Monthly Archives: March 2008

A Different Kind of Church – Xenos Christian Fellowship

Recent conversations with some friends about home churches and ministry models caused me to revisit this post. I initially wrote about Xenos Christian Fellowship in Columbus Ohio on June 17, 2005. I have some reservations about how they “do” church. But I also think they have put into practice some innovative and intriguing ideas.

The structure and practices of Xenos look nothing like most traditional, mainline churches. It’s so different that it makes sense, seems like a good way to solve many common problems in churches, and is a little creepy – all at the same time. Of course, these are just observations based off words on a Web site. I have never gone and lived among the people of Xenos. But I just couldn’t resist writing about the things that make it distinct.

Xenos is kind of what happens when the house church movement smacks into a mega church and tries to get rid of the worst of each and keep the best. It started as a loose collection of home churches focused on youth ministry and has evolved into one of the largest home church ministries in the United States. But unlike many of the cell groups that have been tried as afterthoughts in many churches, home groups are the basis of Xenos. And it seems to be working according to the church’s Web site.

Here’s a list of Xenos’ distinctive approach to being a local church:
1.) Xenos insists on a high level of training for its home church leaders. Typically, they must go through 210 hours of training, personal mentorship, etc. Since these are mini-churches with most of the function of a typical church, the Xenos leadership believes the leaders of these fellowships should be well trained to handle whatever arises. A lack of training is one of the main reasons why many traditional cell groups do not work.
2.) Ministry Houses – These are rooming houses which are dedicated to discipleship and evangelism. These homes are filled mostly with young adults and others that do not have a family.
3.) No designated giving – Individual donors can’t determine where the money goes. Those decisions are decided by the elders and the Fiscal Support Team (FST), a group of more than 1,200 serious donors. The elders and FST meet once a year to plan and review budgets for the entire church.

The church is run by a board of elders. Some work full-time for the church. Others do not. They have all agreed to cap their income as a way to avoid materialism and avoid the entanglements of too much wealth. This requirement is not placed upon home group leaders or others, only elders. [This practice bordered on cult like behavior it seemed to me at first. But at I thought about it, Jesus told the rich man to sell everything. The early Church had everything in common. It was not odd for people to sell something for the benefit of the whole. Maybe they have a good idea about limiting elder income.]
4.) No large worship service. Worship is to be a way of life beyond just music. Xenos believes the best place for music worship is at the home group not the large church gatherings. Xenos charges home churches with the mission of corporate worship. Its large meetings are for teaching and for outreach to non-Christians. Some home churches worship in song, and some just worship in prayer. Celebrating communion and baptisms are also handled by home churches.
5.) Home group leaders handle all weddings, visitations and funerals. All staff and elders are required to be in a home group.
6.) All church discipline is handled by the home group with some oversight by the elders. All staff hiring is limited to members.
7.) Xenos has a three level structure with large group meeting, home church meetings and cell meetings. Non-believers are not allowed to attend cell meetings. These are for Christians only. The main purpose of the large church meetings is for teaching. Xenos has a strong emphasis on training with 500-800 members taking classes on introductory to graduate level subjects at any given quarter. It spends around 20% of its annual budget on training and classes for ministry preparation.
8.) Xenos has a strong urban ministry emphasis with most of the outreach staff having moved into the city to live among the poor.
9.)Mission focus on sending out targeted teams and not just individuals. Xenos leadership prays with missionaries to help determine where best to send them. It’s not a thing where the missionaries decide where to go solely on their own and ask for support.
10.)Over 50% of members are involved in discipleship relationships. Xenos tends to generate it own children’s teaching material and adult course content. There is no scripted ministry program for home church or cell group leaders. Each group is free to be led by the Spirit in how it runs its gatherings.
11.) Secular music is played at youth/student meetings. Students do expository Scripture teachings to large and small meetings. In most churches, students if they speak are nearly always told to give a personal testimony, tell a story or discuss a topic. Almost never will a student give expository Bible teaching. Xenos encourages and equips students to teach indepth. Students study hermeneutics, homiletics and discussion-leading in class. They also usually go over and even give the teaching to a mentor who can correct any shortcomings. Students learn their Bible better when they teach it, and they gain experience teaching and preaching. Later, when they take over their own groups, they will already have significant experience speaking in front of groups.
12.)Most top Xenos leadership is involved in youth ministry, which is viewed as the most not least important ministry in the church. Unlike some places where youth ministry is consider an entry-level position, senior leadership focuses time on youth ministry at Xenos.
13.) Most ministry teams initiated by individuals, not staff. This is good because paid personnel can only do so much. The people should do most of the work of the church not the paid staff.
14.) Xenos has a questions and answers time in its large corporate gatherings.
15.) Xenos has some “weird” views on confidentiality. While I can see some of the merits of its policy, I also believe that the right to privacy is important too because even the most graceful people can hold our past against us. I do find Xenos’ policies insightful and challenging to the status quo even if I think they are somewhat extreme.

