Part I. A Problem with Wineskins

Part II. Meetings in His Kingdom

    A few years ago the son of some friends had a dream where the Lord told him, "Try to build a church bigger than the city." As I've thought about what we are doing/being I've realized that we may be moving in that very direction.

    One of the questions which has dogged some of us is simply this: what the heck are we? Are we a church? Whose definition do we use to answer that question? Does it really matter how we define ourselves? If we are doing the things God gave us to do, if we are loving one another, seeking to build the kingdom.. does it matter what LABEL we use?

    Of course, the question appears relevant because of our context. Other believers ask us what we are doing, who we are, often with great concern. "We've heard you aren't attending church on Sunday anymore...?" I wonder what the Apostle Paul would have made of that phrase, as if "church" had anything to do with a particular place or time. In 1 Cor.12 to 14 it is the people and purpose who are in focus.

    In spite of that, local churches especially will continue to be interested in our answer to the identity question. Like the Greek Orthodox, who answer with paradox to questions about the being of God, we say, "Yes, we are a church. No, we aren't a church." Why? Because our existence is a witness to something that has nothing to do with buildings or mortgages or even authority structures, but rather to an internal and relational reality.

    Let's be honest about this. Some are threatened because they simply don't understand. Gordon Cosby, who together with others pioneered a new church in Washington, DC in the late fifties, wrote that,

That which is in God cannot be shaken. If it is not of God, then let us praise him when it collapses so that we can get on with the next thing, because surely we don't want to give our lives to building that which is not His will. E. O'Connor, Call to Commitment, 1963.

    So, some may be threatened. Others may be confused. Still others want to know exactly what we are all about. But are these good reasons to seek a definition? Perhaps not.

Getting Together

    Our "organized" meetings currently consist of occasional meetings of the leadership team, occasional Sunday meals together, and a lot of casual get togethers which include various groups of us gathering for fellowship and to do whatever else rises naturally out of our being together (could be worship, could be prayer, could be taking a collection for needy brethren, could be..?) Many of our assemblies are spontaneous.. someone phones a few people, they may phone a few others, and people gather together in someone's home.

Where the Heck Are We?

    At the moment, like Solomon's porch in Jerusalem, I would say that we are...

  • a church without walls
  • a church without programs
  • a church without a budget
  • a church without buildings or property
  • a church without titles
  • a church with no name

   What DO we have together? We have..

  • Friendship
  • People
  • Community
  • Meetings
  • Ministry
  • Usually, the presence of God

Christian Schwarz

    Some will wonder whether these two lists are mutually exclusive. That's a very good question. I believe that they are not; but the more the emphasis shifts to the first list, the less the second list will dominate. For some excellent thinking along these lines for those who are new to it, check out this discussion on paradigms, or look up Christian Schwarz' book, "Natural Church Development."

The Question of Elitism

    As we've continued to think, pray and act toward our vision (yes, we do have something we can call a "vision"), we've also pondered the question of elitism. Both internally and externally, we've wondered how we avoid thinking of our vision as "superior" to what we see around us. I would guess that this problem occurs every time the Lord releases something new in the world, or calls us back to something we have lost.

    The problem becomes more complex when some of us have left a traditional church, or are now pursuing this alternate vision while holding a membership at a local church. Inevitably, questions arise. Why are you doing this? What are you doing? Is this a church plant?

    I wonder if anyone ever had a vision for something new without others around them asking similar questions?

    As we have begun this journey, answers have been difficult to find. We aren't entirely sure where God is taking us. This feels.. well, odd. A bit insecure. Perhaps that is a clue to a real work of the Lord. As Graham Cooke puts it, "Order is always birthed out of chaos. When chaos surrounds us, the Holy Spirit broods over us...and God is creating a new masterpiece," and, "When the old wineskin is dying, the new wineskin is created by people who are not afraid to be vulnerable."

    All well and good. But what is our attitude toward the people and places who have been part of our journey, but are not now coming with us, and in some cases accuse us of rebellion or "not coming under authority."

    Part of the problem relates to the question of domains of authority, and part relates to the question of the relation of church and kingdom. These aren't terribly complex theological questions, but they become complex because our understandings will differ based on our history and personal experience.

    Furthermore, it becomes difficult to sort these questions out while in a personal process, because our feelings about who we are and what we are doing are deeply tied to a personal sense of well-being. Add to this the process of transition, which is chaotic and often frightening and involves relational conflict, and you have a recipe for confusion.

