1. A Brief History of My Communities

dadandmeMy childhood was spent within a family whose ideology can be characterized as agnostic, scientific, and feminist. My parents divorced when I was 3 years old, and I never saw my father again until I found him at age 27. Religion was looked down upon in my family as for the mentally weak or enculturated, but not a subject of derision or ridicule, or even much discussion.

In my grammar school years, my best friend Johnny was a cub scout, and I joined him since his mother was the Den Leader. His family was very Catholic, and with their influence, I attended CCD and was confirmed and baptized at age 10. Although I rarely attended Catholic services, this brief encounter with religion put the background information in my mind that I had some sort of guilt problem, that God was real and had done something to clear up my problem for me. I continued into adolescence with little thought of God, except an occasional “Sorry God” when I used his name as a type of profanity.

My adolescence was spent as a bit of an outcast. Being younger than my peers by a year due to previously skipping a grade due to my academic progress, I was perpetually physically and emotionally behind them. I rejected some social norms and identified with the newer music scene of the time (New Wave music artists like Squeeze, Devo, the B-52’s, as well as some of the darker metal bands like Black Sabbath). I retreated into a small group of sarcastic intellectual nerds who took college preparatory classes and ridiculed others.

In college, still without spiritual community, I joined the punk scene on campus, cutting my hair, and going to alternative music clubs. But the volatility of the punk scene, and my underlying desire to have a science career caused me to drift through other musical communities and personal identities, including country music, and then a pseudo Rastafarianism, where I began to gain ‘spiritual’ insights through marijuana, LSD, Bob Marley, and the Grateful Dead.

reformeddoctrineDuring the last year of my undergraduate years, I met a few Christians who shared the gospel with me, and ultimately, I received Christ at a midweek evangelical outreach. I knew I was wasting my life without God, and chose to receive Christ. This began a 5 year experience within a demanding, high-vision evangelistic college ministry named Maranatha Campus Ministries, in which I both grew in my faith and suffered the spiritual abuse of the insular, elitist, and militaristic organization. To make things more difficult, being a Charismatic ministry, it was grounded in an Arminian history that demanded a high level of devotion to holiness in order for one to keep themselves from falling away.[1] However, I also lived in a house with a half a dozen ‘brothers’ in the church, and we had a house of ‘sisters’ on the same street, so we did life together, including college, housing, church, and fellowship.

During this time, my emotional anguish forced me to look for an alternate soteriology, and I found, to my great relief, Lorraine Boettner’s The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination. This book, along with the first four chapters of the book of Hebrews, transported me into the gospel of grace. [2]

handbookOne other significant and formative event occurred during this period – during a visit to Virginia Beach, I came upon a volume by Gordon Cosby, founder of Washington D.C.’s Church of the Savior. Their innovative approach to church among the poor, and to mission formation and small groups was entitled A Handbook for Missions Groups. This book, along with a handful by his coworker Elizabeth O’Connor, formed the foundation for my rethinking of church structure. [3] [4] [5]

Having a strong desire to preach and do worship, and to leave my church, I left for a 6 month stint with Youth With A Mission (YWAM) in Kona, HI. The combination of a community of missionaries sharing in all things, the grace-filled approach of YWAM, and reading a combination of books, both Christian and non, launched me into a long period of inner healing.[6] [7] [8]

Returning to the mainland, I spent the next few years in a traditional CMA church, and got the opportunity to pioneer a contemporary worship service, as well as a small group system based on Ralph Neighbor’s Where Do We Go From Here? During this period, my inner healing continued as I explored inner child work, masculine identity work, and Christian Healing.[9] [10] [11] [12]

A job transfer to the opposite coast (Milpitas, CA) gave me the opportunity to shed church altogether, which was my next necessary step as my search for healing led me on an Abrahamic journey out of Christianity through Buddhism and yoga to a destination I was unsure of. [13] [14] [15]

Near the end of my eight year hiatus from Christianity, I found myself on the last of a ten day silent Buddhist retreat in the hills near Yosemite, and I realized that practicing life as if there was no personal, transcendent God felt unnatural to me – either because I was ignoring the reality of God, or because I needed that dynamic in my spiritual life even if I was only speaking to my ‘higher self’ or some other imaginary discourse partner. That felt need, combined with the conviction that only Christianity had a practical and realistic view of the balance of mercy and justice, a beautiful and superior story and soteriology (even atheist John Loftus admits it’s a good story)[15a], the historical data showing that Protestantism has led humans to the maximum human liberty and virtue, my initial experience of liberation by the Spirit and brilliance of Jesus’ teaching all led me to return to faith.

