Sunday, March 30, 2008

Who Needs Human Leaders?

After recently noting the dread of human leadership evident in Pagan Christianity, I thought it would be good to review some points about the relationship between divine empowerment and leadership on one hand, and human leadership on the other.

The key to success in ministry, as God defines success, is getting in line with what God wants to do, or is doing. The biblical concept of ministry is serving God or other people in a way that furthers God’s will or purpose. Further, true ministry must be empowered and directed by God. God is clear that "it is the Spirit that quickens, the flesh profits nothing." (John 6:63) He warns in the Old Testament that, "Unless the Lord builds the house, they do labor in vain that build it." (Psalms 127:1) Paul said the apostles were those who "glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh." (Phil. 3:3) These passages and many others all suggest the same thing: If God’s power moves through us in ministry, spiritual fruit will be borne. If his power is not animating our ministry, nothing we do will help the situation.

Over against the biblical teaching about the centrality of God in ministry, the Bible teaches that human agency is also significant. In each case where a church is planted in the book of Acts, one or more humans went to that city and were used by God to plant it. Paul teaches that God presents members of the Body of Christ with gifts, ministries, and effects for his glory, and for the common good. (1 Cor. 12:4-7) Paul goes so far as to say that people cannot believe unless they hear, and they can’t hear unless someone preaches. (Rom. 10:14) He also says God has "committed to us the message of reconciliation." (2Cor. 5:19)

In other words, God wants to work his will through the agency of cooperating Christians servants who understand his ways and actively move out to become "fellow workers with God." (1 Cor. 3:7) The degree to which God has delegated the task of reaching the world to humans is remarkable. One important function that God expects many Christians to carry out for him is leadership. From one end of the Bible to the other, God worked through human leaders. Most of the great heroes of faith from Abraham to Moses to David to Paul were leaders. In the New Testament the role of human leader is expanded further. No longer is leadership reserved for kings or priests. In the Body of Christ, the apostles regularly appointed leadership in every locality from common people.

Jesus' observation that "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few," and his call to "Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field," both imply that God's intentions on earth may be thwarted by a shortage of qualified leaders. (Mat. 9:37,38) In order for home churches to replicate themselves, leaders must be raised up. Therefore, for those of us who are concerned about following God and seeing his will done on earth, the matter of finding and establishing human leadership is urgent.

Obviously, if human leadership didn't matter—if all ministry is up to God alone, all groups would be the same. But this is not the case. How often we see God’s power restricted in groups with poor leaders! Meanwhile, other groups seem to flourish both inwardly and in outward growth. God sends leaders into his flock to galvanize and excite people, reminding them of their mission, and firing their imagination for the future. Our tasks can seem routine and uninteresting when carried out without the benefit of leadership. Yet when a good leader arrives, those same tasks seem exciting and worthwhile.

Questions to be answered:

If we accept this view, what does it mean for our actions and attitudes?

What are the signs that we are placing adequate emphasis on God's part in ministry?

What signs would suggest we are putting too much onto God (super-spirituality)?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Church: Ingrown or Outreaching?

Nothing is more exciting that living in an outreaching church. Nothing more dreadful than living in an ingrown church. The difference between these two is greater than night and day, as anyone who has experienced both will attest.

In a victorious outreaching church, people feel a tangible sense of excitement as they watch others come to Christ. The church's mission is clear, and God's blessing rests on the community as they share the love of Christ. Both those with evangelistic gifts and those gifted in nurture have their hands full as the needs of lost people and brand new Cristians call out to Christian hearts like the cries of baby birds to their mother. People routinely experience the thrill of sensing God's power flowing through them as he uses them to meet desparate needs in others' lives. Those with encouragement gifting have lots of work to do as they urge forward those who reach out. Prayer ministries are at a premium in an environment that will draw extra fire from Satan, who ignores peace-loving, ingrown churches to focus his attacks on outreaching churches. The outreaching church is always totering on the edge of confusion and chaos as the action challenges those with administrative gifting to keep up.

