Archive for the ‘House Church’ Category

Friends have asked me several times what I do when I lead a Bible study. If they are American, I usually cringe when I hear the question. (I don’t do much of anything . . .). If they aren’t, I tell them. In most of the world, there isn’t such great access to Bible study curriculum, inductive training manuals, commentaries, Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias, so we have to let the Bible speak. In all honesty, having used lots of curricula over the years, I love the simple 6 questions that we use now.

Two things I have noticed with these questions: 1. People discuss more. I’m not the expert, and they realize they can answer most of these questions just as well as anyone can. 2. Two of the questions engage an emotional response. I know it sounds stereotypical, but the women in our groups respond more to these questions than they ever did in a prepared curriculum.

These questions have been around forever – supposedly they come from a missionary in Asia – I wish I could find the source. (Edit – John DeVries, founder of Mission21 India, came up with these questions prior to 1989) Also, they exist in different orders and wordings, and lately have become popular again with “Discovery Bible Study”. I first got them verbally, from a buddy, which seems so appropriate. He didn’t have them written out. I wrote them on a napkin a couple of times, but they are easy to remember:

Read a passage from the Bible out loud. We usually read a chapter, and usually everyone reads a few verses.

1. What don’t you understand from the passage? This is really the only question where the “expert” gets to shine.

2. What do you like from this passage?

3. What don’t you like, or what do you disagree with?

4. What do you see about God in this passage?

5. What do you want to remember this week from this passage?

6. What do you need to apply in your life from this passage?

6 questions bookmark

Here are the questions in a bookmark, with a link to a ministry that will send you more.

As you can see, my order is a little different. Other than keeping the first 3 questions before the last 3, I don’t think it really matters. And we don’t always do all 6.

I have the questions in Polish, but if you’re Polish and you’ve read this far, you can probably translate them better than I can!

Of course, this is similar to the other old standby:

What? (What does the passage say or mean?)

So what? (What does it mean in my life?)

Now what? (What do I need to do?)

The point is, you absolutely don’t need a Bible study curriculum to start reading with your friends. You don’t need a seminary degree, or years of Christian experience.

What you need to do is: Read. Discuss. Do. Every portion is equally important, and we all know that it’s the last one, DO, that usually gets neglected.

So. What are you waiting for?

Cole, Neil. Church 3.0. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 2010. 274 pp.

Church 3.0 is a follow-up to Cole’s earlier book, Organic Church, and is structured to answer questions that might be asked about organic churches. The terms organic, simple and house church are sometimes used interchangeably – as you might see in my review of Felicity Dale’s book, An Army of Ordinary People. In short, organic are meant to be “relational, simple, intimate and viral” (from the flyleaf of Church 3.0) and are usually separate from buildings and hierarchy.

There were a couple of things that I didn’t care for. I don’t care anymore for books that use the Bible to say “this is the only biblical way.” I think I didn’t mind that much the first 10 books I read that said that about their methods. With each new book, that makes the same claim, though, I get more and more frustrated. Of course, Cole – and every other author who writes like this – is convinced that his method has biblical support. Fine, I get that. And the Bible is our primary authority. However, I often wonder if this type of argumentation would make it very far in an academic setting with higher expectations. Of course, feel free to remind me of my words when I write my first book explaining why my method is the only biblically supported method!

The title, and assumption that organic church is the next “upgrade” on church, equal to church 1.0 (pre-Constantinian) and 2.0 (Church since Constantine) – well, seems just a little bit presumptious. However, since I don’t have near the experience that Cole does, it would be presumptious of me to criticize his presumption 🙂 This presumption looks very similar to Hirsch’s history of “missional mode” from Forgotten Ways, which I critiqued here.

Although I really liked the perspective on groups of 2 or 3, I thought he overdid it with the proof-texts in support of the idea. It might have been enough to focus on the “sendings” – Jesus sending the disciples in groups of 2 (Luke 10:1b) and the Antioch church sending Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:2b-3) Both examples are on page 140 – where we also find Cole’s statement, based on Matthew 18:20, that “Jesus promises to join the meeting when two or three come together, no matter where or when it might be.” This strikes me as a great-sounding statement based on a verse ripped kicking and screaming from the context.