Coterminal with this spiritual exploration, my primary community became a secular cover band in which I eventually became the lead singer and rhythm guitar player. We met every Saturday for meals, practice, and tremendously enjoyable fellowship. I met and married a young Catholic Mexican mariachi singer who was one of our backup singers, and we got pregnant. At this time, the band broke up, with the lead guitar player stealing $40,000 from me, and leaving the state.

At this time I began returning to faith, visiting a large church in Tracy, CA, which served my desire to hear the scriptures yet remain anonymous and unattached to the demands of Church participation. My wife became a born again believer, and we eventually joined the small groups and the worship team. After an enjoyable five years there, we moved further out into the Central Valley to buy a home and looked for a new Church. Unfortunately, in the small bedroom community of Patterson, CA, there were no large churches, but we eventually felt compelled to join a small 60 member church in town with a population of 500.

For the past 8 years, we’ve attended and participated in this church, and I have continued to read, attend conferences, and think about church structure. Currently, I am an Assistant Teaching Pastor, and my wife has pioneered a chapter of Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) and raised up a new leader to replace her. And we and our three children, currently ages 11, 8, and 7 are happy.

2. Reflections on Community

Each of the communities I spent time with have informed my view of church and community, and I have distilled up until this point a growing model for how I think we ought to restructure the forms and practices of community. The following discusses my experiences and how they informed my current views.

2.1 Spiritual Visionaries and Spiritual Abuse (MCM)

takedominionMaranatha Campus Ministries had a vision to reach the campuses of the world through a call to radical discipleship and lordship, baptism in the Holy Spirit, and evangelistic bible studies and events. Each generation seems to have a ‘radical’ Christian strain (the current generation being led by authors such as David Platt, and others), and the one I suffered under was known as the Shepherding Movement, which later came into ill repute due to its authoritarian approach to the submission of disciples to leaders.[16] [17]

Part of my own exodus from this group was the publication of a book that mentioned the group and practices by name, and I was glad of it.[18] While there were no sexual or financial improprieties that I am aware of, the group did make many cultish errors, such as over-control in finances and relationships, equating obedience to church leaders with obedience to God, and isolation from unbelieving family and friends, all bolstered by regular regional, national, and international meetings to fan the flame of the mission and ensure cohesion and “obedience to the vision.”

The salient lesson I took from this period is captured in a simple aphorism that we ought to “care more about the workers than the work.” The value and callings of the individual, their need for restorative sanctification before being employed as a leader or worker, and grace for those who cannot ‘keep up’ was entirely missing from this organization, which eventually, and thankfully, imploded.

2.2 Grace and the Inner Qualities of Faith (YWAM)

Landing at the campus of YWAM’s University of the Nations in Kona, Hawaii, was an eye opener for me, in many ways. Not only was I surprised to see bikini-clad Christian women at worship services, I saw men with long hair and hip chin beards, as well as a relaxed attitudes towards hitch hiking (a common way to get around in Hawaii) and recreation – everyone played volleyball and Frisbee golf regularly. Far from being a liberalized form of Christianity, however, I found a deep commitment to the inner qualities of faith and almost a disregard for outer conformity to rules of holiness. There was a focus on personal and regular time with God and a concern for those who have yet to hear the gospel.

I lived in a large house with 50 other students, aged 18-34, with women sleeping upstairs and men sleeping in a basement dormitory. Each day, we worshiped together, learned together, did chores together, and on weekends, recreated together. After our 10 weeks of training in these idyllic conditions, we traveled to the ’92 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, and the ’92 World’s Fair in Seville Spain to do evangelism in the streets. I finally got to preach out of doors, pray for salvation with converts, and do music for fun.

