A Review of THE HOUSE CHURCH BOOK

The House Church Book was a challenging read for me. In

fact, I would go so far as to say that Simson has made me more

uncomfortable and challenged me more than any author I can

remember in the past couple of years. I applaud and welcome

this. I am still thinking and rethinking through several of the

ideas that he has presented. I also appreciate so much the

sincerity with which the author writes. His passion for the

church and kingdom is clear and unmistakable. Yet, having said

this, I can’t help but sit in judgment on so many of his

doctrinal presuppositions, and the manner in which he seems to

take liberties with the Bible. I understand that my spiritual

heritage leads me to be conservative, even among room full of

conservative evangelicals. And usually I can look past my

differences in order to appreciate the idea. But Simson was

difficult.

For example, Simson is clear about how he believes the

house church ought to be structured and led. On page forty-six

he speaks briefly about leadership where he states that “house

churches do not have leaders in a technical sense; they have

elders . . . elders are responsible members of society who are

able to assume a parental role in the house church, and who meet

the biblical qualifications describing deacons found in 1

Timothy 3.” This makes no sense to my admittedly conservative

ears. They are elders, but they function as deacons? In his

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virtuous attempt to restore pure Christianity, I am disappointed

at just how quickly he has corrupted the biblical model (which

in fairness makes him no different from the rest of us).

Along with this thought, it seems that Simson has a

definitive misunderstanding or lack of understanding of the

richness and details of the Bible. I don’t say this because he

lacks formal theological training; but instead because it shows

up clearly with how he envisions the church coming to life in

modern western culture. This shows up in the same comments on

elders that were previously alluded to. Simson writes that

“these elders are empowered and counseled by apostolic people

who usually function beyond the borders of an individual house

church.” In citing Acts 15:2, 4, Simson demonstrates a troubling

level of biblical illiteracy. This text is referring to a

specific group of people who happened to live in or around

Jerusalem. The manner in which Simson frames this (and later

discusses), makes clear his belief that the apostles were a type

of people that may have existed in any location.

I admit that much of my discomfort comes from his complete

dismissal of traditional church. He seems ready to burn it all

down (which I suppose is why he calls for a third reformation).

I agree that he is clearly on the right track. As he argues for,

there is a more biblical way in which to “do and be church” than

the institutionalized version that has grown up since the 4 th

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century. Again, I disagree with his details and implementation

of this more biblical paradigm, I appreciate so much his call to

return to a model of church that is clearly more consistent with

the Bible than what we have now in the traditional church model.

In this sense, his failures (as I perceive them) are also

benefits. Because where I feel he takes the house church

principle beyond the scope of the New Testament, he does force

me to come along with him and as a result forces me out of my

box where I have existed in the traditional church. And while I

might now take the same trip that he has, I will at least end up

at a spot that is closer to the Bible than where I began. This

is likely the greatest value of this book.

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A Review of MISSIONAL SMALL GROUPS

This book was at once precise and clear as mud. I think the

author’s thesis or summary statement is found on p.11 when he

writes that “we need to re-envision a way to empower normal

groups led by normal group leaders that are full of normal

followers of Christ to listen to God and live in such a way that

they impact the world around them.” From what I can tell, this

also appears to be a general descriptive statement for the

“missional” movement.

Returning to my initial statement . . . the second section

entitled “Practicing” was considerably more helpful and

practical. The problem was getting to this material. I believe I

understand the author’s intentions when he (over)used the word

rhythm. I think he was referring to a mindset or way of

thinking. Though I am not completely sold on it, I appreciate

his desire to promote the “missional” approach to church and

evangelism. At a minimum there is a great deal of value that us

traditional “attractionalists” ought to take note of. However,

it seems that he spent four chapters and approximately fifty

pages repeating the same message that he could have communicated

in about ten pages. Before you peg me as strictly pragmatic, I

greatly value theory, deeper thought and reflective writing; I

just didn’t find much in this text.