Here are my 3 favorite insights from the book:

  1. The base unit of life: two to three people. Community. Accountability. Confidentiality. Flexibility. Communication. Direction. Leadership. All are stronger with 2 or 3. (139-142)
  2. Integration is better than segregation for children and adults (211-221)
  3. A manipulative leader cannot take advantage of Life Transformation Group participants because they are not a biblically illiterate following (239)

Yeah, I know I criticized the way he took verses out of context to support the groups of 2 or 3. However, the base unit was still an eye-opening concept for me. Although the other sizes that Cole uses – leadership team (4-7), family unit (12-15), etc. are in place in our Lublin structure, we have faltered in discipleship, especially in application of Scripture and in accountability. I think implementing the 2-3 idea will be a great help. This size is probably most cross-cultural, as well, whereas I think the other sizes would need to be adjusted in other cultures.

We haven’t integrated children in our groups. These groups have ranged from a simple Bible study to house church, but we still haven’t included children. Sometimes it happens unintentionally, but if we are able, we usually send them to do something else. However, in WI, in our LifeGroup, we involved 3 young children, and all of us were better for it. We ought to be able to do the same in Poland.

I loved the emphasis on discipleship throughout the book. The idea of people reading large portions of Scripture in the 2-3 groups, and being accountable for application really should help produce literate, biblically-informed, obedient disciples. Those kinds of people are much less susceptible to heresy than those multitudes who gather around a charismatic manipulator – demagogue. Life Transformation Groups mitigate against demagogy, and do seem to be an excellent bulwark against heresy. I think Cole might be overstating it when he says a manipulative leader cannot take advantage of people in a Life Transformation Group, but I can see where it would be much more difficult than in large, more biblically ignorant group.

You can buy Church 3.0 at Amazon.

Hirsch, Alan. The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press. 2006. 304 pp.

The Forgotten Ways is one of those books that simply destroys old paradigms and introduces completely new concepts. Hirsch attempts to describe the “apostolic genius” of the early church, and challenge the contemporary Western Church to recapture that “missional DNA.”

There’s a great little chart on page 64 that summarizes the church in the three modes he describes: the apostolic and post-apostolic, the christendom mode, and the emerging missional mode . However, the chart highlights my disagreements with the book. If I had two criticisms, they would be related to Hirsch’s history-telling.

1. I don’t think the picture Hirsch paints of the apostolic church was really quite so rosy in reality. Yes, the church grew very fast, and was characterized by a focus on mission. But there were some serous theological battles, that led to large portions of the Church separating from one another. In addition, although the “christendom” mode did see a consolidation and stagnation, there was still a strong focus on expansion, and significant Christian “missional” activity.

2. The “missional” mode, according to Hirsch, has been over the past 10 years. (Counting back from 2006). This unbelievably Western-centric viewpoint is actually uncharacteristic of Hirsch – it would be interesting to see if he changed this chart in the second edition. Hirsch himself refers to other “missional” movements, outside the West, that precede the recent wave of books with “missional” in their title or subtitle.  Seriously – I think he really may be dating the missional mode from the 1998 publication of Missional Church

Of course, we missionaries have frequently been guilty of exporting institutional church – but not always. And around the world, Hirsch’s missional DNA has been present in many places, throughout Christian history.

In spite of that criticism, I actually thought Hirsch did a better job of not gushing over American methods than most authors in this “missional” movement. He is Australian – which certainly helps – but he also focused on the theory behind practice, making this book easier to apply cross-culturally.

The missional DNA looks like this:

  1. Jesus Is Lord: A simple, but irreplaceable confession.
  2. Disciple Making: becoming like Jesus is at the core of the church.
  3. Missional-Incarnational Impulse: the gospel is lived out across cultures and people groups.
  4. Apostolic Environment: a certain type of leadership is necessary.
  5. Organic Systems: structures for growth.
  6. Communitas, not Community: We are sent, not gathered into a safe haven.