As the pace of outreach picks up, every member is naturally compelled to lay aside any number of selfish issues that might lead to fights and dissapointment, to grab the nearest oar and pull for all they are worth. With more younger, unsanctified Christians in the group, financing the church's ministry is always a challenge. Even though people are growing in the area of giving, the church is chronically short of finance, trying to stretch a dollar and get by with less. Staff members have to live with tremendous sacrifice as they earn far less than their secular counterparts. They do so willingly because they are excited to be a part of the spiritual action.

An ingrown church suffers pitifully by comparison. The biggest question in the minds of members of an ingrown church is "What's the point?" As the sense of reality in people's Christian walk drifts into eclipse, a quiet desperation wells up. "What's wrong with me?" people wonder. They begin to question whether they have drifted away from God. With a sigh, they may remember earlier days in their Christian journey and wonder where the zeal went. An ingrown church is rarely unified. In the absence of clear direction, everyone has a different idea of what the church needs. Yet, outright division may not occur for the simple reason that no one has the energy to put up a fight. Squabbling and negativity are the more common result.

While outreaching churches feel the power of God shaking them in annointed ministry, people in ingrown churches live in a dangerous experiential vacuum. In this vacuum of healthy experience with God, the quest for excitement can lead to bizarre and dangerous conclusions. People are ripe for exploitation by those who promise to fill their vacuum with the final experience. Depressed people in the ingrown church often turn to the standby pacifier of religion the world over: religious dissociation. Dissociation means a separation of attention, or an altered consciousness. People who no longer sense the reality of God in their normal state of mind try to "zone out" in a dream-like state which they interpret to be the presence of the Spirit.

Efforts to attain this dissociated state may become quite frenzied, sometimes including corporate self-deception as everyone agrees to unspoken rules like "Miracle stories and manipulation can never be questioned, because that would be quenching the Spirit." Some churches may become quite artificial in their deliberate efforts to stimulate dissociation. What evoked the sense of God's presence at one time may not be enough for long, and the group may turn to more strange and far-out efforts to preserve the sense that something is happening spiritually.

Strangely, we find no suggestion in Scripture that the people of God should seek dissociation. On the contrary, Christians are called to be "alert and sober," ready to engage in spiritual warfare. When extraordinary experience came to people in the Bible, it did so unexpectedly and spontaneously without any need to meet and pump up the juices. But when dissociation becomes the goal of the church, prayer is perverted. Instead of being a time of simple communion with God and a crucial tool for waging spiritual warfare, prayer now becomes the avenue to a pleasure state. Intead of praying as a ministry to others, I begin to see prayer as my time of transcendence and dissociation. Prayer has become self-centered.

Don't think I'm pointing the finger at the charismatic church. Many charismatic churches are among the best outreaching churches. A great example would be Chuck Smith's Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California. Many non-charismatic churches are among the worst ingrown churches. I believe the movement in some evangelical circles toward high liturgy is an indication of an ingrown experience quest. Some charismatic and pentecostal churches are ingrown as well. If the shoe fits, wear it.

The ingrown church has lost its sense of mission. Experience becomes a problem only because the church isn't sure what it's supposed to do. Instead of experience following after spiritual reality--a natural reaction to the great hand of God moving in the church's midst--experience becomes an end in itself. This is why the ingrown group turns features of healthy Christianity into unhealthy gimmicks. While prayer, praise, the performing arts, and worship should take their natural place in the lives of Christians actively serving God and seeing him work, in the ingrown church these become the hoped-for avenue of experience to fill the aching vacuum of reality with Christ. How can praise and worship be authentic when we have one eye on God and one eye on our emotional thermometer, checking to see whether we are attaining an adequate high?

Am I exaggerating? If so, why not set me straight?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Misuse of History by Christians

While reading and critiquing Pagan Christianity, I saw that one of the sources in their bibliography was a book that was popular in some circles in the 80's called The Torch of the Testimony by John W. Kennedy.

