I admit that to the untrained eye, I am something of a biblical and theological mutt. There is no pedigree to my background. My theology degrees include a Bachelors from a Catholic/Charismatic University, (Yep you read that right) two years of study at a very liberal Presbyterian seminary, a Masters degree from an Evangelical/Anglican school, and a Doctorate from a conservative Reformed/Presbyterian school. I grew up in an unchurched family that had loose connections to the Roman Catholic Church, came to Christ through a ministry called Young Life, was a leader in a fellowship of about 100 people that met as a large group and as house churches. I was pastor of a large Presbyterian church, planted a church from scratch starting with only our family and am now a one of five pastors on staff of a non-denominational mega church of about 10,000 people a week. Definitely a mongrel. No AKC papers for me giving my lengthy pedigree of church affiliation or listing a family of ministers going back four generations. I am a mutt through and through.
But you know what? I like being a mutt. The right kind of mutt can take full advantage of the best of all the things that make up being a mutt. Granted a mutt can never win the Westminster Kennel Club Championship, but hey, that’s over rate anyway. What self respecting mutt would ever want to be forced to prance around a ring with a bunch of other dogs named things like, Henry Fastidious Excelsior Minor IV just to see which of them is the “perfect” representation of the breed? Give me a dog named Spike who is part German Shepard part Collie any day. He would love you to death and keep annoying sales people away at the same time. The best of both breeds. And as long as you got the short hair of the Shepard you solve the shedding problem too.
So what does that have to do with House Churches and Mega Churches? Simply this, I think the picture of the church in the New Testament is more mutt than pure bred. Sadly most of us approach it as if it is pure bred and that our version is clearly the “perfect” representation of the breed. We prance around our theological and ecclesiastical show rings hoping to win the prize. I experienced this first hand one day when I asked a group of House Church leaders if they called their group a House Church, or Simple Church, or Organic Church, all terms in common use. One of the guys looked me square in the eye and said, we call it Real Church. Okay, then I guess what I have is fake church. On the other side of things I have heard numerous pastors of more conventional churches say that house churches are “not really churches”. I am convinced neither of those responses are Biblical.
What I saw in the New Testament the first time I read it in 1974 was an incredible variety in the way ministry and “church” was done. Sometimes they met in large groups of hundreds and thousands. Sometimes, often times they met in small settings of homes. Sometimes they met in public places like the Temple, or the local community center that they called a gymnasium. In larger cities it was different from smaller cities. In places where there were lots of believers it was different from places with only a few. The church in the first few centuries was far from being a monolithic pure bred. It was way more like a mutt than most of us are comfortable with.
In a recent round table discussion with about to dozen leaders of Mega Churches and House Churches it became obvious that none of us has it right. None of us are the “perfect” representation of this thing we call Church. There are lots of things we can learn from one another. There are lots of things we can do together if we focus not on our “breed” but on King Jesus and His Kingdom.
In listening to these various leaders, both in the context of the meeting and as we shared meals together I learned a lot about how much we are alike and how much we need each other. How are we alike? Well we all need to be given huge amounts of grace from others because we are not one anothers enemy. We are one anothers family. We might think that the other is more like our crazy uncle Larry, but they are still family. The tactic of our real enemy is always to bring division and then pick off the weakest member of the pack. I learned that neither group is very good at discipleship. House Churches are good at community but that is not the same thing. Mega Churches are good at classes and the like, but that is not discipleship either. Growing radical followers for Jesus who are sold out to Him by pouring our lives into them so they pass that on to others, now that is discipleship.
I also learned how we need one another and can take the best of both and make a difference for Jesus. Mega Churches need to learn how to have community and care for people on a personal level better than they do. House Churches need to learn how to serve beyond the boundaries of their group and be part of a global church. Mega Churches can bring some of the best teaching, resources, and logistical support that we could ever hope for as we work to serve the King. House Churches bring a nimbleness, an openess to the move of the Spirit that allows us to see and hear what God is doing that might not fit our strategic plan.
What is important in all this is that we begin to realize that we are all “mutts” and that we need each other for the sake of the King and His Kingdom. There is no “perfect” representation of the “breed”. There is however a perfect representation of the “Bride”. It is a Bride that Jesus is perfecting to present to Himself in glory. I think it is about time that we the Bride start getting our act together and cooperate with one another for the sake of the Groom.
