In a few previous posts I have been posting bits and pieces that begin to explain the thinking and the history behind why we have founded a new “simple church” network. You can read something about why we feel the need for something new here. Or something about the back-story here. If you want to understand the name Four31 you can find that here. You can read the values that we hold as particular communities and as a network as a whole here. And you can read our dream for the future here.
When I was trying to put some of the many ideas buzzing around my and our collective heads on paper I was tempted to stop there because I have an allergic reaction to five-year plans or anything that tries to feed my desire to have the future all worked out. Rather I have learnt that I have very little concept of what God is actually wanting to do through and in us tomorrow or next week never mind next year or the one after. A road map is helpful as something to guide you, though. As long as you keep it looking more like a satellite map than a street map and you remember that you may not even have the right map in your hands.
Having said all that I thought it might be helpful to try to give people who are “for us” but don’t “get it” or who might “get it” if we could “show it” a picture of how it could all look. That is if “it” even works and grows or if we even have the right map…
When we use phrases like “organic” or “simple” church it could often sound like we are advocating a no-structure approach to church. This is not the case; it would be more accurate to say that we are advocating both a structure-light approach as well as a fluid and flexible structure. We are content for our structure to grow with us and to be reinvented and re-imagined whenever necessary. We do not expect every part of the network to look the same as any other part. We expect uniformity in theology and values not in structure. We want our structures to free us for mission not conform us to ecclesiastical distinctives.
With the above points noted we have considered what a simple church network structure could look like. We envision four basic expressions of network life. These expressions are a guide not a prescription. Nor are they designed to be sequential “steps” to a pre-determined outcome.
A node is an area in which we are working but in which there is no formal gospel community as yet. Because much of what we are hoping to do will take the form of pioneering ministry, we expect that this will take time. Time to connect with people, to invite them into community and together envision what church could look like in this community and among this people.
If we have a trusted leader in an area then we have a node that is a part of the Four31 Network. We do want Gospel Communities or church plants to develop (and in fact we believe this cannot but happen when the gospel is at work) but we do not want to restrict belonging to Four31 to only those who already have a Gospel Community structure or who are actively in the process of forming one. We are committed to “commissioning” gospel men and women to get on with ministry in an area and allowing church to grow up contextually and organically without the pressure of immediate results or “church plant” expectations in order to legitimise the ministry.
Our hope is that Four31 can become a home to those who are called to pioneering ministry outside of the current church structures. And that together we can begin to envision what new and complementary structures might begin to look like.
Currently we have three nodes:
1. East City Area, Cape Town – Woodstock, Salt River, Observatory
2. Northern Suburbs, Cape Town – Bellville, Durbanville
3. Arizona, USA – Mission to the Apache Indians
2. Gospel Community: the most basic and fundamental unit of church life beyond one’s own family. A gospel community (GC) is a group of up to 20 people who have covenanted together to share life with one another and who share a common mission to an area or people. Some potential Gospel Communities that could develop around the East City Gathering for instance may include:
a) Area Gospel Communities into the areas of Woodstock, Lower Woodstock, Observatory and Salt River.
b) People Group Specific Gospel Communities to, for instance, Muslims, French Speakers, Youth, Students or Homeless People. These Gospel Communities would exist as a missional team seeking to find ways to reach and serve that specific people group with the gospel. This would not necessarily be a Gospel Community for those from that particular background but for those who want to reach them. When people follow Jesus they could be integrated into a Gospel Community or this team may consider how church might be contextualized for these believers
3. Gatherings: As the number of GC’s grow it would be useful to group a number of these GC’s (3-6) around a centralized gathering. This gathering could share training, leadership, and some collective identity. This gathering (for instance the East City Gathering) could determine the frequency and appropriate shape of their gathering.
4. Network: As Gospel Communities multiply so new Gatherings would be formed. As the amount of Gatherings increase so these Gatherings would then be formed into a wider network of Gatherings.
This Easter we decided to try express the death and resurrection outside the walls of a church building or the confines of a church service.
It was a low-key time of meeting with brokenness and neglected people as we followed Gods spirit into the streets. We cleaned streets and parks as a sign of restoration and new life. We ate together as a sign of restored community. We walked the streets praying, listening to God and learning from those we met. We asked God to show us where to serve as we looked to the future. We learned fresh things from Scripture because of our experiences on the streets.
