In September 2015, Emi and I started out on a journey with a few close friends that has completely transformed how we look at church and Christian community. We’re still in the midst of it, so I can’t claim to be an expert on any of it, but I really want to share some of the things we’ve learned along the way and from watching other similar groups grow. Let me warn you, this is going to be a long post (3587 words), so you might want to grab a cup of coffee before you get started.
I’ve debated how much of that story I wanted to share–partially because some of the ideas we’ve come to believe about church may come off as hurtful or offensive to those who have sacrificed much for church ministry. I think it’s important to start off by stating that is no way our intent; on the contrary, we hold many ways of doing church in the deepest esteem, and I would be heartbroken if anything we write would be used as a weapon against another brother or sister in Christ. After all, we’re all in this together.
I. Quickly Defining Legacy Church and Simple Church
I need to quickly define a couple of words that I’m going to be using often so that we’re all on the same page:
- Legacy church: a church as most of you will imagine church to be in the Protestant tradition. Leadership is hierarchical, typically serving under the authority of single senior pastor. While a diversity of sequence and length exist, most to all have set activities that include worship (music), fellowship (e.g. coffee and snacks after service), communion, and organized prayer. The service will culminate in the sermon where church members sit quietly and listen to the pastor.
- Simple church: a simple church is a fellowship of believers similar in many ways to what we see in the early believers’ lives in the book of Acts. Leadership is flat, meaning that while roles exist for administration, every member is expected and free to operate in ministry and evangelism.
II. “Tuesday Night Fellowship. Same place. Same time.”
While I had been looking for an opportunity to be a “good missionary” and start something in Japan, the initial idea for starting a group was not my own; it belonged to my friend, a wealthy Taiwanese stock investor, and another missionary friend and classmate, Shalom. The three of us were out for coffee and discussing how we could serve the other students at the YMCA Japanese Language School we attended. (You may remember a similar telling of this story from our blog post in September 2015)
The one thing the students at the YMCA most lacked was community, a place to call home. Because my home had the biggest living space and was located only a few minutes from the school, we settled on starting a community group that would meet on Tuesday nights directly after class so that students could have a place to hangout and talk about some of the more important things in life.
Every week since, and 18 months later, we still send out a group facebook message that reads some variation of “Tonight is Tuesday Night Fellowship. Same place. Same time.”
III. A Miniature Legacy Church
From the beginning, we never called what we were doing a church. We considered it more of a fellowship or outreach, but if we look at objectively, it was really legacy church minified into our living room. We would meet together after a hurried takeout dinner, play one or two worship songs in Japanese, then preach a short message for 10 minutes followed by another short time of prayer for 10 minutes. After that we would hang out, eat snacks and just chat for hours. Since most of those who were coming were not Christian, we tried to keep all of the “Christian stuff” under 30 minutes. It was cool, and it was growing. Sometimes we’d have only five people and other weeks we’d have as many as 20 people crammed into our apartment.
However, 30 minutes wasn’t enough, and before we knew it we had sermons that lasted (with translation) for over 40 minutes while everything else stayed the same or became shorter. On top of that, it became a burden to prepare sermons and worship music, since most of us were trying to balance jobs, school and full-time ministry.
It’s often attributed to Churchill to have said “If you want me to speak for two minutes, it will take me three weeks of preparation. If you want me to speak for thirty minutes, it will take me a week to prepare. If you want me to speak for an hour, I am ready now.” So it also goes with prepping sermons and teachings.
IV. Game Changer
A few months after we started our fellowship, I was blessed with an incredible opportunity. Neal Karsten, a Holland-area pastor I had met randomly (divine appointment) at a cafe along with two other established trainers from an organization called Biglife flew themselves out to Japan to provide an intimate simple-church and discipleship movement training to myself and three other individuals. To this day, it blows my mind that these three would make such a significant time and economic investment in a few poor missionaries like us.