One other specific challenge I found with the text was the

practical application and implementation of all that Boren is

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proposing. For example, he is calling for Christians to maintain

small groups that exist in the context of neighborhoods and

conduct their missional-based ministries within the lives of the

people of the neighborhood. The trouble is determining how that

plays out exactly. Given the physical nature of most

congregations, it seems unlikely that the small group

participants would all be from the same neighborhood. So the

question is, which neighborhood does the group focus on? That is

just one specific question that appears to go unanswered.

As a brief digression, I found it interesting that Boren

often made comments that eluded to an understanding and

agreement with Hellerman’s “When the Church was a Family.” It’s

almost as if he had read the book before writing his own. For

example, on page twenty-two, he refers to the idea that

Westerners have “learned to live according to the drumbeat of

rugged individualism.”

All these negative comments having been shared, there is

great value in this text. There is one general theme that I

appreciate most. After having read this text, I have so much

more to think about, pray over and consider. The reality is that

I do think that the “missional” approach to ministry to most

reflective of, and patterned after Jesus’ own ministry. What I

have not yet determined is whether that should be formative for

the church at all times and in all cultures. Jesus’ approach of

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taking his message and ministry to the people was necessary for

the time. It seems clear that an “attractional” approach would

not have worked—the incumbents were too entrenched. That being

said, Paul’s ministry was not entirely “missional” in nature. In

fact, I would say that it was a mixture of both. This book has

forced me to think through these issues and help lead our church

do to the same.

 

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A Review of HOW TO ASK GREAT QUESTIONS

The best book on the art crafting powerful statements that

influence and communicating effectively is “Words that Work” by

Frank Luntz. This book is the best I have read on the art of

asking questions. There is so much great information to digest,

perhaps too much. Just like the new shiny toy, this is

information that you want to run home and play with right away.

I’ll begin with commenting on the negative aspect of this

book, because from my perspective there is only one. Here it is

. . . there is absolutely no way that this great information can

be completely consumed, digested and properly applied in any

short order. In other words, it seems that this type of

information isn’t something you can be taught and then go out

and put into practice. Instead, I would venture that the author

acquired this information through a combination of years of

academic study and even more years of practice through trial and

error. And that is in addition to, what I would imagine is, a

natural gift for asking great questions.

As I read through this text, I found myself constantly

nodding my head with great approval and agreement. The author

systematically laid out several ideas, principles and facts that

I have been fortunate enough to either learn on my own or put

into practice. My trouble came when I began to process the

remaining information and begin to contemplate how I might go

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about taking my new toy for a spin during my next Bible class.

As I alluded to, I’m not sure I can.

It seems foolish for offering remarks that might appear to

be remotely critical for an author offering too much positive

information. No, it is foolish. Instead, of trying to digest the

book as if it were theory, I am going to treat it as an

invaluable piece of reference material; and take one idea at a

time and practice applying it over the course of several weeks.

For my purposes though, the greatest value is putting this book

in the hands of my small group leaders and teaching them to do

the same.

In terms of the specific aspects of the book, again, there

are simply too many to comment on or even list out. As I just

mentioned, what I value most about this book is that it will

serve as a terrific reference for my small group leaders, who

lack either the experience or natural skill at leading a

meeting/Bible study by crafting thoughtful and powerful

questions.

In terms of the actual content, the “Top Ten Principles”

shared on pages six through fourteen are worth the price of

admission. This list is small enough to be digested and most

likely carried into the next small group meeting.

 

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A Review of WHEN THE CHURCH WAS A FAMILY

On page six (in his introductory comments) the author

states that “there is, in fact, no better way to come to grips

with the spiritual and relational poverty of American

individualism than to compare our way of doing things with the

strong-group, surrogate family relations of early Christianity.

This is the central focus of this book.” The author defended his

thesis well; and in the process may have provided church leaders

with an answer they have been looking for. For this reason, the

book is extremely helpful.