We discovered the mix of people in the East City area all over again. The division between races and classes. The hatred towards us cleaning the streets and the appreciation for us doing it. We saw the brokenness, the solidarity, the escapism, the hopelessness, the laughter and the lies. We saw our community with fresh eyes and listened with hopeful ears. We mapped the area and discovered more about what is happening – good and bad. We prayed for people and shared the Jesus who came to transform the mess in the world at Easter.
It was a good Easter.
A good place to start is to walk the streets with your eyes open. Jesus did not walk this world with his head in a hold shekinah cloud, but with his eyes peeled for opportunities to demonstrate and proclaim the gospel.
Jesus saw disciples in sinners: “After this he [Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.” Luke 5:27
Jesus looked with compassion on the masses: “When he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it” (Luke 19:41)
Jesus looked with compassion on individuals: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” John 11:33
Jesus saw faith and responded to it: “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” (Matthew 9:2)
Jesus saw need and met it: “When Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever. He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him.”
Allow me to share a few stories that illustrate what walking the streets with open eyes meant for us in the early days of planting Hill City Church:
For over a year before we had even moved to the estate, my wife and I committed to prayer-walking the streets every Monday evening, whatever the weather. We did this with our spiritual eyes open. One evening we stumbled across a derelict playground that lay right at the centre of the estate. It had clearly been abandoned for years and served no purpose, apart from giving residents somewhere to dump rubbish. All that remained of the playground were two rusty metal benches that had been shoved so far into the ground that, to sit on them, meant sitting at ground level. However, we did just that, and as we gazed at shards of glass, the unwanted junk and the general desolation that surrounded us, we were led (by the Spirit) to pray that God would establish a place of worship here at the heart of the estate. After we’d prayed, we looked over our shoulders and saw a house of sale. To cut a long story short, several months later we bought that house, moved in and did exactly what we’d prayed about- we started a church in that house and established a place of worship there! The opportunities we’ve had to share the gospel purely by living in this part of the community are way too numerous (and sensitive) to write about here, but, suffice to say it was a God thing!
Furthermore, upon moving in, we made it our aim as a fledgling church to see the ruins rebuilt and this derelict playground restored, so that the local kids could have somewhere to play again. We believe firmly that Christians in broken communities should have a reputation as “the restorer of streets to dwell in” (Isaiah 58:12). So we prayed, got in touch with the council and started the ball rolling on a three year ₤250, 000 process that eventually led to the total restoration of the play area. Hill City Church was right at the heart of the project from the start, even sponsoring the mural on the wall. Our involvement has certainly opened doors for the gospel. However, none of this would have happened if we hadn’t walked the street with our eyes open all those years ago.
Another occasion when open eyes have led to opportunities to demonstrate the gospel came in the area of rubbish. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the fly-tipping and dumping of litter around where we live was one of the most dangerous and disgusting issues that we faced when we moved here. Coupled with the local youths’ habit of robbing wheelie-bins, surfing down the road on them, and then burning them out at the bottom, this had led to trash carnage. Sometimes my kids had to wade through used nappies just to get to the car. That really wound me up.
That was until I opened my eyes. Literally, one day God revealed to me that I should take responsibility for this rubbish. All of it! I was confronted with the perfect opportunity to demonstrate grace. So I started making phone calls and getting the council to sort things out. But I also went out myself with a litter picker and gloves, collecting it all up and putting it in my own bin. Why? Because, the more I thought about it, the more I saw this as a perfect platform to illustrate what Christ had done for us on the cross. He stepped into our mess, taking away our filth, for free, never to let it be seen again!
One of our most harrowing experiences took place on Christmas Day a few years ago. I was still awake at around 1am when I heard a noise outside. I looked out of my window to see a woman getting beaten senseless by a man, right outside my house. I ran out to intervene. By the time I got out there, he was kicking her in the face and stamping on her head. I shouted at him and he ran off. The women got up, swore at me and ran after him!
So was it a waste of my time to get involved? No. Firstly, because it was the right thing to do. Secondly, because over the days that followed, it became clear that there had been several other men who had witnessed the assault from their windows, yet had chosen to do nothing. The fact that I was the only neighbour to step in seemed to speak volumes about who I worship. I didn’t do it to be a hero. I did it because it wasn’t an option to turn a blind eye. But having open eyes can sometimes break your heart.
