Simple/organic church ideas and ideals: a collection

A couple of lives ago, I would sometimes wonder about individuals who looked comatose during assemblies, and I would try my best to be an energizing force as a public leader.  At the outset on a given Sunday, my hopes and efforts might have been expressed in “Again the Lord of Life and Light Awakes the Kindling Ray” or “We Shall Assemble on the Mountain” or “This is the Day,” or in prayer words or public readings—and the intentional, typically selective choice of others to lead with me.  It might have been specifically chosen words of welcome, or songs designed to “get you going” or to speak to one another, or a reading (scripture or otherwise) purposed to center the congregation in deep worship before a hymn such as “Lord of All Being” or “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee.”  Most of what I planned and did had the aim getting everyone to feel engaged and energized and purposeful during our corporate time. 

I’ve known for decades that the way my particular group (in Wilmington or Rochester or Greeley or wherever) “did church” wasn’t obligatory; furthermore, I’ve known down deep for at least one decade that it wasn’t working well for me and probably for others.  I can’t know exactly why John or Sally looked disinterested and didn’t seem to participate, but I do know now that “doing church” can dull the senses and stupefy the soul.  It doesn’t have to, but it can.

These days, most assemblies at regular, established churches leave me discouraged and robbed of most of the energy I’d had when I walked in.  I have become one who appears lifeless most of the time during a gathering.  And so I long for something else, something to quicken the spirit. . . .

There is another way.  I read about it and think about it often, but I’ve only experienced it in short bursts so far.  In this post, I’m sharing a collection of others’ thoughts on simple/organic church.  Whether you are a “done” or are edging toward “almost done,” or well sensitized to those tho fit those labels, you and other thoughtful people can find rejuvenated purpose here.  I led this piece with reflections on assemblies in a relatively traditional pattern, but not all these ideas are related to gatherings.  They describe realities and dynamics that are more or less distinct from established church patterns, focusing more attention on discipleship.  As Roger Thoman says in one essay, it is about “no longer thinking of the church as an event or place to go, but realizing that we, his people, really are the church everywhere and every place that we go.”  This is no great revelation; most with any degree of biblically based upbringing will find that last sentence eminently palatable.  For my part, I continue to think Christian gatherings are of great importance, but how they appear in my life is shifting.  However they appear in all our lives, the challenge is to promote the “be the church” ideal to the higher level.

Here are some words of someone who once didn’t get why anyone would want to keep meeting with a house church “when larger churches with exciting youth programs, riveting preachers and spectacular worship music” are available:

This post deals with the intended reality that every person is a minister/servant.  It’s not just a Monday-through-Saturday concept; it works at Sunday gatherings, too!

Here’s a piece by Thom Schultz of Group Publishing, in which he refers to author Doug Pollock encouraging us to be comfortable asking “wondering” questions (and not depending on the “sage on the stage” or  “master fisherman” on Sundays):

“The Church as Industrial Complex is a resource-driven form of church that has a gravitational pull that unintentionally turns spirituality into a product, church growth into a race, leadership into a business and attendees into consumers.”  – JR Woodward and Dan White, Jr.

20 Truths from The Church as Movement (Christianity Today)

  1. Love God. Love People. Make Disciples
  2. Disciples Make Disciples Who Make Disciples
  3. Embody the Gospel Where You Live
  4. Church Isn’t a Destination, It’s People

“It is interesting to note that simple is reproducible. Simple is able to be passed along. Simple can become viral. Keeping things simple can reduce the temptation toward creating religious structures and church institutions by encouraging a simple, basic listening/surrendering relationship to Jesus whom we love and follow.”  – Roger Thoman

This quotation puts the emphasis on daily discipleship:

“For me, the paradigm of simple/house/organic church is not about a way to do church but a calling to continue to find Jesus in the stuff of life, follow Him, and pursue His adventurous calling while refusing to get boxed in by anything that wants to pull me back into the lazy boxes of yesteryear.”  – Roger Thoman

“It is a vision of no longer thinking of the church as an event or place to go, but realizing that we, his people, really are the church everywhere and every place that we go.”   – Roger Thoman

“[I dream of a] church, which does not need huge amounts of money, or rhetoric, control and manipulation . . .”  Wolfgang Simson

Simpler, but not simple enough

The title of this book immediately drew me to it.


I was even more interested because I’ve seen quotations by one of the authors of this book.  I read a couple of chapters:  “The Simple (and Not-So-Simple) Church in Action” and “Clarity:  Starting with a Ministry Blueprint.”  Then I paged through other chapters and found myself disappointed in the contents overall.

