By Bill Tenny-Brittian
In the North American House Church Movement there are all kinds of small group and House Church leaders, but we can pretty well divide them into two groups: Those with formal training (Bible college or seminary) and those without. So far, in my experience and study, the ones without have far less to learn than those with. I just got an email from a colleague who had helped a friend go to seminary and the experience, so far, hasn’t been exactly stellar. In fact, he wrote, “Seminary is whipping her. Sometimes I wonder if seminary is the best vehicle for bringing called people into the pastorate.” Honestly, I don’t have the reservations he has. When it comes to the House Church, seminary is almost certainly the last place we ought to send people to get their training.
I can say that because, as most of you know, I’m a product of the religious education machine. I have a bachelor’s degree in theology, a master’s degree in divinity (seminary), and a doctorate in ministry (global House Church movements). Some of you may remember my first foray into the House Church—one year of “sanctuary church” moved into the living room. All that education didn’t prepare me at all for the House Church —for House Church Movements, yes. For writing books and articles on church and church functions, yes. For designing and implementing a House Church Network, yes. But for leading a House Church, no. Let’s just say it was a hard lesson to learn on my part, and I bless those who have hung with us by tolerating the “services” over that long stretch.
Today, I know better. I’m still coming into my own as a House Church Pastor, but I believe we’re looking more and more like an authentic, first-century modeled, House Church that is beginning to transform lives in order to transform the community.
So, here are five things I wish every small group and House Church Pastor knew—and did something about in their own lives and groups. Hard learned lessons from experience.
- Leadership=Servanthood. If you’ve been to seminary, this is a tough one to take. The seminary motto seems to be “God can use a sharp knife better than one that’s unprepared.” The notion behind the slogan is higher education prepares us so God can use us better. The problem with that thought is in the North American context, the church has been steadily declining for decades, and some scholars have postulated that the decline began at the turn of the century—the nineteenth century! If God can use a “sharp knife” better, seminary seems to be hammering out dull blades.
In our culture, leadership seems to have taken its primary metaphor from ranchers who coral the stock using horses, fences, dogs, or helicopters in order to take them where the leader wants to go. The rancher knows best what the stock needs and is trained to gather, coral, brand, feed, breed, and ultimately slaughter the herd. Our leaders are trained that we know what’s best—after all, we’ve been hired/called as the leader—and the herd is under our direction. And so, as the leaders—even in the House Church, we lead. We decide the order of service. We decide the direction the lesson will ultimately go (the “church of perpetual digression” is a thorn in the side of the well-trained leader). We have the answers—and if we don’t, we get uncomfortable and either terminate the discussion or move it along to where we want it to go. We do the reading. We do the teaching. We do the praying. And we do the communion.
In the underground House Church movement in China, according to our friends who are over there, it’s difficult to find a leader of a House Church. If you visit one you’ll discover that all the leadership functions are shared by the group. No one seems to be “in charge.” Instead, they take 1 st Corinthians 14:26 seriously that leadership is a shared function. They also take Mark 9:35 as their primary metaphor: “If anyone wants to be first, they must be the very last and the servant of all.”
“Leaders” in the House Church must relinquish their control and learn to lead by example more than in any other way. They must be listeners to their charges. God speaks to them too—often more powerfully than to the apparent leaders. They must encourage others to do those things typically associated with “leadership.” Praying isn’t a leadership function—it’s a group function. Serving communion isn’t a clergy function—it’s a disciple’s function. And teaching—well, I’ll talk about that in a bit.
If you’re a House Church Pastor, serving means washing feet—or washing dishes, as the case may be. It means encouraging others to take a part—even if that means silently waiting for the Spirit to move upon somebody. It means raising others up above yourself and trusting the Spirit to lead where He wants to take the service, because that is the way of Christian leadership.
- Life Transformation, not Education, is the House Church Goal. Teaching has been at the heart and soul of the church since the late 1600’s. Somehow we convinced ourselves that if people just knew who God was, who the Spirit was, and who Jesus was, and if they knew what Jesus taught—if people knew the Bible better, they would be effective Christians. Alas, centuries later, we still haven’t seemed to learn that education doesn’t equal obedience—and just knowing more about Jesus does not transform a life.
