When Mao began his purge of religion from Chinese society there were 2 million Christians. He banished missionaries, nationalised all church property, killed or imprisoned its leaders, banned public meetings and began to torture Christians. When missionaries were let back into China just 30 years later in the 80s, they found 60 million Christians.
They had no clergy, no official leadership structures, no central organisation, no mass meetings, and yet they grew. How?
In his book The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch describes a meeting with pastors from the underground Chinese Church in 2005. They were asked what they’d like us in the west to pray for on their behalf, and they came up with four things:
- “We’re forbidden from gathering in groups of more than 15. Please pray we’ll be allowed to have large gatherings.”
- “We’re not allowed to have church buildings so we’re forced to meet in our homes, cafés etc. Please pray we’d be able to purchase property for church activities.”
- “We can’t set up charities or organisations for external training so leaders have to be trained on the job in local house churches. Please pray for that.”
- “Consequently, we also can’t hold funds centrally for church work so when someone’s in need each member has to help others out of their own pockets. The only resource we have is the Holy Spirit. Please pray for that.”
After hearing their list, the leader who asked them was taken aback. “I’m afraid we can’t pray for any of that”, he replied, “as all you’ve described appears to be exactly the reason for your immense fruitfulness!” It seems the Holy Spirit is doing just fine.
Now I don’t want to confuse correlations with causes [queue hilarious examples here], but it does strike me that every one of the vastly fruitful Jesus movements of history were just that – movements. Genuine Jesus movements are essentially networks. Initially structure exists solely to support the grass roots; then it becomes a governing body and the problems begin. Organisation helps underpin genuine movement-thrust, but always has a habit of taking over.
Movements are far more persecution-proof than organisations, and persecution has a habit of stopping movements from becoming machines. Persecutions prune the machine-likeness out of them. Churches are kept agile and multiplicative.
If this is true, then perhaps the key to fruitfulness, or to staying fruitful rather than becoming bloated and preoccupied with maintenance, is to prune. Oh, Jesus said something about that, didn’t he?
So we want to do what persecution does. That’s what I mean by ‘artificial persecution’.
It’s always been my vision to see a diverse network of simple, small, virile and flexible house churches/communities. That’s why we were keen to host our own Sunday morning congregation in our front lounge:
- To provide an accessible church for our local area
- As an opportunity to disciple one another focused in the particular vision God’s given us
- To keep things small, so as we grow we’re forced to split rather than hire a community centre
So, limiting the size of our congregation by our front lounge is a little bit of what I’m calling “artificial persecution”. Francis Chan’s simple house church movement have done something similar, with each small church aiming right from the start to split between six months to a year from planting, with two leaders developed on the job each time in each church.
Any other ‘artificial persecution’ ideas that could help foster a movement dynamic in the church?