Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Roadblocks on the Path to City Church

This post is part of a “chain blog” begun by Alan Knox here.

Charlie Wallace chipped in with the second contribution here.

This post is the third in the chain.

I have previously posted on this topic, or others related to it, on various occasions. I will attempt to avoid repeating what I have said on those other posts here.

The Practice of Unity on the Mission Field
The City Church, a guest post by Paul Grabill
Ministerial Ethics and the City Church
Ministerial Ethics and the City Church (part 2)
Baptist Associations and the City Church
Wolfgang Simson, the City Church, and the IMB
The City Church Revisited
Thoughts from Philippians on the City Church
The One True Church

In my thinking regarding the “city church,” I have been influenced by four or five different things. First, and most important, my study of Scripture. Next, my experience growing up in the United States in the context of several different Southern Baptist congregations, and the general ecclesiological milieu of the United States that has been significantly shaped by denominationalism, local church autonomy, and individualism in general. After this, I would point to 10 years of missionary experience in the region of Extremadura in southwest Spain, in which I observed and participated first-hand in a region-wide fleshing out of much of what I understand the New Testament “city church” to embody. Then, other experiences in other parts of Spain in which the particular dynamics of the collective Body of Christ have not been quite as conducive to the same sort of dynamics I experienced during my time in Extremadura. Finally, I have been influenced by reading from fellow believers, both in books (most notably, That None Should Perish, and Prayer Evangelism, by Ed Silvoso; and Houses that Change the World, by Wolfgang Simson), and in interaction through blogs (most notably, with Paul Grabill).

All of this has led me to conclude that a more biblical practice in regard to the “city church” is not only possible, but something towards which we, as members of the Body of Christ, ought to give diligent effort in promoting. At the same time, I am painfully aware that there are very significant roadblocks that stand in the way of seeing this come to place in any meaningful fashion.

1. One obvious and major roadblock is that of doctrinal differences between individual believers and separate congregations of believers. As I see it, at least at a certain level, there are certain beliefs and practices that, although within the realm of generally agreed upon evangelical orthodoxy, are incompatible with each other with respect to certain aspects of church life. One of these is the practice of believers baptism. Another is the role of women in ministry.

If, for example, one group of believers is convinced that only adult believers should be baptized, it would be a violation of their conscience to be involved, in one way or another, in the sponsorship or advocacy of infant baptism. It would also, for example, be difficult for those who are convinced that Scripture does not allow for women to function as elders in the church to participate fully in a “church” that recognizes women as elders.

My experience, however, has been that it is possible to maintain fellowship at a deep and meaningful level with other believers on a local basis, without, at the same time, necessarily having to compromise on issues like this. This requires that “local churches” or “congregations,” as we traditionally know them, continue to exist and faithfully carry out the doctrinal distinctives each one feels Scripture demands of them. It involves, at the same time, though, “agreeing to disagree” with believers from other groups, or who interpret Scripture differently, in order to accomplish other objectives.

In this sense, I should clarify that the “city church” I am talking about here does not entail the dissolution or organizational merger of existing “autonomous” congregations, nor necessarily of denominational groupings. It is not so much of an “either-or” thing as it is a “both-and” thing. I also believe that the doctrinal basis of fellowship within the “city church” should be generally recognized evangelical orthodoxy. Basically, all those groups whose teaching would lead its adherents to be truly “born again” would be included. Those that teach a “works-based” salvation, or who are defective on basic evangelical essentials, would not.

2. Another roadblock to a successful “city church” dynamic is the overall size of the believing community in a given area. In Extremadura, for example, the total number of evangelical believers is around 1,500 people (of which approximately 1,000 belong to the gypsy ethnic minority), among a total population of about 1,100,000. The size of this group, and the extreme minority status of evangelicals at large in the community, in my opinion, helps to create a favorable atmosphere for the development of a successful “city church” (or actually, in this case, “regional church”) dynamic.