    In this context the questions of authority and accountability, church and kingdom suddenly take on deeper meaning. We wrestle with ourselves: by what authority do we leave our old community for a new one? By what authority do we do these things? And who is in control here anyway? By the way.. where are we going?

"We are seeking a city we have not yet seen, whose builder and maker is God."

Discernment vs. Judgment

    Oscar Cullman, the well known New Testament scholar, once wrote that the single most clear work of the Spirit is discernment. And in these times, discernment is a rare commodity indeed. Yet we are called to "judge all things" and to "discern the times."

    I believe that the Lord is releasing a new wineskin in our day. But then... perhaps it is really just an old one reborn.

    Do I believe that this new wine skin is superior to the old one? Of course. Just as I believe new wine is always the best, and that God saves the best for last.

    Throughout history Christians have been accused of elitism, because we know something (someone) that the world does not know.

    Does that mean that I believe I am superior in some way to the people who attend their local church on the corner every Sunday morning? I am not. In fact, the belief that I am a normal Christian, just one among brothers, is a cornerstone of true community. If I am in some way superior to my brother, I have already restablished what Christ set out to destroy. It is this very belief system that roots the clerical distinctions that destroy community and handicap the people of God.

    Yet having said that, I believe that the vision God has given us is superior to the vision we see worked out in most corner churches. Many new things are birthed by idealistic people who are unhappy with the old ways. Graham Cooke points out that frustrated people tend to be initiators, and are at least passionate about something!

    Sadly, the institutional church is no longer a place that invites inquiry. We prefer answers to questions. Questions make us uncomfortable.

    There are some good reasons for this. In the first place, if we question everything we do, it becomes difficult to make any progress at all. We need to assume some concensus for the sake of progress.

    But on the other hand, in times of rapid change our structures easily become outmoded, no longer fitting the environment. Every biologist knows that living things must be highly flexible and adaptive. Unfortunately, institutions quickly become mired in concrete and lose the flexibility that allows them to respond to a changing environment.

    And that is the value of enquiry. When we ask questions of ourselves and our practices, we allow the opportunity for learning and growth, and for new responses to arise. And who are the people who ask questions? Usually, the ones who are frustrated. That means for the most part that those of us who have left traditional structures are unhappy people who are looking for new wineskins.

    If we are still asking questions, we admit that we have not "arrived." In fact, our ministry could fall apart tomorrow. We live and move by the grace of God. What is new wine today will be old tomorrow.. will we continue to respond to what God is doing? Will we continue to listen for His voice? Will we continue to ask questions that threaten even our own assumptions? Salvation is not conditional on every obedience, but God's blessing and anointing are.

    Questioning what many assume are givens does not create comfortable discussions! In fact, many feel an implied judgment against the sincerity of my brothers and sisters in the traditional church. This isn't our intention. Only God can know a heart. But it is a discernment between old and new, between outmoded wineskins that are mired in culture, and a biblical vision of the church. At the same time, in some places believers are held in captivity under false understandings of ministry and authority.

Are We Divisive?

    Some will say that longing for a new vision means that we are divisive. In fact, even maintaining that our practice is more biblical than the church on the corner (the "superior" thing again) could be seen as divisive. After all, won't many zealous believers join us if they believe that our practice is superior to some groups around us?

    They may. Does this mean we are dividing the body of Christ?

   I could ask: which one?

    The question raises more problems than it answers. With a great variety of local churches in most cities of any size, no one can claim to be THE body of Christ. The body of Christ has many local expressions. We may claim to be working toward a more faithful expression of the heart of Jesus: we do NOT claim to be the only expression of His heart or His people.

    On the other hand, if our vision results in a greater release for the people of God, then we could rightly claim that it will be easier to build unity on this new foundation than on the old one. The traditional practice of church empowers few, involves few, and creates large groups of passive believers. We aren't very interested in uniting around that vision; it doesn't grasp our hearts or ignite our passion. In spite of that, we want to love all those who call themselves by the name of Jesus.

Bigger Than the City?

    When we go out from our friends to a city we have not seen, it's tough to give clear answers. Worse, they may feel abandoned. We may feel we aren't understood or supported. Tensions increase. As a result, we don't communicate as much as we could. Like any fledging movement, we aren't as sure as ourselves as some. And we don't want to argue about our vision, we just want to do it!

    Inevitably, leaving an established work to do something else is felt as a judgment against the established order. This is pretty close to the truth. We don't usually go to do a new thing if we are convinced it will be worse than the old thing!

    It may be perceived that we are "against" the old thing. There is an element of truth here. The old thing became restrictive for us. But the deeper truth is that we are "for" something else.

