Summarised from an email by Maurice Smith
The letter speaks for itself. My thanks to Paul & Lori Byerly, Tony & Felicity Dale and everyone who made my trip to Austin both possible and worthwhile. This one’s for you.
House Church Reflections – Turning The World Upside Down
I could tell from the outset that this newsletter was going to be as challenging to write as it was to experience. I spent the best part of last week at a “listening” gathering in Austin, TX in the home of Tony & Felicity Dale (House2House). The original vision for the gathering had come through Neil Gamble (Father’s Hand Ministries). Neil sensed that God wanted to call HC leaders together because He wanted to impart something corporately that He could not (or would not) impart individually. So, Neil contacted the Dales who agreed to host the gathering and to use their extensive contacts to invite HC leaders from around the world to come and spend three days “listening” for what God wanted to say.
This is where it gets “interesting.” What none of us understood or suspected or heard at the outset, was that we were entering into a journey that had less to do with “structures” and more to do with “values”. You see, house church isn’t so much about structure as it is about values. It isn’t about where we meet; it is about the values of genuine Christian community that we express when we do meet. Values change structures, and structures express values. Change the values of a community (i.e., an ekklesia) and its structure (such as 5-fold ministry, elders, deacons – all aspects of leadership) will also change. That is why Bill Beckham is so adamant: “You never change a structure until you change a value. We do not transplant systems and structures. We transplant values and life.”
Now this is one of those stories which is best told by giving you the “punchline” in advance, and then explaining how we got there. But let me first offer a caveat: Everyone takes something different away from this kind of an experience. People who were present these three days will read this e-mail and wonder why I didn’t mention . . . (fill in the blank here). Answer: Because each of us was touched or impressed by something different. What you are receiving is what Maurice took away from this time and how I have processed this message during the intervening days. I dont claim to “have it all,” but I do hope that the little parts I received were genuine. So, lets begin.
The Journey Into Community Begins
Its well-nigh impossible to get 40 “Type-A” ministry leaders in a room without people wanting to talk about their ministries and the agendas which they brought with them. Yes, even at a “listening” conference. Lets face it. We all have agendas – aspects of our calling and ministry which are near and dear to us. We all subconsciously engage in “ministry projection,” that tendency to transfer the perceived importance of our ministry to other people (“This is my ministry, and I think it should be your ministry, too!”).
We have our agendas . . . and God has His! What we discovered last week was (for those of you who were wondering, heres the punchline) that God’s agenda was to move us from being a house church “movement” to being a house church “community”; from a people of “pseudo-community” to an ekklesia of “genuine community” by imparting to us a new (but “old”) set of values. And those values, when fully “imbibed” would change us and our house churches forever, and make us a people whom God could use to “turn the world upside-down.”
Because Scott Peck’s understanding of the journey into genuine community became very meaningful to me in understanding what unfolded during these three days (although the Holy Spirit didnt open my own eyes to see what was happening until the morning of the second day) I want to share a few quotes which help to set the stage for and explain this journey:
“If we are going to use the word [community] meaningfully we must restrict it to a group of individuals who have learned how to communicate honestly with each other, whose relationships go deeper than their masks of composure, and who have developed some significant commitment to rejoice together, mourn together and to delight in each other and to make others conditions our own.” Dr. M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum
I have no doubt that the 40-plus house church leaders who descended upon the Dales home on Wednesday morning would have regarded themselves as a “community” – had anyone had the audacity to ask or question us on the topic. After all, were house church leaders for heavens sake – we have a corner on the whole “community” thing. Right? But after spending roughly an hour praying and “listening,” what came next quickly demonstrated that genuine community was elusive at best. The remainder of the day was spent not listening to God, but listening to ourselves talk about ourselves and our ministries (and mind you, I was as “guilty” as anyone in the room on this score!). And don’t get me wrong. It was great talk by people engaged in significant ministry around the world. For example, here’s how to identify a false apostle: When you look at what he has built, is he in the foundation (invisible) or on the roof (very visible). Wow! There go most of the “apostolic” ministries in my city! That was just one nugget pulled from this “talk”. There was more: “The issue isn’t structure; the issue is passion and values” and “Structure must give way to vision, not the other way around.” In the span of five minutes Wolfgang Simson shared eight (yep, eight) characteristics of Apostolic ministry that I still havent fully digested, such as “Apostles give the sense that the impossible is possible.” (Hey, there are 7 more where that came from, and Wolf said he was only getting started!). This is how the remainder of the day unfolded. Soon, the counselors were counseling, the teachers were teaching, the apostles were being, well, apostolic and the ministry “alpha-males” were clearly in control of the day. The problem here wasn’t that we were being bored by trivia. It was all great stuff, but it wasn’t why we had come. We had spent the day engaging in what Scott Peck refers to as “pseudo-community.” We were just better at it than most, because we have the ability to baptize and spiritualize it!
