“So you really think this John was one of the original disciples?” Ben asked leaning over the couch.
“Who told you that?” I asked turning from the window and looking back into the room.
Ben turned toward my wife, Laurie, who waved me off with a smile. “That’s what you used to think.”
“Now that just sounds a bit preposterous, doesn’t it?” Ben looked back at me with a smirk. We had led a home group together while I was at City Center and he had sought me out after I was fired wanting to start this house church. He was a good-natured tease and he didn’t need any further ammunition from me.
“I agree it does, but you would have had to have been there when I met him. It was a bit strange. Later I thought of Jesus telling Peter that he shouldn’t compare himself with John, even if he let him live until Jesus came again. I sort of put two and two together…”
“And got seventeen,” Ben said exploding in laughter as did others in the room. There were nearly twenty of us waiting for John to arrive. Some were sitting about the front room while others were busy in the kitchen and carrying dishes to the patio where we were setting up our potluck. John called me three days ago, told me he was going to be in town and asked if he could visit our group.
“What do you think about him now?”
“To be honest, figuring that out has become far less important to me. Whoever he is, I’m convinced he knows the Father I want to know and follows the Jesus I want to follow. He has helped me live the things that have burned in my heart for years.” This group already knew about my conversations with John since they had come up often in our times together. They were excited to finally meet him and I was a bit concerned they wouldn’t be as impressed with him as I was.
“But I think it’s better if we don’t bring all that up,” I pleaded. “He’s bringing some others with him and I don’t want to embarrass him.”
“Who’s he bringing?” asked Ben’s wife, Marsha. We were in their home.
“He didn’t say and I figured the more the merrier.”
The sound of a car door slamming drew my eyes back to the street. “He’s here,” I said. “And it looks like he has a young couple with him. They’re getting a baby out of the back seat.”
“And we don’t have any other kids here…” Marsha said with a bit of disappointment. “We should have let the kids come.” We had decided to get baby sitters this evening and I had never thought to tell John.
Word of his arrival spread quickly and more people wandered into the front room. John waved to me through the window. I looked behind him and saw Diane and the man who had been with John when I met him in the mall. Why did he bring them?
Ben opened the door as they approached and before I could get there, John stuck out his hand. “I’m John and these are a couple of friends of mine. This is Jeremy, his wife Diane and their son Jason” who was clinging to Diane’s shoulder.
“I’m Ben,” he said, and motioning across the room, “that’s my wife, Marsha. We’ve been looking forward to meeting you.” They came into the room and others introduced themselves. My wife went over to greet Diane and meet her husband. I joined them after greeting John.
Diane looked at me when I walked over. “I hope this isn’t awkward. Jeremy and I have been through a lot since I talked to you. John thought we’d enjoy coming.”
“I’m glad you did,” I said even though I felt otherwise. “I felt horrible when you ran off.”
“I know. It was all so spur of the moment when I saw you there and afterwards I felt like an idiot. At the same time I was talking to you, Jeremy met John. He’s become a friend since and has helped me work through some things and showed us that God is bigger than the failures of others.” We melted into the rest of the room and I could see that Laurie was going to take them under her wing. Marsha directed us outdoors where others were waiting.
As we gathered by the food-laden table, I spoke “Let me introduce John. I’ve told you a lot about him before, but I couldn’t be more grateful that God brought this man into my life. We have a bit of a strange relationship since he drifts in and out without much control on my part, but he has really helped me.” Then turning toward him I added, “John we just planned to eat and have a conversation with you. How does that sound?”
“It sounds like family to me,” John smiled. “But before we do, I want you all to meet Jeremy, Diane and little Jason,” he said, pointing them out with an open hand as he spoke their names. “I first met them a few months ago and they’ve begun anew to follow Jesus and wanted to meet others on that journey.” Ben began a chorus of thanksgiving and then told John, Jeremy and Diane that they should go first. John declined for them all saying they wanted to be family, not guests. We tried to argue with him, but after a few awkward moments we gave up and a line formed. I noticed John waiting and slid in beside him. “Are you sure it was wise to bring Diane?” I whispered.
“Why not? I thought you all could be a big help to them.”
“I can appreciate that, but her being here stirs up so much of the past.”
