Now armed with the understanding of how to search the Spirit and Word to discover what God might be doing, I began following the same pattern the apostle James followed in Acts 15, researching what if anything God was doing outside the traditional church.
I began looking for modern day reports of God moving among people. If God’s Spirit seemed to be moving out there in the world somewhere, then I would find it in the Word. If it couldn’t be found in the Word it would be rejected and I’d keep looking. I learned that Christianity is the fastest growing religion on earth, growing at about 8% per year (US Centre for World Mission-uscwm.org & ‘Megashift’, Jim Rutz pgs15 & 44), and that this growth was almost exclusively in house based churches, the majority charismatic in nature.
Return of the 1st Church Part 4
In fact, I learned the traditional church is losing members, even the evangelical and charismatic ones, or at the most barely treading water in terms of numbers while house based churches are part of an explosion of Christianity. In my travels I’d casually question pastors in various cities and often found that churches that were growing were actually just attracting people from other churches rather than adding disciples by getting people born again.
With only the slightest effort at keeping my eyes and ears open to what was happening in other countries, I learned that China’s Christian population in particular was exploding. I heard and read people putting the numbers of Christians in China, all in house churches, between 120 million and 200 million. Then I started hearing from people who were travelling the world in short and long-term missionary efforts.
Their reports of house churches in Indonesia, India, Africa, Latin America, and the Arab world stirred my heart and confirmed the Spirit of God was moving outside the bounds of the traditional church I knew. People were leaving church to become the church, and I was hungry to hear more. One lady reported on her 3 week stay in Indonesia: “I taught every day for several hours in the Bible school. Most of the students were new converts, but all of them were intent on starting churches in houses in all their villages and towns. And the amazing thing is that they mature very quickly and become leaders, maybe because of the persecution, maybe because of the nature of house churches, but within about 90 days a person goes from born again to church planter and leader.” I had lunch with a Malaysian man who started a Bible school in his own country.
He told me the message he gets the greatest reaction from when preaching to people who don’t know about Jesus, is the story of Jesus being betrayed at dinner by Judas in John 13. He said that people literally have tears streaming down their faces at the thought that someone at dinner had betrayed Jesus. This man explained that in oriental culture, and the Bible and Israel are oriental, having a meal with someone at home is the most intimate means of fellowship. He explained that in the orient, culture is all about the home, the village, and family. This realization helped explain the explosive growth of house churches in China, India and SE Asia; they’re all relationship based.
A friend spent 3 weeks in China, meeting with Christians every day. She said they met in homes, the backs of restaurants, in courtyards found by walking down narrow alleys, and other places all in small groups, amongst families and villages. It seemed that the revival US Christians had been praying for was well underway in the rest of the world, but because it was based in homes, families and villages rather than in the traditionally styled church it was under the radar of the US church world. I would hear pastors and TV preachers call for revival, being completely blind to what is happening all over the world. Clearly they were looking for revival to come within their set of parameters, their traditional church structure.
Church leaders in America and Europe have been looking for revival, thinking revival meant hundreds or thousands of people flocking to their services, not realizing God was empowering millions to ‘have church’ in their own living rooms, huts, and businesses. People were learning to be the church instead of going to church, all without help from the traditional church.
God Is De-Centralizing the Nations When I took a step back from just focusing on the revival through house based churches around the world and started looking at the big picture that was happening in other segments of society, I realized something larger is going on. Being a student of history I’d long been fascinated by the apparent link between the freedom of God’s Word and Spirit in a society and the creativity and vitality of that society.
By contrast I’d noticed the opposite was true-when God’s Word and Spirit were not present or not allowed to move, societies were oppressive and had little creativity. For instance, it seems more than coincidence that when the Word of God was locked away in monasteries and reserved only for clergy, Europe plunged into the Dark Ages. By the same token, proportional to the degree God’s Word was released into the hands of people through the King lames and other translations of the Bible in the common language of the peoples of Europe; is when the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution began.