“The first response of a group in seeking to form a community is most often to try to fake it. The members attempt to be an instant community by being extremely pleasant with one another and avoiding all disagreement. This attempt – this pretense of community – is what I term pseudo-community.” -Peck
By the close of the first day we were fully engaged in “pseudo-community.” While great stuff was being shared, we were missing the point of why we had come in the first place, and an underlying frustration and tension was building.
“The essential dynamic of pseudo community is conflict avoidance. The absence of conflict in a group is not by itself diagnostic. Genuine community may experience lovely and sometimes lengthy periods free from conflict. But that is because they have learned how to deal with conflict rather than avoid it. Pseudo-community is conflict-avoiding; true community is conflict-resolving.” – Peck
As I told my wife when I called home later that evening, “Its been great, but we haven’t spent any time listening. We’ve spent the whole time talking.” We had “successfully” avoided conflict, but we had set ourselves up for the chaos which would characterize our time together the following day. I discovered later that several key leaders had actually considered catching an early plane home after the first day. This wasn’t what they had interrupted their busy schedules to come for. I understood and shared their sense of frustration. But even in the midst of this furtive exercise in “pseudo-community” God had still spoken. Wolfgang shared that he sensed God desiring to move us from “independence” to “dependency”. And Marilyn shared that she saw a picture of a baby that was partially born from the waist up (hinting that God wanted to complete that birth during our time together. Hmmm.) God was in fact casting pearls before us (nope, dont go there) but it would take another day of chaos before we would begin to string them together.
A Journey Into Chaos
“Chaos is not just a state, it is an essential part of the process of community development. Consequently, unlike pseudo-community, it does not simply go away as soon as the group becomes aware of it.”
“In the stage of chaos individual differences are, unlike those in pseudo-community, right out in the open. Only now, instead of trying to hide or ignore them, the group is attempting to obliterate them. Underlying [these] attempts to heal and convert is not so much the motive of love as the motive to make everyone normal – and the motive to win as the members fight over whose norm might prevail.”
“Christian chaos” is an interesting phenomenon to watch. What often sets us apart from the unbeliever when it comes to resolving chaos is not our faith, but the seemingly “spiritual” nature of our attempts to “heal, convert & normalize”. When in doubt, act spiritual. Our second day (Thursday) began with frustration and “Christian chaos”. The effort to “heal, convert & normalize” came it several forms. First, it was suggested that we all pray in the same way by praying aloud (“in unison”) while walking about. After this exercise John White (house church coach from Denver) was asked to share about what it means to pray Luke 10:2b, “. . . therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” John and his team have had an awesome response from praying this prayer daily for well over a year. So, did either of these exercises “heal, convert & normalize” the chaos. Not really, although both were good spiritual exercises. There was more interaction. Marilyn asked why there were not more wives present, and what the role of women was in house church. This led to more good discussion and an observation by Felicity Dale that the body of Christ suffers from “hemiplegia” (paralysis on one side of the body) because of its exclusion of women. Late in the morning God gave a prophetic word to the group through a friend of Wolfgang named Eric Reber, a prophet from Switzerland. The word was two pronged. First, God asked Eric, “Are you ready for me to begin writing church history through you?” Second, God led Eric to Acts 17:6, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also . . .” Eric shared that when he entered the house that morning the Lord directed his eyes to a walking stick in the hallway which had the reference “Acts 17:6” carved into it. Eric took the stick and told the group that God wanted to turn this gathering into a people who would write church history and turn the world upside down. The response of the group to this word was subdued at best. God was speaking – more pearls – but we simply weren’t in a place to hear. Thats what happens when youre in chaos. So, what do we do when chaos erupts? We try to organize!
“It is true that organization is a solution to chaos. Indeed, that is the primary reason for organization: to minimize chaos. The trouble is, however, that organization and community are also incompatible . . . . But an organization is able to nurture a measure of community within itself only to the extent that it is willing to risk or tolerate a certain lack of structure. As long as the goal is community-building, organization as an attempted solution to chaos is an unworkable solution.”
It was announced that we would now break into three small groups to discuss what we had “heard” so far. As we broke up, Wolf, who was sitting beside Eric and behind me, handed me the walking stick and said, “This is for you. Meditate on this.” I had already been struck by the prophetic word and sensed that God was telling all of us what He wanted to do and why we were really there. The question was, would we listen?
