We knew the hymns. We understood what they were saying. We get where they were focused. I went to a men's breakfast this morning at this same felllowship and we are going tomorrow as a family. It is not lost on me that it was pretty much the opposite of what I have been searching for these many years. I just simply have come to the point where I am waving the white flag.
The first problem is that there are not nearly enough mature believers to make it work. This includes a lot of house church types I have run into, one group locally especially. House churches require strong, mature believers to work properly because it is far too easy to fade into the background. I have been guilty of expecting the rank and file of Christians to embrace a church model when so many of them are lacking in basic foundations. I know that the reason they are lacking those foundations is largely because of the weakness of the institutional church model but on the other hand I have met quite a few advocates of organic church that are mostly marked by rejecting the institutional church not entirely because it is a principled stand but because they are disaffected and disgruntled. More on that disaffection in a moment. My expectation has been that if I can find a group that meets in the right way, they will naturally be mature or at least eager to become mature. That hasn't been the case and a big reason for that is the second problem.
The second problem is that there simply are not many Christians interested in an organic church setting where we live. Most of the Christians we know, including many very devout, loving, service and evangelism oriented and mature Christians, are perfectly fine with the institutional church setting. Many of them are doing great work for the Kingdom while I am spending time telling institutional churches why what they are doing is wrong. I don't think I am wrong for pointing out where we stray from Scripture, God forbid I think such a thing in the year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation! It simply isn't doing much good for others and for me it has been spiritually damaging, for me personally and for my wife and kids. Being largely disengaged from the broader church coupled with my own mental health issues has left my family rather adrift these last several years. Meanwhile the people I have talked to have often even agreed with me but are not looking to radically break with the traditional church model. So I for the most part am spending Sunday mornings sitting at home "being right" while people who are "doing it wrong" are fellowshipping and worshiping and serving. Somehow that doesn't seem to be a worthwhile trade-off for me.
As I have warned in the past the general disaffection of too many house church types leads a lot of organic or house-church types of groups to embrace anyone that is also anti-institutional which opens the door for wolves of all sorts. From people with a particular drum to bang to garden variety false teachers to out and out heretics, the leadership of the house church/organic church movement is a pretty shaky bunch. I have run into some serious egomaniacs personally as well as people with outright erroneous theology and even more with shaky practice especially as it applies to gender. For every New Testament Reformation Fellowship which I think comes the closest of any group, house church or not, to joining really rock solid theology with proper practice, there are people who embrace radical egalitarianism, open theism, possess critical spirits and prickly personalities and many who have an ego that puts megachurch pastors to shame. Not everyone of course but enough that it seems to be a pattern that has turned me off of the entire movement. That led to trying the Anabaptist route but as I have blogged before that is a tough nut to crack if you aren't raised in it and I have just gotten tired of trying and being made to feel, rarely intentionally, as if we just weren't good enough for conservative Anabaptists.
The organic/house church movement seems to be sort of the ecclesiastical equivalent of libertarianism. It sounds great in theory, and is fun to argue about and makes for decent blogging but in practice it just hasn't worked for us. It absolutely has for other people and that is great, and I envy them, but after years of trying I find that as the father and husband, the head of the household, I need to do what is healthiest for my family now.
That doesn't mean that what I have been talking about is not Scripturally accurate. I think that ideally a lot of these things I have been advocating for are the closest to the Scriptural model and command than traditional institutional church models.
I think ideally communion in the church should be a full meal, breaking actual bread and passing an actual cup as part of a love feast in the church. A mostly silent passing of a plate with a scrap of some baked product and a little plastic cup of wine or grape juice completely misses the joyous celebration and the pre-figuring of the Wedding Supper of the Lamb that the Lord's Supper is supposed to represent. Having a communal meal around a table facing one another is completely different from silently eating an oyster cracker staring at the head of the person in the pew in front of you.
I think ideally church should be far more participatory. I don't mean chaotic where everyone is just hollering out whatever comes to their mind but in the sense where multiple brothers are involved substantively in the gathering ministry of the church. I don't think everyone would participate every gathering but I do think that every brother should have a significant part to play on a regular basis in keeping with their talents and comfort.
I think ideally far fewer men should be paid for ministry and that the primary reason men would be paid is to support them during the work of evangelism and church planting while they are training and equipping the local elders of the church before moving on. The model of Paul would be what I have in mind, lower case "a" apostolic workers that plant local churches and teach there until that local church is ready to strike out without him. In other words every pastor should be preaching himself out of a job. That is why I also think that ideally pastors should be bi-vocational so that they have job skills and income not dependent on being a minister. When you rely on the giving of a local church to feed and house your family it cannot but subtly change what you are saying and doing. Paul was a tent-maker and supported himself while preaching the Good News:
After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks. (Acts 18:1-4)He took pains to remind others that he earned his own way (Acts 20:33-35) and that although as an apostle (not an elder/pastor) he had the right to ask for financial support, he chose not to and supported himself to avoid being a stumbling block to the Gospel. In the one place where he does mention receiving financial support while ministering in Corinth he also called it robbing from the churches in Macedonia that we supporting him (2 Corinthians 11:8).
I think ideally local gatherings should be fairly limited in size. When you get more than 150 people it can be easy to start to lose track of one another. The goal should not be to see how big you can grow one church but for churches to be self-replicating, growing in size and then starting a new fellowship. A church that is ever larger only serves to pad the ego of the pastor and enable the attendees to remain anonymous.
I think ideally the local church gathering should be mostly focused on equipping and encouraging rather than worshiptainment. The point of the church gathering is not to sing some songs and have an emotional experience that makes you feel good about God for an hour, it is to equip you for the work of ministry. In other words, the week is not a six day interlude between church services, the church service is a preparatory training session to send men and women into the mission field that is all around each of us.
So yeah, all of that.
I will never stop seeking to see the church reformed and reforming. Semper reformanda for me means always holding up the Scriptures to ensure we have not strayed, rather than asking "What would Calvin do?". For now that means just getting into a fellowship, finding support and supporting fellow believers, asking the local church to come alongside and help us in discipling ourselves, our children and in turn discipling others. A fellowship that is loving and centered around the Scriptures beats a fellowship of one.
So we will see. I admit to being equal parts excited and concerned. Once you let the genie of questioning our established church traditions out of the bottle, you can't put it back. The real issue is what you do with it going forward and that is what I am about to find out, starting in about 13 hours.