Having a passion for disciple-making, one of my favorite narratives is that of the apostle John and the young man. The story is intriguing and compelling. It has plot twists, tension, insight, reflection, conviction, accountability, redemption, rescue, and love. Let me provide a summation and two primary observations if you’re unfamiliar with the story.
Clement of Alexandria records the account of John at the end of his writing, “Who is the Rich Man that Shall Be Saved”? (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, Clement, XLII). Clement notes that the account is “not a tale but a narrative handed down and committed to the custody of memory, about the Apostle John.” After John’s exile to Patmos, he returned to Ephesus.
Upon his arrival, he appoints bishops and sets the churches in order. In one of the nearby cities, John finds a young man and assigns him to the care and protection of a bishop. Clement records John’s words, “This [youth] I commit to you in all earnestness, in the presence of the Church, and with Christ as a witness.” The bishop accepted the responsibility, promising to lead the man in spiritual formation as a disciple.
For a time, the young man flourished. The bishop cared for the young man in his home. The man held the testimony of Christ to be true and was baptized. However, over time, the bishop’s protection and accountability for the young man eased; as Clement notes, “he relaxed his stricter care and guardianship, under the idea that the seal of the Lord he had set on him was a complete protection to him.” Unfortunately, the relaxation of care propelled the young man’s demise.
Gathering with other unregenerate youth of his age, the young man committed to an “evil course” that was “corrupt” and wicked. The once devout youth assembled a band of robbers that caused havoc on the nearby mountain highways. Clement asserts the young man “was the prompt captain of the bandits, the fiercest, the bloodiest, the cruelest.”
Time passes, and John returns to the bishop to receive his “reward”—the discipled young man. It is apparent from Clement’s account that John expected the young man to be discipled by the bishop, holding him accountable.
John exclaimed, “I demand the young man, and the soul of the brother!” [The bishop] groaning deeply, and bursting into tears, said, “He is dead.” [John replies] “How and what kind of death?” [The bishops responds] “He is dead, to God. For he turned wicked and abandoned, and at last [is] a robber; and now he has taken possession of the mountain in front of the church, along with a band like him.” Rending, his clothes, and striking his head with great lamentation, the apostle declared, “It was a fine guard of a brother’s soul I left! But let a horse be brought [to] me, and let some one be my guide on the way.”
As the story continues, John is “arrested” by the band of robbers when he reaches the mountain pass. Clement expounds, “neither fleeing nor entreating, [John cried out], “It was for this I came. Lead me to your captain.” When the young man catches a glimpse of the apostle John, he immediately recognizes him and hangs his head in shame. Clement’s words describe the kind of Christ-like love that John exuded:
“Why, my son, do you flee from me, your father, unarmed and old? Son, pity me. Fear not; you still have hope of life. I will give account to Christ for you. If need be, I am willingly to endure your death, as the Lord did death for us. For you, I will surrender my life. Stand, believe; Christ has sent me.”
Of course, the narrative has a good ending. The young man trembles, weeps bitterly, and repents. He returns to the church and is placed back into the bishop’s care, providing him with a second chance. Clement concludes with the young man’s proclamation as a “great example of true repentance and a great token of regeneration, a trophy of the resurrection for which we hope.”
While disciple-making is multiplicative and reproducible, it is also two-sided. We know of the expectations for disciples, but there is an expectation that the disciple-maker is also accountable to the Lord. John’s expectation of the bishop indicates an entrusted care and “guard” of the soul. As Ezekiel’s watchman (Ezek. 33) or the parable of the ten talents (Matt 25), there is an expectancy of soul care for the believer.
Clement’s recording illustrates the early church held a view of accountability that probably does not exist today. As disciple-makers, what might we learn from the bishop’s relaxed care of the young man? What safeguards can we establish or develop in the hopes of preventing such a case from occurring? These are all excellent reflective observations.
Rescue & Restoration
Another observation is the selfless love of John regarding the rescue and restoration of the robber. While everyone seemed to accept the fate of the young man turned despicable marauder and “sinner,” John exemplifies the love of Christ—leaving the ninety-nine to rescue the one “lost sheep” (Lk. 15:4). Yet, the story is more than rescue and restoration to the church, it is an account of a man that loved Christ.
John labeled himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (Jn. 13:23). Apparently, John’s actions became empirical evidence of his words. When John proclaims, “I will surrender my life” for yours, he embodies the gospel. Laying down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13), John was willing to die for the lost.