Our small group was facilitated by John White (along with Mike Steele) of DAWN ministries. Others in our group included Mike & Marilyn Philips (marriage ministry), Abraham & Mareke Meulenberg from Amsterdam (yep, flew in just for this), and Pat Robertson of Cityteam. Youll have a hard time finding a more gifted facilitator and coach than John White (thanks again, friend). As we began our time the sense of frustration with what was taking place (or not taking place) was evident. Was God speaking to us or not? Was everyone being valued and heard from or not? The discussion was wide-ranging and productive. At one point I suggested that God was indeed speaking. I offered the illustration of my daughter who, when she was young, used to spend hours with a box of multi-colored beads, stringing them together to form necklaces and bracelets. God was speaking, offering a bead (or pearl) here, another there, and was slowly stringing together something that we could not yet see. I also suggested that the prophetic word regarding Acts 17:3 should play a significant role in our discussions, asking the question: “What does God want to say and do to us that will change us and make us the kind of people He can use to turn the world upside down?”
After a break for lunch we reassembled to hear reports from the various groups. I was called out of the room for a video-taping session (virtually everyone at the gathering was subjected to this torture, part of a video project that House2House is working on in conjunction with George Barna). I missed most of the group reports, including a “conference call” with Bob Jones (yep, the prophetic guy from Kansas City). Later, Felicity Dale shared excellent perspectives on the role and ministry of women, elaborating on her observation that the body is hemiplegic as long as the ministry of women is unappreciated and undeveloped. More discussion. Much of Thursday afternoon, quite frankly, is a blur to me now. But what stood out was an attempt by Neil Cole to help resolve some of the chaos by sharing thoughts and perspectives on leadership. The chaos in the meeting was so great that Neil literally got shut down by the group! I have never seen that happen before! And the look of surprise on Neils face as he sat down told me that it was a relatively new experience for him too!
The day ended with all of us going back to our small groups in what I could only interpret as a hope that the chaos would somehow be organized and resolved there. When our group gathered under Johns (and Mike’s) leadership, John guided the discussion toward answering a question: “Who have we not heard from that we want to hear from?” This question and the discussion which followed led us to a new place. Mareke, from Holland, began to share that there were many people in the large meeting who were being left out. They were not sharing, nor were they being sought out. The discussion was being dominated by the strong personalities who had lots to share. As we discussed this we came to an agreement that John and Mareke would approach Tony Dale and the other leadership with the suggestion that we spend some time hearing from people who had not yet shared.
That evening, after dinner, I phoned my wife to give her an update as to what was going on (our house church intercessors back home were praying for our time). I told Gale that this was the “most successful failure” I had ever been a part of! Successful in that there was much fruitful discussion by gifted people. But a failure because we seemed to have missed the purpose for which we had come . . . to listen and hear from God. But that was about to change.
The Journey Into Emptiness . . . And Beyond
Scott Peck gives four steps on the journey to genuine community: 1) Pseudo-community; 2) Chaos; 3) Emptiness and 4) Genuine Community. We had experienced the first two, and God in His faithfulness was about to lead us through the third and into the fourth. But there was still work to be done.
The next morning I was blessed to spend time over breakfast with Wolfgang Simson, Neil Gamble, Eric Reber and Hamilton Filmalter (an amazing blind healing evangelist from South Africa who has an incredible signs & wonders ministry among Muslims in Pakistan). Neil was frustrated and broken because the conference had not achieved the purpose for which God had called it – namely, to hear from Him regarding an impartation that could only be experienced corporately. We spent time seeking God in prayer led by Eric. Eric prayed, Wolf wept as he found a place before the Throne of Grace, and Neil “broke” as he heard from God what to do next. Me? I sat there in amazement watching men I love & respect open their hearts before God. Ive mused that there is a difference between a “listening post” and a “hitching post.” At one you talk to God. At the other you talk to horses. These men were listening and talking with God. For my part, I was having an in-depth discussion with “Mr. Ed”. Some days are just like that.
When the morning session began something happened that I was not expecting (or at least “Mr. Ed” hadn’t prepared me for it). Neil Gamble began to wash the feet of a couple who had come to the conference at his invitation. Now, mind you, I think Christians have several bad “religious” habits. And when a meeting gets slow they usually engage in one of these bad habits. One of those habits is to break out a guitar and begin singing. Fortunately, no one brought a guitar (or if they did, they were wise enough to keep it out of sight). But another of those religious bad habits is “foot washing”. I usually groan (sometimes audibly) and get nervous whenever the bowl & towel come out. “Not again,” I often mutter to myself. But not this time. This was different. It was the real thing. Neil was genuinely broken and obeying what God had told him to do. As he washed this couple’s feet Neil repented and asked forgiveness for having invited them to come to a gathering which had not been what he had promised it to be.
