On this journey of gathering simply, with the single desire of following Jesus, I’ve been thinking about what it’s looking like to see it expand out to others. Most of us know the “religious business” model for doing this, where there’s buildings, leadership structure, financial basis, etc. There are clear boundaries of scope and reach, even if there are many such religious businesses in close proximity. That model of church life has the ever-present mix of kingdom of God desires with earthly business necessities, so you’re never in the dark about which religious business is sponsoring activities, having both Kingdom of God and earthly, religious business growth hopes.
It’s the focus on “how many” – how many people attend your church, how many church groups are gathering in an area, how many churches have you helped plant, how many groups has your house church spun off. I had a couple decades of active involvement in so-called “church planting” — on college campuses, in growing small groups within a larger religious business, in starting new religious businesses from the ground up. It’s amazing how I took for granted this thing of counting church groups, as if that’s what God was doing too.
Over the last 10 years our family has been gathering with several others in the Seattle area. I can’t tell you a single multiplication event that has happened among us in the vein as described above. Every now and then I would meet someone who would ask about it, with the obvious hint that, “shouldn’t you have planted other churches from yours by now?” All I could say was, “well, that just doesn’t appear to be what God is doing among us.” When someone asks the standard “how many” questions from the religious business backdrop, “how many people do you meet with?” “how many times a month do you meet?” – my answer sounds something like:
“Let’s see, a couple times a month we get together at our house on Saturday nights. A couple times a month a few of us guys get together at a local brew pub, and then head over to Don’s house afterwards for more talk and prayer. A couple times a month some of us – and other folks from other circles – get together at the Doty’s house and dig into the bible together. Roughly monthly some folks may get together at the Butz home for worship. Oh yes, and sometimes at the end of the month a few of us get together on a Sunday morning. Now and then groups of women in the area – beyond those we would see at the other gatherings – do things together. Some are homeschooling moms and get together with others from the co-ops and resource centers for events with the kids. Some are involved with groups that help the poor in our city. Some are committed to the regular activity of building homes for the poor in Mexico, which they do with larger extended groups of people across the country. Some are getting connected online and meet up occasionally with an ever-growing network of families in the area that gather in homes and are helping people find or start simple church gatherings like ours.”
It’s a messy answer, and it’s just getting messier. It’s getting harder and harder to force some kind of boundary around the various gatherings. It’s a meshed network of relationships that defies clarity. Sure, some basic patterns have formed – people that you go deeper with on a regular basis. But then the patterns are also in a gentle state of constant flux as new relationships form. It seems to happen in waves. You can’t get your arms around it. You can’t count “how many.” Is that a problem? Not as long as you don’t need to answer the quantitative questions. And the good news is, I have yet to sense God asking those questions. I’ve only heard them from man.
I’ve often realized that what I know most about what God is doing comes from looking in the rear-view mirror – at what he’s done. In our experience, God is not focusing us on the rapid multiplication of small groups of people gathering in homes. And I don’t see the New Testament church having that focus either. There’s the realm of what God sovereignly does, and there’s the realm of what he calls us to do. In my view, a regular error in the church is us trying to take charge of his realm. God gave Adam the job of “taking care of business” in the garden, and of course, that still happens in the work environments today, as it should. But when we do this with church life, my experience is we turn it all into a religious business, and there you are right back in the muck we left, eh?
The specifics of what God IS focusing us on is in constant flux, but in general, he seems to be about bringing us into a loving relationship with him, into the community of believers, and together growing us in faith, in hearing his voice, and following his lead in every aspect of our lives. Of course, that means that we find ways to gather regularly with other followers of Jesus.
So my point is that there’s this matter of keeping the emphasis on the things he’s emphasizing. I accept that each person and group of followers have to decide what that looks like for themselves. But I plead, “beware the yeast of church growth energy (entrepreneurial-ism).” I’ve lived it first hand, and know what it does to your heart, and I’m watching with sadness as it is sweeping up many of the “simple church” gang these days. If we find ourselves off in the weeds of flesh effort, hardly knowing the Lord’s voice anymore, we can always take time to pause and check in. His arms of grace will always receive us.
I love this verse from John 3: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (that’s us!)