Brief digression – I loved the Paulo Coelho quote on p. 217, introducing the chapter on communitas: “The ship is safest when it is in port. But that’s not what ships were made for.”

I picked out 3 ideas that I thought were basic:

  1. Non-dualistic spirituality (p. 96). Hirsch’s diagram, contrasting dualistic and non-dualistic spirituality, i.e. integrating sacred and secular, really helped me to see and understand how I was doing that in my life, but also how to better communicate to others an integrated spirituality that includes God, church and world.
  2. The quality of the church’s leadership is directly proportional to the quality of discipleship (p. 119) Discipleship is primary, leadership is always secondary. This is a key concept – maybe even THE key concept. (It’s one of those “duh” ideas – of course leadership is dependent on discipleship – that has been simply ignored most of the time)
  3. Greek concept of knowledge contrasted with Hebrew concept of knowledge. (p. 124) The Greek concept is that right thinking leads to right action. Hebrew – right action leads to right thinking. Hirsch uses this in his chapter on disciple making, but the paradigm definitely applies for leadership training as well – but we very, very seldom apply this concept

A change toward missional thinking is really not just about following a new fad in church development. The spiritual concept Hirsch shares illustrates that it is about bringing all things, every sphere of our lives, under the lordship of Christ. We preach that, but we don’t always mean it, especially if it means significantly changing the church.

The last point resonates with a key factor in church planting movements around the world – obedience-based discipleship. In other words, doing what the Word says MUST go hand-in-hand with knowing what the Word says.

If you want to know a little more about the terms and history of the “missional” church movement – there’s a pretty good summary in J.R. Woodward’s blog here. If you’ve read and tried to apply Newbigin and Bosch – as most cross-cultural missionaries will have – Hirsch’s book will seem very basic in many areas.

However, if you love reading books that challenge your thinking about the church, or if you see that the church, as it is usually conceived, comes up short in reaching a culture that grows more “foreign” with every year – this is a great read.

You can buy Forgotten Ways at Amazon.

Barna, George. Revolution. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005. 145 pp.

Dr. Barna looked at what he calls a “hidden revolution” of Christ followers who no longer go to church on Sunday mornings, but remain devout believers and attempt to be the Church, rather than simply go to church. He compares the state of the Church (chapter 4 “How is the local church doing?”) with a biblical picture of the Church (chapter 3 “What does God expect?) From that biblical picture, he extrapolates the “seven passions” of revolutionaries.

In my opinion, these were the three most insightful ideas:

The seven passions of revolutionaries (chapter 3)

The seven trends leading to the “New Church” (chapter 5)

The Secret of Transformation in mini-movement (pp. 57-58, chapter 6)

In addition, the “affirmations of a revolutionary” (pp. 128-130) would resonate with many of us who have frustrations with the church as an institution, but love Jesus with all our heart.

  1. The seven passions of revolutionaries:
    1. Intimate worship
    2. Faith-based conversions
    3. Intentional spiritual growth
    4. Servanthood
    5. Resource investment
    6. Spiritual friendships
    7. Family faith
  2. Seven trends leading to the New Church:
    1. Changing of the guard
    2. Rise of a new view of life
    3. Dismissing the irrelevant
    4. Impact of technology
    5. Genuine relationships
    6. Participation in reality
    7. Finding true meaning
  3. Secret of Transformation in mini-movement:
    1. Generally working with people who are predisposed to focusing their faith on God.
    2. Mini-movement becomes an individual’s primary source of relationships.
    3. Intimacy experienced facilitates a sense of exhilaration over the transformation.
    4. Clear group goals

Each mini-movement has a very narrow focus.

The seven passions serve as an excellent guideline for our Polish faith communities. We are easily sidetracked by other things, and think those other things should be the checklist of success for our churches. But when we, in community with one another, can focus on these passions, we are much closer to what Christians should be focusing on.

I would like to use the seven trends as a springboard to look at Polish culture, and see how it has changed in the past 22 years. There are Revolutionaries in Poland, usually in house churches, or Catholic renewal groups (or both), and I am curious to see what trends have led to the rise of these groups.