How might this account of John apply to our lives? In what ways have we given up on people that seem “lost”? Again, the story is highly applicable, as are the questions. Yet, I cannot help but feel convicted, even though I have personally put myself in harm’s way for the gospel. The gospel requires us to continually “die” for others (or at least be willing). With that stated, here’s the last and final question: what compels or controls us (2 Cor. 5:14); is it the love for Christ?
The Covid-19 breakout placed the global church in a unique situation. Churches were forced to utilize social media or sources like Zoom to maintain connections with their congregations. While the church should be thankful for technological opportunities, we should be aware of possible hindrances to long-term “isolation.” Albeit, platforms such as Zoom can be highly beneficial and should be praised for their ability to sustain connectivity.
Covid-19 may have exposed humanity to a virus, but the impact that it has had on the church could be costly regarding ecclesial movements. No one would argue that social media platforms performed as a much-needed service and presence of stability during a time of instability. The leap to online church was not difficult for most Western churches. Many evangelical churches were already broadcasting services over the same networks—they seemed prepared (as much as prepared can be) for the situation. However, now there seems to be a select few that desire to never look back upon the congregational gathering. While I have significant doctrinal issues with “neglecting the gathering the of the saints” (Heb. 10:25), I have more significant practical problems.
I believe sustained online church strategies will quench the guidance of the Holy Spirit, create reproducible disciple-making obstacles, and hinder the innovative pioneering needed for ecclesial movements. With that stated, I primarily desire to focus on the latter of the three in this short article, hoping to write about the former at another time.
So, let’s address the question: what may be two apparent ramifications for the long-term online church regarding ecclesial movements?
Corporations spend billions of dollars in research and development (R & D). For the most part, organizations utilize the collective collaboration of innovative thinkers and analysts to make important decisions about their products and marketing. Subsequently, Covid-19 disrupted the flow of analytical in-person collaboration. Corporations were forced to use social media or tech platforms to unite their employees like the church.
As Covid restrictions were universally lifted, corporations analyzed data and noted a reduction in their financial overhead. Online employees were not utilizing corporate buildings—hence corporations began to sell off their office space. Perceived as a winning solution—remote work thrived. Businesses envisioned a paradigm shift of savings and streamlining.
Why is corporation data relevant to ecclesial movements? We know that culture has shifted from the church to the marketplace. People are the workplace as much as people are the church—basically, the same people! The people who work from home are also the same people watching online church services. There’s an ease of isolated lifestyles—drinking the money coffee is solace, reporting to work or watching a church service in pajamas, or hitting mute and eating crunchy cookies—yet perhaps it produces a collaborated yet individual apathy of collective motivation.
A recent study of US employees indicates that 75% of those surveyed preferred working remotely at least once a week—while 40% stated that they would leave their job if required to full-time in-person work. While people choose to work from home, those preferences weigh on faith and worship preferences. What happens in organizational and leadership culture tends to overflow into the church.
A recent Lifeway Research study indicates that pastors view disciple-making strategies and technological skills as two of the most prominent areas of needed development. The correlation between online church and culture is evident—pastors feel the pressure of trying to connect with congregants. While refraining from using “lack of gathering” terminology, the reality is that online church is producing a collaborative apathy among believers. While technology is a good tool for the church to utilize, it has also relegated the essential nature of the communion and fellowship of the saints as optional. However, this is not the most significant ramification of online church.
Hindering Innovative Pathways
A study involving Europe, Asia, and the Middle East found that “videoconferencing inhibits the production of creative ideas.” I would love to confess, “I told you so,” but I don’t want to be that guy. Yet, the study is not surprising if one understands that people are created in the image of God. As image-bearers, people were made for relationships.Within relationship building is communication. Communicative attributes are not solely verbal but very much non-verbal.
The manner in which someone rolls their eyes at a new thought or concept, the shifting of weight in a chair, sounds, sighs, and grunts all provide clues and insightful feedback when discussing essential concepts. With the conference call on Zoom, many of those vital non-verbals escape notice—especially when microphones are muted or a screen video feed is briefly turned off. However, non-verbals are not the only suppression of collaborative idea generation.
One study notes the dilemmas between eye focus, video conferencing, and in-person collaboration. The video-conferencing participants only view what they see broadcasted from their colleague’s narrow screen. In-person collaboration requires sharing the same space and “visual scope.” The reality is that “idea generation … requires cognitive focus and analytical reasoning … virtual interaction uniquely hinders idea generation,” recognizing that “videoconferencing groups generate fewer creative ideas than in-person groups due to narrowed visual focus.”Understanding that the research and analysis of the extensive studies by major corporations may not be producing the outcomes they expected. Before corporations begin mass sell-off of office space, some conclude that innovative pioneering occurs best in person.
