The other day I was having lunch with a friend. “Can I ask you a question,” he said.
“Sure,” I answered.
“I have a friend who loves Jesus. She really does, but she’s never going back to church. There has been too much water under the bridge and she’s too disillusioned to ever trust organized religion, but she told me the other day how much she missed going to church. She missed seeing the people and having a place to belong.”
I asked where she lived and we talked about churches I knew in the area. I offered a few churches and pastors that were in that area. Each time I mentioned a name, he shook his head and said, “No.”
“I’m telling you,” he said, “She’s not going back to church.”
I looked up from my plate and asked, “Has she got a Bible?”
“I would think so.”
“Does she have a coffee pot?”
“Then, I’m guessing she has 10 friends who, for whatever reason, aren’t going back to church. Tell her to call her friends, get together, study the Bible, take care of each other, find a way to do good in the community, and they’ll be fine.”
“That’s it?” he asked.
“Yes, that’s it. We’ve been doing this on the mission field for years and guess what? America is now a mission field. We’re going to have to get used to doing things the way we’ve been doing them all over the world.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of organized religion. I’ve spent my life working in local congregations and with national and international organizations. I’ve had the privilege of being part of disaster relief efforts, feeding the hungry, rebuilding substandard housing, and supporting medical teams working with AIDS patients. In my experience, I’ve seen a lot of people do a lot of good. They’re still doing a lot of good. Despite all of the criticism leveled against organized religion, much of it deserved, the church does a lot of good.
However, I’m not naive. I know what’s happened in our churches across America during the last decades. Children have been sexually abused, money has been stolen and power-hungry pastors have inflicted severe psychological abuses on their staff and congregations. Most of the time – though not all the time – these situations were handled and churches moved on toward healing.
But not all the time. There are people who were caught up in these moments who will never get over them. Something happened deep inside of them and they’ll never feel safe inside a church again. While most people will be able to move on, not everyone will. These friends won’t find a complete healing until Jesus wipes every tear from their eyes. Like it or not, that’s the truth.
We’ll have to find other ways for them to grow in their faith and find community. The answer is as old as the church itself. Start a group. You can meet in a home or a local venue like a gym or coffee shop. Read through the gospels. Talk about what’s going on in each other’s lives. Pray for each other. Find a place to help out in your community.
One of the unspoken graces of a small group is that they recreate the family structure. Jesus promised He would give back to us whatever the world took away from us because we chose to follow Him. That means Jesus will give you a father and mother, brothers and sisters – all in the faith. In a group, you will find a place to belong, people who need you, and a moment to make a difference. You’ll find a church.
Now, we’ve been doing this for years. Remember Lydia in Philippi? Any missionary trying to reach an unreached people group celebrates the beginning of an indigenous-led home church. We’re going to have to get more comfortable with small victories. After all, America is a mission field.
What about theological integrity? Won’t these house churches wander away from sound doctrine? It’s possible. I would say two things in response. First, yes, these groups could wander off into heresy, but it’s the same with entire churches and denominations. Control is no guarantee of fidelity. Second, the church has worked this way for over two thousand years. It seems to have done OK.
One size never fits all. One style never works for everyone and one type of church won’t reach everyone. You never go to the World Series on one pitch. If someone needs a smaller, more intimate venue, more power to them. If you love the grand worship of a crowded sanctuary, that’s fine.
Jesus promised wherever two or three of His children gathered, He would be there. Find one of them that works for you. Jesus will be there. Make sure you’re there too.