The final point – the secret of transformation – helps me to narrow our focus as we seek to see transformation in people’s lives. We don’t need to change everyone, in every way, right now.

Revolution! at Amazon

Including this challenge undoubtedly reflects my heart as a church-planter. My theological education colleagues would probably put “orality” here, and a more strategic thinker may put “identity and vision” in this fifth spot (or first!) But the growing interest in church planting movements, the rise of the “emerging” church, the explosion of house churches, and the death of denominations are all reshaping the landscape of the global church. Within my own agency, we may need to rethink our definitions of church – and then we will face another balancing act between that definition, and the definitions that most of our supporters cling to.

All of these factors affect most mission agencies, even those traditionally associated with a denomination. Our understanding of church, even in the West, is being shaped by the non-West – and that’s a good thing. However, there are myriad different understandings of what it means to be a church. How do we define church within our global mission? How does the majority of our supporters define church? How do our national partners define church? How do we promote rapid growth of church planting movements (assuming we want to do so), while still effectively training church leaders?

James, Sam. Servant on the Edge of History. Garland, Texas: Hannibal Books, 2005. 174 pp.

Sam James has been serving in missions since 1962, in Hong Kong, Vietnam, Taiwan, Europe, the Middle East and the United States. He has served as a church planter, seminary director, regional leader and senior leader of a large mission organization. He has directed leadership development for that organization and been in involved in crisis intervention for other missionaries. After retiring from the staff of his organization, he went back to his first place of long-term ministry, Vietnam.

Servant on the Edge of History, Sam’s first book, is about his missionary service in Vietnam, from 1962 to 1975. Even a casual student of American history will recognize these years as the height of American involvement in the Vietnamese civil war, and can imagine some of the trials Sam and his family faced. Sam writes with a special focus on some of those trials and the intimate, personal lessons he learned – and that others can learn vicariously. He includes some thoughts on methodology, but he really focuses on spiritual, heart lessons from his experiences.

The first and last chapters are set in 1989, when Sam returns to Vietnam to visit. He meets some of the students he left in 1975, and is able to see how God has used them over the fourteen very difficult years under Communist authorities after the Americans fled, and Saigon fell. The other sixteen chapters tell about Sam and his family in Vietnam, from their arrival to their last frightening flight out of Saigon, as it fell to the Viet Cong.

There are stories that show how Sam must wrestle with his call – to be a church planter and trainer, while faced with human suffering all around. At one point, he decides to go back to the United States to get a medical degree, so he can help alleviate the physical suffering. However, he quickly realizes that God has a unique role for him, as a spiritual leader and teacher who could help alleviate spiritual suffering, as well.

Other stories deal with ethical struggles Sam has to face – from the expectation to pay a bribe to the dilemma over whether to have a gun in the house while the Viet Cong were raiding his village during the Tet offensive.  Sam also openly talks of his feelings of failure, when someone he was witnessing to for quite a while died in a fire before he could know whether she accepted Christ. He also discusses his patriotism, having served in the Navy during the Korean War, and how this sometimes caused dilemmas for a missionary in Vietnam. The desire to represent the Kingdom of Heaven and the Prince of Peace was most important, but the temptation to help the American soldiers, even the CIA, to help prevent more deaths of American servicemen was very strong.

One of the stories that spoke most deeply to me occurred early in the book, in chapter 3. Sam, after having his house broken into, the seminary robbed, and multiple other struggles, is asked by a taxi driver, “What do you love about the Vietnamese people?” Sam is forced to confess to God his lack of love, and after struggling through the night, God spoke. Sam writes, “I have noticed that sometimes only when our backs are completely against the wall and our strength is completely gone, that this is when God steps in and intervenes.” (25)

Frequently, Sam’s dilemmas and subsequent learning experiences take place when his back is against the wall, and his strength is completely gone. Not only does God intervene, but Sam grows and learns. For aspiring missionaries who read this book, that lesson alone is worth the price of the book.

