complete joy (John 15:11). So here are some questions around that.

How often are you experiencing joy in your life that comes simply from knowing and being known by the God who loves you?

How well does your joy hold up when you endure bad circumstances?

Can other people tell you have this Joy?

What is your overall sigh-to-smile ratio? (The percentage of time you spend sighing vs. smiling.)

I believe that growing in faith will result in more joy and more visible joy. I think Churches should let people know that's part of what they should expect. Churches should help people discover and experience that joy, and should evaluate for progress to be sure they are getting the job done.

And if people don't have any joy, then I don't think we should press them on anything else until we've helped them grow into that.

So - how goes it with you? Do you have joy?


Friday, May 4, 2007

Spiritual Evaluation?

Why is it that we never evaluate spiritual growth?

When something is important to us, we usually find some way to evaluate it. It's important that our kids get an education and actually learn things in school, so we give them tests and grades to see how it's going. My health is important, so my doctor routinely does various blood tests. Airplane components... infant car seats... promising pharmaceuticals... it's important that these things actually work. That's why they get tested and evaluated.

But in the Church, I can't recall ever encountering a significant attempt to find out if people actually grow in faith, actually mature.

The "annual physical" is a common idea. Where's the annual spiritual?

Eugene Peterson embellishes a bit here, but his The Message version of 1 Corinthians 13:5 really lays it out straight:

"Test yourselves to make sure you are solid in the faith. Don't drift along taking everything for granted. Give yourselves regular checkups. You need firsthand evidence, not mere hearsay, that Jesus Christ is in you. Test it out. If you fail the test, do something about it."

So tell me, if you paid a visit to The Great Physician and he sent you out for some labwork, what kind of tests do you think he'd have them run?

What's the spiritual counterpart to a cholesterol test?


Friday, April 27, 2007


(Yes, this post is over 10 years old now! But it still works as a pretty decent introduction to where I'be been and how I became "feral." For something a bit more current, check out this interview video my friend Ryan did with me in 2017.)

Welcome to the Feral Pastor weblog! I'm honored that you have decided to spend some of your time with me. My goal is to make it well worth your while, and I’ll try to be concise (although I’d advise against betting any money on that!)

As it says on the main page, this blog focuses on both conventional congregations and house churches. Here’s how I came to have both an interest and an investment in these two directions.

My Pastoral Journey.
When I first began serving as a pastor in the early ‘90s, I was expecting ministry to be pretty much “business as usual” compared to what I saw growing up in the church. Teaching, preaching, baptisms and communion, visiting folks, weddings and funerals, confirmation classes and various meetings pretty much summed it up. A few years in however, it was becoming clear that there were some significant things afoot - energizing movements that showed up on my radar.
  • ALPHA was arriving from Great Britain;
  • Rick Warren was in the early days of Purpose Driven Life;
  • interest in holistic and multiplying small groups was growing.
Significant organizational innovations were surfacing as well:
  • permission-giving structures;
  • policy-based governance anchored in renewed Mission-Vision-Value statements;
  • team- and gift-based ministry and so on.
My wife Kisten and I, serving as co-pastors, worked to renew the life of our congregation in various ways during this exciting time.

During these years I was also becoming aware of some big picture developments. I woke up to the decline of the church in North America. Membership had been falling continuously for forty, even fifty years in mainline denominations, even as population increased. Worship attendance statistics were even more alarming, showing that the problems were not limited to mainline churches. People were talking about the church having lost a whole generation and being well on the way to losing a second.

More broadly, the reality of North America as a mission field was dawning on me. And on top of that, I was awakening to the enormous cultural shifts taking place. I was becoming convinced that the roughly 500 years of Modernity was giving way to the very different postmodern world view, and that 17 or so centuries of Christendom was drawing to a close as well.

It was also a time of great ferment for me personally and spiritually. I began a Bible journaling practice using the SOAP format developed by Wayne Cordeiro at New Hope Christian Fellowship in Hawaii. In connection with that, I was reading through the entire Bible for the first time. And I was greatly blessed by reading the Bible in Eugene Peterson’s The Message version. The sheer vibrancy and directness of his writing opened up an enormous window for me, through which I could hear the voice and the heart of God in ways I never had before.

In addition to all of this, I was also for the first time encountering Christian music written in a genre that connected for me emotionally. I grew up singing and enjoying hymns and anthems in church. But my native tongue musically – and emotionally – was Rock & Roll. So it was a veritable epiphany for me the first time I encountered a worship service using that genre. It was like growing up reading all your books in English and then one day finding something written in Portuguese and suddenly realizing that English is your second language, not your first. So a door was opened for me to begin to worship in my native musical language, and more importantly, to worship in my native emotional language.