The real-life stories, practical, real-to-life training they provided fundamentally changed the way I thought about church.
V. What Makes a Simple Church (or What We’ve Learned about Simple Church)
When you hear about these massive revivals in India and China, chances are you hearing about the groups of millions of believers who are using the concepts of simple church. It may not be exactly the same as what I present, but it’s quite similar. One of the reasons for this is that they literally can’t use the legacy church model–in a lot of places in Asia, meeting in public and growing a huge church will land you in prison or worse.
What’s more is that we’ve come to understand that there’s something about doing church simply, at home in the company of close friends and fellow believers that set us up to be discipled better than any model we’ve seen up to this point.
A. The First Rule of House Church: Don’t Invite People to House Church
One of the biggest things I learned through our discipleship training with Biglife was really counter intuitive to me. It’s that we don’t invite anyone to house church. Period.
I often joke with Neal that it sounds a bit like the first rule of Fight Club, which is “don’t talk about Fight Club.” It’s counter intuitive to stop inviting people to church when anyone who’s spent any time in a legacy church has been encouraged nonstop to invite as many people as possible church. However, there are a couple of reasons for it:
- Over time, we become a close-knit group of friends with an intimate connection. Inviting others into that group is not fair to the group that it disrupts nor is it fair to a person who has to break into a friendship that has been built over sometimes months or years. So when possible, we try to avoid putting people into that position.
- However, more importantly than that, inviting people into your simple church flies against the principle of “multiplication.”
Simple church, which finds its roots in the discipleship movement (like T4T for those “in the know”), is based on the principle of multiplication–keeping things simple so they can be easily passed on to the next generation. The core idea is simple things are easier to reproduce whereas complex things are incredibly difficult to reproduce. Think rabbits vs. elephants.
Here’s a really short video made by a friend to explain the discipleship movement if you’re not familiar with it:
Another way to look at church structure is in terms of addition, division, and multiplication.
Legacy churches, even smaller ones, typically operate under the principle of addition. You have a hierarchical leadership structure with highly trained professionals (pastor, youth pastor, worship leaders, administrators, tech team) carrying out complicated tasks as a team. You have ProPresenter software for lyrics and slides, a full stage of musical instruments and tens of thousands of dollars in audio visual equipment, a multi-hundred or million dollar building with all of the utility costs associated with that, etc.
It’s the elephant in the room. This level of complexity is extremely difficult to multiply, so the strategy becomes about addition. Whenever there are new believers or disciples discovered by members, the expectation is to bring them to church so they can get “plugged in” and learn from the professional leadership like everybody else. This becomes their “normal,” so that if they ever meet someone whom Jesus has called, they do the exact same thing and bring them to church instead of personally discipling them.
This method for church growth works well–not as well as multiplication, but the Western church has used it for centuries. And while almost all discipleship is delegated to church leadership, people do grow and learn in this system.
Addition combined with division is a step in the right direction, and all of us who have been experimenting with house church in America are probably familiar with the concept. In a lot of American house churches, the structure of the meeting may look different, and you may even have flat leadership where believers may be more free and encouraged to personally participate. However, the model for growth still closely resembles that of the legacy church: invite people to house church so they can get plugged in and learn from the group.
Where it differs from legacy church is that the house church is physically limited by the meeting space. So as numbers grow, these churches have to make a tough call: either A) Become a regular church or “mega” house church and get a building, or B) Divide and start another house church.
The principle of dividing into new house groups seems sound until you examine what that kind of repeated division does to relationships. Typically, you select the most mature/leadership-capable believers from among the group to host a new church. After doing this a couple of times, you will find that you just don’t know or feel intimacy with the people coming to your own house church because you no longer have any of the people you started with around you. The feeling of family is lost. On top of that, you introduce an imbalance where a couple of mature believers are matched with several new believers. This becomes fertile ground for a new clergy-laymen divide, where members no longer contribute equally but simply listen to the mature house church pastors–their de facto new role.