“And that’s bad?”
“I don’t know. I’d rather not be distracted with all that.”
John smiled, “This isn’t all about you, Jake. Don’t protect yourself at someone else’s expense. You’ll rob Jesus of an opportunity to do something amazing in you both.” With that he patted me on the back and motioned me toward the food line and I noticed we were the last ones. After I filled my plate I turned to the four long tables pushed into a big rectangle so we could all talk easily. I saw Laurie sitting with Jeremy and Diane. I sighed, thinking this was going to be a long night and waved John over to join us.
The introductions continued and people pried more information out of John in a few moments than I had in two years. He was born overseas and currently lives in Northern California, but moves around a lot. He had been married though he and his wife never were able to have children and he was now a widower. When people asked what he did for a living, he said he’d done a number of things at one time or another, but now spent most of his time helping people grow closer to Jesus. He also directed back to others questions he was asked and found out a lot about others before we finished eating.
Jason started to get fussy in Diane’s lap and I could see people roll their eyes and noticed Diane had hardly eaten. John noticed too. He got up and asked if he could take Jason for a moment and returned to his chair with Jason cradled in his arms.
“Do you all not have children, or was I supposed to get a sitter?” Diane asked.
Laurie jumped in. “No, he’s fine. We have lots of kids around here, but we thought it would give us more freedom to talk if they weren’t distracting us.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Please, don’t be concerned about it. We’re glad you’re here and glad Jason is too,” Marsha broke in. Jason had settled into John’s arms and was mesmerized by the spoon John was using to entertain him.
As I was trying to think of a segue into a more substantive discussion, John spoke, “I’m not sure it’s best to look at children as distractions. Jesus didn’t. They were drawn to him and he enjoyed it. When others tried to chase them away, he told them not to. If we’re not ready to receive the littlest ones in their weaknesses, we’re probably not ready to receive each other in ours.”
“So what should we do with children?” Ben asked. “That’s been a big issue around here.”
“Did your family get together last Easter?”
“Yes. We had a huge bash here with our relatives, probably 50 or more.”
“When you planned for that, did anyone ask what you should do with the kids?”
“No,” Ben chuckled. “They’re just part of the family.”
“Why is it any different in Father’s family?”
Ben hesitated so Marsha jumped in, “Because we’re trying to have a meeting and the children get bored. I think we should provide something for them, as well.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t try so hard to have a meeting.” John said still playing with Jason.
“Be a family and let them be a part just as you do at your family get-togethers. Include them where you can and let them be kids together at times, too, when you’re involved in things they may find less interesting.”
“But there’s too many just to turn them loose. It’s hard to get people to go out with them when no one wants to miss the meeting.”
“Who said anything about turning them loose? Love them. Include them as significant parts of the family however you can. Let me ask you a question. Do you usually eat together?”
“We often do. We think it is part of sharing the Lord’s Table.”
“Do you have a kid’s table when you do?”
I sensed this wasn’t going to be good, but the other folks had no idea how differently John thinks. “Of course we do, doesn’t everyone?”
“Well, actually no. Eating together is one of the simplest things a family does together. If you’re already dividing up by then, you’re missing something extraordinary. Mix it up, and don’t have families sitting together. Sit down with a child that is not your own and get to know what makes them tick. What do they enjoy? How is school going? Or grab some blocks and hit the floor with a two year old.
“And if you have them with you for singing or sharing, don’t have your own child on your lap where you’ll struggle with them to make it look like they’re participating. Get someone else’s child on your lap and make it playful for them. Do you realize the most significant factor in helping a child thrive in the culture is for them to have caring relationships with adults who are not their relatives? The best gift you can give each other’s kids is the same gift you can give each otherthe gift of friendship. And if the kids go out to enjoy some time together, don’t send people out to do childcare. Think of it as an opportunity for a couple of you to build relationships with a significant part of your groupwhether they’re toddlers or teenagers.”
“But since they’re not in a Sunday school class, how will they get instruction?” Marsha asked.
Before he could answer Laurie leaned across me and opened her arms offering to take Jason. “Haven’t you had that one long enough?” she asked pleading.
With a kiss on Jason’s forehead and a smile he gave him up to Laurie and then picked up his fork. “How old are your children, Marsha?”