    I submit to you, however, that no one will build a church bigger than the city using the old wineskin.

Church in the New Millennium

    On the morning of February 4th, 2000 I was reading in Nehemiah and Ezra, thinking about the church in the new millennium. The Lord was helping me pull some pieces together when I had to leave to meet some friends for coffee.

    I drove to the home of a friend, and when he got into my car he began telling me about a dream that another friend's nine year old son had had early this same morning. The boy's name was Joshua.

    In his dream Joshua was standing outside a temple and God was standing beside him. God spoke to Joshua and told him that the temple had to be destroyed because the people were not worshipping the true God; they were worshipping other things.

    God told Joshua to kick the temple with his heel. Before he did so, Joshua yelled at the people inside, warning them about what was going to happen. Some began running out of the temple, but there were some that stayed in the temple and who wouldn't come out. Joshua then kicked the wall. The people who remained inside were standing under their idols when the temple started to collapse. Joshua saw the idols that they had made fall on the people and crush their heads.

    The LORD is shaking all that can be shaken, that what is built on the Rock alone may remain. Old things must come down before new things can rise from the dust to replace them. As Graham Cooke put it,

    "We cannot hold onto our old order and still progress to a new level of anointing. When a new paradigm unfolds before us, it will always take us back to ground zero. Paradigms do not build on each other; they replace each other. God loves this! We start again with a new dependency rising out of fresh inadequacy." A Divine Confrontation, Destiny Image, 1999

    The walls falling down particularly interests me. Walls represent human construction of boundaries. Boundaries are a way of telling who is in, and who is out. Boundaries define property, and they define authority. And boundaries create restriction.

Boundaries and Territory

    I don't think that our human construction of boundaries and territories has helped the Lord in building His kingdom. Note: the church is not the larger context of what God is doing in the world, the Kingdom of God is the context.

    "For you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, 'I am of Paul,' and another, 'I am of Apollos,' are you not carnal?" 1 Cor.3: 4.

    Going out from an established church can easily tax our caring for one another. Soon someone says, "I am of xxxx" (insert name of leader or church). But a particular church or denomination or a particular leader is not the center; Jesus is the center, and "no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid" (3:11). The only question is the one of foundation: for what purpose and for whose glory are we building? When a church becomes protective of its territory, or a new movement of its adherents, then Christ is no longer the foundation. Movements and denominations will all pass away.

    Isn't it interesting.. Jesus did not come "preaching the church," but rather, "preaching the Kingdom of God." And where was that Kingdom? Was it in the synagogue on the corner? Jesus answer to the woman at the well is relevant. "Those who worship the Father must worship Him in Spirit and in truth." The kingdom of God is "among you."

    Consequently, it isn't the where. It isn't even really the how. It's the people of God, and it's the purposes of God in sending His Son and loving the world. Those purposes capture our hearts, and no earthly authority is needed to pursue those purposes. Jesus said to his followers: "make disciples of all nations." That call is on our lives and in our hearts.

    At the same time we have to live with a paradox. The church is not the kingdom, but the church manifests the kingdom where it is faithful to God's purposes. We are the incarnation of Christ in the world; and Jesus took real flesh.

    Taking real flesh means that we must grapple with being a real people on a real journey with a real history here and now. Temporal structures can become idols, but we can't do without temporal structures. Just as we are flesh and spirit, and God redeems both, so the church is both fire and fireplace and has real (human and fallible) leaders. Broader associations, and their labels, become part of what God is doing in the world. They are not evil in themselves.

Under Authority

    This question is a thorny one, but we aren't sure how helpful it is. In fact, the question is raised from a host of presuppositions that we don't believe are biblical. It presupposes a conclusion based on that position, becoming something of a circular argument.

    If a group of believers band together for the purpose of mutual encouragement and edification, they are de facto a church. Does this not mean they should come under the covering of some local or extra-local authority?

    This is probably a good idea. But which local authority or extra-local authority should be chosen?

    In any city of size there are a huge variety of expressions of the body of Christ. Virtually all of them pursue a variety of practices that are more related to culture than to a biblical mandate. Should we submit ourselves to those who may not even feel that a non-denominational group of house churches are really a valid expression of the life of Christ?

    Next, which one would we choose? Authority tends to be seen as mechanism and position, but in reality the biblical picture appears far more organic and relational. Paul did not exercise his apostolic authority with churches he did not personally plant.

    The question for us, therefore, is a relationship question. With whom are we in relationship? Who knows us and loves us? Whom do we trust to guide us? When venturing into new territory, there aren't any maps. Who will take these risks with us?