In Madrid, however, where the evangelical community and overall population are both much larger, it is much less practical and more difficult to maintain the same dynamic as in Extremadura. I am aware of several different initiatives in Madrid to bring believers of different congregations and denominations together for fellowship and cooperation in ministry. But it has proven much more difficult to gain the active participation of such a wide representation of the Body of Christ in these activities as it was (and continues to be) in Extremadura. Although there are other factors involved, I believe a primary reason for this has to do with the physical size of the group.

In order to get around this roadblock, I believe it is helpful to break down “city church” functional units into smaller geographical and/or numerical groupings. Actually, I have been involved in a joint monthly prayer meeting with believers from various backgrounds and affiliations in a one specific quadrant of the northeast part of the Madrid province that, while not yet functioning as a full-blown “city church,” does seem to be doing a great job of incorporating some of these same dynamics.

In the States, the complexities involved with this are multiplied many times over, with the huge amount of evangelical believers and congregations present. In spite of this, I am aware of several initiatives within the States that seem to be making some real good headway in relation to this.

3. Another significant roadblock is that of ethnic and racial divisions. Even in Extremadura, as I alluded to earlier, there is a significant divide between gypsy and non-gypsy evangelicals. The gypsy culture has some very specific idiosyncrasies that make it difficult for them to participate in something like a “city church” with non-gypsy believers. Some of this has to do with matters of taste and cultural preference, such as styles of music. But some has to do with deeply embedded social mores, involving things like gender roles, and leadership dynamics. There are also several important doctrinal issues that complicate things even more.

More and more, though, throughout Spain, with the arrival of many believing immigrants, and the subsequent establishment of many predominantly immigrant congregations, the ethnic and racial barriers to a meaningful practice of “city church” continue to grow, and are delineated less specifically along the gypsy/non-gypsy divide.

In the United States, race and ethnicity is one of the most blatant factors inhibiting a greater practical unity among the Body of Christ. If we are honest, though, we must come to grips with the fact that it is not quite as simple as Rodney King saying “We can all get along” or everybody joining hands and singing Kum Ba Yah. There are serious issues that must be broached, and forgiveness and reconciliation that needs to happen at a very deep level.

In spite of these very real and challenging difficulties, though, we were able to experience some wonderful times of joint fellowship between gypsy and non-gypsy believers in Extremadura, including occasional joint worship services, and joint participation in the March for Jesus. In the United States, there are many efforts at racial and ethnic reconciliation that could be cited as examples. Recently, I am especially encouraged by the reports coming out of Jena, Louisiana, and the city-wide revival that appears to be taking place there. All in all, though, to talk about the “city church” and greater unity in the Body of Christ, and neglect to work diligently towards greater unity along racial and ethnic lines is, in my opinion, sheer hypocrisy. I see this as very much a priority issue.

4. A final roadblock toward a positive practice of the “city church” that I would like to point out here is one that may come as a surprise to many of my readers. This roadblock has to do with certain expressions of the “simple,” “organic” or “house church” movements.

Among Southern Baptist International Mission Board workers, undoubtedly many have first been exposed to the whole idea of the “city church” through the writings of Wolfgang Simson. Simson is a leading advocate for “house churches” and proponent for the “city church.” Personally, I am intrigued and attracted by much of what Simson and others with similar ideas have to say. However, I have picked up on a certain tendency by many to disenfranchise, as it were, the “traditional” church as an important part of what God is doing in the world today.

I am firmly convinced of the extreme value of small communities of believers for the practice of solid discipleship and the various aspects of “one another” ministry reflected in Scripture, which is such an integral part of what church is all about. I also agree with a good deal of the thesis of Frank Viola and George Barna regarding the intrusion of pagan practices down through history into institutional Christianity.

However, if we take seriously what Jesus, and the Bible in general, teach about the unity of the Body, I don’t think we can just “write off” 2,000 years of Christian faith communities that have represented, in many times and many places, the vast majority of born-again believers with whom we will one day gather together around the throne of the Lamb. Although I think that “institutional Christianity” in general could benefit much from taking to heart the majority of the values and ideas being proclaimed by the “simple church movement,” I am convinced that a true, Christ-honoring practice of “city church” will necessarily embrace more than just the collective “house churches” of the city. And, it will not be primarily a “house church” thing; at least not in the initial stages.