What the authors describe doesn’t go nearly far enough, in my estimation.  I don’t have the desire to offer a full critique/assessment here.  Let’s just say that this book is about something that’s not nearly as simple as the church I think Jesus (and Paul and Peter and Lydia and Barnabas and Priscilla and Philemon and Onesimus and even Luke and Apollos and James) had in mind.

I think the book might have been titled A More Focused, Somewhat Simpler Congregation.  Then I would add this tongue-in-cheek tagline:

. . . for those who want to move in a generally good direction (jettisoning a few things and participating in a kind of “best practices” improvement program for the institutional church) but who are still a bit reluctant to participate in something radically simple

Casual? Informal? Simple?

The church we visited today had a rather casual mood.  We believe its M.O. is typically informal, but perhaps today’s casual quotient was especially high since electronic technologies were not available, and there was a kind of “fly by the seat of your pants” thing going on.

To distinguish for a moment:  while I view informal as almost always good in the church context, casual is not quite the same.  Informal allows for a certain amount of personality and spontaneity and does not ask for fancy clothes or pews or pulpits—and doesn’t need pastor-types, either.  Let it also be observed that one doesn’t have to throw intentionality and thoughtfulness overboard in order to be informal.  Casual, on the other hand, can be fine in terms of overall assembly ethos, but we ought to establish some limits.  Specifically, a casual approach to worship and God would be bad.  (If we could check with a few famous personalities from the Hebrew Bible whose lives were divinely de-lengthened, this assessment would surely be confirmed.)

Today, with this very small church, I was a bit disappointed, but not overly surprised, at the casual approach.  Personalities were in evidence (good) and some planning had clearly occurred (better), but there wasn’t a lot of meat to sink one’s teeth into, and it was clear that the expectations for depth are low on an ongoing basis.  To be fair, this church is “in transition” (read has no paid staff at the moment), so the flux capacitor is probably running at half a gigawatt.  It was good that, in lieu of standard musical praise, today’s leader asked for spontaneous expressions of praise for God’s perceived activity.  My main disappointment came in seeing yet another church—one that has the potential to move in simpler, more organic directions—trapped in such institutional practices as full-length sermons, collection plates, and printed bulletins.

There’s really no need to apologize when church gatherings don’t look like traditional “church,” i.e., the church stuff we might’ve experienced in our lifetime, in our culture.  I tend to be partial to primitivist approaches that attempt to recover the first-century dynamic and teaching, but these approaches can admittedly wander off course.  On the other hand, responsibly and intentionally getting “back to the Bible”—really doing that, not just saying you’re doing it—can also illuminate the core, freeing would-be followers of Jesus from peripheral matters that distract.

We don’t need all the trappings.  It can be simple.

Please check out this valuable blog from Roger Thoman, in which he says

Perhaps if we get Jesus right, and our imitation of Him in keeping with who He is, we will naturally get church right.

Here is another good quote to close on:

If you make disciples, you always get the Church.  But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples.  (@Mike_Breen)

For more of my posts that relate to simple/organic church, use this link.

Of followers and a film

During the last couple of decades, the Jesus Film has been shown in countless places—many of them not mappable and even secret.  I once gave enough $ to get a free copy of the VHS tape.  Why I still have it, I don’t know, because you can see the film online.

JesusFilmThe organization found me again and sent me an October letter about film-showing activity in a dangerous region under hostile control.  The report said that 50 film teams had fanned out on foot in mountains, on motor scooters and in cars, and even on camels.

Here is a quotation about response and results:

Through hundreds of film showings and many miracles, 60,000 people experienced the power of “JESUS,” His Word and His love.  About 13,000 became ‘Christ followers,’ 6,000 were baptized and 900 underground churches were planted!

I like several aspects of the letter and report:  the news-sharing, the careful honesty, the positive tone . . . the differentiation among experiencing, becoming a follower, and being immersed.  (Each one of those is significant in its own right.)

It’s further exciting that all those church groups were begun.  I imagine the count is pretty accurate, as much as humans can count such things, and given the credibility of the JESUS Film Project organization, but I do worry about the sustenance of those groups of believers.  One thing they don’t need is the institutional organization or hierarchies of western churches.  They don’t even need preachers or missionaries in the traditional sense.  But I do hope they continue to get the Message, whether orally passed on or in scripture format.

Another matter for the grace of God. . . .

Dependency: not just a “substance” issue

Very often, I think about what is being termed “simple/house/organic” church.  I’m persuaded that many who are content in institutional churches may not understand what it is that makes their churches (more or less) institutional.  They may even bristle inwardly at the suggestion that their churches are more organizations than organisms.

