loren Eric Swanson: Changing the Trajectory of the Church Part 3

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Changing the Trajectory of the Church Part 3

The church needs to start congregational churches and simple churches

Congregational churches are the result of what we would consider traditional church plants. Congregational church plants begin in a number of ways. Some churches are planted by other churches who “hive off” one or two hundred members to create critical mass for another church. Sometimes a team of people (consisting of a worship, teaching and youth pastor) is sponsored or raise support to plant a church. Often one person with a vision for a church simply begins a Bible study in his or her home. But the intention is all the same—to create a permanent congregational church (hopefully with a permanent building) in the community. If these churches survive, the pastor is usually referred to as the “founding” pastor. We need hundreds and hundreds of new congregational church plants simply to replace the ones that are closing their doors every day. But we also need thousands and thousands of simple church plants. What is simple church?
As with any minimalist paradigm one can find the minimum definition by reducing or taking away elements until the defined or desired entity no longer exists. So with minimalist art, to draw an elephant might only require three or four lines to determine its “elephantness.” Any fewer lines, it might be mistaken for a woolly mammoth and any more lines would simply be superfluous. So to define “church” one can begin taking away elements and then evaluating what remains. For example:
If you took away the sanctuary could you still have church? YES
If you didn’t meet on Sundays could you still have church? YES
If you didn’t have complete copies of the Bible could you still have church? YES, I THINK SO
If you had to meet in a cave or cemetery because public meetings were forbidden could you still have church? YES
If a church only lasted for three years, would it still be a church? YES
If a church only lasted for eight months, would it still be a church? PROBABLY
If a group of people, worshipped God, studied the Word, and encouraged and prayed for each other for one afternoon, would that be a church? PROBABLY NOT—IT’S TOO SHORT A TIME
If there was no mention of Jesus or teaching of Scripture would you still have church? NO
So, you get the idea. If you take away enough, you probably don’t have church but with a minimum of structure church is created.
What is church? First, the Scriptures may give us a minimum definition.
As to size: Jesus said, “For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them” (Matthew 18:20). So probably the minimum number to constitute church is two. Since I have written this paper while in Greece I have had the opportunity to visit several museums including one that had a depiction of what middleclass homes were like in the first century under Roman influence. The largest room in the home was the “triclinium”—a large reception room often tiled with a mosaic floor. It was most likely in this room that house churches convened. By structural limitations these house churches could never be larger than 25-30 people. It wasn’t until the 4th century that believers convened in large buildings or basilicas.
As to function: Here the Scriptures seem to be more descriptive than prescriptive. Acts 2:42 says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” So here elements of church are described—Scripture, fellowship, prayer and sharing a meal together (or perhaps the Lord’s supper.) Where these things happen you have “church.” Looking to history, the 16th century Book of Common Prayer defines church not by locale or size but by purpose: “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite of the same.”[1] John Calvin’s take is, “[w]herever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists. For his promise cannot fail: ‘Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.’”[2]
Jurgen Moltman, of Boston University described church as a place where
No one is alone with his or her problems
No one has to conceal his or her disabilities
There are not some who have the say and others who have nothing to say
Neither the old nor the little ones are isolated
One bears the other even when it is unpleasant and there is not agreement
The one can also at times leave the other in peace when the other needs it[3]

