Saturday, September 13, 2008


September 13, 2008

“Wow, the yard is alive with ants!” I proclaimed as I rushed in the front door of our home in search of a can of bug spray. In the process of dragging a garden hose across the lawn in order to set the sprinkler in precisely the correct spot to cover the greatest area, I had inadvertently disturbed a nest of ants. Within seconds a good chunk of turf was crawling with black fury. It was mass chaos with the miniature varmints scampering in every direction including some who were ferociously attacking the sprinkler head.
Some ten minutes later after I had hunted down the bug spray and answered a phone call I returned to the front lawn to discover an amazing site. The entire colony was mobilized, highly organized, and headed in one direction—toward our house. It appeared as though every single ant had been activated. Some were scouting the way forward, others were still attacking the snake-like intruder, and the rest were packing the belongings of the colony on their backs on their way to a new home. I was thoroughly amazed at how quickly the entire colony had agreed upon a single course of action and was pressed into service to carry it out. Everyone had a role in the crusade and everyone was busy doing it. For a while I was caught up in observing their energy and determination. I felt a kindred spirit with Solomon who was also a keen observer of the ant.
“Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.” – Proverbs 6:6-8.
I was almost sad to be forced to terminate these industrious midgets—almost! But I did delay their execution long enough to interview one of their number. I suppose some of you will be skeptical of my ability to communicate with such a creature, but what I’m about to share with you is absolutely true. The ant swore to me that he wasn’t lying. He referred to himself simply as “serve-ant.” I’d reveal his full identity to you but he spoke on condition of anonymity since he wasn’t an official spokesperson, or rather, spokes-ant.
I scooped up the tiny creature with my hand, brought him up to eye level with me and asked him how his colony managed to organize itself so quickly.
“We are all created to fulfill certain roles in the colony,” replied Serve-ant with an attitude of condescension. “When a crisis occurs,” he further explained, “no-one has to think about what to do; we each respond as we have been programmed by nature. In this case, the highly sensitive radar ants were the first to discover the approaching danger. As soon as they felt the vibrations of your gargantuan feet walking across the lawn they relayed the warning to the scout ants who quickly scampered up a blade of grass to survey the land. Upon discerning the reality of the situation by being struck by the first few drops of water from the invading sprinkler, they rallied the colony to attack the intruder. They also asked the radar ants to quickly contact the queen and return with any specific directions. When the order came from the queen to move out to a new location the scouts, who thrive on the adventure of invading new territory, hurried off to determine the best location to begin work on a new colony. The rescue ants, who can’t bear to see anyone lost, set to work saving those who were already being inundated by the flood. The community organizers [apparently their actual titles—no disrespect meant to a currently popular politician] formed everyone into small groups, portioned out to each one enough food for the journey, and encouraged them to do their best for the colony. And the drill instructors made sure everyone was up to date on the latest techniques for colony relocations. Since every single ant was created for a specific purpose and endowed with the natural instincts to act within its given role, the entire colony was able to spring into action at a moment’s notice, the instant the command was received from the queen.”
Serve-ant spoke matter-of-factly, as though what he was sharing was the most basic of knowledge and I was a complete moron for having asked such a simple question. I thanked him for his time, set him back down on our front porch, and stomped on him with my gargantuan feet. I then dispatched the rest of his family with a generous dose of bug spray. Okay, so I’m cruel. But there are a few billion more ants in our neighborhood waiting to take Serve-ant’s place in this never-ending attack against my domicile.
Later, however, I took some time to meditate upon what this brave foe had revealed with his dying words. The ant colony was incredibly efficient; able to rally every single member to action in order to achieve a common goal. On the other hand, in the body of Christ a great deal of energy is released by a relatively small number of members while most of the colony remains dormant. And very little is ever accomplished toward the common goal of advancing the kingdom of God. If only the church could be organized more like an ant hill. But wait; isn’t that exactly what we see revealed as a pattern for the church in Scripture?
“It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” – Ephesians 4:11-13.
This is not unlike the organic, natural, gift-based, servant-oriented structure which Serve-ant revealed to me, but it appears to be worlds apart from the man-made, control-based, top-down, hierarchical structure we see dominating much of the body of Christ today. Allow me to translate the description of ant-hill, organic structure, which was passed on to me through the dying words of Serve-ant, into a pattern of organic structure for the body of Christ.
Do we still have apostles (scout ants) in the church today? The answer is, of course, yes but obviously not with the stature or the authority of the original twelve. The word “apostle” is simply the Greek equivalent of the Latin based word, “missionary.” Apostles are the scouts for the expansion of the kingdom. They are gifted by the Spirit to be able to see the big picture. They are usually called to a given geographical area, although they tend not to linger long in any one location, and they thrive on the adventure of planting new works, conquering new territory, and opening up new venues for the Gospel. They often have a unique ability to perceive the identities of the other four members of the ministry team and can rally them into service.
