In discussing how the church spreads Dr. Joel Hunter, noting that his wife is a biologist, referenced the process of cross-pollination—how agents such as the wind or insects facilitate the transfer of genetic material from one plant to another. We most commonly think of bees as responsible for cross-pollination. In the early church, Paul with his restless sojourning was the Cross-pollinator supreme. Once again, I had an Aha-moment—and this time it was about my role in the church.
Increasingly of late I’ve been feeling discouraged about my ministry (or lack of same). In the past I’ve participated in various ministries thru Northland, A Church Distributed. I sit on a currently dormant creation care committee. I’ve served the homeless, done numerous mission trips, taught classes on coping with depression and spiritual warfare, and participated in other church projects. However, the past two years my service has been about zero.
Off and on my role in Christ’s Body has been a fairly active one, but I suppose my motives have not always been pristine. Sometimes I’ve felt called by the Spirit, but at other times I probably participated for the collecting of Christian merit badges, or for the lure of travel and meeting new people and having new experiences. My mind tends to be restless and so I like to keep busy—perhaps like every good Cross-pollinator worker-bee.
Northland is a nondenominational megachurch I’ve attended for almost 22-years. Going to a megachurch has its pros and cons. Being big, it has lots of resources. They generally have programs and ministries that a small congregation cannot afford. However, spiritual intimacy with others in the Lord’s body suffers.
Megachurches typically have celebrity pastors with lots of charisma and entertainment driven worship. The weekly messages are usually upbeat and the worship powerful, rock-driven contemporary Christian music. They are generally heavily marketed and seeker-friendly—and because of that are chock full of spiritually immature congregants. They are beginner churches. There’s nothing wrong with that—folks have to start the journey to Christian maturity somewhere—but the drawback is that at some point you stop being a baby Christian and start craving meat instead of milk.
However, in 1993, Northland was where the Lord had called me and it was where I needed to be. I hadn’t been attending church for a while and I was like an eager, empty sponge, and weekly I was edified and uplifted by Dr. Hunter’s sermons. I was there every Sunday hungry for his message and I listened to the ones that impacted me the most over and over again on tape during my daily commute. I also took classes and Bible studies, and after five years of steady growth I began to participate in various ministries myself. It began with me teaching a class on coping with depression. That led me to writing The Unwelcome Blessing.
However, about five or six years ago I started to feel an itch in my spirit again similar to what I was feeling in 1993. Pastor Joel’s topical sermons and endless calls to fulfill the Great Commission were beginning to feel very repetitive and very stale. They were mostly variations on evangelizing and changing the world via good works. And to make matters worse, the worship seemed increasingly carefully staged entertainment. Now, I realized that while others were being edified and were worshiping, I no longer was.
Around the same time I read Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola. This book is a condemnation of institutional churches and makes a case for doing church in homes similar to the church of the First Century—the church of Peter, Paul, James and John. I was curious about house churches, or as they are sometimes called, organic/simple churches. But the alternative immediately available to me was a traditional, liturgical church pastored by the well-known theologian, Dr. R.C. Sproul.
I attend Northland on Sunday evenings and so I was free to go to St. Andrew’s Chapel on Sunday mornings. St. Andrews is as much about pristine doctrine and creating an atmosphere of sanctity as Northland is about laid-back casualness. Dr. Sproul, the eminent Calvinist, preaches thru a book a few verses at a time. His preaching is expository as opposed to topical, and I was immediately struck by the richness of his sermons in illuminating scripture. Also, the traditional worship and liturgy seemed a welcome change at that point. The service at St. Andrews starts with a processional down the center aisle, the pastors in vestments and a choir in scarlet robes—a massive pipe-organ, and a string quartet plays classical music to set the mood before each service.
I told others from Northland about St. Andrews and several started attending weekly as well. Like myself, they had been experiencing a similar spiritual hunger. For about two years I attended both churches—and for a while all was good. I was enjoying the balance of both ecclesiastical worlds. St. Andrews had frequent top-notch guest preachers like Alistair Begg, and Sinclair Ferguson. Northland often had Steve Brown preach when Dr. Hunter was out of town. Attending both churches was almost like being at a perpetual ecclesiastical theme park—or perhaps St. Andrews was McDonald’s and Northland, Burger King (have it your way).
Nevertheless, after a while, the sameness of the liturgy at St. Andrews and the total lack of any music less than a century old began to wear on me. It seemed to me that Dr. Sproul, his staff and guest speakers were stuck in the Reformation—and the emptiness following the repetitive messages and bombastic music at Northland returned as well. Even more disillusioning was that Dr. Hunter had become very politically active and was constantly running to Washington for briefings and attending conferences all over the globe. He was much in demand as a leading evangelical spokesman.
And the tension in my spirit returned. So, I even gave a small charismatic church a few visits, but that did not seem to be what I was seeking. But fortuitously, a friend had connected with a group of folks who were doing a home church. I was curious, but the logistics didn’t seem practical. Most of the families in this church lived a 45-minute drive (or longer) away. Finally, one Sunday morning in April 2011, the home church was meeting a mere 30-min away and I decided to give it a try. I went mostly out of curiosity never thinking it would appeal to me all that much.