Through this entire journey – pastoral, intellectual, and spiritual – I was incredibly blessed to have a traveling companion in my wife Kisten. She and I were co-pastors and we were right in step with each other all the way, both in what we were encountering and in how we reacted to it and embraced it.

We emerged through all of this with an awareness that we were called to “transformational ministry.” The state of the Church generally, our congregation included, was such that it was not sufficient just to make incremental or even major structural changes. The changes needed were in areas that were fundamental to existing congregational culture. Of course, what that really means is fostering fundamental, transformational change in the people. Aye, there’s the rub.

There are so many things that play into helping or hindering real change in people’s lives. But as we thought and experimented our way through it, we became convinced that the single greatest factor was a person’s relationships with other believers. That was the primary bottleneck for making progress. Most people were not spending significant time in substantial relationships intentionally tended to produce life-changing spiritual growth. And so, we set out to develop an intentionally multiplying small group system in the congregation. We even hoped to be a church of small groups, not just a church with small groups.

As we pursued this in the years that followed, we did have some success although certainly not so much as we had hoped. No doubt part of that was due to the typically glacial pace in making fundamental changes to an established culture. We knew going in that it was a long term process.

But on reflection, I concluded that there was another hindrance at play. For all of the time we spent preaching, teaching, talking and writing about how these kinds of relationships were fundamental to what the church needed to be and do, when it came right down to it we actually enacted them as if they were icing on the cake. Those small group relationships were great – sweet like sugar! – but it was all the rest of congregational life that actually took up most of everyone’s time and attention. And foremost in that camp was Sunday morning worship.

This really crystallized for me when I started thinking about the food pyramid. (Not the fancy new one with the rainbow triangles, but the original one with the blocks.) Fats and sugars are fine in your diet and even necessary, but you don’t need that much of them so they go at the top. Grains are the main thing. You need a lot of them, so they go on the bottom. Translating that to the church, large group corporate worship is a good thing, even necessary for a healthy “diet,” but you don’t actually need that much. It goes on the top. But the small group time, time spent in substantial relationships and significant conversation, that’s foundational. That goes down near the bottom. That’s what a healthy spiritual life would look like, but we were living life as a faith community in just the opposite way. Our priorities were inverted. We needed to flip the pyramid.
I began to wonder… what would it do for the life of the people if they met weekly in small groups, and then monthly, perhaps even quarterly for a rip-roarin’ pull-out-the-stops large group, corporate worship celebration? I thought about the possibilities for spiritual growth and evangelism. I thought about the time and the money it would release. I thought about the amazing celebrations we could do if we had a month or more to prepare for each one. I thought about the enormous decrease in the facilities needed. Then I realized, there is a name for the kind of congregational life where the small group is the main thing instead of an extra thing.

It’s called the house church.

This led me into discernment about my call. My wife had recently sensed that her time of service at our congregation was done and so she resigned her call. I stayed on and I was eager to see the work of transformation continue. A lot of progress had been made and there was great potential there. But I also knew that there were a growing number of pastors gifted and called for this kind transformational ministry who could carry it forward – maybe even better than I could!

But one thing was most persuasive for me. I knew of very few people who had the inclination and the opportunity to venture off in this new direction. Yet it seemed that the Lord had given me the desire and the opportunity to do just that. So I resigned from my call and concluded my service there in July of 2006.

Since then I’ve been resting, tending to family life, and gently following what I believe is the Lord’s leading into learning about the house church movement. I’ve been discovering people on this same path locally and beyond. I have not yet started or joined a specific house church and I continue to watch to discern God’s timing on that.

I’ve been collecting ideas and relationships, and those have brought me to the point of feeling it was time to start this blog. Most specifically, I’ve decided to be more intentional in seeking out people who are interested or active in the house church movement here in Minneapolis/Saint Paul. I intend to chronicle that journey here in the 100 Cups of Coffee topic thread.

While I expect to serve in this very different part of God’s vineyard, I still have a heart for pastors and lay church leaders who are continuing to do transformational ministry with conventional congregations. I want to be as much of an encourager and resource to them as I can while going this new direction. So I will also be using this blog as a way to offer ideas, metaphors, stories and information to those people in the Spoonful of Sugar topic thread.

Well, that’s where I am as I begin. I’m eager to hear from you and look forward to conversation on the journey.