Do we want a church bigger than the city?

    It's something of a personal question. I believe it's really about community and friendship. This call to an inward journey together is the very foundation of the Porch. Building community is not merely a means to an end.

   Why not merely teach about it? I remember a line from St. Francis of Assisi in the film, "Brother Sun, Sister Moon." Francis' good friend Bernardo comes to visit him as he rebuilds, stone by stone, an old ruined church. Bernardo says to Francis, "Let me help." Francis responds, "Words, Bernardo. There was a time when I believed in words." The world needs fewer words and more living examples. We don't want to merely teach about community and a priesthood of believers, we want to incarnate the truth.

    This is something on the heart of the Lord worldwide. His heart is to see his body become the loving, life giving organism it was meant to be. We desire to facilitate that vision and process wherever we can. As a result, we are a people with a world vision. We believe we will be taken beyond our own community to other communities to share our vision.

    Already there are signs that God is building a network of people and groups who share this heart. We are interested in assisting the growth of that network insofar as it furthers the purposes of God in our day.

    These are challenging times. May God keep us in step with His Spirit as we seek a new expression of church in our days.

Meetings in His Kingdom
An Excerpt from the book by Mike Peters

"This is a small part of the New Covenant, expressed from Acts Chapter 2 to Acts Chapter 2000:

Monday: Early AM.... Many of the saints are gathered at different homes to open up their lives to one another before they headed off for work. What was it like? Some laughing, nearly half of the Hebrew letter was read in one of the homes; some passionate prayer for the souls of coworkers; and jubilant praise to Jesus everywhere. Nothing "goo-goo" or hyper-spiritual. Just some rock-solid gratitude to a Living King and terrific friend.

Noon time... Different brothers are together for lunch with each other and some unbelievers with whom they are sharing God's love. Back in the homes, various mothers of young ones are together praying, and encouraging and teaching one another in the challenges of their situations. Practical, challenging time. Some tears are shed, God is honored, and satan is hammered again as the Word of God is spoken into the difficulty. Courage is renewed by Jesus' Victory.

Late afternoon... Some disciples are out on a run and meet an unbeliever. He likes the idea of coming over for dinner.

Evening... Because all the Saints were "seeking first the Kingdom," what started out to be a barbecue with a couple of families and the hungry runner who they found on the running trail at the park, is now 25 people who have found "where God's action is" this evening. They're sitting in the hallway, up the stairway and into the kitchen as various ones share their hearts and pilgrimage with the newcomer.

Prayer and worship are the natural product of the move of God this evening. Of course. "Religion" isn't something we do on a some day of the week. It isn't an emotional pacifier, or a nice little sprig of parsley on the big, important plate of life. Christ and His Kingdom are real. Jesus is now alive, and reigning as the head of a living body - provided we are not disconnected from Him.

Consequently, tonight He has used a Priesthood of Believers to do His Will (as He will where we have not denied His Headship by hierarchies, name tags, and pre-programmed liturgy). "And thus the secrets of his heart were revealed; and so, falling down on his face, the non-Christian worshipped God and reported that God was truly among us." And thank Him that He was!


Early AM... Again, especially after last night's cutting-edge time, a number of the Saints are together to seek God's Face. ("My Father's House shall be called a House of Prayer." Without being know for prayer, at least by the Father, it's not His House.) This morning, too, one of the women confessed that she was not sharp in the use of her time at home. She earnestly desires some input and a lot of prayer that she might bring her heart joyfully into the Government of God and His Grace. Prayer. Tears. Laughter. Some really excellent time together to start the day.

Daytime... A couple of the men who work third shift have given up some sleep to go from house to house amongst the church and some neighbors doing odd jobs for them. Several non-Christian ladies are over for lunch. Down-to-earth, non-dramatic, God-centered life.

Evening... Two of the men have a strong desire to teach some of the older children some Truths about reverence for our Father and response to His Life and Love in a practical way. The nine of them all head off for a trail through the woods and "rise up, sit down, and walk along the Way" (Deut. 11).

When they return, they discover that one of the brothers has called the whole church together to share some things that have been stirring in his heart. Some powerful teaching about "the full armor of God." A brother from India who we met in Bombay is visiting with us. He has become a true man of God.

He too shared his heart and experience about the weapons and armor of God. All are agreed that we should "declare a Holy Fast" in the church for tomorrow, and really pursue God's application of these Truths to ech of our individual lives. We have Bread that the world knows not of. (I hope that Bible verse is your experience, as well- to the extent that you could have written it, even if you had never read it?)

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• © 1999-2002 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on May 31, 2002