I was wrong. I was immediately impressed by the warmth, the sincerity and the Christian maturity of the dozen or so adults in this church. In addition to the adults there was a handful of teens and younger children who participated in the service as well. It struck me that this is the way “church” was supposed to be—spontaneous, intimate and multi-generational.
From that Sunday on I was a regular. The 3 to 4 hour leaderless meetings unfolded in pretty much the same four part format each week: food & socialization, worship, discussion, and prayer. The scriptural guide was from I Cor. 14:26: “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.”
The operative word is everyone. Home churches are participatory and they are about spiritual intimacy—about all parts of the Body needing one another I Cor. 12). If church is not about close relationships then there can be little growth toward Christian maturity because our foundation is in an intimate relationship (Rom. 8:15): Father, Son and Spirit. And thru Jesus we become part of that relationship—crying out “Abba, Father.”
For a year all was well. I enjoyed home church immensely; it started to feel like my family—then the first of two splits occurred. The first was mostly about geography. It made some sense for a part of the group coming from communities southeast of Orlando to start meeting closer to home. The second split came about four months later and was more painful. The original church merged with another home church, and there were major differences about style of worship and content. The group also became much larger and younger.
It was very disillusioning for me. Where had my church family gone? Being single, and not having much biological family, the church family had become my family—and now it had gone thru two divorces. I was angry and I dropped out.
I also should mention that since 2010, I’ve participated in Celebrate Recovery CR). This is a program started at Saddleback, Rick Warren’s church in California, about two decades ago. The three-plus hour meetings of Celebrate Recovery (CR) echo the format of home church: food & fellowship, worship, discussion and prayer. CR’s original impetus was addictions but today it addresses all manner of “hurts, habits and hangups.”
Once again, I went to CR out of curiosity, but much like my home church intro, I was immediately captured by the warmth and emotional transparency I encountered there. The small group I attended within CR was for men with anger and codependency issues, and similar to home church it too had become a bit of a family. My weekly attendance at CR filled in my need for spiritual intimacy during my six month hiatus from home church.
Eventually, I felt convicted to get over my stiff-necked rancor about the home church divorces—and I returned to both of them. Though I felt a bit sheepish, and wondered how well I’d be received, it seemed like that was what the Holy Spirit was calling me to do. And I felt somewhat surprised and relieved when folks seemed happy to see me again. One home church generally meets on Saturday evenings and the other Sunday mornings, and so many weekends I could go to both home churches and then to Northland on Sunday evening.
I also go to CR at two different churches—one weekly and the other about once a month, and a men’s group most Monday nights that’s part of one of the home churches. It probably sounds to some like I’m a churchy social butterfly—flitting here and there—and likely not investing myself 100% in any setting. But wait. . . maybe God has a plan, and I’m not a butterfly at all—but a bee, Cross-pollinator bee.
I am the only person who attends both home churches and I’m the only one from either who attends an institutional megachurch. Some home-churchers wouldn’t be caught dead in an institutional church—much less a celebrity led megachurch. The two home churches combined have a total of about 30 adult members. Most are very mature Christians—the Lord being part of every facet of their lives. Many are better read in scripture than I and can quote whole passages from Paul’s epistles flawlessly. Some read scripture exclusively.
I, on the other hand, read commentaries (particularly Barclay) and many other Christian authors and bloggers as well. Some authors I favor are Brennan Manning, Scott Peck, Henri Nouwen, Eugene Peterson, Steve Brown, Frederick Buechner, Francis Frangiapane, T. Austin-Sparks and Graham Cooke. These are all men whose thoughts I’ve tried to absorb and pass on. Also, Pastor Joel still occasionally hits the home run in his weekly message. I take notes and discuss some of the content at the home churches. He has a kingdom perspective and a perspective on God’s economy which resonates with me.
Oddly enough, one of Northland and Pastor Joel’s new initiatives is to birth home churches. They used to be called “home groups” but at their best they really are churches—still part of the megachurch but small enough for the intimacy and growth one misses in the big church. And voila here I am—practically an expert in home church.
Being old and worldly, and with my particular interests, I bring a unique perspective. My original church background—before my 23-years of agnosticism—is Lutheran and Roman Catholic. I don’t buy all the Catholic dogma but I feel comfortable attending Mass now and then—many home-churchers and evangelicals have an antipathy for the church of Rome which I do not share. I see Catholics as people—many, very loving people—family oriented and pro-life. I do not see them as a brand.
I’m not always very sure that what I bring to the meetings will be enthusiastically accepted—but it generally is, and I’ve blown away by words to the effect: “Carl, you’re such a blessing to us.”
Maybe. . . In any event I’ve come to think perhaps my role is a local Cross-pollinator in Christ’s larger body, and perhaps that is a more integral role than sitting on committees, feeding the homeless or short-term mission trips. It seems to me there needs to be more links in the parts of Christ’s diverse Body. If somebody has to do it, it might as well be me.