Aside:  a church that believes it is nondenominational may in fact resemble a full-blown denomination.  The noticing of this resemblance can cause similar resistance, excuses, and concocted explications, but the alarm doesn’t negate the resemblance.

Once or twice a month, posts from Roger Thoman’s blog come to my inbox.  Thoman is not a particularly active writer, and I suspect he is more engaged in living out “simple church” than he is in writing about it, yet I infer that he feels a sense of responsibility to share thoughts periodically.  Personally, I would have much the same bent without having read Thoman, but he has helped to form my thinking with some well-placed words in recent years.

From time to time, I have republished Thoman’s thoughts.  (This link will bring you to a listing of prior posts.)  Before giving you a link to a recent post of his, I’m spotlighting some thoughts from the article that I find the most salient. . . .

I think people today have trouble being who they really are because as social creatures we live in a hierarchical world in which we’re highly dependent on others.

. . .

. . . In other words, at some level we are comfortable with hierarchical structures because they meet our need for external affirmation and approval.

As long as we need our approval and identity to be affirmed by externals, we will likely create hierarchical type systems to be part of–even in simple/house church models.  As long as we need our approval and identity to be affirmed by others, we will probably relate wrongly to spiritual authority including genuine, servant, spiritual authority.

The answer, therefore, is not simply to reject forms of church that are hierarchical.  Nor is the answer to reject community all together.

. . .

In other words, just attempting to come out from under “hierarchical, unbiblical church structures” does not get to the root of the issue. . . .

Emphases in bold are mine, not Thoman’s.

To read the full post, click here:  Roger Thoman:  Hierarchies Create Dependency


The “theological context” of the public library
On the way to Bible study Wednesday night, the three of us were discussing renewing library books.  We defined “renew” for our first-grader, and then I thought I’d take opportunity, so I commented that we’d now have a little “theological lesson.”

“What’s that, Dad?”

“‘Theological’ comes from two Greek words that refer to 1) God and 2) reason or message.  So, something “theological” has to do with how God’s reason or message applies to it.”  (Don’t get too critical of that quick definition.)

“Oh, OK.”

“So, back to ‘renew.'”  In a way, that’s what God promises to do for us—to re-new us . . . to make us new again.”

“Like being new in heaven?”

“Well, yeah, that’s a good thought.  That’s one way.  But also on earth.”

“But it’s not possible to be alive again, is it?”

[exchange of glances with my wife]

“Umm … wow, Jedd.  That’s so much like the question an old Jew named Nicodemus asked Jesus once! ¹  We’ll read that tonight before bed.”

(And we did.)

¹ For more on the expression “born again” and “born from above,” see this post.  I find that the latter is a much more apt, exegetically derived translation of the expression in John 3, although the secondary reality is that being “born from above” is a second, or “again” birth.

Jedd listening to Kathryn (in our small group, currently studying James) give an answer to his question about homeless people.
Jedd listening to Kathryn (in our small group, currently studying James) give an answer to his question about homeless people.  This was two Sundays ago.  It was pretty cool that he was listening to discussion of chapter 2 and was thinking about how to treat people.
He asked the great question to my privately, and I shared it with the group. He's still listening. Everyone honored him by giving him a personal response. So much for sending the kids off to another room to watch Veggie Tales. We're keeping our kid in the group.
He asked the great question to me privately, and I shared it with the group. Everyone honored him by giving him a personal response.  Here, he’s still listening intently.  So much for sending the kids off to another room to watch Veggie Tales.  We’re keeping our kid *in* the group!



A mini-odyssey with small groups (epilogue; 6 of 6)

The writing of this six-part “mini-odyssey” has in each case involved the categorizing action of selecting a check-box.  This might be considered a merely esoteric element, but the technically-blog-astute might have noticed my choices:

  • Organic church” (a crystallization of my topic in these six posts)
  • Assembly” (my thesis is that small-group assemblies have the same spiritual significance as large-church assemblies)

I could also have checked the box for “Leadership” or “Church tradition and practice.”  Disregarding the bit of blogger-wisdom that says you shouldn’t choose too may categories or tags at once, it would have been appropriate to choose all four of those and maybe “Inspiration,” too.

I’ve opted not to do much preaching/teaching here, so I haven’t talked about “Biblical or abiblical) doctrine.”

Nor have I gotten into the “Parenting” aspects, i.e., in a small group, what do you do with children in your living room floor or in a play room or spare bedroom?

Nor have I discussed particulars related to small groups in the “Amer. Rest. Mvmt. (Stone-Campbell),” although there is at least one particular worthy of note.

