I recently read A Church Building Every 1/2 Mile by Jon Zens. It’s about the institutional church in this country–more specifically, about how Christ’s Body is fractured into a thousand competing denominations (and non-denominations). Zens uses the real-life example of 13 different churches in one three mile stretch of road. These churches all have top down leadership led by a seminary trained pastor, largely passive congregations, and a specific branding rooted in dogma. And because each church has this need to see themselves distinctively separate from their fellow Christian churches they necessarily end up duplicating and thus wasting resources. Not only is there waste but differences in dogma often result in suspicion and sometimes outright enmity.
I’ve briefly addressed the tragic fracturing of Christ’s Body before in writing about spiritual warfare in my book Satan’s Top Ten Tricks. One of the devil’s battlegrounds is that of the church. I was introduced to this idea around a decade ago in The Three Battlegrounds by Francis Frangipane. I attribute much of Satan’s apparent success to “theology.” In Genesis 3 Satan says to Eve, “Did God really say . . . ?” That simple question is the beginning of an endless debate about God’s motives, His methods and His plan for us.
So what does this have to do with our comfort zone? I believe that Satan’s voice in our thoughts enhances our natural suspicion of one another and in the process helps create barriers that discourage authentic emotional intimacy and transparency. We humans crave the close fellowship of the Father, Son and Spirit–it is written in our hearts. However, certain events in Genesis like Adam blaming Eve for the fall, Cain murdering Abel and the story of Babel are the templates for humanity’s problems with trust and intimacy. This is all part of the fallout of original sin. Our inborn suspicion toward our brothers leads to the eventual building of both real and ideological walls and an us against them mentality.
Being both emotionally transparent and physically close to one another is way out of many people’s innate comfort zone. I believe that it is a fear of the potential intimacy and accountability that could be found in the fellowship of very small churches or an “organic church” that helps foster the big institutional megachurches with their built-in anonymity. Of course, one of the recipes for the megachurch is a charismatic pastor in whom rests far too much power and responsibility. This is in jarring contrast to an organic church where all attending function as integral parts of Christ’s body and where the meetings are actually led by Jesus. (where two or more are gathered). In an organic church there is no designated leader beyond Jesus. I know this is a paradigm difficult for many to grasp, but having experienced it first-hand, I find that it works very well.
At the megachurch I attend many Sunday evenings there is a ritual of standing and greeting those around us. Sometimes we’re asked to make a comment or pose a question to those with whom we shake hands. I gather that this extra twist is supposed to somehow push our comfort zone and help us bond with the strangers we happen to be sitting around. The only part of my comfort zone attacked occurs during flu season when I wonder how many microbes I’ve picked up in shaking hands with 6 or 7 strangers. Anyway, this further exercise in faux intimacy I find pointless and irritating in the extreme. It is about as satisfying as the little cracker and sip of juice that is referred to as a “meal.” Yes, I understand that the gifts of Communion are symbolic, but I crave a real meal.
One wonders what the First Century Church would have thought of all this. It is so painfully distant from the meetings described in Acts 2: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. . .All the believers were together and had everything in common. . . They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all people.” Consider as well the description of “church” found in I Cor. 14: “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.”
It is apparent from these two passages that “church” in the first century consisted of relatively small groups that met mainly in homes and were events in which most participated. Obviously, they were much more intimate gatherings. The sharing of resources fostered a deep sense of community, honesty and intimacy–so much so that Ananias and Sapphira were punished by death for personal selfishness–for holding back, for dishonesty with their ekklesia and with God. In a megachurch there is no worry about any others knowing our business. We can enter with a handshake by an official greeter, maybe participate in a few songs or maybe just watch the performance. The pastor gives his message and 75 min later we’re on our way to the Golden Corral. Please forgive my cynical attitude!
It appears to me that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is a scriptural and philosophical framework for much of what I have come to understand as “organic” church. One of the main points I gather from Bonhoeffer’s book is that our only meaningful identity and role is as members of THE Body–we have no real Christian life beyond being parts of Jesus. In a megachurch (and in most smaller churches as well) we are mostly just spectators and really not functioning parts of the Body. Now many churches encourage participation in small groups, and that’s a good thing. But my guess is that the offer of transparency and accountability found in smaller gatherings is not taken by 80 to 90% of church goers. It is my impression that the vast majority are content with the hour or two of participation on Sunday and nothing more. Also, that short time span pretty much guarantees a type of opaque anonymity.
Let me tell you about my journey: For several years I’d found myself hungering for something beyond the megachurch experience–something more real, more intimate. I participated in and facilitated Bible studies. They were helpful, but not quite what I was seeking. What the Bible studies lacked was worship and transparency. But the Lord has always faithfully led me to where I needed to be in my walk. About a year ago I was serendipitously led to Celebrate Recovery–a nationwide Christ-centered 12-step program. The group that met at my church was led by a friend and I initially went out of curiosity. However, I was immediately captured. Celebrate Recovery (CR) unfolds over 3 – 4 hours on every Friday night. It begins with a meal and fellowship. This is followed by an hour of worship and teaching in the big meeting; usually about 100-120 are present. Worship is joyously led by an ad hoc praise band that is truly a ministry of its members. Then after a teaching on one of the 12-steps or a testimony there is an hour in a small group. I attend the men’s codependency group and about 7 to 10 attend that; there are 3 or 4 regulars plus the facilitators and a few others who come and go based on their individual needs. There is a lot of honest sharing. It’s not group therapy–its more like confession and support. It ends with prayer. The small group is followed by another half hour of dessert, coffee and fellowship. It is a full evening and usually a very uplifting and satisfying experience.
Not quite three months ago I was again led by the Holy Spirit to where I needed to be. In spite of the Friday evening uplift of Celebrate Recovery I still found myself feeling cynical and critical of my megachurch far too much. For six months a close friend had been attending a small organic church that met in homes. I was vaguely familiar with this concept thru reading some of Frank Viola’s writings and thru the Facebook blogs of Jamal Jivanjee. Once again I went out of curiosity, but my wait and see skepticism lasted all of about an hour and a half. The format for organic church paralleled CR–food & fellowship, followed by a few a capella hymns, followed by a discussion of scripture or a sharing of something the Lord laid on a member’s heart, followed by prayer and then more food & fellowship. And like CR the meetings ran 3 to 4 hours. Each week the meeting was in a different home. About 10 -12 adults were present along with 6 or 7 teens and a few young kids.
The effect of the organic church meeting on the youngsters more than convinced me of the legitimacy of holding church in this fashion. The young people all impressed me as being unusually spiritually mature. It was apparent that they were modeling the behavior of the adults in the church; they were responding to Jesus’ leadership as well with growth in lovingkindness and in knowledge. After all, it was He who forbade the disciples from excluding the children from His presence. No kiddie-church for Jesus. He understood that His Kingdom would be populated by people with childlike hearts–no problem with calcified comfort zone’s amongst those elect. And so I can go to the megachurch again without further growing my irritability or despair; it is what it is–it’s the appetizer, not the meal.