The Dirt on Organic Home Bible Studies
Small volunteer-led congregations are gaining popularity and making an impact. But they require more spadework than you realize.
It began in my living room in 2005 with a small group of Milwaukee 20-somethings, most of whom wouldn’t be caught dead in “church.” Then I pitched the idea of doing church where the rest of life happens: in living rooms, kitchens, Starbucks bistros—anywhere solid conversations could take place. The people grew, the group grew, the number of houses grew, and off I ventured into the world of organic churches.
Things changed only slightly when we transitioned from small groups to organic churches. We started serving Communion and holding baptisms. To the naked eye, we probably still looked more like small groups than churches. We didn’t have a sermon; we didn’t pass an offering plate; we didn’t sing together. Instead, we shared a meal, discussed and applied the Bible to personal issues, shared testimonies, and prayed together. At the most basic level, our goals were the same as any traditional church. We were committed to worship, discipleship, and evangelism. We just tackled these objectives in more relational ways. We favored conversations over productions, shared learning over lectures, living rooms over auditoriums, and questions over answers. And we charged each individual with the responsibility to edify the rest with whatever God-given resources he or she possessed.
At first our organic churches seemed destined for success. Granted, a gathering of 85 people doesn’t sound too impressive compared to a mega-church, but when four out of five people showing up are not Christians or are new to faith, something in your heart beats faster and tells you, This is what it’s all about. Unfortunately, our early successes with the organic way ultimately became our undoing.
To survive as an organic movement, planters must make some very non-organic decisions. It’s not all “go with the flow” or “let be what will be.” You have to dig a little deeper to plant organic.
Sometimes smaller is just smaller
We started with a few people and a few changed lives. People got excited, invited friends who needed Jesus, and then their lives were changed too. It looked like everything was rolling in the right direction. But soon we realized that changing to a smaller format isn’t a magical solution to every traditional church problem. Sometimes smaller is just smaller. We were doing the same old thing as every other church, just with fewer people. I’m not talking about sermons, music, or offering plates—all that was different. I’m talking about the way people viewed spiritual formation. People in our organic churches still used our gatherings as their “weekly recharge.” They still approached outreach as an invitation to say, “Come see what we’re doing over here!”
Organic churches may be smaller, but they don’t take any less time. There may be fewer people, but the mess is often bigger.
To truly be an alternative to traditional church ministry, organic churches have to go where few churches have gone before: to lost people. Our organic church evangelized and discipled dozens of lost people; but they had to come to our living rooms for it to work. The world needs churches that live with the lost, rather than just extract them. Ours didn’t quite get there. Instead, we discovered that churches will not necessarily achieve more biblical avenues of spiritual formation just by approaching things organically.
Deep or wide?
Eighty percent of the people in our congregation were new believers. As exciting as that was, there’s a reason Paul tells Timothy not to let new believers take the reins. New believers can be all energy and no orthodoxy. They can drag others down with them when they fall to shallow roots or are choked out by surrounding weeds. We dodged these pitfalls by not handing leadership roles to new believers, but the result was that we couldn’t produce leaders fast enough to keep pace with our outreach.
We grew from 15 to 85 people in 10 months, and at our high point, only 17 of our people had been Christians long enough to be considered prospects for leadership. That may sound like a lot, but I was one of only four who had leadership experience in a church. As a result, a minority of us shouldered the entire leadership load. I ran training workshops on Bible survey, hermeneutics, and systematic theology. I led practicums in prayer, teaching, and counseling. The goal was to move people from convert to mentor in less than a year. We couldn’t do it. Organic plants either need to scale back the outreach to match their leadership development, or import established leaders along the way. Neither option feels like an organic solution, but it is necessary to do one or the other to keep organic churches healthy.
A professional guarantee
When we were “just a small group,” we had people willing to share their gifts as teachers, counselors, apostles—you name it. But as soon as we started calling ourselves a “house church,” they started pulling back their gifts. The assignment was no longer “lead a discussion” or “listen and offer encouragement.” We were now asking people to take responsibility for each other’s spiritual journey—to teach, counsel, pray (or whatever their gift was), until other people in the church got to where God wanted them. Some felt that was asking too much.
