That’s right. It as was October-December of 2016 when I made the transition from Institutional Church (IC) to Missional-Organic Church. Thought it might be nice to post some thoughts on the journey thus far.
1.) ITS HARD – Yep! I don’t know what else to say. Its just hard. And lonely. Many of your friends will look at you like you’re crazy. “Why would you not want to have professional religious guy leading you in your spiritual life?” “Organic church – what the heck is that?!?” “Oh, you mean, like a house church?” – “Well, not exactly…” “But what about your kids? How will they grow spiritually?” And any time that you leave a church (and this has nothing to do with transitioning to Organic/Simple Church) you find out who you real friends were. Remember those 200 “friends” you hugged every Sunday morning and asked “how ya’ doin?” – “Great!” Yeah, 196 of those were just acquaintances (that you liked) because you were in the same “club.” Truth be told, we have maintained close personal relationships with at most 4 other families from our “old church.” And then there’s those awkward bumping into folks at the mall. Again, “How you doing?” “Great!” But it still feels like they’re thinking ‘Are we allowed to talk to them?’ “There must be something wrong with them, now that they don’t like the same church that I still do?” “Maybe they have fallen away from God?” Actually, they are mostly all really kind folks, but sometimes it can be awkward. And the loneliness. It feels like you’re out there all alone to face the world (without that hierarchical structure that you could once count for support in times of crisis). It’s lonely out here, friends. Especially for the first year or two.
1a.) THE DECONSTRUCTION PROCESS TAKES AT LEAST A YEAR OR TWO – If you’ve been in traditional forms of church for decades like so many of us, it takes time to unlearn all those assumptions of what you thought church was. It takes soul searching, lots of thinking though, questioning and re-questioning, and then rethinking again. Prayer, Bible reading, searching the scriptures, and if you can even find a friend to talk though your struggles with (it’s lonely – see 1 above), many long, late night conversations. [I should probably provide a suggested reading list for folks who are on the journey (but I think I’ll save that for a separate post)]. And once you begin to get a handle on that, the Reconstruction process will likely take just as long: What does it mean to “be the church” rather than just “going to church”?
2.) IT’S FREEING – For starters, honestly, waking up on Sunday morning and remembering once again that I “don’t have to go to church” feels pretty great. Realizing that I don’t need my Pastor’s permission to start a small group, gather with friends for worship, serve my neighbors or community, etc. feels pretty great. I also no longer worry about seeking my Pastor’s approval, as if her opinion is the more important than anyone else’s because, after all, he is the anointed man of God, right? (Its called veneration of the clergy). Now I can just seek God’s will and do my best to please Him. Also, the Priesthood of All Believers becomes more than just a theoretical truth that I believed in but never really lived out in the practical.
3.) IT”S CONVICTING (and motivating) – With professional clergy removed from my life, now the responsibility to do the work of ministry, proclaim the good news, make disciples, love my neighbor, lies solely on me. I can no longer rely on vocational religious leaders to organize the next outreach event, assign me to a discipleship group, or even better, give me an easy way out by encouraging me to “invite your friends to church” on Easter or Christmas. Its up to me to obey the teachings of Jesus!
4.) IT”S NOT PERFECT – First off, one of the biggest challenges of living out your faith outside of the Institutional model is finding others, like yourself, and want to do the same. Check out any Organic/House Church/Simple Church forum on the internet and you’ll eventually see a post from some “newbee” that goes pretty much like this: “Hey – Anybody in/around the Paducah, KY area? (fill in the blank with any small town or huge metropolitan area you like). Did I mention that it’s lonely (see 1 above). And if you think that finding a nice house church is going to solve all of your “church” problems, it has its own set of issues (many of them the same as in the IC). [See 5 below for more on Imperfections].
4a.) THERE”S A LOT OF HURT PEOPLE OUT THERE – And, in general, hurt people are angry people. Personally, I think there’s is a place for healthy venting in a safe environment as part of this journey. If having a “bad church experience” is part of your story of leaving the IC, it’s going to take at least a year to work through your anger, and begin to find healing and wholeness from those for hurts, working though all those feelings in a healthy way. And again, if you’re in those online forums, there’s gonna be some folks out there who are early in the process, so be prepared for some rants (I’m just sayin’). It’s hard (see 1 above).
