Saturday, May 24, 2008

Media Scan - Recent Articles of Note

Local/Cell-Church: The Minneapolis Star Tribune has an article on Julie Jacobs and her cell church network, Frontier Fellowship. Julie was the first person I profiled for this blog in my 100 Cups of Coffee thread. The article gives a nice introduction to her work and her cell-church approach, and it's good to see the point in print that it's not intended as a rejection of larger/conventional congregations or as a competition for members. My only quibble is where Julie says that "Home churches are trying to grow big enough that they can get a building" in contrast to cell churches that aspire to grow in order to multiply into more cells. (Frankly, I'm skeptical that Julie would make that kind of sweeping generalization.) Obviously, some HCs do aspire to get back in the building, while others intend to grow by multiplication instead. Most of the people I'm in contact with who are active or interested in house church forms are interested in growth by multiplication and are pretty passionate about steering clear of buildings.

National/House Church: My Google Alert service constantly scans the web & blogosphere for me in search of key words and phrases and sent me a surprising notice yesterday. Someone over on the Huffington Post was talking about house churches! This I had to see. Turns out it came up in the post Small Is the New Big in Progressive Politics by Rob McKay. The article is about political organizing strategy and "whether the Democratic Party is about short-term voter excitement or permanent citizen engagement." In that context, he makes these observations:

This new group of efforts focuses on local leadership, small circles, and cultural organizing. They are taking their strategies from the anti-slavery movement, groups like craigslist, and most surprisingly, a new Christian movement. "We keep saying that the evangelical churches gave Bush the White House," Erin Potts, a leader in strategic thinking for groups as diverse as foundations and big rock bands, said. "If we want to know, we have to study it and see what works. And what works, is culture and small groups. The emerging house church movement has a very dynamic and interesting strategy."

Potts and other organizers note that while overall church attendance has steadily declined since the 1990s, a new form of church has taken off--the house church. Unlike traditional churches, the house church movement doesn't meet in a specific house of worship, but instead, as the name suggests, in people's homes. While traditional churches have hierarchical leadership, the house church meets as a circle of peers, and while churches try to grow the membership of a congregation, house churches purposely splinter into smaller groups as soon as a circle gains more than a handful of members.

The success of the house church movement is staggering. Membership is well into the millions. One study suggests that 70 million Americans regularly attend or have experimented with a house church.

I think it wold be pretty ironic if political groups took more and better notice of the HC movement than Christian denominations and congregations. Ironic, but in a way not surprising. Like people in the business world, politicos are driven by a powerful zeal to get an outcome; elections won and policies enacted for one, profit and market share for the other. This drive can lead to experimentation, risk, innovation etc. and it's commonplace to see churches learning from the business world - although typically after quite a lag. But sometimes it seems that urgency, drive and passion are more prevalent in politics and business than in the Church. Profit and power more motivating than sharing the gospel? "Irony" isn't enough to cover that; it's just plain sad.

Moving right along, and to something more encouraging, here's my third newscatch.

Denominational/Emergent: My denominational magazine, The Lutheran devotes its cover article for June to Emergent/emerging ministries with profiles of three examples within the ELCA and a study guide. I haven't read it yet so I can't comment on the content But I will say that my little heart went pitter-pat when I read this among the study guide questions:

If you had a school, home or prison where people proclaimed the gospel and
celebrated the sacraments, would that be the church? Why or why not?
If you're familiar with my blog, you'll know I believe that is a question for which we have an answer - and a very, very Lutheran one at that.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Luther on House Churches

Most of the people I talk with about house churches are Lutherans. One of my favorite things to do is to find out whether they know that Luther himself proposed house churches as the natural, even preferred context for people who were serious about following Jesus. (He calls these people the ones who are "desirous of being Christians in earnest and are ready to profess the Gospel with hand and mouth.") It's great fun to see the look of surprise on their faces - especially the ones who went to seminary and, amazingly, somehow never encountered this fact!

I've got the relevant section from Luther's writings uploaded in my "document vault" but I've neglected to post it here so now's the time to fix that. Here is the key excerpt, with citations at the end. Friends, and Lutherans especially, you'll want to take note of the following:

  • Self-organized

  • Home-based

  • Lay led

  • Full sacramental life

  • Stewardship and social ministry

  • Simple catechetical instruction

  • Ideal context for loving accountability after Matthew 18

  • "Form and Order" are not imported but emerge spontaneously from community life.

I also enjoy pointing out that Luther gave two reasons for why he did not implement this: 1) he lacked the "requisite persons" (leaders, presumably), and 2) no one wanted to do it. So he decided to wait "until those Christians who are most thoroughly in earnest shall discover each other and cleave together." Well, we've got lots of people capable of leading this now, and lots of people who want it, and I can tell you, there are a whole lot of people discovering each other and cleaving together.

