Of confinement and freedom

These inspirational quotations come directly from Roger Thoman’s blog.   The original source is Francis Chan, Letters to the Church.

Church, the answer is not to build bigger and nicer cages. Nor is it to renovate the cages so they look more like the wild.  It’s time to open the cages, remind the animals of their God-given instincts and capabilities, and release them into the wild.

There are elements of modern churches that on the surface seem like good ideas, but they can actually keep us from the biblical vision of unity, true fellowship, mutual love, and pursuit of the mission.  Too many look at these elements and insist you can’t have a church without them.

I believe God is leading a movement in this country toward simple, smaller gatherings, and I long to see this movement gain greater traction.  I get so excited when I dream about the Church spreading in small, invigorating expressions that look and feel like the early church. 


Impressing pastors, parishioners, and accountants

The card shown below (front and back) appears in the pew of a large institutional church near us.













Prior to the appearance of these cards in the pews, I imagine there was an extended conversation in the regular Tuesday morning church staff meeting.  Let’s listen in on the meeting. . . .

Pastor Being:  So I assume most of you have noticed that our offering is dropping off.

Staff of 19 (not including the custodial staff of 5) [in unison, sighing ] Yes, we know.  What can we do? 

Advisory Accountant:  So glad you asked.  Here is a graph of the weekly and monthly figures leading up to Reformation Sunday.  We are off 20%, especially after that sermon series on Ecclesiastes.  Ahem, sorry, Pastor Being.

Pastor Being:  Thank you, A.A.  Now let’s get down to business.  We at RLSC¹ need to find a way to ensure that everyone feels the tug to give.  I mean, it’s good for people to be involved, and to hear sermons and all that, but we can’t do any of this unless we put forward a new pitch for pesos, if you know what I mean.  A decisive dash for dollars.  A bigger buttload of bucks.  (Smiling winsomely) . . . hey, this Christmas, if there’s no cash-y, there’s no creche-y!

Staff of 19:  [collectively, aggrandizingly]  Hahahahaha! 

Advisory Accountant:  Projecting out current trends, it is a distinct possibility that we’ll have to cut 25-35% on holiday expenditures.  The issue, if you ask me, is accountability.  Everyone’s concerned about privacy and identity theft, so donation practices are more private then ever.  I mean, how can the left hand know what the right hand is doing if all the giving is done on an app in the privacy of one’s home?  That doesn’t make a good impression on visitors . . . and what are the pastors supposed to think when the plate is passed through the pews and only 40-50% of the parishioners are dropping in cash and checks?  We need more accountability!

Pastor Being:  Based on A.A.’s recommendation, I support the notion of accountability.  Something doesn’t smell right about the left hand and right hand thing there . . . I’m not sure why . . . but I agree that the impression left when fewer hands touch the collection plates is a downer.

Pastoral Intern:  I learned in my Church Growth class last semester that if funds are being contributed by less than 75% of the membership, there is less than a 25% chance of growth during the next two quarters.

Pastor Being:  Thank you, P.I.  We definitely need a steady growth rate if we’re going to break ground next year on the new office annex, and if we don’t increase the rate, we can kiss the organ loft and pastor bonuses goodbye.  

Staff of 19:  [Collective sigh and downcast countenances]

Pastoral Intern:  I learned in my Church Methods class last fall that organs and choirs . . .

Pastor Being:  [interrupting]  For the moment, we can’t expect to have much esprit de corps unless we all have a shared sense of everyone else’s giving.  You know, like the workplace that displays a United Way contributions thermometer, coloring in the increasing level as it moves toward the goal. . . . 

Staff of 19:  [collectively]  Hahaha! 

P.B. [continuing] I’ve been wondering about those internet-savvy hipsters, working in tech companies and carrying the latest devices.  How do we know if they’re contributing regularly?  

Lead Tech Pastor:  Some of them might have encryption devices, or they might know how to disable our spyware so we can’t track their use of our new donation app.  For the run-of-the-mill donor, we are working on flash projection, using the robotics we use with the cams for the worship team.  When the team is taking a break, we can live-stream the contribution amounts in real-time, moving the screen down the row on the robotic arms in sync with the collection plate.  Later on, we can add the number of new donation app users as a sort of soft incentive.

Pastoral Accountant:  Studies have shown that people feel more obligated to give if everyone around them is giving.