5.) WHAT DO YOU CALL IT? – This is a bit of a pet peeve for me, so here I go. I’m not fan of the term house church. Mainly because, I don’t necessarily want to be associated with folks who think “Well, in the Bible, they met in houses, so we should meet in houses too, right? It’s God’s command!” If that’s how you think, I’d like to challenge you to consider if maybe your ecclesiology needs some maturing (to say nothing of Hermeneutics). [You can start with a study of the Greek word oikos, and what the Greek households in the Pauline churches were really like]. The reasons why we choose a more relational form of ekklesial gathering, why we emphasize making disciples over being good church members, and avoid top down, hierarchical forms of church government, go so much deeper than ‘In the book of Acts they met in houses.’ Sorry, I can’t go into all that in depth here.
Organic Church is not a bad term, but again, a lot of folks in this movement are just way to into the conspiracy theory approach for my own personal taste. Not everyone in vocational ministry is out to fleece the flock, steal all your money, spiritually abuse you, total hypocrites, etc. Are there bad leaders in the IC – of course (just read the newspaper). Is top down top down, hierarchical org chart part of the problem – yes! Are the decisions of career track, full-time, vocational ministers who are dependent on their church salary to feed their family and pay their mortgage, sometimes influenced by the bottom line – I don’t see how they could not be, at least sometimes. Then there are what I call the “christian anarchists” advocating for a leader-less church. I’m sorry you got hurt, but I just think its hard to make a case for this from the New Testament, which at least in the Pauline churches, seems to have been led by Elders & Deacons. [I’m a plurality of Elders guy when it comes to Church Government, and that hasn’t changed since I left the IC. Read all about it here, or see this piece from Luke Geraty]. Similarly, I’ve also seen a lot “organization is the enemy” kind of thinking, as if all structure is somehow inherently evil. In my understanding of ecclesiology, the church is not primarily, by its nature “an organization” but it can still, and often should be orgnaized. [There are 3 metaphors for the church in the New Testament: the church as the people of God, the body of Christ, and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit (stolen form Geoff Holsclaw)]. As my colleague, Kenny Burchard, used to say: “All living things have structure but not all things that have structure are living things.” So again, Organic church is not a bad term, but it comes with a lot of baggage.
I personally prefer the term Simple Church. It’s like church, but stripped down to just the basics, without a lot of the unnecessary (and often not necessarily Biblical requirements) that come along with so much of what most of us have experienced in more traditional forms of church. But is that enough?
6.) CHURCH NEEDS TO BE BOTH ORGANIC AND MISSIONAL – This is what I’ve been learning most recently. It’s not enough to just reproduce the IC experience on a smaller scale, in a more relational format, or less hierarchical. Yes, the church needs to be organic, but it also must be missional, in order to be all that that God intends His church to be (and do)! [I am indebted to the influence of J.R. Woodward & Dan White Jr. here]. The church is both gathered and scattered! There is just as much danger of becoming internally focused in an organic/house church as there is in the IC.
7.) APEST PROVIDES A GOOD FRAMEWORK FOR IMPLEMENTING FLATTER LEADERSHIP MODELS – I reviewed Alan Hirsch’s 5Q here. If we’re going to follow a shared leadership or ‘plurality of elders’ model for our church structure, then the five-fold (Apostle – Prophet – Evangelist – Shepherd – Teacher) from Ephesians 4 can provide a helpful lens for guiding the appointment of ministry overseers. In this way, the ministry of the church could cover the full gamut of it’s calling in the world: speaking prophetically both to the church and contemporary culture (P); reaching those who haven’t heard the good news (E); starting new works by serving the needs of the oppressed, needy & hurting, forming missional communities in our neighborhoods, and planting churches in every nation (through the entrepreneurial skills of the Apostle); building loving, safe communities where believers can grow mature into all that God has created and called them to become (through the soul care of a shepherd); and the practical wisdom & understanding nuanced by the biblical worldview of the Teacher bringing theological truth to shape the consciousness of God’s people.
If you’re on the journey, I hope this helps. And feel free to reach out anytime.
Finally, share some insights from your own experience in the comments below. I know this post is not comprehensive. What have I left out? Let us know…