One woman, probably our most gifted teacher, chose to step down from her teaching rotation. Two others, who at one time facilitated discussions for us, left altogether because they didn’t believe it was biblical to have church without a formal sermon.
Everyone else chose to stay, but the established Christians in particular were skeptical about the transition. As a result, very few of them chose to contribute more than they already were. In some cases, they stopped serving altogether and stepped back into passive observation. Our small pool of leaders got even smaller.
It’s tough when the buck stops with you, especially when you are seen as a peer rather than an authority. Most people would rather hire a pro—a pastor.
People’s preference for professional leadership leaves organic planters with two non-organic options: provide the pro or force the followers. Forcing followers to become leaders is the antithesis of organic. If people are not gravitating toward responsibility on their own, I’m not sure forcing it upon them is a helpful solution.
Providing a professional is easier and—ironically—may prove to be a little more organic. People today don’t want the professional to do everything for them anyway. They want to know that someone is there to pick up the pieces if things fall apart. Establishing a resident professional to provide that sense of safety may keep the organic environment secure, confident, and growing. Caving to the congregation’s preference for professionals still leaves me unsettled. But sometimes planters need to fudge the ideal for the sake of the real. Sometimes you just have to work with the soil you are given.
Time is money
I know the true-blue organic church planters shun the collection of a salary, but I’m not sure there is a way around it. Organic churches may be smaller, but they don’t take any less time. There may be fewer people, but the mess is often bigger. It seems as though the dirt on everyone comes out in an organic church. In our case, everyone knew who was medicated for depression and who was battling addictions. Everyone knew who had been abused or raped or was suffering from trauma. Everyone knew who had friends that they were influencing, and who had friends that were influencing them. It’s not that we had times of public confession; we just fostered an atmosphere in which it made sense to air out all the dirty laundry. Of course none of the issues were unique to what traditional churches face, but the intimacy of our group made the challenges unique.
Outreach by relationship takes a ton of time, as well. I estimate that a solid leader who is running outreach, discipleship, and leadership development the organic way is going to need 15 to 20 hours per week for a church of 30 to 40 people. That’s assuming there is another leader putting 25 to 40 weekly hours into training and networking.
The fact of the matter is that organic church leadership takes more than most people are willing to give. After a regular 40 to 50-hour work week and family activities, it’s a lot to ask someone to serve a whole congregation, even if it is a small one—maybe especially if it is a small one! If every individual were to accept due responsibility for their gifting, an organic church might be able to operate without a salaried pastor. Until that happens, organic churches need to dig a little deeper and fund a few part-time roles.
My first run with organic churches was not a smashing success. We welcomed a few dozen new followers of Jesus into his kingdom—which is cause for celebration—but we never hit a self-sustaining groove. After the first year a few new seekers trickled in. But for the most part, we stopped multiplying disciples and churches. Two of the churches ran their course and dissolved. Some people joined established churches as small group leaders or missionaries. Others went back to spiritual seclusion. The third church is still running five years later, and it is doing some significant ministry. But it doesn’t have as much vision or vitality as it once possessed. As for me, I am now in Albany, New York, as a regular pastor at a regular church—or so it appears to the naked eye.
I didn’t make it as an organic planter the first time around, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up. I’m digging a little deeper in hopes of planting better organically. I’m currently mixing it up with neighbors and local artists—sharing a little love, a little hope, and a little Jesus with anyone I can. I have my eye on some established leaders, and have a better picture of how one “professional” leader in the mix may offer some much needed training and networking. Dare I say I am even open to holding a Sunday service! I am now willing to be slightly less organic to sustain a church over the long haul. GOT MATURITY?
Brian Hofmeister is pastor of small groups and spiritual formation at Christ’s Church of the Capital District, Albany, New York.
The article “The Dirt on Organic Home Bible Studies” written by Brian Hoffmeister was excerpted from www.crosswalk.com website, June 2010.