But still, we try. We put increasing emphasis on covering great volumes of Scripture, as if the more Bible we can get into someone, the more they’ll be motivated to be a committed disciple of Jesus. But in the words of Neil Cole, it’s not how much of the Bible you get through, but how much of the Bible that gets through to you. He also says that in North America we are “educated beyond our obedience.”
I have been struck recently about the effectiveness of the church in the first couple of centuries. Did you know that those first Christians didn’t have a Bible to refer to—especially the first Gentile Christians? The synagogues had copies of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) and the Psalms, but the early Gentile Christians had nothing. Not even a copy of a single Gospel. And yet Christianity flourished.
In many nations, in China and India for instance, the illiteracy rate is rampant. So most of the House Churches don’t have copies of the Bible. Instead, they learn about Jesus through the stories they hear and from the way Christians treat one another. They learn about Jesus through the miracles they see and the way Christians treat one another. They learn about Jesus through the lives they see changed and from the way Christians treat one another. In other words, it’s not about orthodoxy (known truth) but about orthopraxis (embodied truth). It’s not about what you know, but about transformed lives. And there are literally millions upon millions of transformed lives in China alone (estimates run from 85 million to over 100 million Christians in the underground, illegal House Church networks).
But still, in the House Church , we’re trying to teach our people to be better Christians.
How do we transform lives? The short answer is we don’t. Only God transforms a life. But we do play a part. As House Church Pastors we help create an atmosphere that allows our flock to connect with the power and the presence of God. Prayer is key—not the leader’s prayer, but everyone pouring out their hearts to God. Prayer isn’t the parentheses, but the heart of worship. Sharing lives, hurts, and joys isn’t incidental, it’s the core. How else can mentors and spiritual guides rise up? Training must reign over teaching—learning by doing is more effective than learning by listening (or even interacting). The goal isn’t to get butts in the seats, but to separate our butts from the seats in order to do the works of Jesus.
Transformation isn’t an educational process, but an experiential explosion. As House Church Pastors, the less we teach and the more we lead by creating an atmosphere ripe for the Spirit, the more lives and minds we’ll see being transformed into Jesus’ likeness.
- There’s Power in Participation. I’ve been a part of House Church for over two years now (not a long time by many standards, but there we are) and I’ve noticed interesting about House Church Gatherings—something that’s probably true of a sanctuary-based church as well, but particularly noticeable in the intimacy of a House Church. Sometimes, the Gathering is so filled with the Holy Spirit that I know God is there and that the Spirit is ready to do a mighty work. At other times, dare I say most times?, the Gathering is so full of us that I wonder if God could do anything (see Mark 6:1-6). Recently, however, I believe God revealed to me what the difference was.
During those times when the Spirit was powerfully present, I became aware that there were a couple of people who were “giving” their all into the worship, the prayer, and the Gathering as a whole. I thought, at first, that the Spirit showed up more powerfully because those who were fully engaged had more faith than the rest of us, but that’s not what the Lord showed me. Instead, I was given this image.
Imaging your House Church participants sitting around a campfire that had burned down to embers. Sitting around the fire ring, everyone had a piece of wood that they held tightly on to. Everyone was cold, but no one seemed willing to put their piece of wood on the fire. Then someone took a risk and threw their branch into the fire ring. There was a stirring in the embers, but little happened at first. But then another tossed theirs into the coals and a small flame began to flicker. As it grew, others began to toss their wood into the ring and the campfire brightened and began to pour out it’s power and warm the whole group.
That is the power of participation. So long as we, and those who gather with us, are coming to the House Church for our own edification, we withhold the power of the Spirit we have within us. It’s only when two are more (which is why a House Church Pastor can’t do it on their own) release the Spirit from within them that the power of God begins to be felt, others release their inhibitions, and the work of God can flow freely amongst us.
- Silence Really is Gold. When you’re the leader of a House Church, the reality is that most everyone there looks to you to be the host, the leader, the resident theologian, the resident scholar, and the pastoral counselor. The group will generally defer to you if they have a question and will turn to you when they’re looking for advice. For those of us with egos, and that means all of us, this means we get extra strokes because—let’s face it—who doesn’t want to be deferred to and treated as the resident expert (at least until someone proves us fallible!)?
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that the House Church doesn’t need leaders who lead. We do. Rad Zdero in his book The Global House Church Movement suggests that each House Church needs two leaders: (1) a shepherd who coordinates the spiritual well-being of the flock and (2) a strategist who helps lead the direction and training of the congregation.