What about prophets (radar ants); do we still see their role active in the church today? At the risk of being branded a heretic by some, I am compelled to answer that question also in the affirmative. I have simply experienced far too much obvious communication from the Spirit through gifted individuals to be able to ignore this vital function. God still speaks to His servants today through His Word, through circumstances, through His “still small voice,” and through certain individuals who are gifted prophetically through the Spirit. However, we must be careful to thoroughly test what we hear from such individuals. Usually, a genuine word of prophecy will be confirmed by several other sources, and it will never contradict the written Word of God. Prophets have a unique ability to be sensitive to the voice of God. The church would be well served to pay more attention to them.
Evangelists are the “rescue ants.” They have a burning passion to find those who are perishing, an ability to feel the heart of God crying out for the lost, and an overwhelming burden to see everyone come to salvation through Jesus Christ. We need to equip these individuals and release them into the world to do what they have been gifted to do. Having them remain cooped up in the church will drive them crazy. However, when new converts are won, the evangelist needs to team up with an apostle in order to plant a new church within the surroundings the new believer. Bringing a new believer back to an already existing church will spoil the opportunity to invade new territory with the Gospel.
Contrary to popular practice, pastors are not the CEO of the local church. Only Jesus should have that role. Pastors are shepherds (community organizer ants) charged with caring for, protecting, and encouraging a small group of believers. They are people-oriented servants who bring a touch of God’s love to the body of Christ. Pastors who have built up larger congregations are probably apostolically gifted servants who have remained trapped in the current, man-made structure of contemporary Christianity.
Teachers (drill instructor ants) are specially gifted by God with the ability to make complex truths easily understood. They usually have the companion gifts of wisdom and knowledge and have an insatiable appetite for God’s Word. They are charged with training and equipping others to fulfill their Spirit-gifted roles in the church.
According Ephesians 4:11-13, we have all been created by God and gifted by the Spirit to fulfill certain roles in the body of Christ. The emphasis is on performing a function rather than holding an office; engaging in humble service rather than striving after titles; allowing the Spirit to lead through empowering gifted individuals rather than controlling individuals through man-made power structures. The result should be an organic structure which enables people to respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit as they have been programmed to do, rather than an artificial, human-birthed, top-down structure that forces people to engage in activities in which they have no gifting.
For the last seventeen centuries the church in the west has been dominated by pastors and teachers. I have nothing against these essential servants of the church, but they are only two of the five-fold ministry team we see set forth in Scripture. When pastors and teachers comprise the entire team we end up with a church that is focused inward, caring primarily for its own. Believers are expected to spend their entire lives attending worship services and learning more about the Bible. Consequently the church is filled with passive pew-sitters content to pay others to do the work of the ministry and possessing an inordinate amount of Scriptural knowledge. I pray for the day when our emphasis will switch from learning about how to advance the kingdom to actually doing it!
Evangelists are tolerated, but only if they are successful in funneling new converts into our existing churches. Apostles are sent overseas and allowed home only once every two years when we are thrilled by their power-point presentations of natives from distant lands coming to Jesus. At such times we take up an offering to send them back overseas convinced that such kingdom expansion could never happen where we live. And what about the prophets? Well, we treat them like we read about in the Bible; we stone them! Or the more compassionate among us kindly suggest they could benefit from some professional therapy. The result is a church where those who are gifted apostolically or prophetically are not welcome. These gifts are either subdued or are cast out of existing congregations where these spiritual vagabonds end up starting new churches, para-church organizations, or entirely new denominations. And the body of Christ becomes more and more fragmented, and less and less effective in transforming society and advancing the cause of Christ.
My conclusion, and I believe I can also speak for the dearly departed Serve-ant, is that the body of Christ needs to learn how to work together to rally every believer to respond as a single unit, as Spiritually programmed, in order to further our common goal—moving the colony forward. We need to release all five components of our Spirit-given ministry teams and allow the Head of the church to regain the control that rightly belongs to Him.
“Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” – Ephesians 4:15-16.
Why do I feel so passionately about the imperative of the body of Christ enabling all of the five-fold ministry team to work together as the Spirit directs? Well, you might say a little ant convinced me. But more importantly, a succession of “radar ants” has brought word of approaching vibrations. Several of our “scout ants” have surveyed the land and determined the time for action has arrived. Indeed our “Queen” has spoken and called us out of our comfortable tunnels to advance across the land planting new colonies as we go. A crisis is upon us; a challenge is set before us; the call to mobilize the entire body of Christ has sounded. Is this the time when we all decide to move forward together?

