I can’t believe it! Has it really been that long? Twenty-seven years ago, I took my first church staff position. For almost every day since then, I’ve been employed by churches.
I’ve got an uncountable number of wonderful memories. God gave me a sweet wife in the first church. Our first four children—Texans—came while we were in the second church. And our two little Kansans in the third. He’s also given us numerous brothers and sisters who have ministered to us and impacted our family in ways we can’t even measure. They’ve shared our lives. Our struggles. Our journey. They’ve prayed for us. Counseled us. Cheered us on!
I love the local church. It’s not a job for me. It’s a calling. It’s a stewardship. That’s why I spent 14 years with the same church in Texas. And even though—just to be honest—things have been very difficult here in Lawrence, Kansas, my wife and I have stayed—a decade (October of 2015)! We stay because we believe we have a stewardship. We believe God brought us here.
If I was at all interested in dredging up the past, I could go on and on about the disappointments and heartaches too. But I won’t. The only reason I mention it at all is to say that they are part of my journey. They have helped make me who I am today.
And more to the point: God has used them to bring me to the vision I now have. The vision I want to share with you in this post.
SOMETHING IS WRONG
I’ve developed friendships and acquaintances with multiple pastors in Lawrence, the Kansas City area and in various parts of the world. I have listened to their stories and experiences. I’ve read polls and statistics and books and blogs. I’ve come to see more clearly that the problems we have faced in Lawrence are not unique to Lawrence. Many pastors and theologians and authors and leaders and average, ordinary Christians—who’ve been around awhile—agree: Something is wrong. The church in America is losing ground.
Pastor Robert Lewis echoed the same concerns in his best-selling book The Church of Irresistible Influence:
“For all (the church’s) frenetic activity and supernatural posturings, the overall impact on American culture is generally understood to be…just slightly above zero. Church leaders everywhere sense this. At one large gathering of pastors in our area, the questions asked were: Are we really making a difference? Is our influence growing? Is the moral tenor of our community changing because of us? Not one man could muster a convincing, ‘Yes’. (1)
Author Michael Regele agrees:
“I believe it is time to confess that our strategies have not worked. Church leaders are working harder and harder for fewer positive results.” (2)
And I could go on. I could quote poll after poll conducted by researchers like George Barna. I could cite statistics about the lifestyles of American Christians, the declining numbers of churched children who are still in church as adults, (3) and I could recount numerous tales shared by tired, frustrated pastors and ministry leaders that bolster the conclusions I have come to over the past twenty-seven years. Conclusions I now believe God wanted me to come to through personal experience.
WHY ARE WE LOSING GROUND?
So I began asking why. Why are we losing ground? Why are we losing our children? Why are we losing the battle for the hearts of our neighbors? Why isn’t the life-changing message of Jesus Christ impacting “the moral tenor of our communities”?
Is it because our culture is becoming anti-God and there’s nothing we can do about it? Maybe. But even if that’s the case, we don’t have the option of throwing up our hands and saying, “To hell with them!” The Apostles faced much more difficult cultures than we do in many ways, and they never gave up. Plus, the reality is that we all are (or were) anti-God. My gratitude that many others did not say, “To hell with Shaun!” when I was an enemy of God compels me to continue. A tough culture is no excuse to quit. And, I don’t think it explains our declining impact.
Is it our message? Maybe what we’re experiencing is simply a rejection of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But, I’m convinced with all my heart that our message is God’s message. And not only is it powerful and life-changing, but it is eternally significant that we proclaim it no matter what the response may be. And the expiration date on the Great Commission hasn’t arrived yet. Nor do I believe this fully explains our lack of fruit.
But I had one other major question. It came from wrestling with what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:
19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. 23 I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.
Paul was not talking about becoming a drunk to reach drunks. Nor was he talking about becoming a Mormon to “save some” Mormons. He wasn’t saying we should “become all things to all men” in sinful ways. He was talking about his approach. The way he related to people. The methods he used to “win” people for Christ. (4)
The question became: Are we—like Paul—”becoming all things to all men”? Is it our approach to the people of our time and place? Is it our methods—our forms? In other words, is it the way we present God’s message? This was a difficult question for me to ask since I have invested half my life in the methods and forms I was trained to use. My life was changed by the ministry I received through them.