How might this information directly reveal the hindrance to creating innovative pathways for church multiplication strategies? While the Holy Spirit can direct an individual through a video feed as easily as in-person, human relationships thrive and were designed to use the five senses (touch, smell, see, hear, and taste). Perhaps the sense of taste seems ridiculous, but coffee and donuts or shared meals are still the number one way gospel conversations occur.
The online church could be hindering congregants from having idea-generating conversations. One may argue that these conversations are not occurring in person either, but they cannot be cultivated or experienced without human interaction. Historically, the most remarkable church movements were established and sustained through human interaction, idea generation, and strategic gospel multiplication.
I believe it is wise for the church to look into some of the corporate research. While the church is not a corporation, it is a body of believers that manifests the power of the Holy Spirit and the collective love of Christ. If the church is to reach neighborhoods and communities, strategic divine ideas are essential. We should not neglect our innate senses, design for a person-to-person relationship, communication, and life-on-life.
 Barrero, J. M., Bloom, N. & Davis, S. J. “Don’t force people to come back to the office full time.” Harvard Business Review (24 August 2021).
 Marissa Postell, “Pastors Say They Need to Develop Disciple-Making, Technology Skills,” Lifeway Research, https://research.lifeway.com/2022/03/29/pastors-say-they-need-to-develop-disciple-making-technology-skills/
 Brucks, M.S., Levav, J. “Virtual communication curbs creative idea generation.” Nature (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-04643-y
In a recent article, I posted the differences between house churches and microchurches. Since then, I have been asked about delineating between missional communities and microchurches. While the objectives are a bit different and each unique, delineation is not exactly the purpose. The objective of delineating between church planting strategies is for gospel engagement alignment.
One disclaimer, for more in-depth study on the subject, one of my recently published books, Multiplying Jesus: Planting Churches describes these strategies in more detail. The book examines and explores the pros, cons, procedures, and steps for each church planting model, as well as provides a biblical and theological underpinning for church planting. For the purposes of this article, the examination will be as brief and concise as possible—illustrating the major differences.
With that stated, and to reiterate the opening remarks, the purpose of strategic church planting models is not to indicate the superiority of one over another, but how to align vision and mission for gospel engagement. Strategies are tools that must have implementation and application. Since we have already surveyed microchurches, we will first address and spend more time describing missional communities.
Mike Breen defines a missional community as a “group of approximately 20 to 40 people who are seeking to reach a particular neighborhood or network of relationships with the good news of Jesus.” I would define missional communities as a measurable expression of a reproducible kingdom movement that exists for regional gospel-saturation. With committed oikos’ that thrive and learn together for spiritual growth in Christ, missional communities are made up of a network of believers impacting a specific area or community.
Examining the above diagram, there are two sets of “homes.” The darker shaded black represents a missional community, while the lighter shade is households that are not within the “community”; those homes represent believers or non-believers. The solid and squiggly black line represents the community street that separates particular neighborhoods. While a microchurch may consist of several households of people that gather together (in community)—their mission is “micro,” it is defined as reaching something, someone, or someplace (more elaboration below). Yet, the missional community has an objective to saturate an entire community with the gospel (everyone). They may have multiple outreaches, events, and expressions of church that are variously aligned.
For instance, the missional community breaks bread together, lives life together, takes care of one another’s needs when assistance is needed, supports missions, community, neighborhood outreach, social justice endeavors, and worships together. Missional communities tend to have multiple elders that serve as pastors. While each home is a household, the community serves and exists as a whole. This means that two or more households may create an oikos for devotions, baptisms, Lord’s Supper, and worship. It is possible to have several different oikos’ within a missional community. For example, out of 12 homes in a missional community, maybe there are 3 collective oikos’. Without delving into a rabbit hole, one might observe the difference between a missional community and a house church, too.
A house church can have members that travel into a community and worship within a particular oikos. It is possible for a house church to have believers from other communities that believe in their mission and vision. Additionally, the house church does not need to focus on their specific neighborhood—they may focus on their city, region, or even abroad. Whereas, missional communities are focused on the people that live within their explicit community. Basically, the missional community desires to see all blue homes (diagram) turn to black, participating in the community gospel-saturation mission. However, just because the homes are blue does not mean that the people inside are non-believers. Those people could be part of a microchurch within their region, traditional church-goers, a house church, or any other ecclesial observing formation.
Looking at some of the benefits of missional communities, it is apparent that disciple-making would arrive at the top of the list. The principles of missional communities are highly attractive to people that are seeking spiritual growth, intimacy, open and honest accountability, and spiritual transformation. As well, people that are seeking companionship, true friendship, and a more communal aspect of life will become excited with this strategy.