10 thoughts on “House Churches, Mega Churches, and the Westminster Kennel Club”
respect! great post…
i think i’d nuance the statement about focusing on Jesus and his Kingdom a bit…
for the last several years i’ve been asking myself what the Kingdom is. i mean, if i’m supposed to seek it first i probably need to know what it is…
but the answer is elusive and nebulous at best.
so i have recently begun to feel like the Spirit is leading me away from that question and into a different question, “how does it look and feel in the Kingdom?”
it seems to be a far different question. it allows me to see the difference between what is and what God intends…
when i start seeing this contrast, questions about the kind of church experience i endorse become totally irrelevant! the church is not primarily an experience, it’s a people. it can only be experienced as the people manifest the Kingdom of God which is a place of justice, grace, hope, generosity, love, peace, kindness, forgiveness, fullness…
we are only the church to the degree that we pursue these things! and it doesn’t matter whether we pursue them in company of thousands or a handful…
what matters is that we pursue them
grace and peace
Great thoughts. Thanks for contributing to the discussion. Seek first His Kingdom would certainly be easier if we understood better what that Kingdom looked and felt like.
Yes, and you are a very likeable “mutt”! 🙂 (Given the “church” you are in you must have a good bit of Great Dane in your DNA. Or, maybe it’s not a dog after all but an elephant?)
Of course, you know that I still hold a different view. I don’t think we can say that the form of church is either irrelevant or whatever any person thinks it is. As followers of Jesus, we must start with Scripture as our authoritative guide for faith and practice. We have to wrestle with questions like – What picture did Jesus have in mind when he used the word (ekklesia) in Mt. 18:17? How about Paul in Rom. 16:5, etc.? In other words, what did this term mean to the orginal authors in the Bible.
Well, as you know, I could go on. But, what I really want to say here is that I value and respect you as a brother in Christ and I’m very glad to continue in a respectful conversation about these things.
(Your crazy uncle) John
I agree completely that we need to understand what Jesus and Paul had in mind when they used the word ekklesia. To be honest I have this picture in my head that when all the discussion and debate over this has ended and we are in glory and get to ask them which side is right, they are going to look at one another, then look at all of us, burst out laughing and say, “where did you get that idea? What we meant was…..” and we will all feel somewhat silly, (will we feel silly in heaven?) because we completely missed it and it was more obvious than we can imagine. I think that will probably happen with a lot of stuff I believe today.
Anyway, let’s keep talking. Someday we may get it together. BTW have you read Roger Gehring, House Church and Mission? Heavy duty work on just what we are talking about.
Hope to see you again soon
I do agree. I have no doubt that I will find that there was a very long laundry list of things that I totally missed. In the meantime, I guess we all have to find a way to be both passionate and humble about the things we are convinced of.
“House Church and Mission” by Gehring has been hugely important in shaping my thinking about the nature of church in the NT. The book seemed so important that, to make it more accessible to the average reader (as you know it was written as a doctoral disertation), I boiled it down to 17 pages of key quotes. (Glad to send you a copy if you want.)
I’ve talked to Gehring and he is not a house church guy (he’s not in a house church). So, he was coming at this question of the significance of the physical location of church in the NT in a very objective way. His conclusion was that the ekklesia intentionally and necessarily always functioned in the context of the oikos. Here’s one quote…
“…the choice of the gathering place was formational for the self-understanding and the organizational structures of the individual churches to such an extent that the ancient oikos can be seen as the formational model for ecclesiology.” P. 255.
Love to hear your thoughts on the book.
I would love to have a copy of the quotes from Gehring. One of the things I continue to explore is something that he touches on a couple of times but does not go into the detail that I want to pursue. Clearly the oikos is the foundation of the church as Gehring points out. But he also mentions, (don’t have reference in my head right now but will pull them out later) that particularly in the larger locations like Rome, Ephesus, Corinth, and Jerusalem, there were oikos gatherings as well as larger gatherings and that they saw themselves as The Church in that place. We need to understand better how all the believers can be the church in a city as well as how the oikos can be the church. There was a connectedness to the church that shows up in places like Acts 15 that I think we need to understand and experience so that house churches are not isolated. As you know, there is an ideal for that kind of connectedness in Presbyterian circles but that ideal is simply never realized. I am fascinated by the move I see taking place in which groups of house churches are getting together for worship and other things because they sense the need for the larger body. I wonder if mega churches that embrace house churches as their model, (not just a cell model) could not be in some way a modern expression of the city wide church. Anyway, lots of things rattling around in my brain.