But, I think the answer is yes.
I think the reason why we are losing ground is closely connected to our methods and forms. It has taken a long time, a lot of prayer and soul-searching and a great deal of study to come to this conclusion. But, I have indeed concluded that the American church’s methods and forms of presenting Jesus to the world are often standing in the way, creating barriers instead of bridges. Producing passivity instead of passion. Consumers instead of disciples. Professors instead of shepherds.
This conclusion is not original to me. I am simply now in agreement with the many voices who are calling the church to change—not our timeless message, but our temporal methods.
HOW SHOULD WE CHANGE?
But, how exactly should the church change? I began to observe the many sincere attempts to reform the church’s methods and forms. All are well-intentioned, but many are only addressing part of the problem, and some are simply fads. Others have created completely new forms and methods—even crossing into worldliness. Watering down the gospel. They confuse people about what we really stand for.
Many others have gone retro—jumping back 500 years to the Reformation or 1,000 years to vintage Roman Catholicism, or 1,500 years to Medieval mysticism. (5) All looking for something real to replace the plastic. Something deep to replace the shallow. Something fresh to replace the dryness.
“So, answer the question!” I hear you shouting. “How do you think we should we change?”
First of all, changing Christianity into something entirely new is a really bad idea. Someone once said that if it’s new, it’s not true. And if it’s true, it’s not new. That’s right. One of God’s most repeated commands is to “remember.” We’re people of The Book. Our faith is rooted in history, so going back to discover the needed change is definitely the right answer.
But, secondly, many are not going back far enough! I’m convinced that we must go back before Calvin and Luther, before Aquinas and Augustine. We must go back to the first century. To primitive Christianity. To “reform” some of the things the “reformers” left “unreformed.”
DISCOVERING GOD’S WILL
I had always been aware of some of the glaring differences between modern Christianity and what I saw when I read my New Testament. But I had never felt the need before to seriously evaluate the implications of those differences. I had never been desperate enough—perhaps humble enough—to pray Moses’ ancient prayer: God, “let me know Your ways.”
In the summer of 2008 I was preparing a series of messages on Discovering God’s Will. That study highlighted for me the importance of wise counsel—that’s not the only way we discover God’s will, but it’s one of the important ways. I prayed that God would bring wise counselors into my life to help me develop the wisdom I needed to understand the changes we needed to make.
That’s when I met BILD International and Jeff Reed.
At first, I thought of BILD—The Biblical Institute for Leadership Development—simply as a source of leadership development tools. Their Antioch School was unlike anything I’d come across and a few of our members were excited to have the opportunity to study at such a high level and earn an accredited degree through our church while they served our church.
But as I became more and more familiar with BILD, I was exposed to a big vision. Jeff Reed and his team were helping leaders in more than 40 countries train up more leaders in such a way that church planting ministries were thriving in places where the gospel had never penetrated before.
The more I interacted with and learned from the BILD team, the more I realized they are like the sons of Issachar (1 Chronicles 12:32): Men who understand the times and know what needs to be done. Through my interactions with the team at BILD—and their excellent resources—I began to understand what needs to change in America.
And as I met leaders from India and Africa and South America through BILD, I gained even more clarity. They reported that the Holy Spirit was working in amazing ways—God was using their simple methods and forms to turn their countries upside down! The methods were simple. They were (are) planting small, very simple churches in homes and shops and apartments. They had very few programs—just basic, straightforward discipleship. They were training leaders in the context of ministry. I met men who were mentoring more than 50 other church planters who were themselves mentoring many others as they were going out planting churches together.
As they described the way they were doing ministry, it was strangely familiar. It reminded me of the methods and forms of one of my heroes. It sounded like the Apostle Paul and the methods and forms described in the New Testament.