Those with the Saturation Church Planting movement write, “by simple church we mean a way of doing and being church that is so simple that any believer would respond by saying, ‘I could do that!’”[4]
How long does a gathering have to convene before it is called a church? Again we look to Scripture. The book of Acts tells us that Paul, the apostle, was in the Macedonian city of Thessalonica for less than a month before he was pressured to leave. He wrote his first letter to these young believers shortly thereafter from Corinth. So even though the gathering was only a few months old, he did not hesitate to call them a “church” (1 Thessalonians 1:1, 2 Thessalonians 1:1). So in reference to the Scriptures, history, duration, theology and culture we could probably form a basic definition of what constitutes a church.[5] But the bigger question is how could we start thousands of simple churches?
Last summer a friend of mine in Los Angeles asked me to come out to LA to spend some time with some young businessmen he was discipling. Jeff works with Priority Associates, the business and professional ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. Driving from LAX I asked him, “What have you been thinking about lately Jeff?”
“Well, I’ve been thinking about planting churches in the business communities of LA”
“That’s a big thought. I’ve been thinking a lot about church planting also. Tell me more.”
“Well, this morning I met with a guy from my church who oversees a thousand Starbucks stores in Southern California. And we talked about planting churches in every one of them.”
“Whoa! Now that’s a big idea!”
Jeff is thinking missionally. Even though he attends a large attractional church he realizes that not all that could attend are attending. We’ve got to be missional. But we also must be strategically missional. The thought of starting a coffee shop as a church is not new. But how would we typically go about doing it? We’d raise $500,000 to rent and renovate a building, give it an edgy look and feel, stock it with fair-trade coffee (to appear hip and politically correct), secular magazines with a bit of Christian-friendly literature (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, et al) placed strategically on the book shelf. And we’d name our café with a name porting a double meaning like “Higher Grounds Café.” And then we’d ask people to leave a coffee and location they already enjoy (Starbucks) and join us at our café. The Higher Grounds Café is nothing more than attractional church with decent coffee.
The missional approach asks, “Where are people meeting already? What are they doing that they already enjoy?”…and then joining them where they are. If you think about it, all you really need for “simple” church is content (God’s Word, prayer, and the like) and a space to meet. If a place like Starbucks is already providing space then a person who brings spiritual meaning and content can create simple church.[6] On September 29, 2004 Jeff wrote me an email to give me a few detail on how his fellow Priority Associates (PA) Staff co-worker, Todd Berk was reaching people in the Starbuck’s of Portland.
I was just in Portland with the PA guy, Todd Berk…. Two fun things: Here is the PA ministry in Portland in a nutshell: Todd and twelve guys from his church go into Starbuck’s all over Portland and do "Community Spiritual Life Surveys" which 75% of the time leads into the gospel. In the last year and a half they have seen over 200 people come to Christ!

Every great awakening begins with a good strong cup of coffee
How can one turn evangelistic converts into a church? One of the most experienced church planters in the coffee shop genre is Neil Cole, who works under the umbrella of Church Multiplication Associates.
In 1999 Cole jettisoned his traditional pulpit ministry in Alta Loma, California to launch Awakening Chapel—founded it literally in the smoking section of The Coffee Tavern in Long Beach…. In a little more than four years, the crew he gleaned from the smokers’ ranks on the patio at the Coffee Tavern has ballooned into a movement of 400 churches in 16 states and 12 countries.[7]