At the end of each chapter, Sam includes discussion questions about the lessons he learned, or dilemma he faced. The questions are less than a page, but they require a significant amount of reflection, based on what Sam has shared. However, the questions turn the book from a memoir into a learning exercise. The questions could be well used for team-building, or for a missionary couple to discuss their potential responses, before a situation arises that calls for an unprepared response.

I did not reflect through all of the questions – some I have faced already in ministry, and some probably will never be an issue. However, I definitely see the value of writing a memoir in this fashion. By including the questions, Sam shows his heart as a trainer, and developer of missionaries. The questions do sometimes read as an afterthought, however. The best example of this point is that nearly every reflection begins with the word “dilemma.” Perhaps it’s a nit-picky point, but Sam could have found some other synonyms.

The stories are amazing to read. I grew up on stories of Vietnam told by men my dad’s age who served there, and for the first time it occurred to me that there were also missionaries – American – who shared the gospel, and even suffered for Christ during the war. Instead of hearing my Ranger friend talk about killing Viet Cong, I was able to read about Sam and his miraculous escape from a Viet Cong ambush, or how he was able to see a committed Communist political officer come to Christ, and become a new creature. My dad, who thankfully spent his military service in Germany, but lost half his classmates to the war, would probably enjoy reading Sam’s book – but so would my teenage sons.

It was an interesting exercise to think about why Sam included the stories he did, and especially why he included the questions he did. The choices may say less about Sam, and more about his intended audience. One example is when he asks if a missionary should appeal to more wealthy people in America and other countries to help provide funds for a house church. Another example occurs when he asks if there is a circumstance in which loyalty to one’s country commands an equal priority with loyalty to Christ. To some readers, those questions may seem almost rhetorical (No), but perhaps they are real dilemmas for the majority of people who join the organization where Sam spent so many years as a leader and trainer.

Sam mentions this organization very frequently – maybe a little too much, although that’s a hard judgment to make. If I worked for the same organization, I probably wouldn’t think Sam had written too much. Sam’s conservative theological perspective is evident, but he doesn’t spend much time talking about theology, or even that much methodology, so it isn’t an issue.

Sam does discuss methodology some, but he is involved both in an established church and seminary, and also in a couple of house churches. In chapter thirteen he talks more about a house church methodology, but his focus is more on the sacrifice that a couple of families make in order to have a fellowship in their homes.

It’s evident throughout the book that Sam’s primary goal is to teach new missionaries, or those interested in missions. His stories are personal, transparent, and alive. The reflection questions are appropriate and helpful. Perhaps the biggest drawback of the book is that most of the stories take place up until 1975, but Sam didn’t write his book until 2005. Unfortunately, the thirty-year gap makes the events seem like history, rather than contemporary, and may make the book less attractive for current readers.

Servant on the Edge of History at Amazon

Felicity Dale received her medical training from Bart’s Hospital in London. After graduation, she worked as a family doctor in London’s East End. She and her husband, Tony, also a medical doctor, were involved in the United Kingdom with house churches, and with a ministry called Christians in the Caring Professions (CiCP). When they moved to Texas with their four children, they attempted to continue CiCP in the United States, and work through a traditional church. However, they continued to feel a strong pull toward simple churches, and, after several years, once again began to lead house churches, eventually beginning to train simple church planters. They have founded a magazine, House2House and Felicity has written three other books focused on simple church.

Felicity subtitled her book “Stories of real-life men and women SIMPLY BEING THE CHURCH.” The primary content of her book is just that – stories. She uses these true stories to teach lessons about simple churches, demonstrate methodology and philosophy of ministry for simple church leaders, or to motivate her readers to also get engaged in a simple church. In the second chapter of her book, “What is Church?” she explains that church is “a group of disciples relating together in everyday life; when they get together in His name, Jesus Himself is present” (36). She mentions different terminology – house, simple or organic church – but uses the three terms interchangeably, and says she prefers the term simple church. She regularly contrasts simple church with legacy church – a church that still has a building, programs, staff, regular meetings, and so on.