THE WAY OF CHRIST AND HIS APOSTLES
It was about that time that I first heard of and began reading the work of Roland Allen—a former missionary who coined the term, “The way of Christ and His Apostles.” That phrase stuck and challenged my thinking. I began to put aside my 21st century blinders and take a fresh look at the New Testament. I was seeing more clearly than ever what Allen meant by “the way of Christ and His Apostles.” (6)
Over the past six years, I have discovered that a fresh look at “the way of Christ and His Apostles” reveals some stark differences between modern Christianity and the intent of Jesus for His Bride.
- The church was central. Missions was church planting. The work of the church was missions.
- The early church meetings were very simple. By meeting simply—primarily in homes—they were able to expand wherever the Holy Spirit led. They looked more like a family gathering—sharing a meal that included the Lord’s Supper, discussing the Apostles’ teaching, praying, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, edifying and admonishing one another, etc.
- The individual churches were all part of a complex network that was connected through the ministry of Paul and his team and, no doubt, the other apostles. This was a movement in which the goal was to expand throughout the world. Not to grow mega-churches, but many churches.
- There were—generally speaking—two types of leaders whose work complemented each other. There were local church leaders who were raised up and appointed to serve as elders and deacons. Then they stayed put. They took on the shepherding role after Paul and his team members left. There were also leaders who drove the expansion of the church. Paul and Timothy and Epaphroditus and Titus and Luke and others had more of a global focus. They were constantly going and being sent. Planting new churches. Returning to help strengthen others. Setting in order what was left unfinished, solving problems, even silencing teachers who turned away from the teaching delivered by the apostles. (6)
- Leaders—like Timothy—were trained up in the context of ministry. Over a long period of time, leaders were instructed in the faith while they were given more and more responsibility in ministry. They learned on the job. Mentors and apprentices rather than professors and students.
I wrestled with this picture: Are we to imitate everything we see in the New Testament? Are we to do ministry exactly as Peter and Paul and John did? Of course not—we can drive instead of walk, email instead of hand deliver letters, etc. We have functions we must carry out such as preaching the gospel, establishing believers in the faith and training leaders to carry on the work. But we have freedom when it comes to the forms we use to carry out these functions.
But, I realized something pretty important: Just because we have freedom, doesn’t mean it would be wise to choose any form we want. If we’re going to choose forms different than the first-century forms, we must have a very compelling reason to do so. We are compelled by our commission and our love for people to choose not just good forms—but the best forms. Forms that are the most effective at winning the lost, building up believers in the faith and training leaders. Not just forms that are familiar, comfortable and less demanding, but “becoming all things to all men so that we may by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). That means choosing methods even if they are unfamiliar, uncomfortable or very demanding.
A NEW VISION
I do not stand in judgment of anyone who disagrees with me, or who is still committed to using our modern forms and methods. I am no one. I have no servants and have no right to judge the servant of God. And, God can do anything He wants—He has used these traditional, Western forms and methods for His glory and for the good of many, many people, including myself.
But I now believe He is also constantly inviting us to return to the simplicity and purity of what He recorded in His Word. He invites us to hold firmly to the traditions He handed down to His chosen apostles and prophets. I believe He is constantly convicting our consciences when we choose what is less demanding or more comfortable rather than what is best.
So, I have a new vision.
Not a terrifying-angel-in-a-bright-light-kind-of-vision. It’s the still-small-voice-kind-of-vision. The kind of vision you gain from looking back at the past—at what He has allowed and not allowed. At the experiences He repeatedly brings until we learn the lessons He wants us to learn. By listening to the voices of experience and wisdom He places in our lives.
And it is not a new or unique vision. It is one that I know is being realized in many other places and cultures around the world. Simply put, the vision is to imitate the ministry of the Apostle Paul described by Luke in the heart of the Book of Acts. This vision includes a local, national and global strategy.
Locally: Planting simple churches that become part of a complex network.
These “simple churches” will meet primarily in homes (8) in the evening on the first day of the week, around a shared meal, edifying one another by discussing the Scriptures, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, praying for one another, admonishing one another, opening up our homes and hearts with the kind of hospitality modeled by our first-century brothers and sisters. (9) Our goal is to plant 20 neighborhood churches by 2020 and more than 100 eventually.
