The only bland thing about Wolfgang Simson’s The House Church Book is the title. From the first page he confronts the reader with a passionate and prophetic call for the Church to return to its biblical and first-century roots of form and expression. Whether you agree with him or not (and you’re likely to find yourself shouting “Amen!” on one page and crying foul on the next), Simson offers a compelling vision for how to move the Western Church forward.

Between the preface and the introduction you’ll find Simson’s “15 Theses Toward a Re-Incarnation of Church”, which is as rich and challenging as anything else in the book. Here are three of my favorites:

  • Christianity is a way of life, not a series of religious meetings. “The nature of church is not reflected in a constant series of religious meetings led by professional clergy in holy places especially reserved to experience Jesus. Rather, it is mirrored in the prophetic way followers of Christ live their everyday lives in spiritual extended families, as vivid answers to the questions that society asks, and in the place where it counts most—in their homes.” (xiii-xiv)
  • Time to change the “cathegogue system.” “The historic Orthodox and Catholic Church—that existed after Constantine in the fourth century—developed and adopted a religious system based on two elements: a Christian version of the Old Testament Temple—the cathedral—and a worship pattern styled after the Jewish synagogue. …Until today nobody has really changed the system. The time to do that has now arrived.” (xiv)
  • A church is led by more than a pastor. “A pastor (shepherd) is an important member of the whole team, but he cannot fulfill more than part of the task of equipping the saints for the ministry. He has to be complemented synergistically by the other four ministries [of Ephesians 4:11] in order to function properly.” (xvi)

978-1-4143-2552-1The two major themes of Simson’s book are: 1) The shift from organized to organic church, and 2) The application of the fivefold ministry (from Ephesians 4:11) to the leadership structure of the local church. These two themes come up again and again as he advocates for a smaller and broader church structure, one that is worked out, not in cathedrals or auditoriums or “sancti-nasiums”, but in living rooms and dining rooms and backyards.

As you have probably deduced from the book’s title, Simson advocates a return to the house church format, one that he believes is biblical and consistent with God’s intended plan for the Church. Shifting from megachurches to house churches is the shift from organized to organic church. Something happens, he says, when a group exceeds twenty people—it becomes an organization. “In many cultures twenty is the maximum number of people in a group that still feels like ‘family.’ Groups of this size and smaller still feel organic and informal, without the need to become formal or organized.” (3) Growing larger than twenty requires an artificial organizational structure be placed around the organism, which “chokes it, conditions it, and ultimately prevents relational and spontaneous fellowship.” (4)

What happens when your group exceeds twenty members? Time to multiply! It is through multiplication that the organic church grows—a model Simson sees working out in creation itself. The growth potential of the organic house church far outpaces that of the current megachurch, much like a rabbit can vastly out-birth an elephant. The numbers are staggering, as Simson estimates that a multiplying house church of 12 people can, by multiplying each church once per year over a period of 20 years with an attrition rate of 25% every 5 years, grow to over 165,000 house churches with nearly 2,000,000 people attending. (59)

The key to this growth is “the fivefold ministry” of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. One person cannot play all five of these roles, but the church desperately needs all five in order to be a healthy, multiplying body. Their task, according to Ephesians 4, is to equip the church to do the actual work of the ministry. “They are to be evangelistic, prophetic, teaching, pastoral, and apostolic trainers—not demonstrators, teachers, or one-man shows. An evangelist’s true fruit is not a convert, but more evangelists.” (62) The problem we have today, he warns, is that “instead of equipping God’s people for the ministry, [these people] are performing it for them.” (62) The solution is to change the leadership model from CEO to parent. “Leadership in the way we are used to seeing it in the business, political, or religious world is not really a biblical concept. But leadership in the form of parenthood is. After all, God is not simply a leader; He is a father.” (63)

Simson is calling for a reformation of structure—what he calls the Third Reformation. Our current models will continue to frustrate God’s plan for the Church. In order for the gospel to get bigger, the Church must get smaller. In order for believers to grow (and therefore their churches to grow), they must be exposed to the spiritual parenting of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. “Many Christians have reached a plateau in their lives because they have never really been exposed to the exciting variety of these ministries and are instead sitting ‘under’ the ministry of a one-size-fits-all ‘pastor,’ who is trying to embody all of the ministries himself. Many such pastors burn out quickly, and many traditional congregations are left wondering why things aren’t moving.” (70)

According to Wolfgang Simson, the way forward for the Church in the twenty-first century is to look back to our brothers and sisters in the first century and find in their congregational models God’s intended plan for his people. As long as we try to grow our congregations large, the individual Christians and the gospel itself will remain small.

Questions: Is the house church model the God-ordained, biblical model of Church for all places and all times? How do small groups in large churches succeed or fail to live up to the house church model? Is the single-leader, pyramid structure of church leadership an acceptable model for God’s people? Is the fivefold ministry for today? If so, how would it look if it were implemented in your church?

N.T. Wright has written extensively about Jesus already, so why would he need another book? The truth is, Simply Jesus, is the summation of all that Wright has written about Jesus, from The New Testament & The People of God to Jesus and the Victory of God to The Challenge of Jesus, as well as the line of thought he began laying out with Simply ChristianSurprised by Hope, and After You Believe. All of that comes together in this eminently readable, concise tour de force called Simply Jesus.

If you’re familiar with N.T. Wright, there isn’t much that’s new in this book. It’s value, however, lies in that his whole career of thinking on Jesus comes together in this single volume. What is more, it is far more practical than much of his previous work, drawing especially on what he brilliantly laid out in After You Believe. If you’re not familiar with N.T. Wright and his work, this would be an excellent place to start.