“Ten, seven and three.”
“If you have something you want to share with them, do it. But don’t think that is the best way they learn.” At that he grabbed a fork and held it up. “Do you remember teaching your children to use a fork?”
“But they all use one, I assume. Did you send them to fork school, or have a Powerpoint presentation on the make-up and use of a fork?” People laughed. “It sounds silly, doesn’t it? But as long as we think of this life in Christ as knowledge to acquire instead of living in him, we’ll do all kinds of foolish things. Your children know how to use a fork, but that’s because they learned it in life. As they got old enough you probably put the fork in their hands, but held on so they wouldn’t poke their eye out. You helped them guide it to their mouth and when you grew confident they wouldn’t hurt themselves, you let them do it on their own. Embracing the life of Jesus is a lot more like learning to use that fork than it is sitting in meetings. Children will learn the truth as you help them learn to live it.”
I was surprised when Roary spoke up since he’s one of the quietest men in our group. “I love what you’re saying about the kids. I’ve never thought of them that way. But you’re talking about something bigger than that, aren’t you?”
“You’re right, Roary. What I’m saying will also affect how you deal with each other. If you really want to learn how to share Jesus’ life together, it would be easier to think of that less as a meeting you attend and more as a family you love.”
“I like that. We’d focus more on our relationships than our activities.” Ben offered.
“Exactly,” John answered. “And be more focused on your relationship to God as well. He is the first relationship. Anything valuable you experience in your life together will come from your life in him.”
“I think that’s why we really want to get this church thing right. We’ve all wasted so many years in institutional church and have not found the life of God we wanted,” Ben continued.
“Have you found it here?” queried John.
“Not yet, but we’re working on it.”
“Tell me about your life together.”
“Well, we meet on Sunday evenings, usually with a meal and communion, then we have some praise time before settling into a study.”
“Let me guess,” John said leaning forward. “When you first get together there is a lot of energy and excitement. But about the time you start the meeting things get awkward. Even your sharings seem a bit forced and artificial. When you finally end the meeting, the energy and excitement return as people pick up and leave. Is that close?”
“Did Jake rat us out, or what?” Marvin laughed. I held up my hand, shaking my head to make it clear I had not. Marvin used to pastor another church in town before growing disillusioned with the amount of energy required to manage the machinery. He’d gotten into ministry to touch people’s lives and ended up as the CEO of an institution he didn’t even like. He’d quit three years ago and we stumbled across each other in our own neighborhood.
“He didn’t have to,” John smiled. “Unfortunately a lot of home groups struggle with that.“
“To be honest, I usually dread when we start the meeting and always enjoy when it ends,” Marvin said.
“Do others of you feel that way?” I asked as people nodded their assent.
“As long as we see church life as a meeting we’ll miss its reality and its depth. If the truth were told, the Scriptures tell us very little about how the early church met. It tells us volumes about how they shared his life together. They didn’t see the church as a meeting or an institution, but as a family living under Father.”
“Are you suggesting we not meet?” Marsha interrupted sounding annoyed.
“No, Marsha, you’re missing the point. Meeting together isn’t the problem, but it’s easy to get stuck in a way of meeting that is artificial and counterproductive. That’s why it feels awkward to you.”
“Yes, but we don’t have a praise team or the same person giving us a lecture every week. Isn’t this more relational?”
“It certainly can be. But it can also be a less-controlled replication of the same dynamic. We’re trying to get from our brothers and sisters what we’re not finding in Father himself. That’s a recipe for disaster. Nothing we as believers can ever do together will make up for the lack of our own relationship with God. When we put the church in that place we make it an idol and others will always end up disappointing us.”
“Is that why Jake says you are against house church?” Marvin jumped in again.
“I don’t think I’ve ever said that,” John said turning towards me with a questioning look on his face. “That isn’t how I think. But I did try to get him to think beyond it, as I want you to do.”
“We thought house church was a more biblical way to do church. It offers more participation and is less controlled by clergy, less demanding of time and resources, and more relational than institutional church. Isn’t that true?”