Find out more about Xenos’ structure and methodology by visiting www.xenos.org.

Beyond the “Faith vs. Works” Debate

In Galatians 2:15-21, the Apostle Paul outlined a clear argument explaining why sinners can only be justified before God by faith in Christ and not following the Law or doing good works. This is one of the classical passages in the debate about the “new perspective” on Paul and the age old discussion about what a person must do to be saved from God’s wrath against sin.

Following Paul’s rebuke of Peter, the passage makes it clear that 1.) no one will be justified by works, 2.) in trying to justify ourselves, we discover our sinfulness, 3.) believers are nailed to the cross with Christ and die to the law, 4.) Christians live in the flesh by faith in Christ, and 5.) works nullify grace and Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

The new perspective on Paul stems from research by E.P. Sanders. And the crux of the debate revolves around what exactly did Jews believe about salvation and works during the time of Paul. This reflection helps modern readers better understand Paul’s chief concern with the Judaizers. Sanders maintained that the Jews were not looking to works to save them as many Christian scholars had suggested.

I partially agree with Sanders that not all Jews held this belief while some obviously did or at least Paul saw it as a threat to Gentiles converts. I believe all people are somewhat hardwired from the beginning to default to work’s based righteousness even if we start out claiming “Grace, Grace.”

It is not as much as a Jew/Gentile thing as a human condition. Thus, it is impossible to concretely say one way or the other what Jews believed during Paul’s day, and more than likely, there was a wide variety of experiences and opinions on the subject.

Messy Spirituality

The spiritual journey of most people tends to look more like a messy masterpiece than a precise blueprint. This point recently became clear to me as I participated in a spiritual right of passage moment with a talented young man from my church. 

While reflecting on what I would say with the teen when it became my turn to share, the Holy Spirit gave me a picture. The process of making the image was as much the meaning as the finished product.

The young man came over to my house and he painted the image that I got in my head. I decided to use finger paints for this teaching demonstration because it gets messy kind of like life. While the student painted the image I had drawn, I narrated the different elements bringing in Scripture, quotes from famous people and stories from my own life. 

The image starts out with a dark black hole at the bottom. This was created by mixing three very bright colors – cyan, magenta and yellow. As these colors were mixed together, they became a dark greyish green. The changing colors reflect life which can have both good and bad times. Our troubles can become a black hole that suck the life out of our world. The black hole also represents the negative influences and voices in our lives. As the youth painted, I spoke some of those words around him just so that he would get the point. I said that these were lies and should not be trusted.    

Then, the young man painted the earth. Pretty simply, we live in a real place and time. God has called Christians to live in and impact our world. Although this may not be our final resting place, this is where we are now. The physical realm is where we impact the spiritual world and our eternal destiny. We shouldn’t be so fixed on the next world that we forfeit out opportunity to impact this one as God has comanded.

The next aspect was the blood covering the earth. I had a vision of wings of fire and blood that cover the earth, which illustrates the two aspects of grace – forgiveness of sin and power to live as God intended. The blood represents the blood of Christ that washes away our sin and makes us pure before God. The fire is meant to remind us of the Holy Spirit, which gives us the abillity to live a supernatural existence on this planet. The blood and the fire mix to cover the planet and even drips down to impact the parts of our lives that could become black holes of death.

Above the earth is the cross, the source of life, identity and redemption for a Christian. The cross reminds us that life will not always be easy although God has given us a perfect example of victory through trials in Jesus. The cross gives a Christian hope as well as a sense of identity that our lives stand for something more than just courselves. Whenever we lose our way, we look to the cross and Christ as our example. When we forget who we are, we see our real value and identity in what God says not what others say or what we might even think.

At the top of the picture is a crown, which represents the kingdom of God. All true Christians are part of this kingdom as we have been adopted into God’s family. That means we are princes and princesses in a divine kingdom. 

Crowns are a symbol of authority, fame and honor. As part of the royal family, we have a mission to complete and kingdom rule to establish. Unlike most earthly kingdoms, this is a rule known by its love and sacrifice for the greater good. We are under authority and in authority at the same time.

