Monday, December 7, 2009

Learning from churches in other countries

What can we learn from the explosive growth and radical transformation that we see in churches in other countries? Of course the obvious example is that found in the house church movement in China, but there are more. Since the 1960s experts have been trying to understand the phenomenon that is Yoido Full Gospel Church in S. Korea. Others have gone to El Salvador to try to extract and import principles from the world's second largest church, Elim.

When I worked for TOUCH, we published quite a few books on the church model called Groups of 12 which was based on a huge church in Columbia called International Charismatic Mission. Before that, we partnered with Faith Community Baptist Church in Singapore and distributed the materials from that church. Now I am helping a friend write a book on grass roots movements in Southeast Asia, where explosive conversion growth is occurring through the reproduction of viral house churches.

In the past, I despised the fact that I was an American and that all of the exciting stuff was happening overseas. I questioned my faith, my commitment and castigated the American church. I elevated these foreign experiences to an ideal. I thought the goal was to become like them, to do what they do and somehow arrive at their level of commitment. But then I learned of stories of missionaries from these churches who were sent to America. One group was sent from a church in East Africa to Houston with expectations that the church plant would quickly grow like they had seen in the home church. They did not see their expectations realized. Their lack of "success" had nothing to do with their commitment, their prayer lives or the model of church that they adopted.

And I am not sure it had that much to with the fact that Americans were resistant to the Gospel, although I think that is part of it. I think that another aspect of it relates to the fact that we, as church leaders, assume that if we get the church model "right" that people will suddenly respond to the Gospel. We set up some kind of "ideal" church, whether we call it cell church, G-12, organic church or whatever, and we assume that once we swallow the magic church pill that all will be good in the world.

The reality is that we are called to engage our communities and the people that live there with our lives, not with our church structures. We are so in love with our church labels and church models. Emerging church, deep church, vintage church...these are the new fads of this decade. What's next? Who knows.

Some might argue that the book that Alan Roxburgh and I just wrote is simply another label or model that we are to copy. That we are proposing another form of an ideal way of being the church. But this is exactly what we are saying the Missional Church is not about. We are not looking at a model church that we would call missional and then telling people mimic. Instead we are inviting people to actually have conversations with one another and engage their communities and then as a result discover what the missional church might look like in their specific context.

I have come to realize that I live in Saint Paul, MN. I don't live in China or El Salvador or Southeast Asia. This means a few things for me in a concrete fashion, outside of the fact that I need to read the book we wrote again to drive this point home:
1. I don't have to compare myself and my faith to that in other locations. Those churches struggle with real ministry issues. Not all is rosy success and growth like the one-sided books seem to communicate.
2. I can learn from these churches in other countries, but there is no way that I can duplicate what is going on in Chine here in Saint Paul. Our contexts are quite distinctive. There is a Lutheran Church within arms reach in almost every direction. Jesus is a common name in our culture and cultural Christianity is the norm. That is not the case in China, and to say that if we simply adopt an organic, viral approach to being a missional church in Saint Paul is simply a refusal to deal with reality.
3. There is no "model" for church life for this location. The Gospel of God is about "good news" and model of church life don't communicate this well. If we are going to actually carry the "good news" we need to do so in a relational way, not in a way that assumes come kind of model which we, as leaders, have determined or read about in a book.
4. To be missional is to learn to have conversations with each other and with those in our neighborhoods to determine together what God is doing and what God wants to do. Might this look like something that is happening in these other cultures? Maybe. But we don't start there.


David F said...

Thanks for an honest and insightful post.
When we left the IC and sold our building I was certain our home groups would explode. I was sure that all I had wanted to see happen as "senior pastor" in the IC would now come about unhindered. As it was,
God led us to do almost nothing but learn to be the church and let whatever else spring out of our relationhip with him and one another as we learned to become friends of those that don't yet know him.
I too had envied the underground church in China until I met in Beijing secretly with several leaders representing thousands of hours churches. God led me to speak to them about humility. This blew my mind as I know I needed humility more than these persecuted people. After I finished the spokesman of the group hung his head and said: "This was for me." He explained that he had abused his authority by being harsh with house church leaders that were not measuring up to his standards.
The las thing that house church, organic church, simple church, etc needs is to become another system. Every expression of church should be different in every community if we follow the Spirit rather than a model.

Scott Boren said...

David, well stated. We need such honesty more. Thx