GenX Involvement Pastor:  Seriously?  We’re going to make people feel uncomfortable?  I guess so, if we have to.

Creativity Pastor:  I was talking to the Pastoral Accountant after I saw the contribution figures last Sunday—thank goodness for our lay accountancy team that counts the money during worship.  Anyway, the P.A. and I both think we need to develop a card or some object that everyone who contributes online can drop into the collection plate on Sundays.  It would be symbolic, but it would increase the pressure on others to donate, too.

Pastoral Accountant:  Absolutely.  I think it should be a card that says “I give electronically.”  A card is heavy, so the sound of them being dropped into the plates will add sonic stimuli.  An additional benefit of a card would be that it gives the lay accountancy team something more to count, and that makes them feel more involved, and then they’ll probably give more money, too.  

Pastor Being:  What biblical passages can you think of that support such a card?

Biblically Learned, Subservient Pastor:  Hmm.  None, really.  Not even a principle that I know of.  Come to think of it, not even 1 Corinthians 16 . . . 

Pastor B:  [interrupting] Well, we can keep researching that.  Surely there’s something. . . .

Devoted Sheep among the Staff:  There is another way, you know.  Has anyone read about Francis Chan’s new movement? Check this out.  According to this report, “Chan leads a house church movement in San Francisco called We Are Church.  There are currently 14 to 15 house churches, he said, and 30 pastors (two pastors per church) — all of whom do it for free.  Each church is designed to be small so it’s more like family where members can actually get to know one another, love one another and make use of their gifts.”

Pastor Being:  [Never having considered a simpler, less costly way]  That seems sort of pie-in-the-sky, doesn’t it?

Assistant Pastoral Advisory Accountant:  You can’t be serious, little follower-sheep!!  What would that kind of model do to our cash flow and our end-of-decade projections?  We would experience more decline in our contribution income, and we would default on our installment notes.  Two or three banks would accelerate the balances on our loans.  We’d probably have to tap into our investment funds—or worse, go into hock with HQ.  The tax returns would be a nightmare!  Who would want to consult for us next quarter or serve as our independent auditors if we’re right around the corner from filing for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy??!

Pastor Being:  [continuing and calming the others]  Okay, okay. . . .  We all know we have this wonderful facility, and we’re not going to lose it just yet.  You know what?  Look around you.  There are some really well-to-do people in our immediate vicinity.  I see no reason the Lord wouldn’t want us to reach out to them just as much as to the lower classes. 

To inspire and to impress—our twofold mission.  We as a pastoral staff do the inspiring, and that impresses our parishioners to the point that they in turn are inspired to impress all those around them by giving more.  Everyone is inspired by all the giving, and more giving is the result of that, and that surely impresses our visitors and God, too.

All:  Amen.

P.B.:  All right, it’s settled then.  Let’s develop these contribution cards and roll them out in first month of the fourth quarter.  Then we can engage independent teams of auditors and church growth consultants to study the effects on cash flow and institutional involvement. . . .

For the complete blog referred to by “Devoted Sheep among the Staff” above, click here.

For a prior blog specifically about e-giving, click here.  Near the bottom are two additional links to posts about 1Cor 16:1-2, often cited in support of Christian contributions to churches.

Annnnd . . . I had last written about contributions and tithing in institutional churches here.  That piece was a protracted tearing-apart of a very poorly done brochure.  At the end, I expressed that I hoped I had the restraint, when coming on this topic again, merely to refer to that post.  Unfortunately, the sighting of the cards above brought the topic back, and I was compelled to speak against it.

¹ RLSC:  Reformed Large Swanky Church

Musings on family

One summer many years ago, when I was back home from college with my family of origin, I took the opportunity to make a Wednesday evening “talk” (sermonette) at church.  My talk was based on the last part of Ephesians 3.  This was during the days of the burgeoning popularity of the NIV, but I had chosen another version of verses 14-15:

I fall on my knees before the Father (from whom all fatherhood, earthly or heavenly, derives its name), . . .                – NT in Modern English, J.B. Phillips

A man in the congregation—one I remember as good-hearted and enthusiastic—complimented my talk in general terms but mentioned his disappointment in my choice of versions.  This man was in a phase of emphasizing the congregational “family,” so he preferred the NIV:

I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. . . .     – NIV [previous edition]

It happens that most reputable English translations have used the word “family” there, but the Phillips version opted for something different.  Never mind that my growing lexical and linguistic senses now tell me that neither “fatherhood” nor “family” does the idea complete justice.  The point here is that people want to think of church (and work and other) groups as “family.”  Language like that makes us feel good.  Except when it doesn’t.