Cole’s strategy was not to start a coffee shop ministry but to go to where the lost people were already congregating. “This taking-church-to-where-life-happens approach has been a cornerstone of the movement.”[8] The churches meet to “worship, read the Bible, pray and fellowship.”[9] Because church is not defined by steeple or chimney but people, churches can be birthed on college campuses, in 12-Step programs or other places people gather. Cole believes “leaders come from the harvest”[10] and because church structure tends to remain simple and size relatively small, lay men and women with modest education can be effective pastors…which Cole calls “shepherds.” I suppose the big idea is not “What would Jesus do?” but “Where is Jesus working?” And Jesus doesn’t need a church building to fulfill the purposes of church.
In May of 2004 I was meeting with the senior pastor, the small groups pastor and a couple of elders of a large church in the Portland Oregon area. We were talking about deploying small groups into the community with regular frequency (once a month) as part of the DNA of what it means to be in a community groups in their church. Three of the four weeks they would engage in the usual small group activities like Bible study, prayer, fellowship and encouragement but the fourth meeting would be built around loving on some area of the community, like an apartment complex that housed a lot of single moms, or perhaps a low income housing project with lots of recent immigrants. The subject came up about how relatively simple it would be for a small group to plant a simple church in their target audience. When the question was posed, “Do you think, if the six of us were a small group and once a month we took a Saturday morning and loved on an apartment building for a year that we could start a simple church? We all agreed that we thought it was a no-brainer. Then the question came up, “Do you think all eighty small groups in this church could start simple churches?” Now that got people thinking. It would really change the chemistry of a small group if they saw themselves as church planters rather than simply as a small group.
Could you imagine a church that was planting ten churches a year…or fifty churches a year or a hundred churches a year? Simple church doesn’t have to last forever. Knowing that the average local church has only a seventy-year life span prevents us from thinking that a local church has to last forever to be considered a “church.” Simple churches can be fluid, lasting a few month to a few years with some actually becoming congregational churches.
A month after I was in Oregon, I was with a group of staff at Grace Brethren Church in Long Beach California. Over breakfast I was sharing the concept of using the external ministry of small groups to begin simple churches. After listening intently, staff member Amy Newcomb exclaimed, “That’s how I came to faith five years ago in one of Neil Cole’s house churches. It’s just what I needed at that time in my life. It was multicultural and diverse and everybody could be who they were.” Now eventually Amy moved on to a more permanent structure but simple church was her spiritual nursery. Pete Ward, in Liquid Church says, “[e]veryone has spiritual desire. Church should be designed around people’s desire for God.”[11] Simple enough.
In my ministry with Campus Crusade I’ve been captivated by Steve Douglass’ (Bill Bright’s successor) mandate to “start movements everywhere so that everybody knows someone who knows Jesus.” Starting movements and starting churches is very similar so there is a lot of crossover learning taking place. With aging Crusade staff (median age is 38), most are interested in finding their niche through specialization. The problem is they specialize themselves right out of the mainstream of the movement. Uniqueness and specialization has value only as it relates to the mission of the movement. In the past year I had a conversation with a single woman in her early 40’s who graduated seminary and is wanting to teach Greek to Crusade staff. Now there isn’t much of a demand in Crusade circles to learn Greek. My suggestion to her was to lead a six week summer project in Greece and teach staff how to use the Greek tools in Bible study AND at the same time, attempt to start a spiritual movement among students at one of Greece’s universities—sort of the “genius of the ‘and.’” I had another conversation with a campus staff man who is close to 50. He fashions himself to be a “teacher of the Word” but few are clamoring to hear him. My suggestion to him was to go to Thessaloniki or modern Philippi and teach the corresponding books of the Bible AND start a campus ministry. If staff do not tie their unique ability to the mission of Crusade they will soon be without a job.
When I was a small boy, my father asked me a hypothetical question about wages, “What would you rather do…work for me for one month at a penny a day doubling every day for thirty days or for $10,000?” I knew it was probably some type of trick question but I thought even if I lost, how great having $10,000 would be. If you do the math you will quickly see multiplication beats size when time is added to the equation. Every church should be a multiplying church. Bob Roberts of Northwood Church for the Communities in Keller Texas says, “Wouldn’t you think it unusual for a church not to lead anyone to Christ in a single year? Well, it should seem just as strange for a church to exist and never birth another church? “Horses” that don’t reproduce are called mules. We have a lot of churches that are mules. They work hard but they are sterile and will never reproduce.”[12]
Questions for reflection
How would you define “simple church?”
Has your church ever planted another church?
Where are some common spaces in your community where people already gather?
How could you bring spiritual content into such places?
How many small groups are in your church
How many of them could start a simple church in the community?
How would you organize and structure such a movement?
[1] Pete Ward, Liquid Church (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), P. 66
[2] Ward, P. 67
[3] Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), p. 55
[4] From Simple Church Models—BELLS--http://www.dawnministries.org/regions/nam/simplechurch/models/bells_conclusion.html )
[5] On October 21, 2004 I had a lunch conversation with Jay Weaver of the Saturation Church Planting movement (an organization that seeks to plant a church for every 100 people in a culturally relevant, geographically accessible manner.) Jay told me that SCP encourages the indigenous leaders come up with their own definition of church that honors the denomination and the local setting.
[6] Interestingly enough I was sharing this illustration with Jay Weaver, with Saturation Church Planting, who resides in Budapest. He started shaking his head and chuckling. “That’s just what my pastor wants to do—open a Christian coffee house right across the street from one of the finest and popular coffee houses in Europe. I know exactly what you mean!”

[7] Steven Lawson, “Jesus With An Iced Latte”, Charisma Magazine, May 2004, p. 72
[8] Lawson p. 73
[9] Lawson p. 73
[10] Lawson, p. 74
[11] Ward p. 74
[12] I heard Pastor Bob Roberts say this at Northwoods Church for the Communities in Keller Texas in May, 2004 at the Northwoods Conference on Church Multiplication


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