This was a moment of “quiet thunder” when God spoke into our gathering and changed the whole atmosphere of the meeting. Through his broken obedience Neil brought the entire group into a place of “emptiness,” that place wherein chaos is stilled as everyone abandons their own agendas and expectations. In biblical terms, it is the obedience of the broken heart that is willing to yield up its own desires and plans in order to embrace whatever God would have them do.
The gathering now shifted gears dramatically. Tony Dale invited John White to facilitate and coach us for the remainder of our time together (great move!). John began asking the question which our small group had pondered the previous day: “Who have we not heard from that we want to hear from?” That’s when we heard from Nina who shared that she didnt feel she had anything worth sharing that anyone would want to hear. She said that she would have left the conference feeling enriched by all she had heard and experienced, but we pointed out to her that we as a body would NOT have been enriched if she hadnt shared. Next, someone (John?) observed that all of the Type-A leaders (people with lots to share and no hesitancy in doing so) were sitting in the front rows, while others, particularly the women, were sitting in the back rows. As we took a brief break John suggested that when we re-convened we should re-arrange our seating to reflect and accommodate those who had not yet shared. When we re-convened after the break it was clear that something had happened. Dominant individuals had taken a back seat. The front seats were now occupied by women (primarily) who had not felt free to share before. In what followed God gave us a practical illustration of what Francis Schaeffer meant 25 years ago when he wrote that in the Kingdom of God there are “No Little People.” Everyone brings “value” to the house church community. Mutual ministry includes everyone. As Scott Peck observed regarding genuine community (yes, that would include house church), “Community is and must be inclusive. The great enemy of community is exclusivity. In relation to other groupings of similar size or purpose, communities are relatively inclusive.” Inclusion, mutual ministry and honoring those who had been “without honor” became the theme of the day. Everyone who desired to do so was able to participate. Karen, who had not shared previously, brought a word regarding Gods desire for His people to become a “well watered garden, like an ever-flowing stream” (Isaiah 58:11). Others shared as well. David Watson (of Cityteam) made a profound observation. He told us that he had seen nothing in this conference so far that was not typical of every other “church” meeting he had been a part of . . . until now. But what we were doing now – honoring and involving everyone equally, from the “least” to the “greatest” – was something new and profound in the life of the church (pretty significant coming from a world-class leader who works with churches & ministries around the world).
We ended our time by calling the women into the center of the room. There was repentance for having excluded them in the life and ministry of the church. The women gathered around and clutched the walking stick inscribed with Acts 17:6 (yep, it was back at the center of things!). We as a body prayed and declared that the body of Christ would no longer be hemiplegic (half a body), but would now be a body with two legs that could function as God ordained.
As God had revealed to Neil Gamble in the original vision for this gathering, He did indeed impart something corporately, a fresh understanding of the nature of genuine community, and a fresh appreciation of the importance of honoring everyone in our house church community – from the “least” to the “greatest” (if we can even use such adjectives in this context). In the process we “heard” from God that He was stringing together pearls of great value into a necklace of surpassing worth in which Jesus takes the prominent position and arranges His people in an order of His unique design. I believe that if we as a house church community fully “imbibe” this understanding and begin to walk in it consistently, we will expose the lie of pseudo-community that characterizes most “church” gatherings (even Peck states that most churches represent pseudo-community) and offer to believers and non-believers alike a model of authentic community, a safe place where everyone is equally valued because there are “No Little People” and where they can begin to touch and taste the powers of the Age to Come. Welcome to the Kingdom of God and the small expression of it we call “authentic house church”.
As I have written before, the River of Gods Spirit is preparing to flow in power and blessing the likes of which never before seen or experienced in our generation. And He is looking for new wineskins which will receive what He wants to do on His terms, not ours. And His terms are that everyone participate equally in blessing, in value and in honor as equal members of genuine house church communities led by 5-fold individuals who understand that their gifts are given not to rule over others, but to serve and equip the body for the work that is to come. If we are willing to come to that place of genuine biblical community, we will indeed be a people whom God can anoint with power and use to turn the world upside down. So, what about you & your house church. Are you ready to turn the world upside down and start writing some church history for this generation?!