The book came to my attention at the time because it was making the rounds in my own group, Xenos Fellowship. The book argues the thesis that the Spirit wants to operate His church based on Scriptural authority and direct guidance, but that man always replaces these with his own institutional framework designed to preserve his power and control over others. He argues that throughout the history of the church, God has again and again broken out of the old wine skins in underground New Testament style lay-led movements.

Such a thesis contains much truth, and is very tantalizing to readers from a lay-led New Testament “no frills” group like Xenos. I've written on the subject myself in Organic Disciplemaking and other essays. The question that must be asked in the case of this book is whether Kennedy is a faithful teacher of such an important point. I read the book, and became immediately alarmed that a piece like this could cause serious damage in our church unless carefully critiqued. I felt the need to warn our people that when Kennedy teaches church history, he is not true to the record. These were some of my comments:

Kennedy’s coverage of the themes of Church History are objectionable for two very important reasons. First, his work contains no documentation. A book of this type, which refers to the teachings of historical figures not familiar to the modern reader should be carefully and fairly documented in order to deserve any credibility whatsoever. Apart from such documentation we are really left with the claim of the author that certain things are true, without any proof. In this case the saying of the ancients applies, “Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur.” (“That which is offered without proof may be rejected without proof.”)

Secondly, Kennedy is repeatedly and flagrantly one-sided in his coverage of history. He characterizes various movements and leaders either as eager servants of Satan, or as servants in the very image of Christ, whereas the truth is rarely so black and white. The figures we really meet with in Church History are much more of a mixture of good and evil than Kennedy admits. Therefore his work lacks balance and hence ultimately, truth. A few examples will demonstrate this lamentable feature in his work.

Of the early father Origen, nothing critical is offered. He is praised for having “particularly clear idea of the nature of the church. The church, he held, was spiritually based, and all those who were recipients of divine life belonged to it.” Kennedy goes on to say that “It should not worry us that some of Origen’s views were later stigmatized as heresy... few men particularly used of God...[who have not] been called heretics.”1

Unfortunately, while this may be somewhat true, Kennedy fails to mention that Origen actually was heretical on several key points. He was affected heavily by neo-platonism.2 He taught that humans existed before their physical birth, and that sins committed in the previous life had led to their imprisonment in physical bodies. Origen was also a leading exponent of the allegorical hermeneutic which has generated more heresy than almost any other thing. He taught that even Satan will be saved.3

On the medieval “Cathari” protesters, Kennedy points out that they were iconoclastic, and anti-sacramental. However, he fails to mention that they were Manichaen-style dualists who believed in two gods. Their resistance to icons and ritual was not based on scriptural reasoning, but on a philosophical dichotomization of the physical and the spiritual.4

On the Waldensians, Kennedy recounts their reversion to scripture as the source of authority for the church, but fails to mention that they were essentially Roman Catholic in their doctrine on other points. He also naively accepts the claim of fourteenth century Waldensians that their movement began at the time of Pope Sylvester in the 300’s AD—a position that is absent from all early Waldensian literature, and is not accepted by any competent modern historians.5

Kennedy’s evaluation of the Montanist movement in the late second century includes the thought that “dependence upon learning... was slowly paralyzing the church’s life."6 These dichotomizations between knowledge and form on one hand, and spiritually on the other are so common throughout the book, that they spoil what good historical work was done. As a result, The Torch of the Testimony becomes, not a balanced recounting and analysis of church history, but a one-sided and simplistic sermon.

Even though we may find ourselves in sympathy with some of the positions argued in this book, the absence of balance, and the dishonest omission of important contradictory material place the book, in my view, in the category of irresponsible historical polemicizing. This book should not be read without critical examination of every position offered. Those who are not in a position to check Kennedy’s work would probably do well to stick with a more main-stream historical survey such as Lauteurette or Gonzalez.

