Perhaps one of the most important questions at the beginning of the third millennium is, where is the Church going? Throughout the world we see the creaking institution of the Church, loosing members and in decline. We are, we are told, living in a post-Christian age. And yet throughout the world there are undoubted signs of hope. There are the, so called, Mega Churches, in various parts of the world, and Youth Churches and other churches aimed at specific “client groups”, Cell Churches, which seem to be the “Method of the moment”, and probably the fastest growing group of all internationally, The House Churches or Churches that meet in homes.
Looking back, we can see what I have called “Tides of blessing”, which come with increasing frequency and intensity. Since the beginning of the last century we have had, the Pentecostal renewal on the early part of the century, various revivals in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. The 50s and 60s saw a growing evangelical movement culminating in the late 60s and early 70s, with the Jesus People, when I got saved.
The early and mid 70s saw the charismatic renewal, when Pentecostal worship and theology swept into the mainstream of Church life. At the same time we saw the first fruits of the new house church movement, which in most places soon degenerated into just another set of denominations. The 80s and 90s brought a rediscovery of the five fold gift ministries and well as the power of God in the miraculous, we have seen an increase in revivals in various places in the world, as well as much that could perhaps be described as pre-revival activity. And in the early years of this century have seen teachings over the Baptism and gifts of the Holy Spirit, crossing over into churches that previously had been closed to these teachings. Alongside these rising tides of blessing, has come every type of “spiritual fashion” that you can imagine, and quite a few unimaginable. New doctrines, evangelistic methods and counseling systems, with little foundation in either Biblical or scientific truth, have all floated in with the tide. More than ever we need to cling to the Bible as our authority, examining the scriptures every day to see if what is taught is true (Acts 17:11). Sadly, much of what is taught today has more to do with modern management techniques, popular psychology and even the new age movement.
Whilst management techniques and psychology are not necessarily bad, when they become more important than the scriptures, they can lead the church into error, as the new age movement always does. Unfortunately these ideas have become so much part of modern thinking, we often find them hard to recognize.
So let’s look at some of the major movements in the Church today.
First I would like to mention Youth Churches and other churches that seek to meet the needs of a particular social group. By and large these churches appear large and successful. Apart from churches with a particular youth emphasis, others are available for Baby-Boomers, Inner City Radicals and even Senior Citizens.
These Churches do meet a need, but often at the cost of isolating the members from other social groupings amongst which they live. Recently, I attended a “BabyBoomer” type church that found itself in the middle of an area of real social and spiritual need. Yet the concern of the members was more about the problems that they had paying the mortgages on their Huge homes, whilst nearby there were Christians in another church, where members were hard put to afford even subsidized rented accommodation. Although neighbors, they lived in different worlds. Youth churches, in a similar way do not allow the energy and zeal of youth to invigorate the whole Church in a locality, neither can the wisdom and experience of age touch the youth. I know that this can sometimes be a difficult area, but I feel that taking one whole group out of the reckoning is hardly a scriptural argument.
The problem with these “Client-Centered” churches, is that they are formed for purely pragmatic reasons, rather than following scriptural patterns. I am not saying that youth etc should not have their groups in which to relate, just that this should not be the sole basis of Church-Life.
Mega-Churches are also in the news. It seems that in some circles if your church doesn’t have 1,000 plus members, you’ve missed the boat. In some parts of the world there are churches of tens of thousands of members, and we have all here of Pastor Cho’s 1,000,000 church in Seoul, South Korea.
Through these churches many have come to faith and enjoy stirring worship and world class teaching, Valiant attempts have been made to encourage home groups, but the question remains; is it possible to have fellowship with 1,000,000 people, or even 100,000, or even 1,000.
The answer is clearly no. I have led churches with up to 400 members, and have to say that it is hard to have real fellowship with more than about 20. So what do we do? We start home groups, and encourage folk to attend home groups mid-week, for fellowship. But the truth is, in most places less than 40% attend these groups. Because the emphasis is always on the big meeting the folk are lost in a big pool, rarely if ever having their needs met.
A few years ago my wife and I had the opportunity to see how one of these churches operated close-up. A young Korean missionary arrived in the town where we were working, in Northern Spain. She spoke hardly any Spanish at all, (less than a British tourist in Benidorm, or an American tourist in Tijuana). But as she spoke some English, the local church leaders asked Elaine and I to “keep an eye on her” and help her however we could. She was given two tasks by her church, first to start a branch church for Koreans living in the area. She was to do this by inviting them to meetings where she would play videos of their pastor in Korea. Everything including praise, worship and prayers was on the videos, the people who came to the meetings were no more than spectators, who were then expected to tithe and more to the work.
The missionary was expected to be a sub-pastor to this group, but was never allowed to teach or share, all of that came on video from Korea. Her second task was to start a Spanish Church, within six months. It is hard to imagine how hard this task is even for missionaries with perfect Spanish, coming from similar cultures. But for someone with no Spanish coming from a radically different culture it is almost impossible. I know that the Lord can do whatever he wants, but in this case it was clearly just a church working by it’s “method”. Fortunately she was also taken under the wing of a young Korean couple who attended our church. They helped her buy her necessities and deal with the administration. But from the very beginning we saw problems. The Koreans who attended her meetings were divided amongst themselves, which put a great pressure on her, especially as some wrote to Korea criticizing her work. Instead of supporting their missionary, the church put her under more pressure. She increasingly became depressed and withdrawn, spending days at a time closed in her flat. She said that she was praying and fasting, but, in reality she was showing classic symptoms of depression.
The times that she spent with us, (we insisted on two mornings per week) subtly changed from times of prayer and mutual encouragement into sessions to deal with her increasing depression. At her request, I wrote to Korea, explaining the difficulty of her task here, in the light of Spanish social and cultural differences. Their response was interesting, seeming to have more to do with a multinational business than a Church. They sent her more money, and a bigger and better computer and video system. Obviously this did nothing to help her emotional and spiritual needs, which by this time were being almost entirely met through the young Korean couple, Elaine and I. At the end of about four months the pressure from the Korean Mega Church increased.
They were concerned that she had still not yet started the “native” church. She tried to explain that there were already three Spanish churches in the town, and that these churches met the needs of the town, but the home-church said that as we were not part of their organization she was keeping blessing from the people there. She told us that she was going to enter into an extended time of prayer and fasting. We said OK, but we still wanted to see her twice a week, and the Korean couple would call in to see her every night with juices and tea, to keep an eye on her health (the husband was a doctor). After two weeks she missed an appointment with us, but sent a note saying that she was going to visit a friend in another town. For ten days neither we nor the other couple had any contact with her. Then the couple came to see us, saying that a neighbor had heard sounds coming from her flat. With the agreement of the owner, we broke into the flat, and found a lamentable scene. She had been closed up there for the whole time, “fasting and praying”, she was in a state of almost total mental and physical collapse, and there was evidence that she had even attempted suicide. We considered sending her to the local mental hospital, but decided against as she would not be able to communicate there. The wife of the Korean family moved in with her, the doctor and I visited twice a day, until she began to recover. With our help she wrote to Korea explaining what had happened.
Their response was to send a ticket ordering her to return to Korea straight away. And an order for a transport company to send all of her things to Korea straight away. At her request I wrote a complete report on the physical, mental and spiritual condition for the doctors that she was sure would be waiting for her on her return. We took her to the airport, and that was the last we saw of her. The local ministers fraternal decided to write to her home-church, raising some important questions about their missionary method, and their lack of care and understanding for this young woman. Needless to say they never replied, after all, they were the biggest church in the world, who were 8 church leaders from another country to question them.
This sad story has an even sadder post-script, about two months later we received a letter from the missionary, saying that on her return, she was taken to the churches mission headquarters, where they had spent a long time telling her off, saying that she had bought shame and a bad image on her church. They then dismissed her from her job, and threw her out of the church. No medical or psychological help was offered. She was out. Fortunately, she had a friend who invited her to live in her house until she was able to recover and seek work and fellowship elsewhere. This is just one story, affecting one church, but such stories are not rare to folk who have been on the Christian scene any time, as is witnessed by the popularity of Frank Peretti’s novel, “The Visitation”, which features a typical Mega-Church in its story line.
Another type of church that seems to be breaking ground today is the so called “Cell Churches”, sometimes known as “G12” Churches. Much has been written about this type of church during the past few years. They have been heralded as the “second reformation”, being a new or reformed way of looking at the local church, putting it once again in its New Testament context. Many have begun the painful task of transforming their church structure into a cell church. Some, having done it, have seen impressive, multiplying growth, others have continued much as in the past, only with a new structure. Not a few have fallen by the wayside, either giving up on the changes or closing altogether. The churches that have not seen growth or have fallen aside are in a clear majority, and the assertions from the cell church lobby, that they have not properly implemented cell church principles, just do not hold water.
I believe that those whom I have chosen to call the cell church lobby, have clearly heard the heart of God for the church in these last days, hut the rigidity of their “vision” and their lack of flexibility have caused impossible strains in many local churches, stifling growth and occasionally causing irreparable ruptures.
First of all I want to look at what is a cell church is. Then what are the stress factors that cause it to fail? And finally is there a way ahead? What is an organic church and how does it grow? We will look at those questions in the next article.
This is part one of a series, you can find part 2 here ------------------------- (taken from Organic House Churches and Healing Communities by Keith W. Smith. For a complete copy please contact the author) © 2000 Prof. Keith W. Smith Reprint by written permission only