The painting creates a contrast between the black holes of life and the regal victory through Christ. The canvas is the earth and our very lives. I told the student that he is the canvas in God’s hands. Ultimately, God finishes the masterpiece that He starts in our lives. And at the same time, that young man is a painter too. He has been given by God the skill and mission to be creative and to paint a picture of heaven on earth by his daily interactions with others. We are created in God’s image to be creative and usher in His kingdom. We should think of our lives as an opportunity to paint a reality that we all dream is possible.

It can be easy to get overwhelmed by our failures. But I encouraged the young man to see the possiblity before him and to determine to seek and serve God despite the mess that might be made in the process. And I told him that if he dedicates his days to God, his life will be a masterpiece in the end.

Mike Yaconelli set up the problem well in his book Messy Spirituality. Yac wrote, “My life is a mess. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a godly person. Yet when I look at the yesterdays of my life, what I see, mostly is a broken, irregular path littered with mistakes and failure. I have had temporary successes and isolated moments of closeness to God, but I long for the continual presence of Jesus. I want to be a good person. I don’t want to fail. I want to learn from my mistakes, rid myself of distractions, and run into the arms of Jesus. Most of the time, however, I feel like I am running away from Jesus in to the arms of my own clutteredness…Right now the only consistency in my life is my inconsistency.”

Yac also pointed to the solution. Yac wrote, “Spirituality is not about perfection; it is about connection.” God has saved you by grace through the work of Jesus on the cross.

 

It is really easy to walk into the ditch of condemnation or self righteousness. Both are mired in the same thing – looking at ourselves and not Christ. As a Christian I believe that we should never leave the foot of the cross because that is where our true identity and reason to live is found.

Here is what the picture looks like that the student painted. He did a much better job than I did when I tried to paint the image that I saw in my head.

Joel's Masterpiece

Missons for All the Wrong Reasons

A friend of mine recently said, “I am so tired of people going on a two week mission trip where they work for about two days and think that they have given up some big sacrifice to be a missionary.”

My friend and fellow Christian made a real good point. Many churches, including my own, make a huge deal of missions trips. There are promotional videos, testimonies, informational meetings, etc.  None of this is bad. But it can quickly go off course. I have especially seen this with younger people who do a mission trip because evidently that is what you are supposed to do if you want to be liked at church.

Please do not get me wrong. I am pro missions, even short-term trips can be a good thing. I don’t even mind missionary tourism where the trip is about seeing Biblical sites or learning foreign cultures. Those can serve a good purpose to widen the worldview of Christians in America. But I do think we need to be honest about our level of sacrifice. We need to realize that the Gospel is about Jesus not us or even other people.

Personally, I have only been on a few missions trips where I felt like I had to sacrifice much at all. Strangely, those have all been trips that took place less than eight hours from home. And those sacrifices were primarily my own mental sanity for a day or so.

Giving up a week’s vacation is nothing compared to what many others have done for the Gospel. Working hard in the hot sun for three days is not persecution. You are not a super Christian just because you went to a foreign country on a missions trip for two weeks and slept in less than posh surroundings. 

As a youth worker, I have seen students come back from mission trips with either bloated opinions of their accomplishments or a sense of disillusionment because it somehow did not live up to their expectations of Biblical proportions. My real concern is that sometimes these mission endeavors serve as an excuse not to share the Gospel instead of a catalyst for even more relational missions when we get home. It is like people get home and check evangelism off their to-do list for a year. 

I really believe what we do when we get home is the real test for how successful a missions endeavor was in impacting our life and worldview.

More than anything, I believe that people, especially teenagers, need to process through their experience and get a sense of perspective. While it is good that a student may come home and be thankful for what they have, that isn’t much of a spiritual outcome when you consider all the effort that goes into international missions. The main objective of missions trips is not to make people happy that they live in the USA.

I am concerned that trips without proper debriefing can lead to Christians who get the wrong ideas about missions. They can go on future trips with the wrong motives and not realize the dangers in doing “spiritual” things for selfish reasons. It can be so hard to detect our real motives because we can become very good at disguising them. Then, we don’t even know the truth of what is going on inside of us.

The objective of missions isn’t even other people. The real goal is to glorify God and to extend His Kingdom rule across the planet. This is not done by fear, violence, manipulation or intimidation. Instead, this is manifest by service and love as God receives the glory for the good things that His Church does in His name.

Missions is a must for the Church today. But it cannot be something that just happens on foreign trips or church outings. Being a witness for Christ is what all true Christians are called to be every day of our lives. We never check that off our list.

If we started going on mission trips for the right reasons, would we start living at home a bit differently? Maybe we would act more like Christ when we talk to our neighbor or come across a checker at the grocery store who is having a bad day.