Early Bibles like The Wycliffe Version in about 1400 and The Tyndale Version 140 years later were matched by Gutenberg’s printing press and the first ever mechanically printed Bible in 1456. For the first time God’s Word was being printed in large numbers in the common language of a nation, rather than hand written in Latin for use only by clergy. Finally, in 1611 the King lames Bible was printed in England, which led to the Bible’s translation into other languages of Europe, and suddenly whole nations of people could understand God’s Word. In this time frame the Industrial Revolution began. We have only to look as far as the oppression of the Iron Curtain and lack of creativity within the USSR as an example in our own times of the relationship between the freedoms of God’s Word versus the Word locked away. While the US and west were exploding with creativity and progress following the end of WW 11, the USSR was stagnant. While staying with some new Russian friends in Yekaterinburg shortly after the wall came down, our hostess said: “For 70 years we were told our society was the most modern and prosperous, and in one day we discovered it was a lie.
Our society had not changed since WW II while the rest of world had.” It’s no coincidence that China’s exploding economy and experimentation with capitalism in our time is happening at the same time the greatest revival in the world is happening through house church there. Following WW II, in the west starting in 1947, God poured out his Spirit in a great healing movement that continued into the 1960s. Names like Kathryn Kuhlman, Oral Roberts, Jack Coe, AA Allen and many others brought the revelation that God heals people to millions. Billy Graham’s ministry rose up during this time and millions came to the Lord. Oral Roberts went on TV, bringing his healing crusades to the masses. As the healing movement waned in the late 1960s the Charismatic Renewal exploded on the scene.
Many translations and paraphrases of the Bible were coming from publishers in easily read and studied formats, and Christian bookstores began popping up all over the country to help put products into the common people’s hands. This had the effect of empowering the individual in Christ in their own private time with God, whereas before a person depended on that once a week feeding from their Seminary trained pastor on Sunday morning for their spiritual sustenance. In direct correlation to these moves of God technology in the United States was taking off. As Christians were being empowered in their faith, technology was also empowering individuals, causing a de-centralization of many time honoured institutions as it was also rocking the traditional church structure.
When I was growing up, if a musician wanted to make a record, they had to get a contract with one of the few recording studios-Motown in Detroit, Capital Records in LA, or maybe in Memphis or Nashville. As technology has empowered the individual, now any musician with a computer, recordable CD and some sound equipment can make their own album, AND put it on the Internet for millions to hear, all from the comfort of their living room. Lawsuits between the music and movie industries and internet based web sites demonstrate the battle between the institution and individual rights. In the same way, Education has become decentralized. Computer based classes and webcasts now enable people pursuing their degree to attend classes while seated at their home computer.
Some graduate from a college without ever having set foot on the central campus. Related to education is the concept of the library. No longer does a person have to go downtown to the city library or to a main college campus, for with a few clicks on the computer the knowledge of the world is sent directly to your fingertips. Perhaps the leading edge of individual empowerment in education in the 1980s was the home schooling movement. When our children were little and we home schooled in the 1980s, home schooling was still struggling for acceptance, banned in some states unless the parent teaching the child was a state certified teacher, and outright illegal in still others. The public schools and the general public’s mood in general were not favourable towards home schooling, yet the empowerment of the individual marched on.
Twenty five years later, today in the US home schooling has gained acceptance and is excelling. The health care industry used to be centralized around the big city hospital, which was a one stop shop for health care. Today same-day surgery clinics are all over, and there are speciality hospitals-one for spines, another for hearts, one for eyes, and even birthing centres-all specialized for just one discipline. Perhaps the biggest battle between individual freedoms and the power of a centralized institution in the US is fought in the halls of Congress. Issues like Universal Health Care, Social Security, entitlement programs, and a host of other issues are basically about empowering either the government or the individual.
It is a battle of big government socialism or individual freedoms. The reason the topic is so hot now is because on a scale much larger than merely the US government, God is moving in all areas to empower individuals, first to know Him and become a disciple of Jesus, and then overflowing to the rest of a culture and society. Whenever God moves on the planet, he affects society as a whole, even if they don’t realize it. In the same way that industry, education, health care, entertainment (and a host of other segments of society) are being decentralized, so is the traditional church. God is focusing on the empowerment of individuals in their walk with him, and the traditional church, like other institutions in society, is feeling the effects.
