Another sign of what the Spirit is doing in our time:
Apex Church in Dayton, Ohio is a large (formerly) traditional church that has chosen to emphasize their identity as a network of house churches. One description of their congregation is as follows:
"They have over 2,500 hundred people showing up every weekend, but that is the least impressive thing about this church. Rob Turner is a great, young leader. Their church is made up of 60-70 house churches that meet on different nights throughout the week. You are not a member of Apex if you do not go to a house church."
From Apex's own website, we get this:
Apex Community Church is a network of community churches delighting in Jesus so much that we are compelled to love, equip, and send people. As a network of house churches we desire to spread a passion for Jesus through Christ-centered communities among individuals where He is yet to be worshiped.
Apex desires to see God work as he did in the early church, as detailed in God’s inspired Word, specifically Acts 2. We created a model termed 3G (e.g. Gathering, Growing, and Going), which is our way of making sure we are staying focused on the mission and vision the Lord has given us as a body of believers.
We gather corporately for celebration and teaching, growing spiritually as house churches and going, i.e., meeting the physical and spiritual needs of others.
This is yet another example of a traditional church that has shifted to a network of house churches focused not only on their own fellowship but on "the mission and vision the Lord has given us as a body of believers".
I appreciate the way Apex has embraced their call to launch a network of house churches that are not just appendages to the Sunday gatherings but are, in fact, the heart of this large congregation. Establishing house churches that care and serve neighborhoods, provide for intimate fellowship, and provide for the training and edification of the whole strikes me as the kind of balance that calls many New Wanderers to take risks in order to pursue.
Up to now, the subjects of my "New Wanderers" series in my blog has focused on small Vineyard churches, very locally focused. But now, we move from the West Coast to the Eastern US - Florida, to be exact. This is the story of a megachurch of 12,000 that has left behind convention in order to embrace a most remarkable vision. It is not a Vineyard church either. But it is a most compelling and inspiring congregation as you will see.
I first heard about Northland Church from my fellow house church buddy Ken Eastburn who just returned from the church after being asked to visit there. The church leaders have recently announced their desire to partner with Global Media Outreach, the Campus Crusade online ministry to God-seekers from around the world, to plant one million house churches. That is not a typo. One million.
To get a little better picture of where a vision like this comes from, I have pulled a fairly large part of the the "about" post from Northland's website in what follows. I will be researching more, but I highly recommend you take a few moments to digest the following. I find it most inspiring:
The 1990s With the initial renovation of the facility, God brought incredible spiritual and numerical growth to the congregation.
In the fall of 1990, the elders sent Dr. Hunter away on an extended retreat to hear a clarifying word from God concerning Northland’s future. Precisely, how did God desire for Northland to accomplish its mission of “bringing people to maturity in Christ”? From that mountaintop experience, Pastor Joel conceived, and the elders affirmed, the 10-year “Journey to Spiritual Maturity” emphasis that encompassed the entire worship and educational focus of all age levels of the congregation. In this journey together, one central preaching theme was focused upon for an entire year.
Attendance figures went from 300 to well over 5,000. The staff grew from four to 90; the church went from one service on Sunday morning to seven services throughout the weekend.
In the fall of 1997, the elders again sent Dr. Hunter away on retreat to begin envisioning the next millennium. He returned with a vision of a church unrestricted by geographical boundaries.
In April of 1998 the elders and pastors unanimously affirmed the vision: Northland would become a “church distributed,” arranging the church around the relationships of the congregation and partner ministries, rather than around a physical church building. Northland is calling people to follow Christ, distributing their lives every day in ministry to others.
Today During Dr. Hunter’s tenure, Northland has grown from 200 faithful souls to a congregation of 12,000, worshiping at sites located throughout Central Florida and at thousands of smaller sites online. This growth forced the church’s leaders to make a decision as to the future character of the church.
Pastor Hunter remembers: “We had grown big enough to become a society within a society. If we had wanted to just do the traditional things to accommodate growth (i.e. be in perennial building campaigns, keep motivating people to live as much of their lives at the church building as possible), then we could probably have kept growing. But growing what? Another megachurch?
“We would be promoting the unspoken message that our congregation was more important to us than other congregations and ministries, and furthering the Western mentality of the rugged individualism of a church while ignoring the larger community life of the church—a philosophy that is neither biblical nor appropriate.” The solution? Northland’s would construct a new church building that would serve as a “ distribution point” rather than a “destination.” Completed in August 2007, Northland’s new $42 million facilities in Longwood, Florida, were built for both the local congregation and those who will never set foot in the building. The new facilities offer plenty of room—more than 160,000 square feet of space. However, the intent was never to see how many people could fit under one roof; it was to facilitate ministry worldwide with other believers.