Again, this is a great model for church, and addition with division works much faster than just addition for making new disciples for Jesus, but it’s not as effective as multiplication.
So they question you probably have now is, “if we never invite anybody to church, how does anybody ever start going to church?”
Multiplication operates under a different paradigm. Because we’re no longer inviting people to come to church, the responsibility for evangelism and discipleship falls on the shoulders of every believer. Believers are expected to be living their daily lives for Jesus and discipling new believers outside of the weekly gathering.
When they find someone who wants to become a disciple of Jesus, instead of just bringing them to church, they say, “hey, why don’t you invite some of your friends/coworkers/family members that you think might be interested in this stuff, and maybe we can talk about the Bible and pray for each other.”
Boom. They just started a new simple church in a pre-existing community where members already know and are familiar with one another.
In Two Churches at the Same Time
The discipler could continue going to that meeting, without ever quitting their original simple church, all the while discipling new believers to learn the most basic tenets of Christianity: ideas like repentance, faith, non-religious prayer, sharing God’s story with others, hearing the voice of god and radical immediate obedience. After a few meetings, once the new church seems to understand the basic structure, the discipler can phase out going altogether (but they may continue discipling core members through one-to-one meetings), freeing up their time to start another church. This involves trust and faith in the work of the Holy Spirit to lead the new church.
The result of this structure is rapid multiplication where every believer in every new church is being trained and equipped with a new “normal”–one where believers don’t passively sit in a pew and listen to sermons, but actively engage in conversation about scripture, pray for and encourage one another, and seek out those who have not yet answered Jesus’s call on their lives.
C. Radical Immediate Obedience
Also at the core of the simple church movement is the concept of radical immediate obedience or RIO for short. Simple church cannot operate if its members do not have RIO in their lives. Radical immediate obedience means taking what God speaks to us (either through the scriptures or prayer) and putting our faith in that word through immediate action. A huge part of our meeting involves asking Holy Spirit to lead us in specific ways.
For example, when we pray “God, who do you want me to share my story or your story with this week,” we almost always hear an answer (or more than one). Given this command, there are three types of potential response:
- Disobedience: “Thanks God! That’s really nice. Let me pray for them.” Then not pray. (Sound familiar anyone?)
- Delayed Obedience: “Thanks God! The next time I run into that person, I’ll be sure to bring it up.” (Who you trying to convince, you or me?)
- Immediate Radical Obedience: “Thanks God! You must really treasure this person to have lead me to sharing your story with them.” Then immediately pick up your cell phone and call/text that person, “Hey, I have something important to share with you. Let’s get coffee this week; I’m free these days at these times…”
With immediate radical obedience, you will often have something to lose — time, money, comfort, etc. (See Luke 9 & Luke 14).
D. No Hierarchical Leadership
Simple churches have no pastor, at least not in the legacy church tradition. No one is “in charge” of the meeting, but we treasure the ideas and contributions of every member. Instead, we take in turn to “facilitate” the meeting, keep track of time and make sure every voice is honored. This is not to say that no one is ever “wrong” about anything. If someone seems to have the wrong idea, any member can challenge them, and “as iron sharpens iron” we can all come to a deeper revelation together under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
With the “no pastor” model, nobody is there to usurp the priesthood that is in every believer in Jesus Christ, and there’s also no way to get famous, abuse power or money (not in any way to imply that all pastors do these things). Conversely, believers have no excuse not to contribute. You can’t just sit in the back row and sleep through it because you’re tired. Lastly, no one is burdened by an unfair amount of leadership for the entire church. I believe pastors in the American tradition are some of the most amazing people on the planet, and the church structure piles every responsibility, administrative and spiritual, on their shoulders until they are unable to bear the weight. This is likely why we have so many pastors of huge churches falling into crazy sin.
It’s also important to note that in simple church we do have pastors (and apostles, prophets, teachers, and evangelists among other gifts to the church) in the Biblical tradition. I can discuss that in another post.