Barna and Viola aren't as bad as Kennedy, although they apparently used his stuff, and there were similarities. Unbalanced use of history is invalid and dishonest. I know it's hard to write a popular book that thoroughly covers the whole span of historical findings for these point, but we have to try to be balanced, non-selective, and as unbiased as possible. If proponents of every-member-ministry, early church-style ecclesiology go around shooting off inaccurate statements about church history we aren't going to do our cause any good.


1 John W. Kennedy, The Torch of the Testimony (Golita, Ca.: Christian Books) p.78,79.

2 Kennedy himself seems to have been influenced by neo-platonism. He consistently fails to criticise dualistic heresy, and makes dualistic statements himself. See below on the Montanists.

3 Justo L. Gonzalez, The History of Christianity, Vol.ΓΏ1, (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1984) pp.81,82.

4 John W. Kennedy, The Torch of the Testimony, pp.117,118.

5 John W. Kennedy, The Torch of the Testimony pp.118,119. For a balanced view of this movement see Giorgio Tourn, The Waldensians, (Torino, Italy: Claudiana Editrice, 1980)

6 John W. Kennedy, The Torch of the Testimony pp.82,83 The Montanists were eventually discredited because of wild extremes in practice associated with religious ecstasies and so-called "prophecy" which was actually provably false in many cases. Typically, these facts are not mentioned by Kennedy.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Our Experience with Church Multiplication

Xenos Christian Fellowship ( began planting house churches in Columbus Ohio in1970 during the Jesus revolution. During the next 37 years, scores of house churches were planted in Central Ohio. Together, they formed an association viewed as a single local church, along the lines of large city churches in the New Testament. A single eldership oversees the ministry of 850 leaders (“servants” “ministers” or “deacons” in the New Testament).

Today, Xenos is an association of around 270 house churches with over 5000 people attending. Each house church sees its goal as self-replication from within. The group is known for strong personal discipleship and evangelism that penetrates the - non Christian community in Columbus. Unlike house church planting movements that are completely spontaneous, Xenos house churches need to gain approval from the central eldership for new church plants. Each church is team-led with 3-6 leaders who must qualify for the role in terms of personal character, learning, and proven ministry competence.

Today, I am most excited about the church multiplication movement growing in the huge campus area formed by the proximity of Ohio State University (50,000+ students) and Columbus State University (20,000+ students). In this area, Xenos has grown during the past 10 years from three to thirty student-aged house churches, while planting eight additional house churches based on married graduates moving into family life. The average size of each group is 23 students. Like other Xenos home churches, these groups are led by teams of leaders who have completed formal classroom instruction, have won non Christians to faith, and have mentored them in personal discipleship.

Xenos house churches also operate “cell groups.” These groups are all male or female, and center on discipleship, in-depth study, and accountability. Campus house churches also operate “ministry houses.” These are houses of discipleship, where 6 to 12 students live together, learning how to meet others’ needs, hosting fellowship events, and reaching out to the non Christian community. The group currently operates 65 such houses.

A lot of the house churches we have contacted around the country are older, and that usually means something very different in terms of the ethos of the groups. We are excited to see student-aged believers taking the ‘bit in their mouth’ so to speak, and running off with this expanding movement. Most of the 700+ students met Christ at Xenos, so we don’t see any of the traditional church mentality that can be so hard to break out of. The majority of our students are eager for the day they can lead their own house church.

My daughter and I wrote our book, Organic Disciplemaking to help train upcoming disciple makers in the group. There you can read a good description of how this kind of church planting group runs.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Power of Multiplication

Here are some thoughts from Organic Disciplemaking on multiplication growth as opposed to linear growth in the church.

Multiplication Growth

The period from the death of Christ until the end of the first century was the most fruitful in the history of the church. During these few decades, Christianity spread clear across the Roman Empire and even penetrated deeper into Africa, the Parthian Empire, and India. The best estimates put the number of Christians at the end of the first century at around 1 million.1 That’s an increase of 2000 times the number of Christians before Pentecost (perhaps 500). And all of this growth was facilitated by the process of discipleship. Without mass media, without advertising, without church buildings, and without seminaries, the primitive church expanded at a rate never equaled in the nineteen centuries since.

