The Church that Jesus Builds - Part 1"You want to know what I've learned this weekend?" the man said as he drove me to a Midwest airport early one morning. We'd just spent an incredible weekend together with a house church he'd helped foster and another group of believers who joined us when they heard I was in town. The latter were deeply conflicted about their current involvement with a congregation that sounded abusive. "I've been selling the wrong thing!" he continued. "What's that?" I asked oblivious to what we were talking about. "I've been selling house church," he said shaking his head with a sigh, "instead of Jesus." Obviously he wasn't talking about ‘selling' anything, but I love his discovery. Almost everywhere I go people are preoccupied with finding the right way to do church. It seems our hunger for church outstrips our hunger for Jesus.
In one house church meeting a few years ago I heard a woman share a dream she had the night before about a bride endlessly primping in the mirror and admiring her own beauty. She fussed with her hair, make-up and dress making sure everything was perfect. Meanwhile she saw the groom standing at the altar checking his watch and wondering why his bride had not come. What a sad and lonely picture of too many believers in our day. We are so focused on ourselves and what the church should look like that we've forgotten our joy is in the bridegroom-Jesus himself!
If there's anything I've learned over the last decade visiting expressions of the body of Christ all over the world, it is that those preoccupied with doing church rarely get to experience body life to its full, while those who are preoccupied with Jesus find church life that is vibrant and awesome.
Search for the Church
In the last 40 years hundreds of books have been written about church renewal. I have watched countless people move from mainline to charismatic to mega-church to prayer-based to power-centered to cell church to seeker-sensitive to renewal to purpose-driven to house church to emerging church and the list just keeps getting longer. Some have even gone back to liturgical services, finding solace in its aesthetic beauty and safety. As one man confessed, "I just wanted to meet with Christians where I didn't have to worry about someone flopping on the floor like a beached fish."
These movements last only briefly, spearheaded by a gifted speaker who draws a large following and then claims he has at last found the Biblical way to do church. After the euphoria of the alleged ‘new wineskin' wears off in 3 to 5 years, people find themselves frustrated with the results and have to look again for another expression of church that fulfills the cry of their heart.
I understand the hunger. The Scriptures paint a compelling picture of God's church-brothers and sisters growing in their relationship with Jesus and each other in a way that transformed them. They loved each other, grew together in God's wisdom, shared their possessions together freely, and saw him reveal himself in extraordinary ways to them and their culture.
Was it perfect? Of course not and Scripture graciously made that clear as well. They struggled through failures and sin. They had to deal with those who tried to exercise control over others and brothers and sisters who preferred the comfort of false teaching to the challenge of the true. But throughout God kept making his way and truth known. They were filled with awe and God's grace multiplied among them in demonstrable ways.
Who wouldn't want that? But those expressions of church life have been rare and brief in our day. What passes for church today makes us spectators rather than participants, manipulates people's shame rather than setting them free from it, prefers the rigidity of obligation to the power of love, is more contemptuous of the world than more relevant in it, and rewards cooperative pawns in someone else's program rather than growing disciples of Jesus himself. No wonder so many people are disillusioned with it. Yet the search goes on, like birds drawn on an inexplicable migration, to a land they've never seen.
Beyond House Church
What compounds this search is that all that calls itself the church is not really the church. After 2000 years of Christian history, the term is used for institutions that provide a Christian experience through rituals, clergy and tradition. Some of the best of these actually provide an environment where people can come to know Jesus, grow in Biblical truths and connect in real fellowship so that in and around these institutions some people find expressions of church life.
However, there are increasing numbers of people who find that expression incredibly limited. Some have spilled out of abusive systems where the control of insecure leaders and the priorities of the institution overran any legitimate spiritual life. Still others grew unsettled with the time and money invested in building and institutional politics and found that those who get to the top of such groups often have little of Father's character and even less of his passion.
I am continually amazed by the number of people I run into who have left those institutions who were once respected leaders in it-pastors, elders, teachers, deacons and board members. Some left rather than submit to ungodly demands made of them, but others did so because they grew convinced that the institution didn't fulfill their hunger to live as the church. Loyalty was valued over honesty, arrogance over tenderness, entertainment over spiritual growth and the survival of the institution over loving people.
One denominational official confronted his own organization, "A growing number of people are leaving the institutional church for a new reason. They are not leaving because they have lost their faith. They are leaving the church to preserve their faith." People are waking up to a new reality, and finding the way they have learned to "do church" in the past doesn't serve their hunger to know Jesus more intimately and to share that life with others more effectively.
Many of these initially turned to house church, hoping its more Biblical dynamics would provide the Promised Land they hungered for. But they soon find it a mixed bag as well. Their excitement at the relational dynamics of a smaller group fades when they discover there are still people who wanted to control it from within or mold it into new networks from without. They find relationships awkward as people are more focused on a method than on following Jesus. They often face the same religious demands for conformity and commitment and they find the same our-group-is-better superiority that separates them from other Christians and from the world by breeding contempt for unbelievers, rather than compassion.
Now increasing numbers find themselves beyond house church still wondering where they can find authentic church life, or even if it exists at all.
An Undeniable Hunger
A sad reality is that many who break free of systems of religious obligation sometimes find themselves using freedom as an excuse to fulfill long-restrained appetites in the things of the world. They don't always fall into great sin, but their spiritual hunger is swallowed up by their search for pleasure. I cringe when it happens, but I know for many it will only be a phase. Having worked so long and so hard for God with so little enduring fruit in relationship with him or with others, their frustration often spills out in careless personal indulgence.
For those who have been touched by Jesus, this season won't satisfy and out of it a new passion for a real connection with Jesus emerges. Beyond their disappointments, beyond the failure of others, their hunger to find real life among God's people surfaces again and again. I am amazed at the resiliency of this hunger to find life in Father's family. Even those who have been abused or frustrated in their attempts to find it in the past, still find that undeniable hunger rising even beyond their resolve to go it alone. Once you've tasted genuine fellowship where dear friendships inspired your journey and opened up new vistas into God's nature, you won't be satisfied by anything less. Most have experienced some taste of that in the early days of a new fellowship, in an informal Bible study or with a close friend.
Certain there must be a consistent way for believers to share this incredible journey they read voraciously anything they can find on the church, search the Internet to see if anyone else has found it and keep going to any group in their area that sounds promising. While some find answers and connections others find themselves with passions ignited that leave them feeling increasingly isolated when they can find no one locally to share it with.
Perhaps we're finally waking up to the fact that Jesus didn't tell us to build his church. He said he would do that. He told us to abide in him, love others as he loves us, proclaim the gospel and help others learn to follow him. If we are focused on those things instead of trying to do his work, I've no doubt we'll see the church springing up all around us.
The church that Jesus is building continues to grow the world over and you are no small part of that. Even if you feel alone in your journey, he is creating a passion in your heart for a purpose you may not yet see. I suspect in the next few years we will see Jesus bring his body together in ways we cannot even fathom now. I see two trends in our culture that excite me. First, an increasing number of believers are growing disillusioned with the rituals of organized religion. Second, an increasing number of nonbelievers are contemplating spiritual issues and hungering for authentic relationships. It will be interesting to see how these realities converge in the days ahead.
By Wayne Jacobsen
About the Site
All across the world, people are gathering in small groups to serve and worship God, be family, and encourage and affect each others lives. These gatherings are called by many names including simple church, organic church, and house church. Whatever you call it, the people involved value incarnational ministry to the lost, living radically for Jesus and each other, and are willing to get rid of anything that gets in the way of being fully devoted followers of Christ.Detailed...