While it should be clear that I have been discussing relatively small versions of the “Gathering” or “Assembly,” and while I’ve been writing about the development and experience Organic/Simple/House church models in my life, I have also been intersecting, at least conceptually, with the broad idea of “Christian living.”  Perhaps the most glaring omission from my category selection, then, is “Christian living.”  I am coming to see the “Assembly” more as an organic component of Christian living.  Gatherings and associations with other Christians—by no means to be downplayed—are a vital component of “living Christianly.”  (So I’ve just added the appropriate checkbox to this post.)

What other aspects are there?  I haven’t gotten into the dynamics and phases of forming and sustaining small groups.  I haven’t appealed to scholars or gurus, nor have I cited scripture.  In considering the kinds of Christian gatherings I prefer, I haven’t discussed aspects that the small group does not typically incorporate well.  There is so much more to say (not that I should try to say it). . . .

A couple decades ago, I was a strong proponent of being at every meeting of my church (not to mention events and assemblies of other churches), being involved in lots of programs and special events, etc.  Now, my paradigm for Christian gatherings is, in one way of looking at it, more restricted and careful . . . but simultaneously broader and more liberating.

Enter my ever-increasing perceptions of, and distaste for, institutional aspects of “church.”  These days, in scanning someone’s church bulletin or hearing her talk about her church, I am likely, simultaneously, 1) to feel glad for the impressive “ministries” and the genuine attention to people and 2) to experience a sour stomach over the salaries and real estate and complexities and business-like protocols involved.

I am by no means unique in my negative feeling about churchdom.  Many people through the years have been put off by institutionalized religion, running the other way and often allowing it to block their relationship with God.  I feel some need to distance myself from those people in practice, although I presumably share much of their raison d’etre.  Put another way:  I feel their pain; I get their angst; I share many of their gut reactions.  I refuse to turn my back on Christian associations, though.  Rather, I want renewed emphasis on them.

I don’t wish to support institutional churches monetarily, but I don’t fault siblings who do.  I know local churches that do immense amounts of good for others through their offerings of money and time and skills.  I feel some inner longing to be a part of some of those activities (and who’s to say I couldn’t be?), but the whole package is more than my soul can currently bear.

I sometimes feel funny these days, not doing everything that “good Christians” do.  Decades of ingrained habits are difficult to break, and breaking them with some conscientious purposefulness still creates spiritual dissonance in me.  I don’t know, for instance, what is or isn’t sustainable—not only in my life but in the life my son will have in a couple decades (if the Lord doesn’t return first).  In the interim, I feel good about his inclusion in a high-quality children’s Bible class on Wednesdays, not to mention my own learning and positive associations in a study led by a knowledgeable, capable servant.

I even wonder if there will be some negative “witness” in my physical neighborhood.  That is a real possibility in this particular, southern town in which probably more than half of the population goes to some relatively conservative, “Bible-believing” church on Sunday mornings!  Could there be a weaker, “backslidden” (even the reference there betrays an institutional view of what it is to be a Christian) person nearby who notices my rarely “attending” somewhere on Sunday mornings, and to whom to the Romans 14 principle might actually end up applying?

Being a subject in God’s kingdom is not about membership in one or more groups . . . any kind of groups—whether institutional, informal, simple and organically grown, or what-have-you.  Yet association with other believers is not only wise; it is strongly commended in the scriptures and downright beneficial.  So I continue to look for—and contribute to—worthwhile, smaller-group associations.

If you really believe, as I do, the Rx that small groups are better for most of us than large groups, at some point, you have to take a solid step forward into the Land of Discomfort.  Having awaited the arrival of my passport, I have received it . . . am currently ambling around gingerly on the shores of LD.  My visa has been stamped (with no return date), and I wasn’t detained in customs, although my baggage is noteworthy.  To force the metaphor further:  maybe, just maybe, the Ruler of this Land and all other lands will favor LD with a “Developing Country” status in the eyes of neighboring governments.  Trade agreements could follow.  (I’ll quit there.)

The point is this:  I am beginning to allow a mix of one semi-institutional cell group, a local, substantive scripture study and others assisted by technology, plus various, more organic small-group associations, to be church for me.

B. Casey, 10/10-20/2015

Simply following—a blog by Roger Thoman

A mini-odyssey with small groups (5 of 6)

Part 5 of this “mini-odyssey” continues with up-to-the-current-time anecdotes about small(ish) groups in my Christian journey.