136719461The foundation of Wright’s work is history, particularly the first-century history of Roman-occupied Israel. “We have to make a real effort to see things from a first-century Jewish point of view, if we are to understand what Jesus was all about.” (xii) To miss Jesus in his own context would be to miss him entirely. And so he works quickly through the historical material he painstakingly laid out in his Christian Origins and the Question of God series. From this work he draws the metaphor of the perfect storm–of three storm fronts colliding at one point at the same time. The three storm fronts of Jesus’ day were the Roman Empire, the Jewish Hopes of Liberation, and the Work of God in the Person of Jesus. These three forces crashed into one another for the three years between the baptism of Jesus by John and his crucifixion by the Romans at the behest of the Jewish leaders.

These three years of Jesus’ ministry were, as Wright puts it often in this book, “what it looks like when Israel’s God becomes King on earth as he is in heaven.” The sick are healed. The blind are given sight. The lame walk. The dead are raised. The demon-possessed are set free. This is how the world works when it’s Creator God is King, and that’s exactly what was happening in and through Jesus.

The tyrant that Jesus came to overthrow was not Rome, as everyone in Israel had hoped and expected to one day happen. The tyrant was “the Satan”, the Accuser, and his weapons of sin and death.

Jesus came to believe that the only way one could defeat death itself, and thereby launch the new creation for which Israel and the world had longed, was to take on death itself, like David talking on Goliath in mortal combat, trusting that Israel’s God, the creator of life itself, would enable victory to be won. And, since dath was seen in the scriptures as the ultimate result of human rebellion against God and the failure to obey him, if death were to be defeated, then idolatry, rebellion, disobedience, and sin would be defeated along with it. Death, like a great ugly giant, would do its worst, and pour out its full weight upon him. And the creator God would overcome it, showing it up as a defeated enemy. (174)

Jesus is now King. And he is enacting his rule and reign through his body, his disciples, on earth as it is in heaven. Our task, then, is to go about proclaiming that he is King, and enacting his kingdom in the same way in which he went about inaugurating it–by laying down his life on the cross, displaying God’s agape love for the world.

This is an outstanding book, and I highly recommend it to every believer, and to every nonbeliever who wants to know more about who Jesus was and is.

Maybe I was 12 years old. Or 13. Either way, I was deeply entrenched in the most awkward phase of my life when my giant Greek youth pastor, Mike Sares, asked me and a friend to appear with him on television. Our task was to prerecord a series of introductions for Christian music videos that would play at 4:00 in the morning on the local NBC affiliate. I was extremely nervous. It was the ‘90s. We didn’t get multiple takes. It was bad. “That was great,” Mike lied.

pure-scum1Shortly after that, Mike left Toledo for Denver. I hope it wasn’t because he realized that nobody in the youth group had the potential to become an on-air personality. If I had told him then that I would go on to graduate from Ohio State with a degree in Theatre and become a preacher, he probably would have looked at me askance and said in his deep voice, “Hmmm.”

Mike’s new book, Pure Scum, is the story of Scum of the Earth Church, which he started with a small gathering of young adults (including the late ska band Five Iron Frenzy) in downtown Denver. On the back cover of the book, the bio says that Mike “was hoodwinked by the Holy Spirit into pastoring the folks who became Scum of the Earth Church in Denver”. Hoodwinked by the Holy Spirit. That sounds about right.

They call it “church for the left-out and the right brained”. They reach out to Goths, punks, skaters and the homeless in the heart of Denver. They share a meal in the middle of their church service every Sunday night. They sent out my friend Joshua and his new bride Liann in a converted veggie-oil bus/mobile home to share the love of Jesus all over the country. This is how they do church; and it’s beautiful, authentic, and life-changing.

Last night I had the holy privilege of preparing three people for baptism. I heard amazing testimonies of God’s power from Mary, Ian, and Dustin. I was truly overwhelmed by the goodness and power of God, and I am so excited to baptize these three this Sunday at Ember.

Baptizing is one of the greatest honors I have as a pastor. I get to be the participating witness to their public confession of faith and full identification with Jesus, his death, and resurrection.

I’ll be honest. Planting this church has been hard in many ways. It has not turned out like I had hoped or expected. And yet, as I consider those who have been impacted by our church, such that they would take the step of obedient faith and be baptized here, I am on the verge of tears. These beautiful and courageous souls have given me and Ember a great honor, something I will never forget.

Easter is the celebration of new life, of the power of God to conquer death, and of our own hope of resurrection and life forever with Jesus. Baptism is a symbol of all of that. If you want to be baptized this week at Ember, let me know. I would love to make that happen.

I talk a lot about Jesus being King, both on this blog and at Ember. Last night, a friend asked me about the different images that language conjures up in people’s imaginations. What sort of King is Jesus, anyway? Is he like a medieval feudal king, a tyrant of sorts? Is he a tribal king? Is he a modern, royal figurehead type of king? Is he like the Roman emperor?

This is an important point, and I’m not entirely sure how to answer it. I suppose the image I think of when I talk about Jesus as King is Tolkien’s great literary character, Aragorn. We find ourselves at various points within the story, and so he is like Strider to some, like the king-in-exile to others, and like the conquering-hero-king to still others. The metaphor is imperfect in many ways, but this is helpful for me, at least.

Let me explain it another way. Jesus reigns as King in the same sort of way in which he became King–through his death and resurrection. Jesus’ reign continues in the same spirit in which it was inaugurated, through the humble exercise of self-sacrificing love that leads to victory over the power of death. Why should we expect Jesus to rule any differently than this? The “iron scepter” by which he governs is nothing other than his own cross.

What sort of King is Jesus? He is humble and self-sacrificing; then through that, he is powerful and strong. The power and sovereignty of Jesus exist on the far side of his humility and agape love, not his might. Remember the image of Revelation: On the throne was the lamb that was slain.

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