The power of individual empowerment unleashed on the earth in secular institutions is actually just a by-product of God moving among his people all over the planet. God the Father can’t help but give life and light and creativity when he starts in a certain direction in the same way Jesus couldn’t help but to bring life and healing wherever he went. But today through the Spirit, He is moving all over the planet. The world thinks technology is driving the empowerment of the individual, but in reality it is the Spirit of God being poured out in the earth in His people.
Between 313 AD when people came out of their homes and into former pagan temples to have church, up until the Charismatic Movement of the 1960s and 70s there was largely only 1 way to do church, and the only way to learn about God was through the seminary trained Reverend who told you each Sunday morning what God said. However, when God’s Word started getting into the hands of the common people in translations they could understand and relate to in the 1960s and 70s, with all the accompanying study helps, worship music, and daily devotionals for them to use, the ability of those individuals to hear from God for themselves opened up a brave new world. People no longer had to depend on their pastor alone to tell them what God was saying; they could hear from God for themselves!
The progression of this means people are less and less loyal to one congregation, they will now go where they can get fed, and if they can’t find a suitable church, they can stay home and have church themselves.
Ramifications of Empowerment
It should be noted however that individual empowerment without discipline is anarchy, a state in which no one rules, there is no order, and confusion reigns. However, because the Christian knows they are accountable to God and to their fellow man, there should not be a case of a Christian being totally on his own, his own Master, an island. As I was searching this out I began searching for God’s answer to balance the way he was empowering people. I had run across too many people saying “I answer only to Jesus”, which to them meant they were a part of no one, no one spoke into their lives, and their statement was a bluff and façade meant to keep people at bay while they did their own thing without any accountability.
I also saw people who had no business leading a home based church or prayer and praise meeting doing so, with the results being spiritually hurt and injured Christians. Where was the balance? When looking in the Word I saw that people were accountable to each other. Even Peter, Paul, and Barnabus were willing to go to Jerusalem and submit their lives to the scrutiny of their peers. The churches Paul started or had a hand in were connected both to him and each other, regularly receiving visitors from other churches and even sending offerings to Paul and/or Jerusalem and other places.
The Apostle John wrote The Revelation to the 7 churches of Asia, but it wasn’t John who had started those churches, it was Paul and his converts, yet they willingly received John’s ministry. Everyone was connected to everyone else, thus through mutual accountability the whole of Christianity grew in a balanced fashion, at a pace corresponding to the quality of the relationships. In His empowerment of the individual, God balanced freedom by requiring us to walk out that freedom in relationships which are transparent, honest, and close. Righteousness most certainly comes through knowing Christ, yet it’s unproven if it remains solely in the heart of a person. Righteousness must therefore be lived within a framework of relationships, thus maturing us as we walk through life together, iron sharpening iron, speaking into each other’s lives; developing long and enduring friendships.
By contrast I was seeing all around me Christians with no one close to them, accountable to no one whether they were in a church, started their own home based church, or had become dechurched and dropped out altogether. Some started home groups that were nothing more than either bless me clubs or private miniature pulpits for frustrated preachers who had an axe to grind. A recent study mentioned on the evening news said 25% of all people have not a single friend. And the average of those who do have friends is down 1 friend compared to 10 years ago. This is not God’s way, for freedom means free to become involved in each other’s lives, not the freedom to become an island to oneself.
No matter the institution, when the individual is empowered people either drop out of the institutions or they stay and try to change them from within. Therefore bureaucracies and institutions fall or decentralize for if they don’t adapt they become antiquated and irrelevant to the people; and this is what I was seeing happen in the traditional church. The centralized institution (and its’ leaders) begin losing influence as the individual is empowered, and the individual becomes personally responsible in whatever area they are now empowered. To answer the needs for individual empowerment I saw churches delegate authority to some members by trying various forms of small groups, with some success, but many others going through program after program trying to instil life into their congregation and develop relationships with little success.