The stories – chapters – do not build on one another. There is no beginning, middle or end. However, the stories that deal more with evangelism and mission are first, then relational aspects, followed by the church serving. Chapter 15 addresses discipleship, and 16, finances. The final two stories are motivational, encouraging everyone to get involved in this advancement of God’s Kingdom.

The second-to-last chapter, about concepts that the Dales have learned, is a pretty faithful summary of the main lessons that Felicity attempts to teach. The Ten Concepts are:

  1. Church genuinely is “where two or three are gathered together in His name.”
  2. Jesus is to be the head of His church.
  3. God’s heart is for the harvest.
  4. Churches are meant to multiply.
  5. The resources are in the harvest.
  6. Simple is reproducible. Complex is not.
  7. Keep it small.
  8. Practice the priesthood of all believers.
  9. Christianity needs to be nonreligious.
  10. Leadership is servanthood.


Felicity finishes by pointing her readers toward more resources where they can find out more about starting their own house churches. She subtly presents the assumption that if these “ordinary” men and women can start simple churches – so can you! And points you in the direction of the first step.

The nature of this book – stories – makes it a very pleasant, easy read. The fact that the stories do not build on one another means that you can pick the book up, read a story, think about the concept or lesson presented, walk away, come back to the book a week or month later, and you don’t have to re-read from the beginning to remember what Felicity was trying to say. Each concept is presented individually. The stories themselves are very motivational. Assuming they are true – and there is no reason to think otherwise – God is doing some really wonderful things through small groups of people.

Of course, the lack of organization and flow in the book does make it seem like more of a light read than a well-planned and researched treatise on simple church. Undoubtedly, that was Felicity’s goal: a book that anyone could read and would enjoy reading, as a way to motivate “ordinary” people. However, no one will confuse this book with a manual on simple church or a history of the simple church movement. It’s not likely to be the primary text for a church planting class at a seminary, but I can easily see it being read, a chapter a week, by a small group or house church.

I also very much appreciated the fact that Felicity never criticizes “legacy” churches. She is obviously passionate about simple church, but she successfully avoids being critical of other church forms and does not build her argument for simple church on the basis of the failures of church in other modes. She advocates for the inclusion of house church in the legacy church set of programs, but she warns against turning a legacy church into a simple church. As she puts it “most people . . . didn’t sign up for that.” (234)

Although Felicity is not overt with her theological bias, it does come through. The heroes she chose in her stories are almost exclusively Pentecostal/charismatic. She doesn’t list miracles or power encounters in that summary chapter of key concepts – and I was actually surprised that she didn’t. Many other authors in the house church movement and in cell church manuals have emphasized the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in visible ways. Even non-charismatic missions leaders recognize the necessity of spiritual warfare and the power of God combating the power of the devil. Perhaps she was afraid to offend, or wanted to make sure that non-charismatics would also be excited about simple church.

Sometimes, her “ordinary” people were really not so ordinary. I believe Felicity meant ordinary to mean not clergy. In other words, anyone, whether seminary trained or not, professional clergy or not, could start a simple church. And of course, she is right. Anyone can, and frequently non-seminary trained people do it much better than those who think they have all the answers. However, in her stories, several times the “ordinary” person was someone who had been seminary-trained, or had been in professional Christian ministry. By the time of the story, some of them had chosen a different path, but they did have that experience to work from. I mention this point only because it seems to weaken her argument that anyone can do it. I would think she could have included many other stories. Or, perhaps, she wrote this book to church leaders as well. If so, it’s a worthwhile read, but it might be a little frightening for some when Felicity talks about the fact that current church leaders might have to find another job if they go this route!

In summary, I think that Felicity achieves her goal of encouraging all of us to consider simple church. Halfway through reading this book, I ordered two others that she has written. However, anyone who has just purchased the book, and is more of a cognitive, logical learner might want to start with chapter 20, then see how those key concepts work out in each story. Of course, for those already involved in a cell group or house church, it would be worthwhile to read the book as a group, talking over each story and the conclusion that Felicity draws from them, seeing if the experience relates with their own, and discussing the biblical principles that Felicity connects to the stories.

Army of Ordinary People at Amazon