Sometimes it is easy to miss the forest for the trees.
I’ve spent a lot of time lately with people that are really excited about ‘Simple Church.’ I’d be excited about it too if it weren’t capitalized. I’m all for simple church life. But ‘Simple Church’ is a way of doing church in homes with built-in organizational expectations and many come with networking machinery attached. This is the latest incarnation of relational church models that have unfolded in the past two decades—Cell, House, Organic, and now Simple. I’m concerned that once we get our eyes on models for replicating some form of what we call church, we get our eyes off of Jesus and miss what he would do to connect us with others both local and distant.
I got this note from a brother last week:
Here’s my response:
In response to your letter, I would not only say that form is not what is important, but point out that the forms we choose often distract from what God does among his people. And I’ve got to be honest with you, I think these simple-church networks will become part of the problem in time. For people who are transitioning out of huge machines, they look like the ultimate in freedom. But they are not even close, at least as I’ve seen them done. I would encourage you to really re-think the need to start a network of simple churches. What would it be like just to be the body and encourage others to do the same without putting a name on it that already draws people’s attention away from following Jesus to replicating some kind of model? We can see what the early church looked like, but it doesn’t follow logically that if by replicating what they became we’ll experience the same life. They didn’t end up in homes as a model but as an expression of something that was going on internally. Their life in Jesus produced expressions of church that were simple, powerful and real. By copying their model we will not discover their life. We must copy what gave them life, then we’ll experience various expressions of church that will exceed anything we humans could build on our best day. I am convinced that Jesus’ life in his people doesn’t flow out of church life. Jesus’ life in his people flows into church life.
And don’t worry about being a blessing to help encourage and equip others in that life. There is more need for that than laborers willing to go. But once we contain it in a ‘network’ man creates, instead of relationships God gives, we’ll find ourselves once again climbing the ladder that is leaning on the wrong wall. I’m not telling you it is wrong to build a network. Do whatever God has put in your heart. But be open to the fact that our desire to put together a network may be an extrapolation of what God is saying to you, not his desire. He doesn’t need organized networks in my view, when he is so good at connecting people relationally. While they can in the short term give people an impetus to embrace something different, they will not in the long run help people live the life that really is life. That’s not a hypothetical in that statement, it is the result of past experiences that always proved less that what God wanted.
Real church life begins when we recognize that no human effort can build his church. That’s his job. He asked us to go and proclaim the gospel and make disciples—which is helping people get the journey of living in him—and the church of Jesus Christ will spring up all around us. I’m sure this is more than you bargained for, and unfortunately I know that most people need to go this ‘network’ direction as a way of seeing through all man’s systems to try to replicate church. But if I can save you that detour, I think you’ll be grateful.
Surprisingly enough a few days later I got a call from this brother. His response was fabulous. He said that as they were forming this ‘network’ he kept feeling unsettled about how they were going about it. We talked for almost an hour about recognizing how God works rather than pushing him into our boxes. I loved his openness and honesty with me and willingness to take a fresh look at the direction they were headed to see if God might have something even more free and more fruitful.
One of the first crises people face who live institutional gatherings, is to replicate something that fulfills the same obligation. We think we need it to survive spiritually and it certainly makes us more acceptable to friends in institutions that think we’re backsliding if we’re not involved in something we can call a church. But when we grab for a model to give us security, we risk missing out once again on the reality of the Body of Christ as she exists in the world. When we impose human models on God’s working, we lose out on the unique expressions of body life that would arise from people who just learn to love believers around them and to look for ways to encourage them to live more deeply in Jesus. Once you’ve tasted of that you know it defies every model we would seek to impose on her, and only results in dividing up Christ’s body once again.
Interestingly enough, the next day I got an email from someone who lives in my city and who just returned from a Simple Church conference. He was looking for a home church in Oxnard. I told him that I hang out with a group of believers in the area who are learning to share life together and that he was welcome to join us. I warned him that he wouldn’t find us to be banner-waving ‘house’ church folks, though, but simply people learning to love Jesus and finding ways to love each other in the process. If something more formal than that emerged in the future, we were OK with that, but hadn’t felt led that way at the moment. But we are studying Galatians right now on Tuesday evenings and he was sure welcome to join us. I ev