This short stint in missions was invaluable in giving me the experience of Christian community. Sharing a common goal, while living, eating, learning, and working together towards a singular goal was amazing. We had few personal possessions and were content with food. In addition, the commitment to structures that helped maintain our personal time with God and our corporate worship were both critical. However, this idyllic experience was tempered for most of us who had to return to the world of work where we had to earn a living. Some were able to raise funds from others for continued missionary work, while others, like myself, were not able to cross that rubicon. It is no wonder that missionary societies were founded in previous generations – self-support is very tough, but full time missionary engagement is necessary to reach many populations.

2.3 Eating and Playing Together (The Band)

Having exited my faith, I was glad to find a community in which I could gather and pursue one of my other loves – music. To sing and play rock and blues, to eat together, watch irreverent movies, and live free from religious expectations was an incredible gift. The disciplines of learning new skills and songs that we liked was so enjoyable that it hardly seemed like work. Meals were prepared for our motley group of about a dozen every Saturday, and eaten with joy after practicing for hours.

2.4 Small Group Experiments – The Ineffectiveness of the Empty Chair

Over the past decades, and perhaps even since John Wesley pioneered them in the frontier days of the United States, small group models have been proffered as the solution to the lack of discipleship, spiritual depth, and lack of community in the Church.[19] [20]

One of the main weaknesses of these models, however, has been the inability to include the unchurched or seeker. Emblematic of this issue was the model which included the ‘open chair’ – a chair left open to remind members to invite their friends. However, I rarely saw this method lead to interest in or conversions to the gospel. I have thought long and hard about why this fails, including asking myself what the purpose(s) of small group really are, and how we can adjust all of the structures of church to meet the supposed ends of the Church. Specifically, I have developed the following set of principles around small group and associated church structures:

Closed Groups

When new members are invited into an existing web of close relationships, it not only disrupts those relationships and forces them somewhat backwards to less intimate interactions, the advanced nature of the existing relational web can be threatening to new members. For this reason, though I believe that there is room for all types of small groups and experimentation within local contexts, I prefer closed groups of fixed duration. Not only does this catalyze the development of relationships within the group, it allows for new groups to regularly form, at which time new members can enter where, relatively speaking, relationships can form from the ground up.

Evangelism and Growth on Sundays

It is my growing conviction that the least threatening and best place for seekers and new members to experience the relational web of the Church is in the larger congregation on Sundays. However, for this to be better accomplished, congregational interaction on Sundays must go beyond chit-chat in the parking lot before and after services. I believe that it is imperative that we give congregants chances to interact in spiritual dialogue (rather than merely sitting under the preacher’s monologue) during the main service, yet without the pressure of an extended commitment to group life, which can be both intimidating or too steep an entry price for experiencing community. Towards this end, I have already added a short discussion period with questions (and soon, trained facilitators which is the first level of discipleship and leadership open to the congregation) after every sermon.

Inreach and Outreach Phases for Small Groups

journeyMoving the first level of community integration to the main Sunday services does not mean, however, that evangelism must be missing from small group. In fact, the insular nature of closed groups begs for a solution that allows for the expression of the life and relationships birthed in such groups. Towards this end, I was inspired by O’Connor’s Journey Inward, Journey Outward to re-imagine the phases of small group into roughly two halves – the first half of the fixed duration of the group may be dedicated to the subject to be studied, the development of relationships within the group, and the birth of spiritual creativity.[21]

This newly created spiritual energy should be expressed into either the Church or the world through a structured ‘outreach’ phase of the group. For example, a group for new believers might have as its outreach the creation of personal testimony tracts and the sharing of one’s testimony in front of the local church. Or, a group studying Christianity and the arts might create art and have an art exhibit as their outreach.

2.5 Christian Leadership and Mentoring (Current)

My current situation as a volunteer bivocational Assistant Teaching Pastor provides many lessons in the needs of the local church in creating community. Even though I am blessed with the opportunity to both preach and lead worship monthly, there are many critical tasks not being accomplished from my vantage point, which have informed my desire to build something even better.