The 160,000-square-foot facilities feature state-of-the-art technology with two-way interconnectivity that provides virtually unlimited seating for worshipers…virtually.
Congregants worship at multiple sites throughout Central Florida, where they connect with neighboring Christians for support and encouragement and to better serve their communities. Each weekend, these sites are joined in concurrent worship. A two-way video connection allows different parts of the services to be distributed among the sites and gives congregants opportunities to interact with one another in real time.
Worshipers also participate at more than 1,000 smaller sites worldwide via Northland’s innovative Webstream application.
People in Northland’s congregation continue to take leadership of nearly every ministry effort inside the church, out in the community and around the world. Elders, pastors and paid staff don’t try to control the initiatives of congregants or the connections they make, and, they don’t watch over their shoulders unnecessarily. Dr. Hunter encourages Northlanders: “Do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve got.” And they do!
Together, he teaches, we can accomplish more because of our differences than we would on our own—without giving up our unique identities. Dr. Hunter concludes. “Fear and suspicion of differences limit the church’s spiritual maturity. Both spiritual and intellectual maturity, grow from differences. A distributed church uses contrasts to accomplish Kingdom purposes.”
I'll make this brief: I had my first Skype experience yesterday -- which is to say I overcame my usual intimidation of new technologies and conducted a online video meeting with the guy who is editing a video about my book. Saved me a trip to Huntington Beach to preview his work so far. Amazing. Having now skyped, I feel like Bill Murray in that scene from "What About Bob" wherein he triumphantly and repeatedly shouts: "I'm sailing! I'm sailing! I'm a sailor. I sail!" while lashed to the mast of a small sailboat. "I skype!", say I. "I'm skyping. I'm a skyp-er!". So be it. Sorry if I sound a little breathless, but experiencing new technologies (and surviving them) does this to me. What could be next "out there"? Time will tell. Meanwhile, there is a mounting conspiracy to get me into an I-Phone. Okay: "I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful..."
"What business are you in?" John Wimber would sometimes ask church leaders (a good question that requires serious thought if it is to be answered intelligently).
Then came his follow up: "How's Business?"
I'll be honest: I used to find those two questions intimidating. I, of course, was in the church business, so to speak. On the surface, that is a "business" consisting of such things as discipleship, evangelism, maturity and care.
The problem came when I tried to evaluate the second question: "how's business?" Were people being discipled in our church? How could I tell? What could we measure? What percentage of the church were "disciples" versus "attenders" (or what have you)? Was "evangelism" taking place? How could we know? Was that a thing to be measured via conversions or conversations? Were the folks in the church maturing? Compared to what? What reliable indications of "maturity" could we point to?
There was one thing I could feel some confidence about: pastoral care. Were people receiving good care? Yes. Not perfectly, not without some lacks and misses, but by and large our people were well cared for and they often told us so. So, the church caregiving business was going well, but most other things we said we were about were tougher to measure with certainty.
Some people may be surprised to learn that Vineyard director John Wimber had an intensely practical side to him -- what the old timers used to call "horse sense". He was, after all, a native of the "Show Me" State (Missouri). Activity was not enough for Wimber. He wanted measureable results. To him, doing all kinds of church things with no means to guage their ultimate effectiveness was sort of like playing a basketball game without hoops, nets or backboards -- lots of activity, yes. But who knew the actual score?
That was the pebble in my shoe throughout much of my pastoral ministry. We were doing "good stuff", preaching good sermons, hearing good testimonies, holding prayer meetings, groups, classes and outreaches -- but the hardcore practical indicators (the so called "nickels and noses" that are counted by pastors and church leaders) lagged. In our last church -- my best years of traditional church experience -- we never broke the "100 barrier" much. Financial red ink became a serious problem. The "ESPs" (empty seat people) eluded our attempts to reach out to them with Alpha Courses, special events and friendship evangelism. Nevertheless, there were many great and unforgetable things about that Body of Believers that changed my life, and the lives of many of the others of us, forever. Did that mean "business was good"? Yes, I suppose it was. But too many of the indicators I expected to measure this by were vague. Like the hoopless basketball player, I could point to the dribbling, the passing and the running but I found myself doubting our ability to win the church growth game we were trying to play.