This is quite simply because the “city church,” by definition, embraces the entire Body of Christ in a given locality. And, at present, in most places around the world, the entire Body of Christ is made up primarily of fellow believers who are part of so-called “institutional churches.” In order for the “city church” to function in the way I believe Jesus intends it to function, I believe that those on all sides of this issue must mutually embrace each other, and accept each other as full-fledged members and equal participants. This may be a challenge to some who are more radical in their convictions. But, I believe, in the long run, it will bring more honor to the name of Christ, and bring us further along in the advance of the Kingdom of God on Earth.
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Chain blog rules:

1. If you would like to write the next blog post (link) in this chain, leave a comment stating that you would like to do so. If someone else has already requested to write the next link, then please wait for that blog post and leave a comment there requesting to write the following link.

2. Feel free to leave comments here and discuss items in this blog post without taking part in the actual “chain”. Your comments and discussion are very important in this chain blog.

3. When you write a link in this chain, please reply in the comments of the previous link to let everyone know that your link is ready. Also, please try to keep an updated list of links in the chain at the bottom of your post, and please include these rules at the bottom of your post.

Alan Knox, City Church - A Chain Blog
Charlie Wallace, City Church: Meeting
David Rogers, Roadblocks on the Path to City Church
Steve Sensenig, The Major Roadblock to a City Church
Paul Grabill, The Resurrection of the City Church: Who Will Move the Stone?
Jon Amos, A City Church Thought Experiment
James Goetz, The Restoration of the City or Locality Church and Apostolic Leadership
Alan Knox, Unity and the Church in a City

17 comments:

Jeff Greathouse said...

Good thoughts on the roadblocks and thanks for sharing from different perspectives.

Alan Knox said...

David,

Thank you for continuing our discussion on this topic. I want some time to think through your "roadblocks" a little more. But, there's one thing that I noticed: I don't think roadblock #4 has to do with simple, organic, or house church. Instead, I think it has to do with isolationist and independent groups - whether they are simple, organic, house, or traditional brick-and-mortar churches. I've run across isolationist versions of all types of churches. However, I do agree that the attitude of roadblock #4 is a roadblock to recognizing the church in a city.

-Alan

blampp@juno.com said...

David,
Several observations.
1. Many would agree with your concept of "the Body of Christ" in the Tallahassee, Florida area. I have a wonderful relationship with these folks in regular prayer meetings and our desire to see an "Awakening" in this FL Capitol. But, I also have a much different take on this issue.... I believe there has become an amalgamation of N.T. Biblical terms that are actually "extrabiblical".... for instance most of my friends equate the term "church" as used in the N.T. with the body of Christ, when I believe thorough exigetical study indicates that a more accurate equivalent would be "Kingdom" ("Basile"). Certainly the frequency of occurance in the N.T. is local visible assembly at a specific location..... and that was the way "ekklesia" was used in the Septuagent.
2. Alan Knox said he thinks, in reference to roadblock #4 that it reflects "isolationist and independent groups". I personally disagree, and I believe he would have to admit that there are numerous cooperative groups that just do not accept the "construct" of what I believe represents the "universal church" concept as adequately representing the N.T. useage of "ekklesia". In fact, this used to be the major demarcation between "free church" groups and the more liturgical and centrally focused polity of groups like, Anglican, R. Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Methodists, et.al.
....... Well, I've exhuasted my time limit, have an early ministry visit in our local hospital... must go....Blessings on your blog efforts.... always enjoy the give and take.......
Prayerfully supporting you folks on IMB mission fields and other missionaries from some of those groups I mentioned... Barrett M. Lampp

Steve Sensenig said...

I've got some thoughts in response that I'd like to formulate as the next link in the chain, so I'll take the baton for link #4. Hopefully by tonight, but I'll let you all know when.

David Rogers said...

Alan,

I agree that the bottom-line problem is not "simple," "organic," or "house church" structure and practice. It is, as you state, isolationism. And, I believe many "house church" groups are actually "ahead of the curve" in thinking and striving to put into practice the "city church."