The “complex network” part means we must be expanding into every neighborhood in Lawrence (and beyond) by raising up leaders who can shepherd and drive the expansion the Holy Spirit provides. The First Principles Series of studies and the Antioch School of Church Planting and Leadership Development provide us with the tools we need to mentor one-minded and unified leaders in the context of ministry. We’re reconstructing our leadership team to include both elders and ministers of the gospel (also described as “apostolic” or “sodal”). One type of leader generally oversees the shepherding of people. The other generally oversees the expansion of the church. Together, they form a powerful team.
Nationally: Participating with BILD International’s 30-City Urban Strategy in the United States by pursuing opportunities to expand into Kansas City. Working with brothers and sisters in Christ who are already serving there to develop a city-wide concerted effort to plant 1,000 churches over the next two decades. (For more, see the video presentation: Reclaiming the Inner City: The North American City Centers.)
Globally: Adopting a church-planting network(s) in one of the 120 countries where BILD is invited to train leaders. BILD only goes where they are invited—by indigenous leaders who want help in leadership development. They are currently serving in about 40 countries, but leaders in 80 more countries are inviting them to come and help. We have the opportunity to directly help in one or more of these 80 countries still unserved. (For more, please watch this brief video overview.)
This vision is about so much more than house churches. Simple churches (not necessarily in houses), are just one component. This is about reformation and revival. This is about returning to a pure and simple Christianity which I (and many others) call the way of Christ and His Apostles or the Antioch Tradition or primitive Christianity. It is about the expansion of the gospel through the leadership of the Holy Spirit utilizing simple churches and a complex network. It is about choosing to use our freedom to become slaves so that we might win people for Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19). To “win some” in our time—when so many have grown up in broken homes and crave authentic community—we must live out our faith in hospitable, authentic community.
By God’s grace, many are embracing this vision with me. If that’s you, I invite you to get behind it and help.
Strong, well-established individuals and families are needed to do the work of the ministry.
Strong, one-minded leaders are needed to shepherd the churches and lead in the expansion of new plants.
Hosts are needed to be co-workers with the leadership.
Benefactors—those whom God has blessed with financial resources—are needed to fund the vision. More funding buys time and training. Time for emerging leaders to be trained and do good works in the community. And more funding will allow us to “adopt” and help train leaders in church planting networks outside the US. All this requires travel—short term trips which provide leadership training for several leaders who can train numerous others in the context of ministry.
I’m convinced—and I hope you agree—that this vision is true to Scripture, sensitive to the changes taking place in our world and focused clearly on glorifying God in and through His church.
If God allows me to live and serve Him for another 27 years, I intend to fully devote myself to this vision and trust Him to provide for our needs and produce fruit. He has already blessed us with a core of families who are committed to making this vision a reality. I am humbled and honored that they would walk this journey with me.
I hope you will roll up your sleeves and join with us. Pray. Give. Be patient. Sign up for the training. Participate in the simple meetings. Invite others to join us.
And make it our journey.
The Encyclicals (BILD International) by Jeff Reed
Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? by Roland Allen
The Paradigm Papers (BILD International) by Jeff Reed
- The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission by Ralph Winter
Why Meet in Homes? by Jim Elliff
- Why Plant Churches? by Tim Keller
(1) The Church of Irresistible Influence by Robert Lewis and Robert Wilkins; Zondervan: 2001; pgs. 24,39.
(2) The Death of the Church by Michael Regele; Mars Hill: 1988; pg. 68.
(3) E.g., “‘Nones’ on the Rise” (Pew Research Center)
(4) For a great explanation of this passage, see “Becoming All Things to All Men to Save Some” by John Piper.
(5) See my post entitled Paradigm Opportunities for more.
(6) See Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? and The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church: And the Causes that Hinder It by Roland Allen.
(7) See The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission by Ralph Winter.
(8) This does not negate the idea of owning a building that can be used as a hub for training leaders, as a gathering place for the fellowship and equipping of believers of all ages, or as an outreach tool that establishes a presence in the community when it is financially feasible for a church or network of churches to do so.
(9) For more about these meetings and the reasoning behind them, see “Going to Church in the First Century” parts 1-4.