Anyway, enough from me. Here's the Old Man himself:

But the third sort [of Divine Service], which the true type of Evangelical Order should embrace, must not be celebrated so publicly in the square amongst all and sundry. Those, however, who are desirous of being Christians in earnest, and are ready to profess the Gospel with hand and mouth, should register their names and assemble by themselves in some house to pray, to read, to baptize and to receive the sacrament and practise other Christian works. In this Order, those whose conduct was not such as befits Christians could be recognized, reproved, reformed, rejected, or excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ in Matt. xviii. Here, too, a general giving of alms could be imposed on Christians, to be willingly given and divided among the poor, after the example of St. Paul in 2 Cor. ix. Here there would not be need of much fine singing. Here we could have baptism and the sacrament in short and simple fashion: and direct everything towards the Word and prayer and love. Here we should have a good short Catechism about the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer. In one word, if we only had people who longed to be Christians in earnest, Form and Order would soon shape itself. But I cannot and would not order or arrange such a community or congregation at present. I have not the requisite persons for it, nor do I see many who are urgent for it. But should it come to pass that I must do it, and that such pressure is put upon me as that I find myself unable with a good conscience to leave it undone, then I will gladly do my part to secure it, and will help it on as best I can. In the meantime, I would abide by the two Orders aforesaid; and publicly among the people aid in the promotion of such Divine Service, besides preaching, as shall exercise the youth and call and incite others to faith, until those Christians who are most thoroughly in earnest shall discover each other and cleave together; to the end that there be no faction-forming, such as might ensue if I were to settle everything out of my own head.

This material can be found online at the Hanover Historical Texts Project, and in Volume 53, pp. 63-64 of Luther’s Works, American Edition.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Evangelical Venture Capital in Scotland

The Church of Scotland is investing in entrepreneurs, it seems to me.

A news brief I found reports that this Presbyterian denomination is planning to invest about $3 million in "emerging ministries" over five years. Some grants could be as large as $60,000 per year for three years.

But more than the dollars, here's what really caught my eye (emphasis added):

The Emerging Ministries Fund will be supporting projects that engage with people outside inherited formal structures and at grassroots. In many cases this may mean less of a dependence on buildings and getting people to 'come to church' and a greater emphasis on taking church to the people.

The Assembly will hear that the Emerging Ministries Fund intends to support work in three areas: the promotion of new church growth alongside or beyond the existing congregation; establishing church from the ground up and exploring what that means for the given demographic and cultural context; and experimenting with new approaches to ministry.

Can you say "House Church?" Perhaps using - oh, let's call them "Home Front Missionaries" who could plant micro-churches alongside and in companionship with existing congregations?

But enough of that... let's get back to the dollars! My own tribe is about 7 times as large as the Church of Scotland, so if we invested proportionately that would put about $20 some million dollars on the table. That's some dough. If something like that is coming down the pike I'd sure love to hear about it!

Lately the term "seedcasting" has been lingering in my thoughts. Like when the sower sows liberally, though only a few really produce, yet the harvest is still abundant. Seems like a good strategy. Seems like the Scots are gearing up to sow, God bless 'em!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Mega Church, Micro Church, and ELCA Pastors in Ecclesiastical Limbo

One of the groups I've encountered that is working on House Church/Simple Church multiplication in the US is House2House. I recently noticed this comment on their blog and it caught my attention:

There have been several instances of mega-churches being in contact with the simple church movement with an amazing openness to what we are doing. One is asking how they can bless us, another how they can get involved in starting organic churches and others wanting to learn more. What would happen if the mega and micro learned to co-operate?

It made me think about Willow Creek's Reveal study and their conclusion that they need to help people become "self-feeders" because merely participating in church programs was leaving people spiritually stalled. (And this at a church with really well developed programs, I'm sure!)

It also made me think about the possibilities for experimental/missional co-operation that might emerge within my own Lutheran tribe. I'm in conversation with some folks denominationally now on that very topic so we'll see where it goes. I believe large and small expressions of the Church are meant to be partners and have unique gifts to share that come with their size. I'd like to be a part of making that happen.

So far however, what I'm seeing in my tribe is more sobering than encouraging. The other day I looked through the list of contacts I've accumulated of people in my denomination who are trying to explore the house/simple church expression as a way to grow the kingdom. Most of them are "on leave from call" which is a kind of ecclesiastical limbo for a pastor in the ELCA. (I'd be there myself if I hadn't happened upon an Interim Associate Pastor position, and I expect to be right back in "on leave" when that job wraps up.) So what I see is that there isn't a ready way for these folks to pursue this work while maintain their standing in the denomination. They end up hanging by a thread, and the clock is ticking, becasue after three years "on leave" you come off of the clergy roster.

I wonder... will my denomination will find a way to hang on to these comitted, risk-taking evangelical entrepeneurs? I sure hope so!

The clock is ticking.