At some point in my late teens or twenties, I had learned that certain Restoration Movement churches make a point of not having Bible classes on Sundays.  These are the NC (Non-Class) congregations.  My sketchy understanding of their point of view is this:  they feel that, when the whole church comes together, it should not be divided.  Perhaps that is another way of saying, “We’re all one ‘family,’ and we don’t split up and live in different Sunday-school-room “houses.”  I would counter-assert that, while it would seem natural to be together every now and then, the sense of family does not necessarily vanish when the members are not in the same place.

A couple decades after college, a preacher raised a rather thoughtful challenge within the church settingwhy do we insist on calling church “family” (a) when it is not really described that way in scripture, and (b) when in fact that language is likely distracting or harmful to a great number of people in the pews?  Could there be more people who have negative associations with “family” than with the term “father” to describe or address God?  (I think I’m doing justice to this preacher’s gist here.)  In other words, many people don’t have very positive experiences with earthly family, so it’s probably a bad idea to insist on family language to refer to church.

Every day of every week of every year, divorce impacts people.  Families are divided and re-divided, and as a result, the family—the unit that could be a bastion of devotion and love—has crumpled in the experience of way too many.  While divorce was relatively unknown in my childhood neighborhood or in the church in which I grew up, the number of divorces I know of personally increases exponentially as each decade passes.  I think of the kids my age or slightly older as I grew up, and I realize there is a higher and higher incidence of divorce . . . how few have had “normal” nuclear families of their own.

Within the last month, right here in our town, vandals in their early teens have been caught multiple times on top of buildings.  They have done damage amounting to tens of thousands of dollars.  Apparently these youths are notorious characters with the town police.  Family is either absent or incapable in each case, and the police say there’s nothing they can do about the vandalism, because of legal limitations on criminal charges.  Things could be different for these boys if broken family were not a factor.

After someone dies, some families are never quite whole, while others seem to grow closer.  A teen-aged boy’s father dies, and the boy’s life takes a different direction.  Estate settlements may  bind siblings together, or they (the settlements and the siblings!) can turn ugly.  A young husband or a young father dies, and life is forever changed for the survivors.  Some falsely hold to a false legacy, and others honorably try to honor.  Some of us are more resilient than others, but the effects of death in a family—whether untimely or not—are deep.

At just about any juncture, family can be a sphere of loss . . . and it can also be a beautiful part of human experience.  Family can be broken for a while, and the most stubborn may go to their deathbeds feeling justified about something or other while estranged from those who should have been family.  Other times, renewed relationship or reconciliation may occur.  Family can be made of “blood” ties (plus my adopted sister!), or, whether or not that kind of supposedly familial tie fails, we may find family in other ways.  Just yesterday, my wife referred to our study-partner friends as “family,” and told them where the glasses were so they could help themselves.

During this holiday time, some readers will be at large family gatherings.  One generous family in our town is hosting a come-all pancake breakfast.  Various members of my extended family are roughly 8, 15, 20, or 24 hours away, so the three of us will be enjoying a little day trip and some sights by ourselves.  Wherever you are, and whoever you’re with, you might consider both the benefits and the failings of families.  Turn from the not-so-good, and be thankful for the good.

Of distance and connection: speaking transparently

Reconnecting and staying connected has always been important to me.  Long before Facebook, and even before personal computing and the WWW, I had lists of friends and contacts, not to mention an alumni directory that helped me find college friends when I traveled.  Sometimes I would try to squeeze in too many visits, but my pace has slowed over the years.  On a family trip last month, we did spend some good time with three extended family members and five sets of friends.  Each visit was rewarding and had distinct value—for instance, meeting the fiancée of a dear, longtime friend a month before their wedding.  It is enriching and energizing to talk face to face with anyone I care about.

I do long for more/deeper/better friendships.  Through the years, some people have played highly significant roles in my life (and/or I in theirs) as we worked together on long-term projects, or because we were there at just the right time for each other.  In some cases, lengthy discussions about the scriptures, the church, or serious personal concerns seemed to cement our friendships.  My family and I are fulfilled in having maintained some relationship with most of the people in this picture, but where there has been this type of connection, a later sense of increasing distance can be more stark.  I can think of another group (from a dozen years prior to the above) in which one person has unilaterally and without explanation rejected the prior relationship, and there are other cold shoulders, as well.  Thoughts of that group led to thoughts of another group of eight or nine in which only three have shown any interest in building on the closeness we once had.