Both Christian and secular observers recognize the New Testament church as a perfect example of a church planting movement. In this type of movement, local house churches each strive to replicate themselves by planting additional churches. The result can be exponential growth.

To understand the power of exponential growth, consider the following scenario: Nobody would feel bad about a church that could win fifty thousand people in two years. In fact, we know of no church that has done so well. And if they won an additional fifty thousand each two years thereafter, such a church could win 1.5 million people during a sixty-year period. Remarkable indeed! This would truly be a super church.

On the other hand, a single house church of thirty people, where the average member did nothing but win and disciple one other person during a two-year period would seem rather unremarkable. They would have a mere sixty people after two years, and would become two home churches. But if the original group and the new group both did the same thing during the following two years, and this process continued for the next sixty years, the result would be far more remarkable than that of the super church. In fact the duplicating group would have won 16 million people! They would, in fact have out-performed the super church by more than ten times! Not only that, but within another twenty-five years, this duplicating group would have won every person on earth.

We are not suggesting these numbers are realistic, but they do illustrate the power of exponential growth. However, notice two important points about these calculations:

1. To achieve true multiplication growth, the duplication of individuals and churches must go forward without degradation. If the quality of disciples or churches declines at all with each duplication event, the whole process breaks down very quickly. Quality is one key to ongoing duplication. Historians have noted that church planting movements tend to fizzle out after a number of years. Why? Probably some movements compromise on quality for the sake of quantity. Others may grow so concerned about quality that they cease duplicating and become saddled with too many rules and restrictions.

2. In the duplication model, results are very small during the early years, compared with the super church. By year 10, for example, the duplicating group would have only 480 members in sixteen house churches, while the super church would already have a quarter million members. Can you imagine these two groups looking over at each other? How inferior the duplicating group would feel with less than five hundred members to show for ten years hard work, seeing a super church nearby that had reached a quarter million people during the same period! At this stage the super church would be more than five hundred times larger than the duplicating group. Surely, it would seem, God’s blessing rests on the super church, and not on the duplicating church. (Although we know the duplicating church is actually doing ten times better than the super church, though it doesn’t show yet). It would take a powerful act of faith to continue using the duplication approach. Anyone impatient for quick results will abandon duplication.

Organic growth is biblical and powerful.

[i] For instance, the World Christian Encyclopedia, estimates that by A.D. 100 there were 1 million Christians in the Roman Empire out of a population of 181 million. David B. Barrett, ed., World Christian Encyclopedia. A Comparative Study of Churches and Religions in the Modern World A.D. 1900-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 3. Recently, Rodney Stark has written a book offering an entirely implausible estimate of only 8000 Christians by the end of the first century. We would join most historians in rejecting this estimate. In the first place, we can account for 8000 Christians within the first few chapters of Acts, unless these narratives are completely discounted. Secondly, his estimate is based on a straight mathematical formula assuming 40% growth per decade for 300 years, ending in six million Christians by the time of Constantine. But this is not how Christianity grew. The growth was far better during the early years and slowed thereafter. Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, (Princeton: The Princeton University Press, 1996). For a more responsible account see Latourette: “Our records, unsatisfactory though they are, suffice to show that by A.D. 180 Christians were in all the provinces of the Empire and in Mesopotamia.” Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan Publishing House, 1970) 85. He also observes, “Never in the history of the race has this record ever quite been equaled. Never in so short a time has any other religious faith, or, for that matter, any other set of ideas, religious political, or economic, without the aid of physical force or of social or cultural prestige, achieved so commanding a position in such an important culture.” 112. Of course Islam and Communism spread fast, but both used military force. Notice that Tacitus refers to the “huge multitude” of Christians captured during Nero’s persecution Tacitus, Anal. XV. 44. Shortly after the first century, anti-Christian governor Pliny says that in his province Christians were so numerous that temples were empty, and they couldn’t sell sacrificial animals or fodder. (Pliny, 10.96.1-2)

[ii] If the same rate of growth had continued, everyone on earth would have been a Christian before the end of the second century. Only in our own day to we see a comparable level of growth in some parts of the world, unfortunately not including Europe or the U.S. See Martin Robinson and Dwight Smith, Invading Secular Space: Strategies for Tomorrow’s Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Monarch Books, 2003) Chapter 1. Also see David Garrison, Church Planting Movements, (Midlothian, VA: WIGTake Resources, 2004).