Actively and intimately growing with others is appealing. When a member of the missional community becomes sick and needs care, more than a pastor or deacon visit; the missional community mows the grass, buys groceries, cooks meals, and eats with the family (not merely dropping off), they help alleviate lost income (if needed), or any other need. The missional community is immensely connected to another one in prayer, fasting, devotion, and the navigation of the daily rhythms of life. A person with cancer, a teenager with problems, a dying pet, the loss of job, or the death of a loved one would not be able to be hidden from a missional community. They do life together, every day.
Having examined microchurches in another article, we will keep this brief. Recall that micro does not signify small but rather the fine-tuned vision and mission. A microchurch has one objective mission that encompasses gospel engagement—the goal is not saturating an entire neighborhood or community (unless they live within a cultural ethnic enclave), but a focused mission to a particular people, place, or thing.
The common misunderstanding with microchurch is defining it. In a recent conversation with Warren Bird, we discussed how many contradictory definitions were being promulgated. Even among well-known evangelical individuals, there is a misconception that micro means small and intimate. Some evangelicals identify microchurch with micro-expression.
However, a micro-expression of the Kingdom is a broad missiological term that surveys the many different ecclesial forms. Missional community, house church, microchurch, oikos, and any intimate or disciple-making fellowship can exist as a micro-expression of the Kingdom. Yet, microchurch is defined not by the overall intimacy or fellowship size but by the unified mission that exists within the covenant cruciform community of believers. For instance, in the previous article, the development and mission of a microchurch were described by the prodding of the Holy Spirit to call a skateboarding church planter to seek a person of peace (another skateboarder) within a specific culture or subculture (in this case, skateboarders). In turn, the skateboarding person of peace lives within the daily rhythms of his or her life with other skateboarders (skateboarding subcultural enclave). The microchurch only focuses on reaching and making disciples among skateboarders—that’s it—their mission is micro.
As stated earlier, delineating between missional community and microchurch is not to examine the superiority of one model over another, but to assist in gospel engagement. Strategies help church planters stay focused. Maintaining mission-focus is not only vital for planters but for everyone invested and involved. Regardless, can a microchurch decide to be part of a missional community, or vice-versa, a participating missional community oikos decide to become a microchurch—absolutely—they can. The strategies are not denominational or doctrinal, but ecclesial. Models help cultivate movement.
 Mike Breen, Leading Missional Communities: Rediscovering the Power of Living on Mission Together (Pawleys Island: 3DM, 2013), 6.
For some people, the feeling of living within the dark crevices of depression is not a dream, but a reality. The daily anxieties of this present life compiled with the vivid memories of the past, can feel as though there is no place of escape. As someone with past fear and anxiety issues, I know the reality of this darkness.
I’ve also counseled and listened to numerous people with depression, whether present or former military, those suffering from addiction, or a troubled spouse. The dilemma with depression is that it won’t just fade away on its own and the world doesn’t stop turning.
But one beauty of the ancient Scriptures is their divine way of speaking to the human heart, mind, and soul. Assuredly, the Psalmist illustrates the human side of the deep dark world of those who suffer with depression. I know this may be a bit long, but it also may be a blessing for someone struggling to live. Read the cries of the Psalmist (Psalm 88).
v.1 O LORD, God of my salvation; I cry out day and night before you.
An underpinning to this Psalm is who it addresses—it is written to the LORD God, the Maker and Creator. For those who suffer with anxiety and depression, the cry of infirmity day and night is all too real. The beauty of the Psalms is their ability to bring out the truth of human emotion, pain, and suffering. The feeling of a tattered and drenched soul, one poured out before God has the sense of a soul consumed with tears. Someone crushed.
However, this plea is written to the “God of my salvation;” literally to the God who rescues. This is the foundation of the Psalm—a person who already knows God and believes in His miraculous grace, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and soon-to-be restoration. A relationship exists.
v. 3-4 For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to [the grave]. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength.
How many times have you felt like this? I believe every person goes through seasons of change. Sometimes those seasons are meant to stretch us for growth, but the season(s) of depression never sprout plumage—the “soul is full of troubles.” For the depressed, the only conclusion is that the end should be the grave.
We lose too many souls to depression. Far too many. One is too many. I’ve seen the devastation of suicide—it’s never done in a vacuum—unfortunately, it affects everyone. The Psalmist describes a person that feels so overwhelmed and “full of troubles” that they choose to give up, for lack of “strength.” The heart aches for those suffering from this feeling.
