I was in the seventh grade, sitting on a hard wooden pew in a small country church.
It was my first or second visit and to be honest five minutes after the service I couldn’t have told you what the sermon was about. I was too preoccupied with the awkwardness of my foreign surroundings, navigating my adolescent insecurities and managing the shame of what was going on at home.
An invitation was made for the unsaved to come to the altar, confess their sins, and invite Jesus into their hearts. My classmate Susan leaned in close, her vanilla musk oil momentarily replacing the sacred mustiness of old wood, old hymnals and old people. She whisper-shouted over the pianist playing Just As I Am, “You need to get saved or you’ll go to hell.”
That day was the beginning of what would become nearly five decades of church attendance. I’d be hard-pressed now to list all the churches I’ve joined in that time—everything from Little Country Churches to Prosperity Mega-Churches, Christian Missionary Alliance, and Pentecostal Freewill Baptist. Foursquare. Church of God. Baptist. Assemblies of God. Vineyard. Presbyterian. Independent. You can imagine how many church “membership” classes I’ve taken.
In it all, I found that churchgoing was often confused with Christ-following. There was a disconnect between the church I observed in scripture and church I experienced as a gathering place.
Before I lose you, I need to say that most of the churches I joined were populated by authentic Jesus-followers and led by sincere leaders following their God-calling to the best of their abilities. Many of them contributed to my growth as a believer and some provided a taste of the faith community my soul desired.
Others were unquestionably exploitive and even abusive.
Like the boyfriend, everyone thought you should marry but your heart could never fully trust, Church and I broke up several times. Guilt and hope always pushed me back to try again.
With all that church hopping I came to know a lot of bunnies. I discovered a remarkable number of them had also stopped going to church. That was in the days before a demographic was identified and labeled the Doners—Christ-followers done with traditional church.
Discussions ensued. Stories unfolded. Hurts were laid bare and resentments unveiled. Sadly, some had abandoned their belief in God all together while others just simmered in a stew of disillusionment and indecision.
I remember asking a good friend, “Is this God’s doing or are we being led into deception?”
Some railed against traditional church practices while others simply wanted an environment that supported a deeper walk with Jesus and a fuller expression of body life, one-another’ing as some identified it.
I’m not going to kid you, there was a conflicted and significant interval between leaving the institutional church setting and discovering a faith community that invited the kind of participation we desired. Until then, I dreaded the where-are-you-going-to-church inquiries that popped up in conversations at Costco and Safeway.
Not surprisingly, in that season we didn’t feel any less Christian. We found ourselves detoxing from some of our religious thinking and challenging long-held practices. We laid hold of Acts and read newly discovered books addressing this church debate and the ineffectiveness of some traditional churches. We recognized a migration of Christ-followers from institutional church settings to a deeper, less structured expression of church-being.
I desired a living, interactive faith community of authentic Jesus-followers pursuing what it means to be the church–the functioning body of Christ. Unfortunately, as someone has said, that’s harder to find then hens teeth.
That said; let me quote one of the thinkers in this church debate. Frank Viola asserts:
Body life is PROFOUNDLY costly….face-to-face community exposes everyone’s flesh, so it’s not an easy ride. It’s a marriage of glory and gore. And that’s where the transformation occurs. That is, if you can learn the cross and not skirt it. When it comes to authentic body life, many are called, but few can stand it.
Nonetheless, we have aligned with a group of unconventional Jesus-followers near our home. We’re identified as Simple Church and we’re learning what it is to go deeper with Jesus and be the church.
Do we have it all figured out? No way! Are we still growing in our understanding of what it means to be the church? Absolutely! Do we have the capability of inflicting wounds and hindrances every bit as crippling as those we’ve received in traditional church settings? Yes. Yes, we do.
It never stops being scary. This endeavor requires spiritual maturity and great love to embark on and succeed at something as intimate and vulnerable as Simple Church.
This image may raise fear of a petri dish environment that could breed heresy and cult-spawning. That possibility exists I suppose. The health of such a faith community isn’t based on where it meets or its non-traditional-non-structure. The health of this type of faith community succeeds on the transformational journey of its parts.
Just because we’re a house church does not mean we’re on the fast track to emulating a biblical first-century church.
I’ve used the term organic church in the past attempting to describe this community but it has become overused and misapplied. The faith communities I describe vari like families do; each are uniquely representative of and responsive to their community, culture, and demographics.
There appears to be a good bit of church reformation taking place but it doesn’t mean someone can’t be the church while going to the church! It doesn’t mean house churches are the only answer.
Consider this, wherever you express yourself as a member of the body of Christ, keep in mind that there is an entire population of pre-Christians who will not encounter Jesus in the organized church setting because they refuse the building and loathe the politics.
Some will only meet Jesus as He’s expressed through the church–His sincere followers fleshing out the life and mission of Jesus.
Grace and peace!