The IMB set out a few broad guidelines, things like:
- focus on church planting; not church buildings
- turn over institutional church work to national entities (seminaries, camps, schools, established churches)
- church planting movements: churches that plant churches that plant churches
- plant POUCH churches (Participative study/worship gatherings, Obedience to God's word as the measure of growth/maturity, Unpaid bi-vocational church leaders, Cell/house churches of 15 or less, Homes as meeting places)
- missionary roles as mentors-trainers, rather than actual church planters
In hindsight this bewilderment was a good thing. It drove us straight back to the New Testament. We began a reexamination of the who, what, when, where, and how of the 1st Century Church. It did not take long to discover quite a few discrepancies between what we were finding, and how we were actually practicing church.
Fast forward to early 2000 just as the new millennium dawned. In my role as team leader, I joined an online house church discussion group called House Church Connection which, BTW, continues today (for those who dare!) The purpose of the group, at that time, was to serve as a bridge for those journeying from institutional Christianity to 1st-Century NT house/simple church life. It was an extremely radical bunch for me at the time, but I was fascinated. I met and dialoged through dozens of long emails with "unknown saints" who had incredible insights on the very areas I was supposed to be an expert on. Where did they learn this stuff? I was baffled. As I struggled with the ideas and concepts shared, I received a lot of "hand-holding" and honest Biblical challenges to my questions and assumptions from new friends like Tracey Amino and Rick Carr and many others whose names I have long forgotten. Even though sometimes ultra-extreme to my own views, I was drawn to the freedom this bunch of people had to follow Christ without all the baggage that accompanies the established institutional churches I had known all my life.
One day, out of the blue, one of the participants on the list mailed me an unsolicited copy of Frank Viola's "Rethinking the Wineskin." As I fearfully read the first few pages, I knew in my heart that I too could never return to the idea of "church" as I had always known it. A seed had been planted.
The seed was watered by reading the few available writings I could lay my hands on: Frank Viola, Gene Edwards, Christian Smith's Going To The Root, and a few other scattered writings found on the internet. Other writings and books came later on, but these were my first encounters with this "new church world".
For me, the turning point was a trip I took to Cuba in the summer of 2000. I had been asked to speak in one of the sessions of the Baptist World Alliance meeting held in Havana that year. On Sunday, the visitors from around the world were invited to visit the recognized "government sanctioned" Cuban churches. I had not received an invitation to speak, but went down to the hotel lobby in hopes of tagging along with some of those headed to the Cuban churches.
Around 4pm a Cuban brother arrived. He was obviously looking for someone, so I asked him if I could help. In Spanish, he explained he was there to pick up brother so-and-so. He asked if I would be so kind to call his room to see if he was still going. When I called the American's room, he said he was sick and asked me to relay his apologies at not being able to attend that evening. Disappointed at not having a guest speaker, the Cuban brother asked if I might possibly fill in for the sick brother. I was thrilled to go with him, even though I had nothing prepared to share.
He drove us into a neighborhood and stopped in front of a house. When we entered I was delighted to see the "church" consisted of some 16-20 men, women, youth and children. Most were in the kitchen laughing at each other's jokes as refreshments were prepared for the gathering that evening. It was my first encounter with a real live house church--and Cuban at that!
As I sat with these brothers and sisters, sharing, eating and worshiping with them, words cannot express the emotions going on inside of my soul. It was all so spontaneous, yet felt so right! Even though I was the invited guest speaker, I was the one who was blessed beyond measure. In those few minutes shared with a handful of Cuban brothers, my life was forever changed. I saw in that gathering of believers something I had longed for my whole life. I now understood better than ever before, what the church was supposed to be. Wasn't this what the church looked like in the Book of Acts? Finally, I was able to see in living color what the writings I had been reading looked like! I knew in my heart this was what we must strive to recapture in our own church planting in Ecuador.
There is a lot more to the story. In a sense my pilgrimage has been the fitting together of many pieces of the puzzle as the Lord continues to gently reveal them. We still feel there is much to learn and still very much in the infancy of what I believe is an emerging house church planting movement in Ecuador. As we prepare to return to Guayaquil in a few days, my resolve is to continue to seek out a restoration of the values and principles of the 1st Century Church as found in the pages of the New Testament. In my heart, I believe it is the only way we are ever going to reach the world for Christ. I believe the existing institutional churches have a role as well, but only when the church returns to her roots, will Christ usher in His Kingdom as he intended when the command was given in Matthew 28 to make disciples of the nations.
Any thoughts or comments from your own pilgrimage?