A year after the bittersweet closure of the Crown Valley Vineyard, I am revisiting Wimber's classic questions and I am surprised to find how differently I relate to them now. Something has most definitely changed since transitioning into our new missional formation. I'm ready for those two questions now -- maybe for the first time in my entire adult ministry life. That's because I now know exactly what "our business" is. It is clear. It is simple. It is for real -- to empower everyday people to take the ministry of Jesus to everyday places. And how's that "business" going? I can tell you it is booming -- not because I hope so but because I observe many tangible activities, alliances, events and testimonies that tell me so. The "players" on our VCMN team are not just dribbling and passsing, they are making baskets as they do things like volunteer at a Birth Choice clinic, go online as a computer missionary with Global Media Outreach, speak at a Stonecroft luncheon, invite neighbors to their home for a house church Easter brunch, put on a neighborhood street fair, or hold a healing prayer night at an Irvine gym. And the most wonderful thing of all is that I am "leading from behind" -- undergirding and supporting their Spirit-inspired efforts rather than trying to push people into "doing the stuff".
I really saw this plainly a few months ago one night as I looked around the room at one of our all together meetings and observed that, to a person, everyone in that room was engaged in some kind of tangible relational ministry to someone they cared about. That tells me "business is good" at last and that feels really, really good.
I have already recommended that my readers spend some time with the recording of Cherith Fee Nordling's messages from the recent Vineyard National Conference in Galveston, Texas. I happened upon a very nice summary of the message from the Vineyard Great Lakes website which I am cutting and pasting below. It may help you better understand Cherith's presentation and whet your appetite to hear it for yourself or it may just be enough for you to ponder all by itself. Here goes -
"With the table having been set the night before by Bert, Cherith blew the gathering away with aprophetic talk. It is hard to capture in words how palpable the presence of God was from the moment she began to speak. Her assigned topic was “What impact will the coming Kingdom have on Heroic Leadership?” In seeking God’s heart in answer to this question the simple prophetic answer is: The Kingdom will kill us! The Vineyard must stop sidestepping death, because death and suffering are where the New Creation breaks into our world. This is about death and resurrection. In order to experience the future resurrection we must be willing to bear the cost of death in the present.
There will be a great temptation to be liked; to do the things that make sense; to dodge the cost of the present. She said the most of us desire to be the Lord’s friend with benefits, but heroic leadership is costly, and Jesus understood the cost. Jesus was tempted just as we are, but lived out of a connection to the Father fueled by the Spirit. (This is the best explanation that I have ever heard of Jesus being tempted like we are – I mean she got right down to it – that yes Jesus did in fact have a penis and did in fact experience sexual temptation).
We think that we have counted the cost but we haven’t. Right now the church is heavily invested in resuscitation, but God is in the business of ressurection. We are going to have to die to experience resurrection. This was a very compelling call to embrace a theology of suffering (it reminded me of what Gary Best said about developing of a theology of suffering). The ministry time that followed was an intense time of repentance, and truly laying down our lives. It would be well worth the time investment of listening to this talk online:
My son, Andrew, posted this on his blog one year ago (June of '08). I offer it afresh today:
Bill Faris has been a pastor for longer than I have been his son. Two weeks ago he told his church of just under one hundred people that his church will cease existing as early as August. The Crown Valley Vineyard has been in South Orange County for all of its eight year life and has done remarkably well. I know of few members who passively sit by on Sundays as if that was all that being a part of a church meant. Church members genuinely desire to grow in Christ and evidence that by consistent giving of their time and money, not to mention their attention at most church gatherings.
The community is tight knit. Even this last weekend on a church men’s retreat, men were, as we have now been able to expect on such retreats, beautifully open and honest about their struggles and equally responsive with exhortations and encouragements. There is passionate worship, a good children’s ministry, and biblical preaching and teaching (including frequent guest preaching from regular members of the church, even if not pastors). So it should come as no surprise that upon hearing the news at our church family meeting two weeks ago, many were upset to the point of weeping. Understandably so: not only has the church done well according to general church standards, but many of those who wept at that meeting had personally seen their lives and marriages saved and their relationships with Jesus come to some vibrancy thanks to my Father and other church leaders (through Christ, of course).
Thus the natural question: why does a successful pastor shut down his church? Is it moral failure? Dryness in personal relationship with Christ? Family problems? A mid-life crisis?No. My Father is incredibly godly, walks in daily communion with the Lord, loves his wife and kids, and is thoroughly pleased with what Jesus has used him for in this life, most certainly including as the pastor of the Crown Valley Vineyard, which he calls the best years of ministry he has ever had. The answer is somewhat the opposite of any of those proposed above. My Father is utterly convinced both that the Lord has worked powerfully and still has much work he wants to do with the people that thus far have comprised the Crown Valley Vineyard. This is why he has thoughtfully and prayerfully decided to close his church.