On the other hand, what we don’t want to foster in our leadership is a resident expert anything. Instead, as John wrote in 1 st John 2:27, we don’t so much need a human teacher—we need the Holy Spirit to teach us. You see, we as leaders don’t actually have the answers. We just have what we’ve been taught or what we’ve experienced. And yes, when it comes to the conditions or the traditions of Palestine during Jesus’ life, some of us might know more than the average person sitting on the sofa. On the other hand, as interesting as that information might be, what God is probably wanting to teach us isn’t obscure history, but real life instructions for today. And the only way we’re going to learn that is to stop the ever popular history lessons about God, Jesus, and the Bible, and start listening to the Spirit’s whisper in our hearts.
For those who are a product of the Enlightenment and would pooh-pooh all of this “subjective nonsense,” allow me to remind you that our enlightened belief systems (and they are belief systems) are largely responsible for the state of the church in the U.S. today—and that’s a pretty sorry state. Perhaps instead of having—or pretending to having—all the answers, it’s about time we tried something different. Like listening and allowing the Spirit to work with the hearts, souls, and minds of those in our Gatherings.
All this is to say that when in the midst of worship, Bible study, prayer, and even during relationship building moments, silence is where the gold is found because it’s often in the silence where God is found. So, when in the midst of a Bible study someone asks one of the tough questions and turns to us for the answer, defer to the group. Live with the silence. Let the Spirit move. Listen for the still, small voice of God to whisper in someone else’s ear besides yours. The fact is, we don’t really have the answers to life’s most important questions anyway. Only God does and the Spirit is quite polite and only speaks when we are not.
- There is No Growth Without Prayer. I saved the most important point for the end of this article. Prayer is not an option for the leaders of the House Church and your House Church will not grow significantly if you do not pray.
I’ve noticed that many House Church Pastors are a bit lax in their prayer lives. I’ve also noticed a correlation to the growth in their House Churches. They, like the rest of us, get busy and lob off a sentence worth of prayer every now and again—and I’ve heard several then try to say they are living in the presence of God every minute of the day, so they don’t really need a dedicated prayer time. As sincere as they may be, I have to wonder how their marriages or friendships would survive if they applied the same principles. I suspect they’d end up being pretty lonely.
Jesus taught that prayer was key to the success of His work. He repeatedly told his followers to pray. I find it interesting that in a world where “Mary sightings” and visions are looked at with severe skepticism, especially by the non-Catholic church, that the uniform messages from virtually every one of these sightings and visions is “Tell my people to pray.” Pastor Cho, the pastor of one of the largest churches in the world, requires his cell church leaders to pray at least three hours each day. Oswald Chambers reminds us that prayer doesn’t get us ready for the battle, prayer is the battle. And Jesus asked his apostles if they couldn’t pray for just one hour (Matthew 26:40-41). It seems that prayer might be a pretty important part of a House Church Pastor’s life.
Perhaps we don’t pray because we don’t understand what prayer does—we don’t really believe in the power of prayer. But we read in the Scriptures that prayer:
- Enables or incites God to raise up and send workers for the harvest (Luke 10:2).
- Is a conduit for the power of God in healing and deliverance (Mark 9:29; James 5:15-16)).
- Bolsters the strength and resolve of those we pray for (Luke 22:32).
- Enables or incites God to demonstrate His power (Acts 4:31-32).
- Releases the Holy Spirit upon those being prayed for (Acts 8:15-17).
- Consecrates what we pray for, setting it apart for holy use (1 Timothy 4:4-5).
In each of these cases, the inverse seems also to be true. If we don’t pray, we shouldn’t expect God to act. I don’t know how it works, I only know that prayer does work and that when we pray we should expect to see incredible results.
Which goes back to the third thing I wish every House Church Pastor knew. Prayer, for whatever reason, becomes more effective and more powerful when praying people join together to pray. Not just bowing their heads and marking time, but really offering their own personal “spark” to the prayer time in earnest. When that happens, the power of the Lord rolls in like a mighty, mighty wave.
So, five things I wish every House Church Pastor knew and did something about: Leadership is really all about serving one another; Life transformation is the goal of the House Church; There’s power when people participate; Let the Holy Spirit bring God’s message by keeping quiet; And prayer is the key to it all.
So, whatcha gonna do about it?