Now in Arkansas for a time, we have committed ourselves to a regular, Wednesday night Bible study of substance.  During the first five weeks of our residency, we also made visits or partial visits to 10 churches (or small groups formed out of those larger churches).  We have so far had guests in our home once a week, on average.  The home visits involve important associations that I do not take for granted.

One comparatively large study group was attempting to tie Hosea’s forth-telling prophecies to 21st-century geopolitics.  I walked out of that one at a convenient moment.  (There’s only so much of that misguided muck that I can take.  I was doing really well to hang in there for 40-45 minutes.)  That group was not for me.

Another group used what I consider to a be questionable Bible “study” method.  (More to come on that in a few days.)  This seemed to be a really nice, genuinely caring group,  but, with more than 20 people, it was too large, and volume in the room made my ears hurt.

A dear friend invited me to a weekly a.m. men’s group.  After attending twice, I’d call this group an accountability and sharing group (not a study group).  Those guys already know a good deal about each other, having built trust over months and years.  The aims are good, and the love, genuine, but the chemistry isn’t right for me.

The cell group (which happens to be labeled a “community group”) in which we’ve settled, for the time being, is studying James.  The leader is very sincere and obviously cares deeply about both relationship and God’s expressions through scripture.  The way we spend time is not always beneficial for all, and the biblical interpretation is a bit uneven, but it is a good group with fine people.  We think we’ll hang in there and try to develop some deeper relationships.

A serendipitous, new association has occurred as a result of my attending a woman’s lecture on transparently telling one’s story (and listening to others’ stories).  The sister of a college friend happened to be nearby, and she reached out to me (in appreciation for being the only male to enter the room full of women!); our families are soon to meet for a meal.  A single meal shared, along with genuine reflections on life as a human disciple, can be an important Christian gathering. 

We have enjoyed meals with another college friend and his wife at a restaurant, and with other dear friends in our home.  We continue to gain from time with “senior saints” in their upper 60s and 70s, as well as friends closer to our age.

I am beginning to allow the cell group mentioned above, in addition to the more organic get-togethers, to be the core of my Christian associations.

Next:  Epilogue

Interjection: prayer in small groups (4 of 6)

The prayer that typically occurs in small groups has for decades been a frequent matter of dissatisfaction for me.

It’s certainly a mixed bag.  Some praying has been very richly meaningful, but for me, those instances have been too far between and mostly in the distant past.  There is always room for improvement and growth; I do believe a large part of the problem lies in me.

Today, I want to express resistance toward the pervasive “prayer request” method.  As well intentioned as it always is (attempting to show care for lists of “needs” for group members, “taking these things to God,” and keeping track of “what God is doing in our lives”), the listing commonly uses an inordinate amount of time, often seems shallow and one-dimensional, and in any event leaves me shivering and looking for warmth elsewhere.

In one small group, there were four listings of the same items in the same 75 minutes:

  1. “Let’s go around the room and have everyone share a prayer request.”
  2. Leader prays for each item in order.
  3. (After Bible study) “Let’s remember [reiteration of each item on the above list].”
  4. Leader prays again for each item in order.

I kid you not:  four times through the same list!  I don’t think that’s what “pray without ceasing” means.  Since God is in fact God, I doubt He needs to hear the re-petitions.  For my part, I need and want more from praying than a listing of needs that corresponds exactly in number to the number of people in the room.

Can’t I have two needs?  (What would that do to the decorum?)

Does everyone has a need that ought to be shared?  (Save us from the kindhearted but out-of-place requests on behalf of Sue’s daughter’s friend from school whose aunt has a sick puppy.)

Aren’t there greater, more comprehensive matters that demand address to God?

Where the “prayer request” method is used, may I suggest that it be acknowledged that God hears the items when they’re being shared the first time.  It may not be necessary to mention each one in order again.  Alternately, a specific prayer could be spoken immediately after each matter is disclosed.

Now concerning the voicing-aloud . . . any prayings in small groups are by nature relatively informal; even Christian groups that limit women’s roles may be able comfortably to explore including men and women in the praying aloud.  Yet it is not necessary to “go around the room” in a perfunctory manner that obliges everyone.  Not everyone needs to pray aloud every time.  The method/pattern that seeks to be inclusive may end up discouraging genuine engagement if it forces the unwilling to speak.

No matter the numbers of people or methods employed . . . please, please can the prayers be

  • more “natural” (yet retaining reverence, which is an absolute),
  • deeper,
  • more inclusive of Kingdom matters, and
  • more pervasively cognizant of God in all His majestic identity, as well as His abilities?

In a small group, it seems that prayer might be explored and experienced to a greater extent than in larger groups.

Next:  Current Arkansas small groups