But, let us remember, the Psalms are written as a balm for the soul. They demonstrate the cries to a God who does hear, who does understand. These words allow us to recognize that we are not alone and that the thoughts of death are real.
v. 6-7 You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah
The Psalmist ponders the thought that God may be the cause of the trouble. Blaming God for present calamity, as if God is the producer of the “wrath” we’re enduring; this thinking is not foreign to humanity. As the person sinks deeper into depression, down into the “depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep” within the soul, helplessness is revealed. Where does the soul turn at this point—help seems incredibly far away, as ration and logic flee the human presence.
The person that is overcome with despair feels the “waves” of trouble as an ocean ebbs and flows, drowning them—they’re caught in the riptides of life. Is the God of salvation listening?
But then, the Psalmist employs the use of “Selah,” a term that implies the thought of time. It’s as if the writer lays down the pen and the paper and goes to sleep. He arises in the morning and comes back to the pen, Selah, a pause of time. Here, the reflection of Selah tells us that the Psalmist is deeply contemplating his next move.
v. 8b-9 I am shut in so that I cannot escape; my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call upon you, O LORD; I spread out my hands to you.
The feeling that there is no way out is evident. A great sorrow that is ever-present and never fading. Yet, the Psalmist knows that in the pains of grief, God is to be called upon, especially in times of desperation.
Why call to God if He’s not listening? Clearly, the Psalmist knows that he did not create himself. He’s a created being. If he is a creation, there must be a Creator. And, only the Creator can heal the deeply driven scars and sorrows.
The Selah does wonders for our Psalmist, while it may not seem that way at first glance, it is true. In his previous thought, he was blaming God for the clenches of death, but now seems to understand that God can be trusted; He is still LORD, and worthy to be petitioned, especially in the midst of suffering. As it’s been said, “If you had a broken watch, you wouldn’t take it to a shoemaker, but a watchmaker.” Too many people living with depression seek the shoemaker, instead of the “Watchmaker.”
v. 10-12 Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah.
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
The Psalmist once more uses the Selah thought, an in-depth pause, perhaps night fades and the morning arises with no relief, but the thoughts are the same; is God there? Can He hear from the place of the dead? Will He work wonders?
As the Psalmist relays, he feels as if he is in the “land of forgetfulness” and “darkness,” a place where no one cares. However, the silver lining of these verses displays the trust in a trustworthy God. While the writer may suffer from the thoughts of being alone, God is still the God of “wonders.” Battling depression is real, but a battle all the same. Battles are fought in moments of time, while wars last long. However, God in Christ has defeated death; therefore, our battles never cease —we press inward, onward, and upward.
Don’t ever give up on the God of love because the love of God has never given up on you. Continue reading.
v. 13 But I, O LORD, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.
The tears of humanity are the ever-present dew of praise. These are not tears of the night, but of the morning; a cry that has bewildered the soul; a prayer in the morning for the release from affliction. If you have never been to this place, it’s a continual emptiness that can overwhelm the soul.
Take note of the personal appeal of “I” and “You,” showing the intimate relationship the Psalmist has with the LORD — a time of prayer, a time of allowing the Potter to mold the clay. The prayers of the saints are beautiful to God and are a sweet-smelling aroma ever before Him. Don’t ever feel so overwhelmed to believe the lie that God doesn’t hear. This Psalm demonstrates a saving faith that prays; it is not in vain; it doesn’t vanish into thin air, but is always present before God—those prayers always “come before” Him.
v. 14-15 O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me? Afflicted and close to death…I suffer your terrors; I am helpless. Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me.
I cannot count the times that I prayed this aspect of the Psalms—God why do you not see that my soul is broken? The feeling that God is not present is very real and it seems that there are times when God hides Himself. Maybe it’s to allow a purging of the soul to occur? Who can know the mind of God?
The thoughts of separation lay siege around the Psalmist’s heart—separation of soul and Soul-maker. Oh, how terribly grieving it is to feel as if your soul is separated from the carcass of your flesh, as if you’re merely walking bones, “afflicted…suffering terrors…and helpless.” The feeling, again, that God is not listening comes to mind.
But, the Creator is not some distant god that doesn’t understand suffering. The Lord Jesus knows our suffering because he endured suffering on the cross, for our salvation. Alone and separated from the Father, Jesus endured the loneliness of death and soul-quenching depression. Yet, Jesus defeated sin AND death. Sometimes, we need a “Selah” moment, to remind ourselves in the midst of suffering that we have a Savior that knows our anguish, has felt pain and suffering, sacrificed His life for ours, and has overcome death.
