When is Simple Church Not Enough?
First, it is important to qualify that simple church is essentially a communal way of missional life rather than merely a specific group of people who meet in a certain way. However, an out-working of simple church is doing life with a specific group of people; finding a meaningful rhythm of life together (which will include how they meet).
Thus, I’m not asking whether simple church values are sufficient in this article (I’m convinced they are), I’m fussing with whether a single simple church is enough; that is, is a solitary Kingdom community self-sufficient? Or are there in-built limitations allowed by God to encourage each self-governing community to work with other Kingdom communities in apostolic vision?
Continue reading as we look at this issue, identify some niche ministries in which simple church communities may be limited – such as mission-projects, local outreach and focused ministry to children – and outline some important values/principles to facilitate effectively working together.
So, when is simple church not enough?
It goes without saying that I’m fully persuaded that a simple church – a missional Kingdom community – is the bread and butter of what Jesus intended a spiritual family to be (Matthew 18:15-20) and what Paul envisioned as the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15)1. If you have any doubts about me – because of this article’s title – please scour through this site before you think I’ve recently slipped and bumped my head.
However, there are some things a single simple church simply cannot do; that is, there are inbuilt limitations to every simple church community. And this is, I believe, the way God intended it. Acknowledging these limitations in no way negates its validity – and the enormous blessings in and strengths inherent to simple church – however, this simply helps us to curb the excessive expectations often placed on a spiritual family and behoves us to appreciate our interconnectedness within an “apostolic cluster” (or family or tribe or sphere)2 and the wider church for that matter.
Think of a nuclear family for a minute.
My wife and I cannot be everything to nor do everything for our children; we need to work holistically with our extended family, the spiritual community we’re a part of and a valid educational network to raise well-rounded children. These supplementary connections cannot do what we as parents are responsible to do, but without this layered complimentary support we’d short change our children’s growth experiences and opportunities. In other words, while there is plenty only we can do as parents, there is a fair amount of things that we cannot do alone.
Similarly, while the essential life of a simple church is, in my mind, non-negotiable – in one phrase: missional discipleship3 – and should not be outsourced to a church system, program or course; appreciating our limitations as a spiritual family and, thus, our interconnectedness with others is crucial. Or else we burn out doing too much or fudge the substantial “thing” we should do or become disillusioned because simple church doesn’t meet our (misguided) expectations.
Said another way, while there is a substance and vitality that a simple church can only enjoy through living a deeply intentional communal life together, there are some things a spiritual community may not be able to do by themselves. (I’ve yet to come across a simple church family so multi-talented and all-rounded to exist as an island by themselves).
So, what “things” am I referring to?4
Well, a simple church may have an embarrassment of riches in people graced and skilled to work with and minister effectively to children and young people; most however don’t. Another simple church may have a treasure trove of musicians able to facilitate times of musical worship but more often than not it won’t.
Still another may have a glut of those gifted and experienced in mission and outreach to the poor or market place ministries or (…name it…), but each simple church cannot or should not labour under any obligation to focus exceptionally well on any one of these valid but niche ministry emphases.
When various simple churches or even like-minded people from different simple churches combine their gifts and experience to serve into these specific ministry areas, a wonderful Spirit-led synergy is possible as we appreciate our interconnectedness with others.
Personally, I think this works initially best within an apostolic family – a cluster of simple churches that relate in apostolic vision (if you didn’t read footnote #2) – as there are usually similar values with which to work and a servant-hearted apostolic team to help facilitate such initiatives5.
I certainly don’t think an apostolic team is essential for these initiatives to be effective nor do I think such a team should necessarily initiate or centralise such activities.
However, I do believe that these initiatives require parent-hearted, loving governance as expectations, idealism and egos are very much part of any ministry initiative.
Mature parent-elders from the representative simple churches, especially those who do not have a direct vested interest in the initiative itself, could serve into and provide ongoing counsel (parenting the “ministers” not micro-managing their “ministry”) for these cross-pollinating ministries. Drawing on the perspective of an apostolic team with whom they walk is just another blessing of apostolic alignment.
The following guidelines have proved helpful for these kinds of initiatives:
1. Reasoning from the whole to the part.
These niche ministry initiatives ought to supplement the simple church family and compliment the apostolic cluster; not compete with each. We ought to reason from the whole – the simple church and apostolic sphere – to the part – the niche ministry (whether it’s to children, youth, the poor, missions, market place, etc.).
The value and fruitfulness of the ministry ought to be weighed in this light in an intentional evaluation carried out every 3 to 6 months. Skimp on this and invite trouble: reasoning from the whole to the part is a principle we need reminding of regularly and it’s a value that needs to be imparted to new, enthusiastic people engaging in a niche ministry.
2. The activities or events should be semi-regular.
A weekly investment into a niche ministry soon becomes a demanding monster with its mouth open wide; guzzling more and more resources, siphoning the life from the participating simple churches. The harsh reality is that, juggling work and family, most people are able to give themselves wholeheartedly to at most two regular meetings a week; a weekly investment of time into a niche ministry (let alone the preparation that may be involved) will steal away from authentic communal life, discipleship and ministry.
Initiatives that are once or twice a month, or planned twice a quarter (or more often if daylight hours during the week are utilised; for those who work from home, for example) seem to work best.
Of course pulling off an interstate or international mission is a different animal altogether. Doing even one effective mission trip a year for a group of 3-10 simple churches may be a sizeable effort and, as due date gets closer, will require a more intensive investment of time for those who are part of the mission team itself.