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Pagan Christianity? by Viola and Barna Part 4

Read Part 1
Read Part 2
Read Part 3

Why critique a book in detail chapter by chapter? On the Amazon reviews for this book and on Frank's website, critics are frequently charged with not having read the book. At other times, defenders have complained that critics have failed to argue with the content or points in the book but just dismissed in a general way. Well I did read it, and my problems are with specific positions taken.

Today we start with the chapter, “The Pastor: Obstacle to every member functioning.” This is the most accurate chapter in the book. Traditional church people will have a hard time facing the truth here, but Viola and Barna have correctly traced the development of the monarchical of leadership that has ted church history and still controls the church today, in spite of the reformation.

The shift away from corporate leadership to single leaders, the separation of the idea of bishops from the idea of elders, these are changes that began very early in the church. The concentration of power into a hierarchical structure, along with the idea that only these were capable of interpreting scripture, later supplemented with the idea that only they could offer the sacraments; these added up to a complete disenfranchisement of normal Christians from meaningful ministry.

Tithing and clergy salaries: Their section on how tithing is strictly an Old Testament approach to giving is excellent. Unfortunately, again they feel the need to over-reach. They claim, “Elders (shepherds) in the New Testament were not salaried. They were men with an earthly vocation. They gave to the flock rather than taking from it…. Giving a salary to pastors elevates them above the rest of God’s people.” (180)

Certainly, there were unpaid elders in the New Testament, but these statements are exaggerated, unsupported, and wrong. The authors correctly point out that Paul sometimes worked as a tent-maker and paid his own expenses, but they imply that he always operated that way. They ignore the cases when he received financial support (Acts. 18:5 compare Phil. 4:15). They ignore that Paul and Jesus taught that the laborer is worthy of his hire, referring to Christian workers being supported by the church. They steer-wrestle the passage where Paul told Timothy that elders who work hard at preaching and teaching should be paid generously. (1Tim. 5:17, 18) In a question at the end of the chapter, they try to respond to this passage with a literalistic interpretation of "double honor," saying it means these elders should get more respect. This ignores the context and how Paul uses the notion of not muzzling the ox while he is threshing. (vs. 18) They fail to deal with Gal. 6:6 in context: "Let him who is taught share all good things with him who teaches." According to the authors, only itinerant workers could be supported financially. In fact, the early church did pay elders who taught a lot, although not all elders.

Their theology of church finance is flawed. They think anyone who lets the church support them is "taking from the church" instead of giving to the church. By this logic, anyone who lets others in the church bless them (with, for instance, counseling, teaching, encouragement) is a taker instead of a giver. In fact, we are to serve and give and to let others serve us. They think paying someone elevates them above the others in the church--a view that, if true would remove any basis for paying anyone ever. My objection to these views is not that they are not held by any mainstream church group or theologians (although that is true). The problem is that they are not taught in scripture. When Paul says "the laborer is worthy of his wages," referring to elders, he is quoting Jesus. This is the New Testament teaching.

I should point out that my understanding of church finance was developed and on record long before I ever received a dollar from the church. Our church was approaching a thousand people in twenty five home churches before we ever put anyone on staff. So, I'm not speaking from a self-serving or biased perspective. When my partner and I gave up our business and went to work for the church I wept because I had wanted to pay my own way. But the church didn't agree and scripture speaks directly to this issue. This claim that elders were never paid in the New Testament church is completely novel and simply doesn't square with the text of the New Testament.