However, if the foundational motivation behind this emphasis is more pragmatic, and viewed as a "plank" in the "house church platform," and not a heartfelt concern for the unity of the Body of Christ, I believe this "platform" is shaky, and will eventually crumble. And, possibly even do more harm than good for the cause of unity, just like so many failed "experiments in unity" throughout the history of the church.

I have picked up on this attitude among some "house church" advocates and church planters when they talk about the need to protect new converts from the "contaminated DNA" of the traditional or institutional church.

David Rogers said...

Barrett,

As I have written previously about it elsewhere, I left off much of the exegetical foundation for the idea of the "city church" on this post. I talk a bit more about this on the One True Church post over at sbcIMPACT!

In any case, I believe it is significant that the "ekklesia" that God is building is not only those who physically assemble with each other here and now on the earth. It is a spiritual reality, and a massive group of people, who will one day assemble around the throne of the Lamb. In the meantime, the same "ekklesia" that is presently "under construction" finds different expressions here on earth, including "house churches," "local congregations," and the "city church."

It is also important to take into consideration the fact that NT language almost always refers to the "church" (singular) of or in a particular city. Yet, at the same time, it would appear there were also individual "house churches" (plural) within a given city.

David Rogers said...

Steve,

Fantastic! I look forward to your contribution.

Paul said...

David, great post. I think Alan has a great idea. I think I might want to jump in at some point and share where we are at in State College with the "City Church" concept, although if I had to sum it up in one sentence, it would be: We have a long way to go.

David Rogers said...

Paul,

Wonderful! I hope you are able to do so. I think that would be a great contribution to the discussion. As I understand the "rules," once Steve has his post up, you will need to leave a comment over at his blog indicating your intention to receive the baton, and leave a link to your post when it is ready.

Alan Knox said...

Barrett,

Yes, I agree "that there are numerous cooperative groups that just do not accept the 'construct' of what you believe represents the 'universal church' concept as adequately representing the N.T. useage of 'ekklesia'."

To balance that, I also believe that there are numerous cooperative groups that do not accept the construct of the 'local church' concept as adequately representing the N.T. usage of 'ekklesia'.

I think that "universal" and "local" are man-made distinctions when applied to the church.

-Alan

David Rogers said...

Alan,

Would you not agree that, even though "universal" and "local" are not technically biblical terms in relation to "ekklesia," that they are at least useful terms in helping to explain different expressions of the One True Church?

Alan Knox said...

David,

Like any man-made expression, they can be helpful and they can be harmful.

I've been trying to call you. Can you call me?

-Alan

Steve Sensenig said...

Alright...my post (The Major Roadblock to a City Church) is finally up. Sorry for the wait, guys.

Dave Miller said...

In Cedar Rapids, largely as a result of the ministry of Francis Frangipane, we developed something close to the city church concept. We were one church meeting in different places.

There were a couple of problems. First, there were some who wanted to include groups in the "church of Cedar Rapids" that others of us were not comfortable with. Defining the evangelical church is hard.

Second, there were others who wanted to bring us all together a little more than some of us wanted to go. One of the churches got the "Pensacola Blessing" and wanted everyone to receive it. So, the lines of our doctrinal and denominational beliefs were sometimes blurred.

But, when I was there, I felt like I was a part of the other churches of the town. We were one church meeting in separate buildings, with a few different ideas and practices, but we were able to bless each other.

David Rogers said...

Dave,

Yes. No one ever said that "city church" will not be messy at times. I think that is precisely one of the reasons why Paul tells us we must "make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3). I do think it is well worth it, though, and what our Lord wants of us, as well.

James Goetz said...

Hi David,

You reminded me of other people referring to "locality" instead of "city" in regards to the modern restoration of the city church. Logistically, some cities are too large for the ministry leaders to have meaningful working relationships with each other. Small cities by modern day standards can have a city church while large cities need to be broken up into locality churches.

Alan Knox said...

I've posted link #8 in this chain blog in a post called "Unity and the Church in a City".

-Alan