Bill, a child of God, answering the call

Saturday, September 06, 2008


September 5, 2008

I thought I’d take a break from my usual devotional thoughts to give you a brief synopsis of where I believe the organic/simple church movement is currently situated and where it might be headed. As most of you know I just returned from attending my fifth National House Church Conference which this year was held in Dallas. It has been truly fascinating to observe how this movement has been evolving over the past five years.
When I first started attending these conferences our collective self-image was that of a group of pioneering mavericks, exiled from normal religious circles, huddling together in order to validate our hope that we were not the only “crazies” out there. Then, two years ago, George Barna gave us some startling statistics compiled from this country alone.
…9% of adults attend a house church during a typical week. That is remarkable growth in the past decade, shooting up from just 1% to near double-digit involvement. In total, one out of five adults attends a house church at least once a month. Projecting these figures to the national population gives an estimate of more than 70 million adults who have at least experimented with house church participation. In a typical week roughly 20 million adults attend a house church gathering. Over the course of a typical month, that number doubles to about 43 million adults.
I have no doubt but that these figures have increased steadily in the last two years. Although some of these house church attendees may also continue to attend a traditional church, a growing number look to their home group as their only church. We are seeing a mass exodus from the institutional church in this country, one million adults per year according to George Barna, all of whom are searching for a more intimate, hands-on expression of worship. Clearly something is happening in the body of Christ.
Around the world the organic church movement is growing at a phenomenal rate. We are familiar with the reports coming out of China where over 100 million faithful now gather in homes and caves and fields to worship Jesus. 25,000 people are coming to Christ every day in that country! But now we are hearing amazing stories of church planting movements in Southeast Asia, India, Africa, and yes even the Middle East. The Chinese churches are committed to sending missionaries to the west across Asia all the way to Israel in their “Back to Jerusalem” project. By comparison the movement is just barely getting started in this country. That may be due to the prevailing culture of the institutional church in this country which is difficult to breach. But even here the walls of institutionalism are coming down. We are hearing of increasing examples of traditional churches transitioning into house church networks. Other institutional churches are partnering with house churches in order to more thoroughly impact their communities. We know of several mega churches which are sending out house church missionaries to plant organic churches in surrounding communities. What only a few years ago was looked down upon as a small cult of radical anti-church malcontents is now considered mainstream.
Early on our conferences were mostly about house church mechanics, how to get started and what to do when you gather together. This year such basics were relegated to one of four tracks in our break-out sessions. The remainder of our schedule revolved around world missions, market place ministries, new ways to reach out into our communities, and building relationships. By far the greatest emphasis was on intimacy with God and with each other. It is exactly where you would expect a maturing movement to be headed. We must learn to hear “Papa’s” voice, as individuals and collectively in community in order to discern His guidance for our lives and for the future of His kingdom.
Along with this increased focus on intimacy with God and with each other we are seeing a loss of focus on our own differences. The Lord of the harvest is gathering saints from virtually every corner of the kingdom and placing them side by side in this movement. Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Charismatics, members of the Church of Christ, those from non-denominational backgrounds, high church, low church, and no church, we are all discovering how easy it is to forget our differences when we focus on the King. Only the Holy Spirit could be drawing together such a diverse group of individuals and showing us how to genuinely love each other and partner together in advancing the kingdom.