Did he overstate the current status of the problem saying

that we are living in spiritual and relational poverty? Perhaps,

but it is clear that there are extreme problems in western

churches. It may well be that dealing with the individualistic

nature of our society is the extreme and correlative answer.

The first thought that comes to mind is to challenge the

authors’ assumption that the cultural norm of the first century

must be duplicated today (or throughout all other times and

cultures). Is it true that an individualistic society is

contrary to that of the New Testament and that it brings

inherent challenges? Yes, certainly, for both questions. But the

question remains, must we duplicate this today? The author is

convinced that we should. At this point I have two responses.

First, it is extremely difficult to live within the context of

community and relate to one another as the Bible demands, while

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living as an individualistic culture and society. At least it is

within our individualistic society. Second, Galatians 4:4

states: “But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of

a woman, subject to the law.” The timing of God’s action should

not be discounted in this discussion. Nor should it be treated

as a coincidence that at the time God chose to act, there was a

prevalent strong-group culture. We can only speculate as to

exactly why God chose this time to act. However, Christians

today should take notice of what was going on in the life of

Christ and the first-century church; because that was clearly

the most appropriate time for God to set his standard for His

people. In other words, that was evidently the most conducive

setting by which he could implement his church so that they

would look and live in the manner that He desired.

The author brings to light several interesting ideas and

thoughts that helped to explain his case; and more importantly

increase my understanding and appreciation for where my

congregation needs to be moving. In the first two chapters, he

emphasizes three social values involving strong-group society of

the New Testament world. First, the group has priority over the

individual. Second, the most important group is the family.

Third, the closest relationship within the family was between

the siblings. Assuming that this is what God desires for His

church, the church today is further from a biblical model than

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we may have otherwise assumed. While there may be isolated

exceptions, it seems clear that we do not consistently

demonstrate any of these characteristics.

This is a terribly difficult situation and highlights the

quandary of church leaders, particularly those among the

conservative Churches of Christ. The specific value in being

presented with these ideas is that it helps to frame or identify

exactly where our congregations have miss-stepped with regard to

our institutional nature. In other words, as we have become more

and more organizationally and institutionally focused, we have

become less and less of a representation of the strong-group

church of the first century. Because the individual takes

precedence over the group, it is much easier for us to be a part

of an organization that requires less personal investment than a

family would. Going along with this idea, because we are

organizationally centered, we are able to maintain superficial

relationship as opposed to sibling relationships that constitute

a true family.

Four primary values demonstrated in Paul’s writings

relative to the strong-group family paradigm (affective

solidarity, family unity, material solidarity and family

loyalty) provide a terrific blueprint, or perhaps even a vision,

for congregations in the 21 st century. These characteristics

provide us with the ability to determine a positive course of

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action to move away from the current individualistic based

culture. In other words, Hellerman has presented information

that leaves me with an insightful understanding of the daunting

task of leading a congregation in the twenty-first century.

Fortunately, this particular information provides the confidence

that the current situation is correctable and even provides the

blueprint to make it happen.

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A Review of STICKY CHURCH

This is one of the better books on small groups among all

the texts that we’ve read for this course. In terms of its’

pragmatic nature, I liken it to “Activate: An Entirely New

Approach to Small Groups”. There is a substantial amount of

“hot-to” information that makes it particularly helpful. It’s

rather interesting that, while the authors’ of “Activate” tout

their own originality, Osborne shares the value of many of the

same ideas at the same general time that the Activate book was

published (for example, the short semester-based groups). But I

digress.

I must clarify (and be honest) that when I say “better” I

am really referring to the fact that I share many of the same

ideas and values about church and small group ministry as the

author. For example, he believes (as do I) that the best

function for small groups is to “close the back door” by helping

to create stronger relationships. It is interesting that he

laments his early ministry failures as he focused too much on

visitors and non-Christians and allowed his members to sneak out

the back-door.