Cool Online Bible Resource – YouVersion

Have you ever had an idea that you wanted to see come to fruition but you had no idea how to make it happen? That is what I thought when I saw YouVersion a few weeks ago. This is a collaborative Bible site where people can share insights, links, video, audio and other resources connected with various Bible verses. I have been talking about this idea with some friends for more than a year, and I am glad to see someone actually did it.

The design is smart, clean and intuitive. YouVersion provides access to multiple Bible versions as well as other resources that users post. Think of YouVersion as a really big small group discussion complete with text, audio and video. The site has reading plans and the ability to create a personal Bible journal.

I  suggest you check it out. This is the next big thing in Web-based Bible exploration.

http://www.youversion.com/

Why Are So Many People Leaving the Church???

It seems like every month I come across more people who have left a church and have no intention to return any time soon. And I am not talking about just refusing to return to the specific church that they left. I mean any church at all. People gives lots of reasons for preferring bedside baptist to a traditional Christian fellowship. I was thinking about this after a conversation that I had today with fellow seminary students.

In a recent Pew research survey, the largest growth area was people who are not affiliated with any particular denomination or church. It seems that the largest unchurched group of people claiming to be Christians is young adults. Many of these college students or young professionals struggle to find their place in most churches, which tend to focus on kids or older adults.

I don’t think there is just one reason why people leave the church. It all depends on the person. Here are some of the most common reasons that I hear people decide to walk.

  • The church has lost touch with the real needs of people and is irrelevant in how it goes about fulfilling its mission.
  • I was wounded by something that happened in the church that will make it difficult for me to return any time soon.
  • Church leaders are living in a diluted state about the real problems and successes of their various ministries.
  • That church has become too conservative and political.
  • That church has become too liberal and humanistic.
  • Church takes up too much time and provides little tangible benefit.
  • Hypocritical leadership says one thing and does another.
  • Leaders have abused people in the congregation – just look at the Catholic church sex scandals.
  • The preaching sucks. The worship sucks. I just don’t get anything out of it. 
  • God told me to leave and go to ….
  • All of my friends are going to this great new place….
  • My old church was too big and impersonal.
  • My old church was too small and boring. 
  • Church today lacks real discipleship and effectiveness in helping me experience real life change.
  • I just don’t feel like there is a place for me there any more. My needs have changed.
  • I brought some concerns to the church leadership, and they just turned a blind eye.
  • I’m just too busy for church right now.
  • I don’t have to go to church to be a good Christian. My life has gotten better since I stopped going to church.
  • I need to take a break for church because I have gotten burnt out.

Feel free to suggest some of the reasons why you may have exited your old church. Some of the above reasons may be legitimate. Others may be selfish. Others may be neither justified nor improper.

I think the one thing that we have to keep in mind is that although churches are made up of people, they should always be about more than just our personal agendas. All local churches exist for God not for men. While our personal tastes should play a role in our decisions, ultimately, we should fellowship where we sense that God places us.

Church may change in form from a megachurch to a home church, but our need for true fellowship and discipleship remains. God designed us to grow in community. Living alone as a Christian is never a good decision in the long run.

Is All Life Really Life Worship

In the past, I have used the phrase, “All life is worship.” But I am starting to re-think that concept after reading a few online essays on the topic. It all really depends on your definition of worship.

Some argue that calling everything worship removes the significance of some actions. In essence, this dilutes everything by devaluing some practices that should have a more sacred, distinct place in the life of a Christian. Other people believe that calling everything worship elevates all experiences to be something where a Christian can bring honor and glory to God. Viewing all life as an opportunity to worship puts the focus on God in more of our everyday lives.

Both sides to the debate seem to have valid points. According to Scripture, it does seem that Christians should do all things unto God (Colossians 3:23). This means even mundane tasks present opportunities to honor God. Our motivation and actions in daily life are significant in our public witness. These things matter to God.

Scripture also clearly portrays some acts as worship in a more traditional sense. From the temple sacrifices to various religious festivals and the reading of Scripture to communion and baptism, these practices are spiritually significant in a way that normal, daily tasks are not. It is hard to see how changing a dirty diaper can be considered just as spiritual and sacred an act as singing praise songs to God.

The idea that everything we do should be worship to God stems from a combination of Romans 12:1, Colossians 3:23, and various Psalms. Other than the temple sacrifice system, Scripture presents worship as more of a concept underpinning various actions rather than something that can be easily defined and categorized.

Maybe whether we call something worship is not a big deal. Maybe the focus should be on trying to get right what we do know to be true.

Read these online posts on the subject of worship and feel free to share your thoughts on the topic.

http://adorate.blogspot.com/2006/03/is-everything-worship.html

http://www.scripturessay.com/article.php?cat=&id=302