I realized that the reason I was bored with the sermons I was hearing was that I was able to have more depth in my own studies than what the pastors seemed able to muster. As I talked to people who attended successful small groups in various churches I heard repeatedly that they got their nourishment from the small group, and not from Sunday morning’s sermon and service. Many told me they did not even go to Sunday morning services, but only to the small group. This raised all sorts of conflicts within me: Pastors were supposed to be more mature than their congregation, deeper spiritually, yet their messages were entirely too shallow. It was in the small groups of many churches that I found life, yet the groups where God was moving didn’t follow the published outline. How was it God was moving in living rooms but not in the Sunday service? Was something wrong with me, all these people, the pastor, or the structure?
People were asking themselves whether they wanted to attend a church where they had more depth than the pastor. They found it hard justifying the giving of hard earned money to someone that was becoming more and more irrelevant to their life. God’s empowerment of the individual which was ordained to be Life was causing me and many others to take personal responsibility for our own spirituality in ways heretofore not experienced. Up until this point I was happy enough going to church because it was the thing to do and because I got something out of it. There was a balance between my personal devotion time and Sunday morning.
Now Sunday morning did not do anything for me so I was being forced to deal with an ever-growing dissatisfaction within, and so were people all around me. As I looked for God, I found Him more in His people than I did in His structure of church, and that was a realization that shocked me. The busyness of church was actually harming the very institutions of marriage, family, and relationships it purported to support. By requiring people to be at church every time the doors were opened, families were going their separate ways once through those doors-the baby to the nursery, the youngsters to children’s church, the teens to youth group, and the parents to the main service-all having separate experiences within the structure, not as a family experiencing God.
This practice leaves families feeling disconnected from each other as it delegates the job of teaching children about God to strangers. From there the disconnected feeling grows to church and then God in general. It was like each church I visited had a group of people within the church looking for more, yet afraid to talk about it lest they be labelled as having an attitude. They knew it was not a matter of attitude, yet many who had been brave enough to bring up issues to church leaders were accused of having a bad attitude. In truth, they just wanted God to be able to have his way in a service and be connected to their families and friends instead of following the set formula each week.
Like the little boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” who spoke honestly that the Emperor was naked, so too I wanted to stand up and tell the leadership they and their structure were irrelevant and boring me and I was tired of having the pastoral cheerleaders entertain and manipulate me! I wanted them to let go and let God flow! Too many were just dropping out, stopping their church attendance altogether and I didn’t want to join their ranks-the Word says not to forsake the gathering together of ourselves. However, for every person I found that just dropped out of church and wasn’t going anywhere, I found many more that were having meetings with friends during a week night, similar to the “prayer and praise” meetings I attended as a teenager in the 1970s.
Thus the question became one of what was I going to do with this empowerment and freedom? Was my deep yearning within to seek spiritual fulfilment and do church differently stronger than the ingrained church culture I’d known all my life? Was l one to hunker down and plod mindlessly into church each Sunday morning the rest of my life, or would I be willing to look elsewhere, even if that was outside the only way I knew of doing church? The empowerment of the individual to seek and learn about Christ is the single greatest factor that enables a person to become a disciple of Jesus. Our life in Christ and our growth in Him are in our own hands and always have been. When I was first born again it was an individual, a friend who brought me to Christ. I then learned and grew through other newly found friends in the midst of informal Thursday night, Saturday night, and Sunday night “prayer and praise” meetings. Sunday morning services did little for me; my growth was spurred on by close friends who helped answer questions and guide me into maturity in Christ.
When I looked at the reports of the apparent explosion of house based churches around the world, and compared that freedom and empowerment to the traditional church structure, plus added in what was happening in societies around the world through individual empowerment, I knew God was marching on the planet in ways that were affecting whole nations. God seemed to be empowering people in every walk of life and segment of society, but could I find it in the Bible?