The Fifth Basic Food Group
Karen Hinckley

    In Church Without Walls, Jim Petersen proposes that perhaps a 'church" doesn't have to have a pulpit, a choir, clergy, and a Sunday morning meeting. The functions of a church are timeless, but the forms it takes are adaptable. (In the same way, a "house" anywhere in the world functions to shelter inhabitants from the weather, but the form of a house varies from igloo to grass hut to mansion.) Some friends and I decided to test this thesis.

Circles

    We were a motley assortment of career Christians, children of Navigators, and others who knew our way around the Bible pretty well. Sunday sermons didn't seem to be addressed to us. We were interested in relating to unbelievers who lived in cultures more alien to evangelicaldom than most evangelicals we knew were willing to admit. And we were simply not the kinds of people who learn and grow well by singing a few songs and hearing a lecture each week. It's common knowledge now that people have radically different learning styles, and we were the sort who needed to get our hands dirty in the material somehow-by writing or talking or praying about it, for example.

    The functions of church, as we understood the biblical data, were community, accountability, leaming and applying the truths of Scripture, support and feedback on applying the tough truths, partnership in spreading the gospel, and corporate worship. None of us could recall a local church that truly held us accountable in the nitty-gritty areas of our lives-and honestly, how could a pastor and a half-dozen elders be that involved in over a hundred lives? We couldn't find the idea of "pastoral covering" (in the sense that if you listen to someone's sermon each week, you are safer from spiritual disaster), so we took the risk of living without it for two years. However we were not so arrogant as to think we didn't need to stay in close, honest contact with mature Christians outside our group who could blow a whistle if we started to get flaky.

    I wouldn't say we founded a church. It would be more accurate to say we evolved into a church. We simply started spending time with each other, doing more and more of the functions of a church until we were "churching" together more than with any other body. Functions like leadership took on forms as they became necessary.

    Someone said we needed a name other than "the group." Were we a prayer group, a Bible study group, a fellowship group, a mission group? Yes, to all the above. House church sounded pretentious. Someone suggested that we almost always ate when we were together, so perhaps we were a food group. We became the Fifth Basic Food Group, based on the doctrine that one of the most essential elements of the spiritual life is not to take oneself too seriously.

Drawbacks and Benefits

    We took plenty of time getting to know each other. Becoming truly intimate with people takes more than ninety minutes per week, even when one uses the full arsenal of home group icebreakers and sharing questions. Male engineers who are not in crisis do not readily reveal their secret sins and fears in mixed company. We had more than ninety minutes because we were not also committed to a Sunday worship service, Sunday school, choir practice, a Wednesday night service, and a couple of committees.

    Some of us were poles apart in religious background: High Church Episcopal with some charismatic experience faced straight-down-the-line evangelicals. One woman had spent ten years in an unusual Latin American mission. Because we were not threatened by disagreement and were open to being proven wrong, we were able to have fruitful debate over issues like spiritual warfare and male-female roles.

    But nonstop talking becomes narcissistic. We also prayed about and teamed up to reach out to lost friends. At the request of one of our mature outsiders we committed ourselves to pray seriously for a ministry that badly needed intercession. When a relative of one group members came to town for a hospital psychiatric program, we were family to pray and vent and eat with on weekends. We got involved with a family outside our group who needed help we could give. And when one of our marriages began to show increasing signs of severe problems, we were trusted and available enough to hold parties accountable for dealing with matters in a deep, thorough, and biblical way. Also, since we didn't have to spend money on a professional staff and a building, we had more to give to other needs in the Body of Christ.

    Worship was a challenge. We had some great prayer times of confession, intercession, and even praise, but some of us missed the kinds of music-traditional or contemporary-that require funding and a larger group. Some of us longed for worship and learning styles that were visual as well as verbal, such as drama or dance.

    Because none of us had children, we didn't have to address the problem of what to do with the kids. A family with children who became loosely associated with the Food Group wished there were a way to expose their kids to the rich tradition with which they had grown up without raising them in spectator Christianity - sitting passively in services and Sunday school. A community like ours that included children would have to build them in as a vital part of its ministry responsibilities. Parents would have to learn how to pass on their faith to their children, just as parents always had to do until Sunday school for believers was invented less than a century ago.

    We haven't yet had the challenge of integrating non Christians or new Christians into our community. That may be the acid test of any church: Can it nurture those with no biblical background, those who have been broken by abuse and sin, without forcing them to take on the customs of a religious subculture? Can it leave them in the world while helping them to stop being of it?

    Finally, a small group is more vulnerable to the unstable modern lifestyle than a larger one. When a key couple was forced by a job transfer to move, we mourned the loss keenly. A marriage in meltdown rocked the boat severely. At last we had to acknowledge that the Fifth Basic Food Group as such no longer existed, but the network of relationships among core "members" and others who were more or less involved continues to provide community I could not live without.

    I recently decided to join a conventional "church" in addition to our community. I produce materials for small groups sponsored by institutional churches, and it's important for me not to lose touch with my audience. Professional church staff, sanctuaries, and Sunday schools still serve needed functions in the Body of Christ.

    However, I face a dilemma of time allocation solved only with an understanding of calling. I'm glad for the people at church who are called to provide a setting that encourages worship, training for children, and a weekly program of events. I enjoy the benefits of their service and know we're part of the same team, even when my ministry takes me to believers and unbelievers who aren't on their mailing list. Those who sustain the base camp, and those who go out in commando units are partners.

    Yet the Food Group has been anything but a failure. It was a bittersweet joy to say goodbye to a couple who are unbelievably more like Christ than they were when I met them. And I doubt that all the sermons in the world could have egged me on to make choices for which they and others have held me accountable. I'm convinced even more that if we hold fast to the biblical functions of community, we have an amazing range of flexibility in determining forms.



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• © 1999-2002 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on January 3, 2003