Author: Stuart Lindsell
This article is my own reading and reflections on the current reformation taking place in the western church. It is not intended to be a swipe at the church because I believe that Christ loves the church and gave himself for her. I am also a passionate member of that church and want see her rising up to be all that God has called her to be. I am aware of the suggestion that those who are currently putting forward their ideas on what Alan Hirsch has called ‘the emerging missional church’ are nothing more than menopausal men still trying to find meaning in madness. I acknowledge the possibility of being reactionary but my conviction is that, along with others, I am merely seeking to respond to what the Spirit is currently saying to the churches both in word and deed.
My background is that for thirty years I have been involved in what has been called the new church or house church movement. I still strongly believe in the values embraced by the movement in its early days and am grateful to God for the journey he has taken me on and the lessons learned along the way. The label charismatic is not a problem to me because I believe the word, like missional, is a fundamental description of the nature of the people of God. The label evangelical is fine as well, providing it is understood as referring to the good news of Jesus Christ not implying a fundamentalist or dogmatic approach to scripture. However at the end of the day our labels are not very helpful because only by meeting one another in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit can we really know one another.
The house church movement in the UK began well but soon hit many of the issues faced by previous movements. From my perspective it began with a renewed understanding of the ecclesia and the worship songs reflected the conviction that ‘the church of God is not steeples, house meetings or cathedrals but the church of God is people whose hearts have become a dwelling place of God by the Spirit’.1 There was also much talk about the fact that Jesus came to bring life in abundance, not meetings in abundance. Sadly people involved in the movement still talk about ‘going’ to church or even ‘services’ and the reality is that meetings have indeed been in abundance. If the impact on our communities was in direct relationship to the time spent in worship gatherings then the kingdom of God would have come many times over. It goes to show that it’s not our theology that’s so important as our theo-praxis because what we do speaks more loudly than what we say.
The movement also faced a significant moment when those that had previously made the home the primary focus of discipleship began to meet in public buildings - schools, village halls and the like. The leaders now began to use the language of people serving leaders rather than Jesus’ language of leaders serving people. Spiritual parents became corporate managers. The idea that the church was now meeting ‘in public’ (although there were no more of the public there than when we met in homes) meant that a certain quality of excellence was now demanded of those who led the worship and took part ‘publicly’. The church now moved into performance mode. We had a show on the road that generated its own momentum and made its own demands.
In 1988 John Noble wrote a book in which he looked at the future of the house churches.2 He suggested that the house churches in the UK may have been like the booster rockets on the side of a main rocket. Once they had fulfilled God’s purpose in serving the wider body of Christ and helping to take it to a new level they might need to drop away. Having made their contribution it became clear in the last decade of the 20th century that the movement had run its course. John acknowledges that ‘one of the primary mistakes that we made was that we preached the gospel of our church and the gospel of our relationships and not the gospel of Jesus. We must keep Jesus central.’3
In what follows I hope it is clear that the current crisis is not about the model of church. It is more fundamental. Fresh expressions of church will indeed arise but God is digging a lot deeper. The post-modern world is looking for authenticity. Jesus must take central place. Christ must again be birthed in his people4 and a truly apostolic church must arise.
We are living at time of enormous transition for the church in the western world. One thing is clear. Mission is no longer part of the agenda - it is the agenda. Christendom has ended – mission has arrived.5
One of the biblical paradigms that can help us to understand the shift that is taking place has been described as the temple to tent metaphor.6 God is both moving his people out of the temple and taking the temple out of us. We have embarked on a new journey and being ‘de-toxed’ along the way. There is much to learn and much to unlearn. The tabernacle was God's idea but the temple was David's idea. The tabernacle was flexible and mobile but the temple was fixed and immovable.
After the death and resurrection of Jesus, Stephen was stoned to death for blasphemy. Stephen saw the tabernacle, not the temple, as the pinnacle of Israel’s experience. In his defence speech he argued that God’s presence is not confined to one holy land or ‘sacred spot’. He understood that God had rejected the temple with its centralized priesthood and cultic rituals and was now identifying the world as his sacred space. As Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham, has pointed out, Jesus was crucified not because he taught about the kingdom of God, but because he was a threat to the temple. He even forgave sins outside of the temple precinct! What Jesus was to Israel, the church is now called to be to the world – a priestly servant.
The Holy Spirit today seems intent on giving us a renewed sense of identity; a fundamental identity as a missionary people in a foreign land. This transition is undoubtedly a traumatic one. Old points of reference are being taken away and we have to look for new signs and symbols in a strangely unfamiliar world. The reality for many is that the glory and presence are no longer found where we once found them. The glory has departed from the temple. Believers gathering together behind safe walls are no longer experiencing the intensity of his saving presence but are surprisingly finding it elsewhere. The church is discovering God at work in his world. Jesus is still hanging out with the most unexpected people in the most surprising places.
The temple of course is a safe environment compared to the discomforts of the world. In the world, Jesus promised, we will have trouble ‘but be encouraged’; he said ‘I have overcome the world’. These are scary times, where like pilgrims we are travelling into territory we have not travelled before. In the temple we knew what to expect but outside of its boundaries the roads have hardly been travelled. God is calling us to live without a map but because we have not been this way before, like Joshua, we have to be strong and courageous and very careful to obey.
1. A song I believe that was written by Mick Ray of the then Cobham Christian Fellowship. 2. John Noble, The House Churches - Will they survive? 3. Interview with Jesus Army and Jesus Life Magazine. 4. In Galatians 4:9 Paul expresses the same feelings for the church in Galatia. 5. Stuart Murray Williams has written two books on the subject. In the first ‘Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World’ he explains that Christendom represents a time when the Christian story was known and the church was central to society. Now we live in the new world of post-Christendom where neither is true. In his second book ‘Church after Christendom’, he explores a number of themes including how mission, community and worship have to be reconfigured in this new environment. 6. I recommend this article by Len Hjalmarson on missional spirituality. Missional spirituality.