3. The activities or events should be decentralised as much as possible.
The ministry should serve (in the case of a ministry to children, for example) or mobilise (in the case of an outreach or mission, for instance) the simple churches involved, not attempt to project a ministry to all and sundry or even necessarily the whole apostolic sphere it relates to. Doing this tends to require centralised processes and fosters an over-dependence on programs and materials; resulting in the introduction of systemic organisation that trumps authentic relationships. Thus, what was supposed to serve us becomes our master.
This is not to say that a degree of necessary coordination and administration is a bad thing. Of course not. Any initiative requires wise stewardship, thorough communication and an integral process with review built into it. However, keeping the ministry relevant to the participating simple churches keeps it relational and authentic. If the tail starts to wag the dog at any point; through objective evaluation, the necessary changes can be made.
In the case of ministry to children or youth, I think a decentralised approach means it ought to be parent-driven; initiated and carried by the parents of the participating simple churches. Parents should work together to serve in line with their strengths, gifting and experience and resolve to avoid it becoming a resource-munching, crowd-entertaining, specialist-intensive, program-driven black hole.
In my opinion, an apostolic cluster of, say, ten simple churches in a locality would be better served by having two (or even three) “pockets” of three or four simple churches working together to minister to their participating children – rather than one big, centralised ministry that attempts to cater for all the children concerned.
If the cluster of simple churches happens to have a trained specialist in children’s ministry, I still think the best use of someone with these vital skills is to equip parents in these decentralised, reproducible “pockets” instead of driving a large children’s ministry extravaganza6.
I think the same decentralised approach is valuable for outreach to the poor and other niche ministry initiatives. However, pulling off an interstate or international mission may require a more centralised approach – and in my opinion, the involvement of the relating apostolic team – as it will more than likely only include a small group, from diverse simple churches, who actually goes on mission at any one time7.
However, the prayer mobilised for the mission trip etc. can be coordinated for the most part within each simple church or in “pockets” of simple churches (two to four) within the cluster that have a spiritual gravitation to one another8.
How involved should an apostolic team be in these initiatives?
Generally speaking; only as much as is needed and with a definitive goal to become redundant at some point.
For new apostolic clusters in an area, I think the apostolic team could be more involved in the birth of such initiatives in order to help develop some working guidelines such as those proposed here. As mature parent-leaders are affirmed in each self-governing simple church, the apostolic team’s involvement may only be necessary when it comes to interstate or international mission.
1 Jesus’ words on conflict resolution in Matthew 18:15-20 provide an amazing snapshot of how an intentional community should handle a very difficult situation. Covenant values such as love, honesty, appeal, respect, mediation, restoration and even discipline are evident in this passage. (c. Colossians 3:12-17; Galatians 6:1-5; 1 Corinthians 6:1-5).
Furthermore, the Greek word Paul uses in 1 Timothy 3:15 (oikos) is translated rather unfortunately as “the house of God” in the NKJV; the phrase having a strong association with a brick and mortar building that is hard for many to shake. The Greek word oikos refers to a household, a spiritual family.
Paul uses the word earlier in the chapter to refer to the nuclear family as the training ground for potential leaders and equates it with the ecclesia: “for if a man does not know how to rule his own house (oikos), how will he take care of the church (ecclesia) of God?” (1 Timothy 3:5).
2 By “apostolic cluster” I refer to a grouping of simple church communities who relate together in apostolic vision, often served by an apostolic team who either helped plant them or with whom the simple churches have mutually aligned. As an apostolic team usually aims to help an initial church plant become the beach-head into an area in order to reproduce itself in that locality, the simple churches multiplied would do well – although are not under obligation – to continue to relate to the other churches and apostolic team from which it has been birthed. Synonymous terms to describe an apostolic cluster are family, tribe or sphere.
3 Please see the following article on what I mean by missional discipleship:
“What about fellowship?” you may ask, “isn’t that the purpose of a simple church?” No, it is not. Fellowship is the wonderful by-product of a community alive, in love and on mission. When we make fellowship the purpose or goal, we become ingrown and often lose it.
4 I believe that the most important “thing” that a simple/organic church requires outside itself is an authentic, mutual connection to apostolic vision and team; that is, a healthy relationship with a servant-hearted team of functioning Ephesians 4:11 equipping gifts. I have covered this in several articles; although, I’d recommend that you view these two:
What is apostolic alignment? <A Few Good Fathers>
How does authority work? <Like Father, Like Son>
In this article, I’m addressing niche ministries that a single simple church may struggle to engage in alone.
5 Incidentally, I think church-wide unity is enhanced when apostolic families work together in this way as the (capital B) Body of Christ in a city, but if we cannot get this right in our apostolic spheres we’ll certainly struggle at a church-wide level. Please see the article, What is essential to church unity? <All for One>
6 The beauty and freedom of this means that bigger projects such as an annual or once off “children’s camp” or “fathers and sons weekend” can be pulled off by bringing all the groupings in an apostolic sphere together. Again, this is an overflow of the decentralised life experienced in these “pockets” not a “life-support machine” we’re dependent on.
7 A mission team bigger than ten people, in my experience, becomes counter-productive; in fact, teams no bigger than eight are my preference.
8 Cluster-wide prayer is also invaluable in this regard but don’t under-estimate the value of mission-targeted prayer mobilised in each simple church and in “pockets” of simple churches. Not only do these more intimate settings increase the number of people actively involved in prayer but encourages cross-pollination of heart and life between various simple church communities.