“Just because it meets in a home?” The skeptical look on John’s face said it all. “That isn’t always true of home groups I’ve been with. Many have people in them who try to control the others. Don’t get me wrong; I love the priorities you just outlined and I’m convinced that a home is the best place to live them. But I know people who meet in buildings who are incredibly relational, and some who meet in homes who are not. The location isn’t the issue, but whether you are caught up in religious games or helping each other discover the incredible relationship God wants with us.”
“Didn’t the early church only meet in homes, especially as it spread outside Jerusalem?” Ben added.
“As far as we know, yes.”
“So then that’s the way we should do it.” Marsha chimed in.
“Marsha, Marsha, why do you love that word?”
“The same word that John hasn’t been using all night,” Roary broke in, then he turned to John, “I’ve listened to you carefully and you haven’t used the word ‘should’ one time tonight. Is that intentional?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I’ve been told all my life what I should and shouldn’t do, especially about religious things. But you haven’t talked in those terms at all. You seem to see this not as choosing between right and wrong, but simply living in a reality that already exists. I thought you would tell us how we should do church.”
“If there is anything I’d say we should do, it would be to stop shoulding on ourselves, and others.” Laughter flickered around the room and more than one person looked to their spouse asking what he had just said. “Certainly there are things that are right and things that are wrong. But we’ll only truly know that in Jesus. Remember, he is the truth itself! You will never be able to follow his principles if you’re not following him first.”
John’s words hung in the air through an awkward silence. I could see the gears churning in minds all around the table. I had been through this before and knew what they were feeling.
Marsha finally spoke choking a bit through tears, “I think you’re right John. The reason I follow rules is because I don’t know how to follow Jesus like you’re talking about. I just try to do what’s right and I’m tired of being attacked by people who say we’re in rebellion if we’re not in one of those blasted buildings on Sunday morning.”
John leaned toward Marsha. “I know this isn’t easy. But just because people say something doesn’t make it so. Jesus is teaching you how to live free. Others will find that threatening, as you will yourself at times. The system must devour what it cannot control.”
“That’s why we’re against the institution,” said Marvin.
“We may be talking about two different things here, Marvin. I want to expose the system of religious obligation in whatever ways it holds people captive, but that’s not the same as being against the institution. Don’t let it threaten you. There are lots of folks in it whom Father loves and he will keep drawing them into his life just like he does with you. As long as you react to it, it is still controlling you.”
After a few moments Marvin let out a frustrated sigh. “I don’t know, John. I always thought the institution I left wasn’t working because it had the wrong principles. I thought we were finally getting the right ones in place so we could finally experience real church life.” Murmurs of agreement buzzed around the table. “But you don’t see it that way?”
“No, I don’t. If it helps, I think you’re finding better principlesones that reflect more accurately the life of the early believers. But keep in mind that following principles didn’t produce their life together. We can observe what happened as they followed Jesus, but copying that won’t produce the same reality.
“Jesus didn’t leave us with a system he left us with his Spirit. He gave us his Spirit as a guide instead of a map. Principles alone will not satisfy your hunger. That’s why systems always promise a future revival that never comes. They cannot produce community because they are designed to keep people apart.”
“Why do you say that?”
“By keeping the focus on services or rituals they make most people spectators. By holding up standards and motivating people to conform to them they only encourage people to pretend to be what they are not or to act like they know more than they really do. Questions and doubts are discouraged and people can’t deal with the things they are hiding. Thus relationships become false and superficial because they only let people see the shadow they want them to see, not who they really are. Feeling isolated they only become more focused on their own needs and what others aren’t doing to meet them. They fight over control of the institution, however large or small, so that they can make others do what they think is best. It is a story that has been repeated for a couple of thousand years.” A few furtive eyes shot in my direction.
John continued, “To keep the system working you have to obligate people through commitment or appeal to what their ego needs by convincing them this is the last, best, greatest place to belong. That’s why so many groups create false expectations that frustrate people and focus on each other’s needs, or even their gifts, rather than on the present Christ.”
“I can see those seeds already sprouting here,” Marvin sighed almost to himself.
