I think it’s no accident that these particular books are on my present stack, because they all speak in various ways to something we all are feeling in our bones: the way we worship and get our souls fed is changing.
Oh, I don’t mean “church worship styles” are changing. No, it is much deeper than that, and in a way the deconstruction culture is the best climate for God to do a new thing, a new thing that is very old—as old as the New Testament and the book of Acts, as old as the way God spoke to people before people insisted on a king and a temple of stone in which God was expected to come and “dwell.”
The first book is one I chose to recommend some time ago called Houses that Change the World by Wolfgang Simson — written by a believer in Germany about the spontaneous house-church phenomenon. The second is my choice for this issue, a book by an ex-pastor who has seemingly been through the church system with an increasingly uncomfortable dissatisfaction. Fortunately, he had had a watermark experience as a young college student, an experience so real and life-changing that he could never stop pursuing the power and authenticity of it.
In his book Beyond Church Steve Simms talks about his discovery that “church” as the word chosen to translate the original Greek word ekklesia in the King James translation was unfortunate because it came “from the Middle English chirche from the Old English cirice,” both of which meant “a religious building or religious place or ‘the Lord’s house’ and often referred to pagan worship circles.” This was a far cry from “the called-out ones” or as Simms says, “people who have been invited to gather together. Everyone was considered an equal in the Greek ekklesia and any citizen present in the assembly could participate and share his ideas, opinions and concerns…. However, Jesus’ ekklesia, unlike the Greek ones, is made up of all His followers both male and female.”
With this distinction Simms begins to share the story of his own personal search for the kind of no-hierarchal model so beautifully and organically powerful in the fellowship of the fresh gatherings in Acts and beyond. This kind of ecclesia was (and is) immediately responsive to needs, a place where everyone listens to Christ himself, then speaks her/his insights to the “body gathered.” Citing the historical examples of the pure but often messy model, Simms encourages this simple church practice in our own contexts.
There are many powerful examples globally of this kind of practice, especially in those countries where Christians have been persecuted. In these places the fellowship of believers has not only survived but thrived in what we have come to recognize as “the underground church.”
Shedding ingrained forms, authoritarian hierarchies and power structures, followers of Jesus have taken to heart and practice Paul’s I Corinthians 14:26 instruction: “What shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”
There are two other books I must mention that I happen to be reading, and all four of these vibrate in sympathy like layers of strings on a sitar. One is a call to return to the table as families, friends and Family of God: From Tablet to Table by Leonard Sweet. The other is Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World, another ex-pastor’s “Geography of Faith,” so beautifully written that it takes your breath away (which also explains why it is a New York Times Bestseller).
The passionate themes of all four of these books makes me wonder if perhaps God is preparing us in the West for a season of persecution that drives us underground and to each other — back to the raw, real, messy and organic ekklesia, an assembly of free, “called-out” citizens of a Kingdom, gathered for the strengthening of a government that is not of this world.