The Psalmist continues…
v. 16-17 They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together. You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.
When our “companions have become darkness” then the depths of depression have set in—but it doesn’t need to be that way. The feeling of a distant God and being alone occurs far too often. For the record, this Psalm is the only one that ends in such a somber and depressive thought. All of the other Psalms show a turn of events—that God is to be praised.
But, I believe the Psalm ends this way because it relates to our humanity—our own suffering. Many people go through this thought pattern, that God is far off, that they are separated from their soul, that troubles overwhelm them, that the cries of the heart and affliction of life feel out of control and helpless. Sometimes, life does not present us with roses, rainbows, or refreshing streams of water. Yet, one thing is certain: God knows our suffering, and there are people around us, created in the image of God, that will walk with us.
If you are fighting depression, please seek help from a pastor, counselor, or friend. The beauty of the Psalms isn’t the darkness but that the Psalmist shares his feelings and brokenness. You cannot and should not feel like a burden—people love you—you are NOT alone. Remember to have “Selah” moments in between your bouts of anguish.
The one thing I believe and know, is that God is good. He is an ever-present help in time of need. He is not far off, but is near. He is the great Immanuel (God with us). He has given us His Holy Spirit to guide us and direct us in love. There is freedom in Christ, the freedom that says, “He is our peace” (Eph. 2:14). A peace that brings joy.
As created beings, we were designed for relationships, not isolation. Sharing our thoughts and burdens with others is essential. However, one of the keys to depression is that it causes selective isolation. The depressed person seeks solitude to find some sort kind of solace, reasoning, or understanding; perhaps, even to live with their “demons.”
Depression causes the individual to lock the proverbial door to their soul and hide the key. They become their own prisoner. Think about this, we punish people by placing them in isolation. Thus, since sharing helps relieve the burdens and pains caused by depression, nothing replaces human relationships. And so, while the Psalmist ends his writing on a somber note, your life should never end that way. No matter the circumstances or situation you may be currently facing—even if it feels like the same situation over and over and over again, for decades—this life does not have the final word. The resurrection of Jesus proves eternal life exists.
Lastly, there are so many people that love you. They would rather deal with your problems than not have you around. Additonally, I know of a God who loved you so much that He gave His only Son to die for you and to reconcile you back to Him (John 3:16).
Research has demonstrated a decline within the Western Church for several years. While statistics have shown that 80–85% of American churches are either dying, declining, or plateauing, those numbers are nearly a decade old (Malphurs 2013, 200). Unfortunately, the statistical data has not improved. A recent Barna Group study that included 34 denominations discovered 1.5 churches closed for every church that opened (Barna 2021). Subsequently, the United States receives over three times more missionaries than any other country worldwide (Matsuo 2014). J.D. Payne suggests that “God is the Divine Maestro orchestrating the movements of some of the world’s least-reached peoples into Western countries” (Payne 2022, 168). Thus, America is the mission field of the world, while within her borders, its Church is in decline.
With that stated, America is in a historically unique situation. While the United States has always been a beacon of hope to all people groups, it is currently receiving more foreign-born peoples than ever before, gathering 44 million per year (Connor and Budiman, 2019). From Census data, The Center for Immigration Studies found that one in eight people living in the United States is an immigrant, and one in five is between the ages of 40 and 64 (Hagey 2007). Within the American Church’s midst exists the ethnēof the world.
A recent New York Times article noted that if America’s current immigration trend continues, it will exceed the immigration influx of Europeans that arrived at Ellis Island in the 1890s (Gabeloff and Jordan 2022). While American missionaries once circumnavigated the oceans to reach the unreached, the people of the nations are here. As President Jimmy Carter once declared, “We’ve become not a melting pot, but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, and different dreams” (Carter, 1976). The American Church has the opportunity to shape the world by cultivating gospel reconciliation among its minority and diaspora communities.
As Western Christianity gravitates toward enculturation and stagnation, it is presented with a paradigm-shifting opportunity to re-establish and cultivate missional movements that reach multiple diaspora cultures. Likewise, for the American Church to effectively cease its steady decline, it must redevelop itself, refocusing its attention as a global Church participant. David Bosch affirms, “The Christian faith must be rethought, reformulated and lived anew in each human culture, and this must be done in a vital way, in depth and right to the cultures’ roots” (Bosch 2009, 452). The American Church must reevaluate its thinking regarding the unregenerate among its communities and how it views itself within the global Church. Additionally, how the American Church recognizes and engages culture for multiplicative reproduction needs realigning.