“That’s why your meetings feel stilted. It’s hard to maintain an illusion of body life when you don’t have planned activities that people can follow without much effort. But you do have the chance here to discover real community. That grows where we share our common lot as failed human beings and the journey of being transformed by Jesus working in us. It thrives where people are free to be exactly who they areno more and no less. As they learn to rely on him, they won’t have to use others to meet their needs but rather find themselves laying down their lives to help others in the same way Jesus did.”
“Will that include unbelievers as well? Most house church literature I’ve read discourages outreach as a threat to body life,” Roary said enthusiastically.
“Amazing, isn’t it? The self-focus priority of building ‘our’ group only demonstrates that we’ve missed the reality of Father’s love. When we discover the power of his love we can’t hold it to ourselves. Not only will it transform us, it will also seep out quite naturally with believers and nonbelievers alike. We’ll find ourselves reflecting God’s life and character to others around us and we’ll even do it best when we’re least aware of it.”
“Well I guess we can cancel our plans to go to that house church conference next month,” Ben said mockingly.
“Not necessarily. Just don’t buy all they’re selling. You’ll probably meet some wonderful people there who are spilling out of the system and are just grabbing back at house church as a form of security. God might want you to know such folks. Just keep in mind the simplest lesson that has been repeated countless times since Jesus was here: The more organization you bring to church life, the less life it will contain.”
“It just sounds like we shouldn’t be doing anything, John.” Marsha’s frustration was evident in her tone.
“That’s not what I mean. I just want to help you focus your efforts where they will bear the most fruit. Instead of trying to build a house church, learn to love each other and share each other’s journey. Who is he asking you to walk alongside right now and how can you encourage them? I love it when brothers and sisters choose to be intentional in sharing God’s life together in a particular season. So, yes, experiment with community together. You’ll learn a lot. Just avoid the desire to make it contrived, exclusive or permanent. Relationships don’t work that way.
“The church is God’s people learning to share his life together. It’s Marvin over there and Diane back here. When I asked Ben about your life together he told me about your meetings, but nothing about your relationships. That told me something. Do you even know Roary’s greatest hope or Jake’s current struggle? Those things rarely come out in meetings. They come out in the naturalness of relationships that occur throughout the week.”
“But we’re too busy for that,” Marvin’s wife, Jenny, added. “We try to do that when we get together.”
I knew what John was going to say before he said it, “And is it working?”
“Is what working?”
“Are you accomplishing all of that in your meetings?”
“Not very well, but we’re trying to learn to do it better.”
“And we’re still talking about an ‘it’. We humans are notorious for taking something Scripture describes as a reality, giving a term to it and thinking we’ve replicated the reality because we use the term. Paul talked about the church that gathered in various homes, but he never called it ‘house church’. Houses were just where they ended up in their life together. Jesus was the focus, not the location. As I said, you can have all the right principles and still miss his glory in the body.“
“Now that is depressing,” Jenny said teasingly and the others laughed.
“Why do you say that?” John asked.
“Because we’ve been trying for nine months to get this right and now it all seems so futile. Maybe we should just go back to a traditional church and make the most of it.” The groans around the room indicated that wasn’t likely.
“What I’m trying to get you to consider is that body life is not something you can create. It is a gift that Father gives as people grow in his life. Body life isn’t rocket science. It is the easiest thing in the world when people are walking with him. You get within twenty feet of someone else on that journey and you’ll find fellowship easy and fruitful.”
“That’s what we’re looking for. We thought that when we got church right we’d all have the relationship with God we’re looking for,” Marvin broke in.
John continued, “Just consider that you’ve gotten it backwards. No church model will produce God’s life in you. It works the other way around. Our life in God, shared together, expresses itself as the church. It is the overflow of his life in us. You can tinker with church principles forever and still miss out on what it means to live deeply in Father’s love and know how to share it with others.”
“That’s not how I learned it,” Laurie offered. “How are we going to know how to live in God’s life if someone doesn’t show us?”
“That’s where religion has done the most damage. By making people dependent on its leaders, it has made God’s people passive in their own spiritual growth. We wait for others to show us how, or even just follow them in hopes that they’re getting it right. Jesus wants this relationship with you and he wants you to be an active part in that process.”
“But can we do it on our own? Don’t we need some help?” Marsha asked.