Lack of Mentoring

My current Senior Pastor and spiritual mentor has many significant challenges which limit his ability to spend time with, encourage, and instruct me. To this end, I also note that little effort is made by the leadership team (including myself) to set up mentoring structures within the church, although a lot of unseen work goes on informally. In general, I find that mentoring across most church organizations is weak or non-existent.

Parachurch Mentoring as an Example

My wife’s involvement with Mothers of Pre-Schoolers (MOPS) has proved very instructive, and this missional parachurch structure has much to teach the local church in how to make disciples through opportunities for relational and leadership development. Towards the former end, relationships are formed through a regular meal together, a craft, discussion questions, and the affinity of being in the same stage of life – young motherhood. Towards the latter end, there are accessible opportunities for leadership growth, from the very low commitment and skill level of becoming a table leader, to a Steering Committee officer, to the leader of the local chapter and beyond.

3. Conclusion

My own journey of spiritual community has not only made me realize the necessity and value of such a relational web, it has revealed many of the crucial structures that facilitate community, and the dangers inherent in these power structures. Essential ingredients include, but are not limited to, experiences of community that do not require a huge initial outlay of time or emotional vulnerability, opportunities to do all of life together (learning, working, living, eating, serving), graduated opportunities for leadership within the local church, and a balance between nurturing the individual’s callings and that of the local and global Church, which is called to reach the world with the Gospel of the Kingdom.

Notes

[1] . “Maranatha Campus Ministries.” Retrieved 2015-02-05, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maranatha_Campus_Ministries.

[2] Boettner, L. (1932). The Reformed doctrine of predestination. Grand Rapids, Mich.,, Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing company.

[3] Cosby, N. G. (1975). Handbook for mission groups. Waco, Tex., Word Books.

[4] O’Connor, E. (1963). Call to commitment; the story of the Church of the Saviour, Washington, D.C. New York,, Harper & Row.

[5] O’Connor, E. (2000). Servant Leaders, Servant Structures, Potter’s House.

[6] Hay, L. L. (1987). You can heal your life. Santa Monica, CA, Hay House.

[7] Robbins, A. (1991). Awaken the giant within : how to take immediate control of your mental, emotional, physical & financial destiny. New York, N.Y., Summit Books.

[8] Seamands, D. A. (1987). Healing for damaged emotions. New York, Phoenix Press.

[9] Neighbour, R. W. and L. Jenkins (1990). Where do we go from here? : a guidebook for cell group churches. Houston, TX, Touch Publications.

[10] Bradshaw, J. (1990). Homecoming : reclaiming and championing your inner child. New York, Bantam Books.

[11] Comiskey, A. (1989). Pursuing sexual wholeness : how Jesus heals the homosexual. Lake Mary, Fla., Creation House.

[12] Seamands, D. A. (1982). Putting away childish things. Wheaton, Ill., Victor Books.

[13] Hart, W. (1987). The art of living : Vipassana meditation as taught by S.N. Goenka. San Francisco, Harper & Row.

[14] Gattuso, J. M. (1996). A course in love : powerful teachings on love, sex, and personal fulfillment. San Francisco, Calif., HarperSanFrancisco.

[15] Jampolsky, G. G. (1989). Out of darkness into the light : a journey of inner healing. New York, Bantam Books.

[15a] Loftus, John W. (2012). Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity. Prometheus Books.

[16] Anderson, M. L. (2013-03-15). “Here Come the Radicals!” Christianity Today. Retrieved 2015-02-05, from http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/march/here-come-radicals.html.

[17] . “Shepherding Movement.” Retrieved 2015-02-05, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shepherding_Movement.

[18] Enroth, R. M. (1992). Churches that abuse. Grand Rapids, Mich., Zondervan.

[19] Hunsucker, D. (1996). “John Wesley: Father of Today’s Small Group Concept?” Wesleyan Theological Journal 31(Number 1, Spring, 1996).

[20] Stafford, T. (2003). “Finding God in Small Groups: Tom Albin’s doctoral research reveals why the Wesley’s system worked so well.” Retrieved 2015-02-07, from http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/august/2.42.html.

[21] O’Connor, E. (1968). Journey inward, journey outward. New York,, Harper & Row.