E. Church Structure & Every Member Functioning
At this point (if anybody has bothered to read this far), you might be wonder just what a house church meeting looks like. While I don’t want to get into too much detail about the structure, the basic meeting format we call Three Thirds (3/3). It’s not a hard and set liturgy but an useful guideline that helps us stay focused in the meeting while being sensitive to what the Spirit wants to do. While we’re not always able to do so, the objective is to share time equally among each segment.
1. Look Back
The first segment is about community and accountability. In our simple church in Japan, we spend this time having a communal meal together as we catch up and listen to testimonies of what God has done through our obedience (or lack thereof) during the week.
We also use this time to worship. Recently, we haven’t had anybody who’s really passionate to lead worship, so we just switch on YouTube and praise God using that for a few minutes. Again, we try to keep it simple. We don’t want our fellowship to add any burden to people’s lives by making them perform or prepare a bunch of stuff in advance.
2. Look Up
We pray and invite the Spirit to lead before we read a short segment of scripture, which is typically less than a chapter. For new groups, I think it’s a great idea to focus on the New Testament, especially the words of Jesus and Acts to learn practical handles for living obedient lives as Christians. The facilitator helps guide the conversation by asking four simple questions:
- What do you like about the passage?
- What do you find difficult or challenging about it?
- What can it teach us about people?
- What can it teach us about God?
These questions can be changed, but we’ve found an incredible amount of breakthrough with people by allowing them to seek out the answers themselves. The facilitator also takes on an extra role in this segment to make sure everyone’s thoughts are heard and valued.
3. Look Forward
While the first two segments are probably familiar, it’s in this last segment where we see people empowered to do the work of witnessing, evangelism, baptism, teaching, prophecy and discipleship Jesus has called them to.
Look forward is about training and equipping. We ask the questions: “How will we obey this passage?” “Who can we train with this passage?” and “Who can we share our story/God’s story with?” If there are members of our group with practical tools that will help people obey the passage, they’re invited to do a short training segment (under 10 minutes) followed by role plays where people are challenged to practice using the tools they’ve been given.
It was only around six months ago that we started operating fully in this structure, and we immediately started seeing incredible growth in ourselves as well as our close friends who are doing this together with us.
Lastly, I think it would be irresponsible to leave you without a few small warnings about simple church.
- Doing simple church doesn’t mean you should leave your legacy church. Emi and I feel called to serve in both types of church, and one is not necessarily in competition with the other. In fact a number of people who were originally part of our house church also started to bless our legacy church by attending on a regular basis. Even though I don’t invite people to our simple church, I continue to bring new people to my legacy church. Also, if calling your home group meeting a “church” is going to be a problem, just call it something else like “fellowship.”
- Don’t try to turn your legacy church into a house church. Unless the entire leadership and church membership wants to (let’s face it, when is that going to happen), it’s best not to try to change something that people are already content with.
- Don’t invite people from your legacy church to simple church. It creates division, conflict and competition. Besides, you shouldn’t be inviting people to simple church anyways.
- Don’t expect previously “churched” Christians to be able to do this right away. I’ve learned from people much more experienced than I that it takes up to two years to “detox” or “unchurch” someone who’s used to passive Christianity.
- Simple church is not a once-weekly church. I don’t want to go into a ton of detail, but simple church is about community, and believers regularly meet in smaller groups outside of the weekly meeting for encouragement and accountability.
VI. Resources for Simple Church
Up this point, I’ve only shared simple church with a few people I felt led to, but almost everyone who hears about it can feel the Spirit on it and want to hear more. If you’re one of those people, please leave a comment or send us an email, and we’d love to schedule time with you to discuss more or even provide training if this is something you want to go after.
In addition, our friend Neal set up a website that has great resources for simple church, that has a lot of resources that were useful when we got started. Please feel free to download and use them: