Target and Canada, What church planters can learn.

I ran across this article about Target’s closing its stores in Canada. Target had expanded into Canada just a year or so ago. They quickly failed. As I read this article it reminded me of some of the challenges of ministry in Alaska. On too many occasions, I had new arrivals from Outside (what Alaskans call everything else) tell me that they were disappointed they could not find a church “like back home” or “like Georgia” or wherever they use to live. After hearing that several times I tried to be nice, but finally succumbed to the Dark Side. From that time on I would usually say, “Then go back home.” When people would say, “Why don’t we do it like down south (again, meaning the Lower 48)?” My answer, “We are an Alaskan church. We don’t live down south.

You might find this article enlightening. Here is the address:



Hope for Youngsville

This summer we (North Star Baptist Church) decided to do a church version of a staycation. “Hope for Youngsville” is our ministry to our town. The chief of police and the town manager accepted our offer to paint their buildings. When Tracy and I first asked them if there were any projects that we could do for them they said, “No.” Then we pointed out to the chief that his building needed a paint job. The Chief agreed but with the present economy was not able to do so. You should have seen his face when I explained that we were wanting to do the work and supply the materials. Needless to say we agreed to paint town hall, the police department, and the maintenance building.

The mission project was scheduled for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of this week. Thursday and Friday were scheduled as back up days for weather or other unforeseen events. We had several objectives for our home town mission trip: we wanted maximum participation of our membership, to build community awareness of our ministry, to cultivate a servant’s heart in our church’s DNA, to meet a community need, and to build church community.100_2382

Most of our membership could not get off work for all three days.   The church membership signed up for the two different shifts each day, 8-12 and 4-8. Only two of the church families were not able to participate. One had work and health conflicts, the other had work and school conflicts. Needless to say I was pleased with our people. We had guys who had worked all day in the heat show up at four and put another half day in on our project.

Not only did our people work, we grew closer. There is something about spending hours painting a wall with someone that promotes great conversations. They ranged across sports, theology, “Name that Country Tune,” fishing, and almost every other topic known to man (and woman).  This summer we have been using our Sunday nights to build the sense of church family. We alternate weeks between small group activities and church wide activities. Each week we have a devotional then engage in various games. It is funny to see grown ups playing dodge ball with the kids. This coming Sunday night we will be playing softball. Too often our congregations rush in and out of our services and never spend time together. Becoming a family requires shared  experiences. This week gave our people time to accomplish a project that benefited their community.

On Monday night we grilled hamburgers and had a cookout for the policemen. We scheduled the meal as the shifts changed so we had two shifts attending. As usual, we had some great food. At the end of the job the Chief asked if several of us could attend next week’s Town Board of Commissioners meeting. The board would like to officially thank us for the work we accomplished.  The Franklin Times carried a story last week and then another one this week on our church. There are presently five church plants in the Youngsville/ Wake Forest area. There are also several good churches. At the same time there are thousands of unchurched people. Hopefully, our ministry to the town of Youngsville has helped identify North Star as a church that is here to serve.

Jonathan is our minister of Worship,  Media, and Missions. He was responsible for the project.

Jonathan is our minister of Worship, Media, and Missions. He was responsible for the project.

Town Hall is on the left and the Police department on the right.

Town Hall is on the left and the Police Department on the right.

Lessons from the House Church

Written in February 2007

“So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved. Acts 2:45-47

“Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus.”  Acts 4:13 (NKJV)

House churches are here to stay. Whether that is reason to rejoice or weep depends upon to whom one speaks. Supporters see the house church as the return to the first century biblical model. As such it is their great hope for world evangelism. To detractors it lacks sound theology and threatens the church. The vast majority of American Christians aren’t sure what it is or why there is any discussion. Many confuse location with philosophy and methodology. If it meets in a house it must be a house church and one day it will be able to afford a church building like normal.

I see little point in adding to the house church debate, but I do believe that all parties can benefit from an examination of the model. What are the attractions of the house church and how do they relate to more traditional models? Can other churches improve their effectiveness by integrating house church strengths?

Relationships are foundational: That’s a no-brainer. Who would argue with the importance of relationships? Rad Zdero, a well known Canadian house church leader, writes, “Small groups are vital for the growth of Christians and an effective tool for reaching non-Christians.”  He continues in Appendix 3, “They [house churches] focus on relationships and the development of people spiritually, not on executing programs or projects.” [1]

Though all the various styles, or structures, of churches say that relationships are important one must question why their actions do not agree. Imagine pulling up to one of our smaller churches and reading the church sign which says, “Unless you are one of us, we don’t want you here!” In all my travels I have never seen that level of honesty, but I have been to some churches that practice it. Several years ago my wife, Kathy, went with me to a church where I was invited to speak. Arriving a little early Kathy sat down in the auditorium while I prayed with the staff. It was not long before an individual walked up and told her to move. She was sitting in that person’s place. Kathy moved several rows back and during the welcome time she shook hands with a mother and teenage son in the pew in front of her. No one else acknowledged them; they were obviously visitors.

Programs, ministries, and facilities are neutral. They are neither good nor bad. However, the lost world, and especially cults such as the Mormons, can provide a bigger dog and pony show than the vast majority of our churches today. Our local YMCA offers more “ministries” to families than anyone around. Christianity is the faith of relationships; relationship with God, others, and even ourselves. Bells and whistles can not take the place of relationships. Our society consists of fractured, dysfunctional relationships. Programs will not hold the lost visitor. They will come until the novelty wears off and then disappear, or continue showing up on convenient Sundays. Facilities, ministries, and programs are not the end, but a tool to facilitate the church’s ministry of restoring relationships. The lost hunger for relationships.

Does your church demonstrate a commitment to building relationships? Is assimilation a priority of, and modeled by, the leadership? Is a plan in place to insure that your church is not just “friendly,” but a place someone, anyone, can come and find friends? Assimilation of guests does not just happen, it requires intentionality. House churches charge that institutional churches are too large for meaningful relationships, which has proven true, more times than not. However I must say that the coldest place on earth is a “closed” small church. When you walk into a group of 20 to 40 people and receive token greetings, you know they know that you are a visitor. The difference between a clique and a church is the church must remain open to new people and draw them in. The biggest clique I ever encountered was a church plant of twenty. They were “friendly” until they died, but in ten months I never felt accepted into the group.

Discipleship is everything: Jesus’ plan for restoring the relationship between His Father and fallen man centers on discipleship. There is no plan “B.” The Great Commission charged us with making disciples. It amazes, and frightens, me the inability of the average Christian to give his testimony or present the plan of salvation in a concise, cogent manner. One of the House Church “charges” against the more “traditional” church is the apparent emphasis on numerical growth at the expense of discipleship. Jesus understood that the multitudes that followed Him were not proof of His success.

Discipleship requires accountability between individuals, a shared life, and time. Many sociologists lament the role TV has played in fragmenting families. The time children interact with their parents amounts to minutes in the day while time watching TV or on the computer amounts to hours. Can’t the same be said of much of our activity driven church calendar? We get so busy at church that we have at most a shallow intimacy with our brothers and sisters in Christ. The business world promotes mentoring as an important key to success. This is one time were the church should follow the corporate world’s example. Statistics reveal few Christians in America ever share their faith. We have more evangelism training programs than ever before, but fewer baptisms. We have a problem related to Christian maturity and our response is to start another program. Jesus modeled and the disciples followed. The Sanhedrin’s comments concerning Peter and John demonstrate the power of discipleship. Programs do not impart passion; passion is passed from one to another. Passion results from discipleship.

The common response to this issue is, “Well, we do that in Sunday School.” In reality the typical Sunday School class, at best, imparts information, and at worst instills boredom. You can always tell who the great Sunday School teachers are. Their classes are packed while the guy down the hall has just a hand full of people year after year. I have been a member of classes larger than forty people. You gain information, but not transformation. The Apostles’ transformed lives resulted from discipleship.

Does your church have a strategy for connecting mature Christians with newer believers? Is there a mechanism in place for groups of two or three people to spend time weekly digesting and dialoguing about the information transmitted in the large gatherings?

Christianity is a Shared Life. The two previous foundational principles of the House Church require time. The term I used most frequently as a pastor concerning my church was “church family.” The difference between a dysfunctional family and one that is healthy is often a matter of time. It takes time to talk, to build common values, goals, and to truly love each other. I submit that if church is nothing more than a place that I go on a Sunday, serve on a committee, or even watch my kid play basketball then I will not see the other members as brothers and sisters, as family. Several activities helped my former church become a family that always wanted to add new siblings. First, we played together. In the summer we would pack the grills and spend Sunday afternoons playing softball. Everyone would play. When the T-ballers were at bat the little kids played the infield. When the next batter could put the ball over the fence we switched the defense. The main point was to share an activity with our families and the church family. Trust me; it built koinonia when two batters in a row took out my shins with line drives. For some reason they found it humorous to see their pastor rolling on the ground. In the winter we would go tubing and sledding together. Another important activity we did, and I don’t wish this on any pastor, is that we built a building on a cash basis. The hours spent working together for a common goal drew us together. There is something powerful about a church that enjoys being together.

You don’t have to build a building or play softball, but you need time to talk. It is amazing how much you can learn about someone as you spend hours together involved in accomplishing a common goal. I have had some of my deepest conversations while sitting in a dugout or framing walls.

How does your church promote a shared life? Do you have a plan that enables people to spend time together beyond conducting church business? Does it include a mix of activities for the smallest groups and the larger, including the whole church family? Does your church enjoy being together?

Remember, models don’t solve problems. There are house churches that are as dysfunctional as the larger institutional churches they reject. And there are some mega-churches that implement the above principles as well as any church can. The question remains, “Can a lost world see that your members have been with Jesus?”

[1] Rad Zdero, The Global House Church Movement, Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2004, 9, 130.