your last comment is very exciting to me! mainly because you are describing something that starts to look more like the Kingdom i mentioned in my first comment. a city wide church is exactly what we need to see bloom… and the bud is set! if we can just avoid killing it =)
i wonder about the language you use in this sentence “There was a connectedness to the church that shows up in places like Acts 15 that I think we need to understand and experience so that house churches are not isolated.”
i’m not sure we need to be more connected to the church as much as the church needs to be more interconnected. i think we need to eliminate the language that distinguishes the different expressions of the body as different churches! it may seem silly to you and to John but this language does not help us see the church so much as it helps us see divisions.
this is why i’m convinced that a focus on manifesting the Kingdom of God is the way forward as the ekklesia. i’m convinced that as God’s people seek the Kingdom, people will naturally settle into smaller groups of folks who have similar passions. if we aren’t careful these groups will be drawn right back into denominationalism. however, if leaders like you can continue to see the church in a city as one church, then you can help us navigate the rapids of division with success. we need leaders who don’t see churches, but one church!
thanks for the conversation
Dan and Miller,
My summary of Gehring is on it’s way to you, Dan.
There are a few references that speak of “the whole church” coming together (1 Cor. 14:23, Rom. 16:23, etc.). Even beyond those references, I have no doubt that the individual churches in a given city/region connected with each other in various ways (leaders working together, larger celebrations, etc.) So, I’m with you on the value of this kind of connectedness. And, in fact, I see this kind of thing going on with house churches in almost every region and even nationally through things like the National House Church Conference, LK10, CMA, etc.
I see potential for mega churches to play an important role in the regional connectedness we are discussing. For this to happen, however, I believe they will have to have a very clear message about the nature of church. (As you can tell, I still think this is important!) This message is radically different from that of the cell church model.
Apex in Dayton is probably the best example of this that I know of. Their message is: “The small, family-like groups are the first and most important expression of church. (This is what I think we see modeled in the NT.) The large group on Sunday morning is an important but secondary expression of church. (I believe Apex actually refuses to call it church.) If you have to make a choice, go to your house church. The big serves the small. Each house church and regional network (there are 5 in Dayton) is autonomous and not controlled by the mega. The senior/preaching pastor is sold out to this. House church is “the” program of the church. (It isn’t one of many – women’s ministry, youth ministry, choir, missions, etc.) The large gathering is used to teach from a HC perspective, to tell HC stories and equip and serve the HCs.”
Now, I can get excited about that as a model! It is a starfish structure as opposed to a spider model. (I assume you have read the book about this.) The typical mega is a spider. It is building centered and clergy centered (especially Sr. Pastor centered). Everything (including small groups) is controlled from the center. Giving all of this up is hard for mega to do. But if it could, I believe house churches would begin to trust it.
In my opinion, a spider organization isn’t capable starting a million house churches. The adminstrative and financial obstacles are impossible. On the other hand, a starfish model allows for organic, viral multiplication that could result in a million house churches. Can a mega embrace this way of thinking?
Short answer to your final question “Can the mega embrace this kind of thinking?”. I probably need to remember that Northland is not a typical mega. The Distributed Church philosophy is far more starfish than it is spider. We don’t want to have a structure that connects 1 million sites on an org chart, or even 100,000 for that matter. We want to be a catalyst and resource that helps spawn a movement that we will never be able to control, administrate or finance.
Thank you for the insightful piece and for sharing some of your personal story. This is a creative presentation of truths about realities of Christ’s church, His body. Thank you Dan for holding a mirror up to our faces and confronting us with the fact that we don’t have Christian community and ministry defined or perfected.
This epistle could have been written by Paul if he were alive today. Thank you for the correction and for identifying where we as the body of Christ can be more diligent in sharing the small pieces of Kingdom living God entrusts each of us with.
The Lord wants us to change our lives so that we can help others change theirs. Mega enable House, rich help poor, house make mega friendly, broken make whole, prayer warrior fight, weak humble the strong… this is the Bride making ready for the Bridegroom. As we live the kingdom life God wants for us, we grow closer to the image of Christ. This the work of the Bride, Christ’s church, to unify as the Body of Christ as Christ returns draws near.
Another pure-bred mutt for Christ…. fed and led by the master’s hand, learning His commands.