Migration and Ethnic Enclaves
Enoch Wan asserts, “Urbanization is one of the global trends of diaspora” (Wan 2010). One study noted the increase of diaspora communities becoming essential developmental actors that improve socio-economic and cultural connections between the origin country and their hosts (Gamlen 2014, 180-217). Countries that mobilize diaspora for specific international training, business development, or cooperative assignments are not only becoming increasingly more relevant but a form of long-distance nationalistic mission.
Many countries, including China, India, the Philippines, Israel, and South Korea, recognize and implement the practical applications of using vast diasporas for economic, community, and organizational developments. For instance, foreign governments utilize specific student or working Visas for their people to study engineering or medical procedures abroad. Contracted diaspora gain a robust education through diverse cultural perspectives and practices.
Connected to the trending global migration, contracted diaspora, and urbanization is the aspect of settlement choice. Studies show that migrating peoples tend to gravitate toward largely populated areas and ethnically group together. For example, one population survey in Minnesota noted that 97% of the members of Hmong descent lived within the same region (Xiong, 2017). Not exclusive to the Hmong people, research specifies that ethnically concentrated enclaves formulate due to immigrants of a particular origin settling into areas where others from the exact origin live (Cheswick and Miller 2004). For that reason, it is imperative for local churches to effectively exegete their cities and communities to understand and engage the cultural and demographic shifts occurring.
Therefore, in researching migrating people groups, several commonalities exist: (1) urban environments are the chosen settlement (Singer 2013), (2) overcrowded, multi-family, and multiple generational family housing is the norm within diaspora people with the additional trend pertaining to all racial groups (Cohn and Passel 2018), and (3) migrating peoples create ethnic cultural enclaves. By definition, ethnic enclaves are concentrations of people that share culture and ethnicity within a distinct geographic location.
Cultivating Cultural Oikos from Cultural Enclaves
As a practitioner, studying demographics can be beneficial. However, exegeting the neighborhood or city is better. Learning to exegete or interpret culture is just as crucial as biblical studies. One method for the Church to exegete community is by examining existing data. Another method to exegete community is for churches or organizations to deploy small groups that collect data by walking, observing, and recording. This last method can be tedious but more thorough and complete.
Regardless, for this scenario, utilizing the microchurch model will be an effective strategy. The microchurch planter feels the call of God and the prodding of the Spirit to reach a particular people group (if you want to know more about microchurches, click here). After establishing a relationship with a couple, they become his “persons of peace.” For decades, missionaries have utilized the person of peace concept (Lk. 10:6). Jesus instructed his disciple-making apostles with their marching orders, declaring, “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him” (Lk.10:5–6). As missionaries sought out the person of peace within a community, they rightly sought out hospitable and influencing type individuals that provided an opportunity to reach a village or people group.
There is a straightforward relationship between strategic church planting and immigrant overcrowded living, settlement, and housing. The comprehension that diaspora and migrating people create concentrated ethnic enclaves, dwelling within multigenerational and multi-family dwellings, relates to the attraction of utilizing the microchurch cultural oikos strategy. Biblically, the Greek word oikos refers to a household or dwelling. For church planting strategies, the organizational attributes of the oikos help cultivate intentional reproducible gospel reconciliation. Cultural enclaves can produce cultural oikos.
As the microchurch planter reaches and connects with his persons of peace, he has two developing scenarios. First, he can become the planter/elder/pastor to cultivate gospel reconciliation among the people group that he feels called to reach, or second, he can become the catalyst planter, discipling the persons of peace couple, so that they can be the elders/pastors of the microchurch. Regardless, without the persons of peace, reaching the ethnic enclave may not be easy.
In the diagram below, the planter becomes the lead elder, discipling the persons of peace. As they are discipled, they reach the cultural enclave, being invited to gather with the lead elder and couple. As the same nationality, ethnicity, and race, the cultural enclave is connected to the persons of peace. The persons of peace begin reaching others in their community enclave, in turn, cultivating the development of a microchurch cultural oikos.
Nevertheless, the closeness and constant communication within these dwelling places represent a cultural oikos in which greater opportunity for gospel saturation and reconciliation exists.
Subsequently, as someone more catalytic, helping the persons of peace become indigenous microchurch planters has similar features. The catalytic planter disciples the persons of peace in the same manner as the first strategy; however, he does not engage the microchurch plant as a participant. The catalyst’s role is to help cultivate as many microchurch cultural oikos’ as possible, by discipling persons of peace to engage their cultural enclaves.