I also appreciate his tendency to be honest, even to the

point of being “politically incorrect.” While it’s definitely

not that impressive or important, I find it refreshing that he

openly encourages his members to choose a group based on who

else is in the group. This would be in opposition to the idea

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that because we live in harmony as Christians that we will all

get along well in our groups. That’s simply not true; and it

seems to me that it would be a mistake in strategy to try to

force relationships on people. While this is not a new idea,

Osborne’s transparency and honestly has helped to reinforce my

own thoughts and convictions that I may have otherwise lacked

full confidence in. As I continue to think through, and read the

book a second time, I have come to believe that this is the

greatest benefit of the book for me and my church—simply

reinforcing the convictions, beliefs and conclusions that I have

been coming to. To that end this is not a singular occurrence.

Also, I appreciate very much that Osborne writes from a

more “normal” church experience. He has served his current

congregation (a multi-site, mega-church) for nearly three

decades. But when he took over the leadership role it was small

and struggling; not altogether unlike the context that a

majority of his readers will find themselves in. This is

amazingly refreshing after reading from people like Gladen and

Donahue who write from the ivory tower of the mega-church.

One of the most tangible and specific benefits of this book

is Osborne’s approach to training the group leaders. He openly

shares how they failed early on in their ministry by throwing

too much at their leaders—both in terms of time requirements and

the amount of content they shared. This is an error that I

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likely would have made starting out. In fact, since reading this

I have thought through my plans to have a monthly group leader

meeting. I was always hesitant about this, but this is another

example where Osborne essentially “gave me permission” to trust

my instincts. Now I have decided to go back and work through my

original approach.

Osborne makes one fundamental error in his thinking that

continues to trouble and challenge me. Essentially, his thesis

is that sermon-based small groups are the end-all for small

groups. Of course, there is great value beyond this idea; but

this is certainly the primary point that he is attempting to

make. Here is the problem: throughout the book as the author

discusses and describes his method for small groups he always

goes back to the argument that sermon-based approach makes it

all possible. For example, after discussing how small groups

provide a natural point to consistently connect people to both

significant relationships and the Bible; he states that:

the best tool I’ve ever seen for connecting people to one

another and engaging them with the Bible for the long-haul

is a sermon-based small group. It offers a format that fits

the way we spiritually grow, while providing a framework

for a healthy and sticky church (p.46).

In my estimation, nearly all small groups, if done well will

provide the same benefits that he claims for the sermon-based

model. He makes this type of claim throughout the book while

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providing little support or evidence. It’s clearly just a bias

towards that particular model that has served his congregation

so well.

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A Review of A LIFE TOGETHER

What a terrific book! On the back cover Richard Foster says

that “most books can be skimmed quickly; some deserve careful

reading; a precious few should be devoured and digested.” I

concur. I am looking forward to reading the book for a second

time; and I have already begun planning where I can fit this

material into my preaching schedule for next year.

Instead of filling these pages doting on Bonhoeffer’s

wisdom, insight and depth, I will take a moment to question one

of his assumptions and applications of the Christian community.

I had some trouble digesting chapter two, “The Day with Others.”

I had two concerns that kept coming to mind as I read. First, if

I were convinced it was appropriate to do so, how would his

suggestions be practically applied in today’s western culture?

Perhaps that’s the point . . . it can’t be, because our culture

is too individualistic and has corrupted Biblical community?

The second concern is more fundamental in nature and

difficult to resolve. Another quote from the back cover of the

book: “it reads like one of Paul’s letters.” I would say that

this chapter in particular fits this category. Bonhoeffer

highlights his vision for what a day in the life of community

looks like. In this case, that the chapter reads like a letter

from Paul is not necessarily a good thing. Though he may be full

of the Spirit, he is likely not inspired by Him to write

authoritative literature for any Christian fellowship or

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community; which is what it seems like he presumes to do. For

example, I found his instruction (p. 63) for the prayer at the

end of the devotion (to be lead by the head of the family) to be

somewhat difficult, if not troubling. He appears to be basing

his ideal of a Christian community on the earlier monastic

lifestyles. I must confess that I have not yet resolved my

thinking on this. I appreciate that given the situation and

culture he lived in (while writing this book) was different and

difficult to say the least. Perhaps this group of Christians

needed devout and strong leadership? Perhaps, with that in mind,

it was God’s will that Bonhoeffer presume to make such strong

claims?