“Who said you’re alone? Jesus is the way to the Father. As you learn to yield to his Spirit and depend on his power, you’ll discover how to live in the fullness of his life. Yes, he’ll often use other people to encourage or equip you in that process, but the people he uses won’t let you grow dependent on them. They wouldn’t dare crawl between you and the greatest joy of this familya growing relationship with the Father himself.”
“That’s what I’d rather have talked about tonight. So many groups I’m with are continually trying to figure out the best way to do church. What if we spent all that time and energy focused on the Father’s love, what Jesus is doing in us, and how we can live more freely in his Spirit? Then we’d know how to love each other. We’d be honest and open and support each other on this journey. Our focus would be on him, not ourselves and our needs and some amazing things would happen.”
“But won’t people who just ‘follow Jesus’ live independently from the body?” Marvin asked.
“Do you think that’s possible?”
“That’s the fear I hear all the time, but I don’t see it. People who are growing in their relationship with Father will hunger for real connections with his family. He is the God of community. That’s his nature, and knowing him draws us into that community, not only with God himself, but also with others who know him. It is not our obligation. It’s his gift.”
“I’ve got a good friend who was so hurt by her past church experience that she doesn’t want to meet with any group of Christians ever again,” Laurie said.
“And God knows where she is and how best to get through to her. We often mistake the middle of a chapter for the end of the story. Maybe Father is just drawing her to himself right now. If she’s your friend, stay close to her. You can be her link to the family as Father works in her.”
“I have a friend in Georgia who just can’t find anyone who wants this kind of life together.” Marvin said.
“Father knows that too! Certainly there are others near him with a similar hunger, but if Father hasn’t made those connections yet, he can rest in that. It’s much easier for us to find it when we live contentedly in God’s provision rather than being anxious for what we don’t see. Encourage him to enjoy what Father is doing each day while keeping his eyes open for others. You never know how or when God will make connections.”
“My friend just won’t leave the institution because he says he’ll feel too guilty,” Marvin said.
“Love him too! Stay in touch with him. Share what Jesus is doing in your life and you’ll encourage him to live closer, too. Don’t worry about where he is right now. If Father’s at work in his life he’ll be untangling that guilt. There’s no telling where he’ll end up after that.”
“So even our participation in the body is larger than one group?” Ben asked.
“It is so much larger. That’s what I don’t want you to miss.” John looked at his watch and turned to Jeremy and Diane, “We probably need to get going, don’t we?”
“Well, I hate to cut things off,” Jeremy said. And the rest of us didn’t want him to either. We had a hundred things we still wanted to ask John.
“You’re not. I told you I’d get you home at a reasonable time.”
“This has been so helpful, John, though I’m not sure I get everything you’re saying.” Ben said, shaking his head.
“You don’t need to. If I’ve encouraged you to follow him a bit more closely and to trust him with greater freedom, he’ll sort out the rest. He’s the cornerstone of the church. It’s his not mine. Ask him to sort out all this in you individually and collectively. He’s been doing this a couple of thousand years and he’s really good at what he does.”
“Can I ask one more question?” Roary’s boldness tonight was way out of character. John turned and nodded. “I’d like to believe it’s that simple, but something tells me I’ll mess it up. Do you really believe we’re good enough to hear God’s voice every day?”
“What a question!” John laughed as he stood up. “Of course not, Roary. None of us are that good. But I think you’re asking the wrong question. Let’s phrase it like this: Is Jesus big enough to get through to you every day? Do you think he is big enough to get past your blind spots, overcome your doubts and show you his way? Doesn’t that get a resounding ‘yes’? Share that journey together and you’ll experience body life more real than you’ve ever dreamed.”
With that John helped Diane and Jeremy pick up their dishes and gather Jason’s things before plunging through a sea of hugs and good-byes. As we cleaned up afterwards and put the table and chairs back in the garage I listened as people reflected on the evening. Most were excited at what they had heard, though uncertain of what it would mean for us.
“He didn’t really say anything I haven’t thought before,” Marvin said shaking his head. “It’s just the kind of stuff you’re afraid to believe is true.”
“Religion runs deep,” I responded knowing all too well how he felt. But my stomach was in knots for another reason. As I said good-bye to Diane she had whispered in my ear that she needed help with Pastor Jim and wanted to talk with me another time.