Nevertheless, the goal is reproducible disciple-making. The missiological term cultural oikos only helps identify gospel engagement strategies. Understanding that diaspora and migrating groups are not models but people with deeply rooted rituals, ideologies, and beliefs—for the microchurch planter, the person of peace is vital. As one missiologist noted, “For many of these people groups, Christianity is viewed as a competing political and religious force that threatens to break up families and communities. These people need to be reached through a gospel movement emphasizing God’s blessing to heal and strengthen families. Many of these people groups have deep roots in their traditions, which can make it difficult for them to choose the gospel” (East West, n.d.). Gospel movements provide reproducibility and healing, restoring and reconciling the image of God, back to God. While a difficulty exists to infiltrate some traditions, rituals, and roots, the person of peace becomes the archetypal biblical Roman Centurion or Philippian jailer (Acts 10:2, 16:21). These reconciled men served as influencers among their people and became the gateway for their cultural enclave to become a cultural oikos to receive gospel reconciliation.
The primary content of this article was presented at the Evangelical Missiological Society Southeast Conference, March 19th, 2022. If you’d like a full copy of the article “Planting Urban Microchurches: Utilizing the Cultural Oikos to Cultivate Gospel reconciliation Among Minority and Diaspora Communities,” please feel free to contact me.
Lately, much is being written about microchurches. With the intimacy of fellowship, community, worship, and driven mission, it is obvious why people are being drawn to this vibrant kingdom expression. As a practitioner and professor, I have the grateful ability to view movements from the field and vicariously live experiences through student planters and pastors. Being asked frequently about the differences between microchurches and house churches has propelled me to write a short article (and provide some graphics).
First, microchurch planting is not merely the new trending missiological term; it does have succinct differences and parameters. For the most part, they are catalytic and a decentralized movement creator. Microchurches do not belong to denominations or organizations, yet they develop strategic and dynamic networks.
As well, house churches also do not belong to denominations. For clarity, most church plants tend to begin as house churches until they are ready for a public launch. More precisely, traditional church planting is not being discussed in this article. A house church is not the same as a microchurch. Microchurch does not mean small church. Micro refers to the definitive mission focus. Microchurches are called to someone, something, or someplace. They do not have multiple outreaches, as they are “micro-focused” on one specific identity.
In the diagram below, a microchurch planter is moved by the Spirit, feeling called to reach a specific subculture of people in his community. The planter prays for these people every day as he joins them in skateboarding. Building a relationship with a “skater-dude,” the planter finds his person of peace (Luke 10:6). As the planter disciples the person of peace, he is baptized and seeks the Word of God and fellowship. Subsequently, the person of peace connects with many other “skater-dudes.” While he’s still being discipled by the planter/catalyst, the skater-dude helps cultivate a microchurch within a subculture.
As stated, microchurches are driven by a unified mission. Every believer is a participating missionary within the same mission. Undeterred by diverse outreaches, programs, or events, the microchurch collectively gathers, prays, and funds one single mission. Each person feels the same Divine calling to the mission. In our case, the microchurch focused on a skateboarding subculture, but it could be a people group or any specific component of culture.
While a microchurch is filled with one type of culture, subculture, people group, or affinity, house churches are different. A house church can be autonomous like a microchurch. Still, the house church model seeks to reach anyone and everyone, regardless of culture, subculture, geographic location, ethnicity, race, occupation, or any other defining label—that is a good thing! Below, a small diagram illustrates the diversity of a house church.
The church planting couple in the middle is discipling and leading many people to Christ. Perhaps, as the couple meets “farmer Bob” at a local farmer’s market, they share the gospel and invite him to their house church. Bob knows an inner-city police officer that he invites into the house church. The policeman knows a family with a small baby who lives in the suburbs and would like to join them. As visible in the diagram, there is a comprehensive perspective of people (farmer, policeman, single dad, businesswoman, family, etc.). While house churches may still utilize traditional church polity and liturgy, they enjoy the organic aspect of church. They seek the intimacy, fellowship, worship, and communion of a microchurch, but are not as mission-driven or unified. The policeman may want to start a food ministry in the city, in which several volunteers help him. Someone else may wish to build handicapped accessible ramps for the elderly and disabled. At the same time, another decides to start a single dad ministry. While none of these outreaches are bad, on the contrary, they are all good, just different than a microchurch.
Nevertheless, there is a need for every strategy and model within church planting. Understanding which model best fits your talents, gifts, and calling are vital. You may have read through this article and realized that neither is right for you. You may be gravitating toward missional communities, a launch model, a team approach, or an entrepreneurial strategy? In each scenario, it is essential to recognize the pros and cons of each strategy. While this article is a condensed version of each, hopefully, it has provided you with a clearer picture of microchurches and house churches. If you have any questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to connect with me.