This all having been said, I will repeat my initial

comment; what a terrific book! As I skimmed back through the

book I noticed that I did the most highlighting and note taking

in chapters one, four and five. Well, so much for that thought

on highlighting select chapters, those actually comprise three-

fifths of the entire book.

I was particularly impressed with a comment found on page

twenty-seven where Bonhoeffer states that “he enters the

community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law,

and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly.” This quote

is quite convicting and serves as a great reminder that as I

help in leading one of the Lord’s congregations, I lead at His

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pleasure, for His glory and it is in fact His church and not my

own. We must guard against creating a vision of what we hope for

community to be and instead exist solely within the reality of

what Jesus has created.

Finally, as I mentioned previously, I am already looking

forward to preaching some of the material from this text. I

found chapter four to be of particular value. The seven

“ministries” that Bonhoeffer shares are full of terrific insight

and will work well as a sermon series with small group

curriculum.

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A Review of ACTIVATE

My first reaction to this book is, “great content”! It is

always nice to have a blue print in front of you when building a

multi-million dollar home; and a priceless Kingdom growing

ministry is no different. I am impressed with the success that

Searcy, Thomas and The Journey Church have experienced. Whether

they are blessed by God or have happened upon a solid plan is

irrelevant for my purposes. As we are in the process of

beginning a small group ministry, their structure is one that is

clearly reproducible.

Beyond sharing their small group ministry structure, this

book has additional value. The authors began with some helpful,

and thought-provoking, “Big Ideas” about small groups. (Although

I am not certain that each or any of these is original to The

Journey Church or the authors). Two of these are particularly

worthy of comment.

I think the authors are on to something with their short-

term approach. I realize that many churches have successfully

had small groups continue on for an extended period of time; but

short-term groups makes sense, particularly when building a

ministry from the ground up. There are so many questions, doubts

and skepticism with a new ministry. Being able to ask leaders

and participants for a short-term commitment with a defined

ending point is a wise strategy.

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The other “Big Idea” that caught my attention was to “think

larger not smaller.” Again, this is an idea that seems to go

against the typical small group structure. The authors’

pragmatic explanation of this approach seems logical. In terms

of our own implementation we are going to adopt a modified

approach to this plan. We are intending to cap group sign-ups at

fifteen. Because we are just beginning I do not think there will

be as many people sign up and not attend. This number should

keep around twelve people at each meeting—an ideal number as far

as we are concerned.

There are other strong ideas presented in the book; many of

which are listed among the “Fill Factors”. In our setting, the

most helpful among these are one-step sign-ups, teaching on the

power of groups and the church-wide campaign. We are

anticipating utilizing each of these strategies as we implement

small groups this winter.

I really appreciated the way that the authors’ stressed the

importance of simplicity with the sign-up procedure and process.

It’s one of these seemingly minor issues that have such a great

potential for derailing the ministry before it can even get

started. Also, for our church, I anticipate that the teaching on

groups will be crucial as we try to begin and accrue some

momentum. The vast majority of our members have never

participated in any form of small groups; and many have never

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even been exposed to them in any fashion. This means that the

teaching we do leading up to sign-ups will have to include

providing information about small groups, laying the biblical

foundation for the purpose of small groups and also convicting

people that they need small groups in their life. Finally, the

church wide campaign has some interesting aspects. While I’m not

exactly sold on full-time sermon-based small groups, I do see a

great value in trying to have consistency and integration with

the small groups. Without intentionality in this area, it seems

like it would be too easy for small groups to become just

another ministry.

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