Along with an increased emphasis on building relationships and unity within the body, we are experiencing a complete change of direction in our ministry focus. In answer to the Lord’s request in Luke 10:2—“Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”—we are discovering that we ourselves are being sent out, beyond the four walls of our meeting places, into the surrounding community. It is here that we are colliding with the unsaved world and find ourselves watching in awe as people are won to the Lord and churches are being planted. For 1700 years, ever since the emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire, the church has largely been operating in an attractional mode, attempting to attract the world to us. The problem with this approach is that it is also extractional, extracting people from their own homes, families, cultures, and removing them from the harvest field. This may be good strategy if your goal is church growth, but it is devastating if you are seeking kingdom expansion. If you want to experience a great harvest, you need to be out in the harvest field.
Finally, we are seeing a new type of leadership evolve; a servant leadership which operates from underneath, lifting others up and helping them achieve maturity in Christ, rather than from above, controlling and “Lording it over others.” Leadership in this movement is decentralized and based upon one’s gifting, not one’s position or title. Although we are learning to function within the five-fold ministry team described in Ephesians 4:11 (apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers), we tend to shy away from using titles. An individual’s role in the kingdom will become obvious as they begin to function in their own gifting.
So are there any pitfalls lying ahead for the movement? Yes, but such dangers won’t come from the outside. All great movements of the past, every revival the world has seen, have all experienced a limited lifespan. Some have disappeared completely; others have slowly become mainstream and transformed into just another denomination. But primarily, the forces which stalled the forward progress of these movements came from within, and this is where we need to exhibit the most vigilance. We must never allow the emergence of a special clergy class of individuals. The moment this occurs those who are not included in the clergy will cease their labors and become passive toward ministry. The result will be disastrous bringing the movement to a standstill. “…you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood…” – 1Peter 2:5. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…” – 1Peter 2:9.
An even greater risk is the tendency to become inward focused, bent on building up each individual church gathering rather than advancing the kingdom. There seems to be a tremendous temptation to strive to organize the outward thrust of the Gospel, to tame the Holy Spirit, to control the forward progress of the Kingdom. If any such attempt is successful this movement will die. Three times in three verses the Lord emphasizes the outward direction we are to take in advancing the Gospel. “After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.’”—Luke 10:1-3.
This brings us to perhaps the greatest threat of all, the failure to listen to the Lord of the harvest. If we lose our intimacy with Christ and strike out on our own, following our own plans and strategies, this movement is doomed. For whatever reason, we seem to exhibit the tendency to reduce the forward movement of the kingdom to a set of rules, formulas, and strategies. “Just follow the formula set forth in my book and you, too, can plant a church,” we cry. But so far every church we’ve seen planted in this area has begun in a different manner. It would seem the Lord is deliberately keeping us from coming up with an all-encompassing strategy. Besides, the best book on church planting has already been written some two thousand years ago. The only formula we know of involves listening to the Lord and obeying what we hear. “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” – John 10:27.
I am convinced that this movement is far more than just a passing fad. As House2House magazine declares, “Watch out! A tidal wave is coming.” As one who has been engulfed in the wave I invite you to take the plunge.

Bill, a child of God still listening and learning