At least three factors have combined to make this move happen. First, even when your church is good at giving, it is financially difficult to have a building in South Orange County. Almost all of the money that the church has is spent on simply sustaining itself which is so frustrating when there are so many needs in the wider community and in the world more generally. Second, the church as it is now does not meet non-believers with the gospel. If we are not mobilizing to be missionaries in our local communities in eight years despite having a great church family, we need to rethink things from the ground up. Attractional model church does not work for the generations younger than the baby boomers. We must go to the world and we are failing to do so as we are currently constituted. I plan on writing more broadly on this topic in the future. Third, my Dad sees his role as a leader shifting from pastor-shepherd to mentor-empowerer for younger generations. My Dad is powerfully aware of an obvious truth: he will die. Seeing as he is closer to death than to life, he now sees the need to develop the next generation of leaders to continue Christ’s work. Younger leaders need to be developed who will both now and later be equipped to reach their own (read: my own) generation with the gospel, and we need to spend huge money on ourselves to do that.
The Church- and now I do not just speak of the Crown Valley Vineyard- must get away from trying to get people to come to it if it will survive in America when the Baby Boomers die. The brothers and sisters who have heretofore made up the Crown Valley Vineyard are realizing those same things, and that is why the weeping was overshadowed by passionate exhortations to take heart and jump in with the vision of bringing Jesus to the world at that church meeting two weeks ago. Church will still happen, even if it looks different than it has (house churches are a real possibility), largely because believers are realizing that church is a group of people rather than a place you go. And I am thus encouraged that people like my Dad are thoughtfully and carefully following the Lord’s leading over his church to do His work in the world. Pardon the length of this post: it is an issue close to my heart both in my own thinking and studying and because it so directly involves my family. My hope is that, like the story of my friend Jacque saving a child’s life, it will encourage some to see the way theology is touching the life of the church and continue in the pursuit of following the leading of Christ in this world well.
Just finished Reimagining Church by Frank Viola (he of Pagan Christianity fame). Found it to be, in general, a provocative and stimulating read. Okay, let me be more frank (sorry)... it's got me pretty stirred up.
Summary: everything about the way we traditionally do church has no real foundation in the New Testament. Not the offices like "senior pastor", not the speaker / audience or clergy / laity split (stated or implied), not even the "worship service" idea itself. Frank's been at this long enough to appreciate that God still uses people who are involved in these things, but he is definitely advocating that we stop reading our present practices and structures back into the New Testament record and change, well, everything about how we "do church".
For those who have read Pagan Christianity (I am not yet one of those), Frank says that book was about deconstruction and Reminagining Church is about reconstruction. Fair enough, but those look for a handbook of how to totally reorganize their lives, ministries and churches around what Frank presents here will only get a limited amount of detailed help from the book itself. Nevertheless, it will definitely start many a conversation and, no doubt, change many a mind. It will also make many people upset.
As for me, Reimagining Church has not made me a total convert when it comes to Frank's ecclisiology and missiology, but it has definitely turned up the tension I have been in for awhile to a new level. I've decided that's okay. I'm not in a hurry to totally abandon the traditional church and all its features nor to embrace a completely different model of the type Viola proposes until I have allowed myself to work through the kind of issues he is raising. However, I've got to say that I find that many N.T. passages make much more sense to me through Frank's paradigm and that scares me some.
As a follow up to the book, I have read through the lengthy (and very informative) exchange between Ben Witherington and Frank Viola on Ben's blog. While Ben makes good points in defense of the familiar church distinctives, nothing appears to take Viola by surprise and the exchange is both respectful and spirited.
In the end, what Viola's book makes me want to do is more homework and that's a good thing. I was intrigued to find he has some history with the Vineyard in the '90's. This helps me to feel as if we are not starting into this "reimagination" project from wildly different places. Specifically, I want to look more deeply into several topics:
1. How much of the New Testament ecclesiology is descriptive (simply describing how things were at the time) and how much is prescriptive (a once and for all design of how it ought to be).
2. Is the thought of a hybrid between church as we know it and missional house church a la Vineyard Central in Ohio (one of the ways I have been "reimagining church") a real option or is it a cop out?
3. As a church leader, what parts of this conversation should I be introducing my brothers and sisters in traditional church to and what parts should I stay mum about until I myself am more certain of my own convictions?
Reimagining Church did a good job of getting me to question everything and push me to delve deeper into the issues I have been working with for the past two years. Anyone who knows our Crown Valley / VCMN story knows that we have been reimagning and repracticing church for almost a year now. Viola's work begs me to face even tougher questions than those that have pushed me this far into change.