A couple of my friends, independently of each other, have confided to me that they value our friendship in part because they have few other friends.  I have a similar feeling.¹  I’ve had a couple of “best friends” and have been devoid that relationship “level” for a while now.  For various reasons, I have not stayed in any one place too long in recent years.  In most cases, it takes years to develop magnetic, deep friendships, whether or not they are of the “best friend” type.  If one moves away, not even Herculean efforts can keep the relationship from changing.

It’s been well said that the worst lonely feelings come in the middle of a crowd.  (Not everyone will understand that.)  I would add the modifier of all sizes to “crowds”:  physical proximity with even one other person might suggest, but does not guarantee, connection.  When the actual relationship lacks closeness, the appearance of being part of a friendship or “team” is painful.  A once-upon-a-time friend once looked at someone else and me and said “You are such a great team,” but we were actually very personally distant.  Being a part of an educational or Christian small group while feeling like an island has probably given me more emotional pain than can be imagined by those with more sanguine or phlegmatic personalities.  On the other hand, the relational ease and richness of conversation and relationship that sometimes does come in small groups (as in the one shown here) and one-on-one conversations can be incomparably rewarding.

There has been a lot of aloneness in my life . . . yes, a great deal of goodness and relational presence, but also a lot of absence² and a lot of wishing . . . a lot of wondering about connections that were, that might have been, or that might yet be.  Having a generally melancholy temperament, I over-think (brood?), and I create.³  I am not a natural smiler, so it might look like I’m unhappy when I’m just thinking deeply, pondering.

It is from these ponderings that the following passage comes.  I don’t suppose it’s really a poem; it’s more a piece of structured prose.  It is chiastically arranged, and I’ve indented to show the arrangements more clearly.  Here, a matched indent level indicates a related pair of passages, and the middle is central within the whole.  You might even read it that way, starting from the outer edges and progressing inward.  I will resist the urge to provide commentary on the piece.  On the other hand, if the chiastic arrangement is curious to you and you want to critique it or ask questions about what I have in mind or the intratextual relationships, please comment!  You and I might even enhance a connection….

I don’t like feeling alone.  For about a decade, I felt very (and increasingly) lonely, and no one seemed to understand enough to come alongside me.

On the other hand, I have often needed more alone time than I get.

Gene Edwards’s unusual book The Divine Romance paints a verbal tapestry of a pre-creation “time” in which God longed for a counterpart, an “other.”  At some point, Edwards imagines, God had a startling realization—that there could be two.

If I am in some sense made in God’s image, perhaps I experience, on some level, whatever God experienced that led Him to create humans.  Did He feel aloneness or loneliness?  I don’t think it’s quite appropriate to suggest that God “needs” people, but He certainly desires relationship.  And I, too, need connection.

James Weldon Johnson’s “Negro” literary classic God’s Trombones purports to quote God:  “I’m lonely.  I’ll make me a man.”

I tend to be both energized by, and accomplished in, alone time.

Blessedly, I have a wife and son who love me, and they encourage me.  Oddly, I still often feel alone.

¹ Grammar note:  I initially had “I feel similar” here, and that would have been technically correct.  The intransitive linking verb “feel” does not take an adverb, so it was “similar,” not “similarly.”  If I had meant to comment on my sensation of touch, i.e., how I feel a countertop surface  with my fingertips, comparing that to someone else’s feeling ability, then I would have said, “I feel similarly.”  Being technically correct is not always the best choice, so I opted for “I have a similar feeling.”  🙂

² For meditation-provoking posts based on Martin Marty’s book A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart, start here.

³ In my case, these days, creating primarily means writing.  Besides blogs, I have mounds of correspondence, some “therapeutic writing” that no one sees, a few poems, and a lot of music.  For about 20 years, I wrote songs (a handful of love songs and 100+ Christian songs); later, the musical creativity was directed more into mostly instrumental works, including compositions, transcriptions, and arrangements.  I don’t write much music of any kind anymore.  My creativity has moved more toward verbal prose, which means blogposts and the 5.5 books I have in print (Amazon Author Page), plus major contributions to 2 more books, and a few materials for teaching scripture.

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