A gang of around twenty youths has decided to make the bus stop in front of my mate Jim’s house their new haunt. This involved drinking, noise, setting things on fire and relieving themselves in the street. I knew that Jim was praying about the situation, but it still bothered him.
As I left his house one morning, I saw a huge list of names sprawled all over his bus stop. And that’s when God opened my eyes. “Jim!” I shouted. “You’ve got a whole list of names to pray for here. You’ve got your own prayer-list.” It might sound stupid, but I’ve never walked past graffiti in the same way since. All around us in these estates are lists of names that represent real young people who are lost, broken and crying out for attention.”
Today marks the day 3 years ago that we moved to Woodstock. Convinced of God’s call we arrived with a truck full of stuff, one child, a dog and big dreams. Since then we have flogged or given away all the baby stuff, adopted a second child and lost the dream. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the past few years have, at times, been some of the toughest and most challenging years of our life. We came close at times to walking away… from everything. There were days we were not even sure we wanted to follow Christ anymore. But in the midst of the chaos, the mess, the anger and the tears, somehow we found the dream again. Mostly I think we simply found Christ again and for the first time we realised what it meant to follow him.
Mostly we try to programme, organise and control the mission. We are more concerned to know what tomorrow will look like while God is more concerned with how we will follow him today. We have forgotten that to follow Christ is to give up control, to give up our idols of control, security and comfort, to throw open our homes and our lives to the often chaotic, mostly unplanned, always unexpected and most definitely beautiful mission of God.
In three years it feels like we have lost much, but we have gained so much more. Mostly I look back and I ask myself – what have we done? And I cannot answer my own question. But somehow in some unquantifiable way we have found each other, found ourselves, found life and been found by our Saviour all over again. It has been over two years since we have been a part of a formal Christian community and I miss it deeply. Yet we are not alone we are surrounded by rich, full, deep relationships with our friends – believers and unbelievers.
We did not leave “church” because we were angry or hurt. But through some tough circumstances we found ourselves “out” of mainstream church, and as we tried to figure out the way ahead, God pulled us into mission. He called us into an unorthodox and unlooked-for path, and He has sustained us and loved us. I miss “normal church” but to be honest I don’t ever want to go back!
In 3 years: we have eaten together a whole lot, we have laughed together and we have cried together. We have walked together with the most surprising people. We have tried to listen to them and they to us. We have heard God’s Word afresh together. Somehow we have shared the gospel with the strangest mix of people. We have shared stories, life and hope with each other. Somehow in all of this we are starting to find church again. Not church as a concept. Not church as we have imagined it or shaped it but church as Jesus is growing up among this people in this place. We are finding a deeper, richer and dare I say “more biblical” experience of church, shaped and bound together by mission.
I imagine this post sounds decidedly flaky to most reading it and I confess five years back I probably would have thought so too. But somehow we are more in love with Jesus, more grounded in the gospel, more determined in mission and more a friend of broken people and sinners than ever before. Perhaps that is flaky but I suspect we are in good company with our Saviour…
Michael Frost on why mission catalyses community and worship:
Mez has a brilliant and hard-hitting post that I think is hugely relevant to us in South Africa. Especially us middle-class, evangelical Christians, who often seem all too willingly ignorant of the vast gospel needs in the prosperity gospel infested townships, the drug-flooded Cape Flats and the desperately poor rural areas such as the Eastern Cape. The gospel cry is for a new generation of downwardly mobile Christians to give up their small ambitions of nice houses and good schools and move into these less than sexy neighbourhoods with the gospel. Will it cost us to leave the safe suburbs and follow the gospel need? Definitely but did it not cost Christ everything to leave the glory of heaven and take on humanity, suffering rejection and betrayal and ultimately death on the cross, for our sins. Where we deserving? Not a chance. But we move in with the Good News of resurrection, of forgiveness, of new life, of peace, of joy and of hope!
Here are a few of my favourite parts:
“Jesus is more important than your family. He is certainly more important than your children. Deal with it. Or walk away. There will always be issues and worries and problems and questions concerning the Christian life… But the bottom line will always be whether you are prepared to put your allegiance to Christ before all and above all, including those wonderful, fluffy, cute, sweet-smelling bundles of (often) idolatrous joy that we call our offspring.”
“Church planting might actually cost us something. That something might even turn out to be everything. It might turn out to be every sacred cow we hold dear in our middle class, educationally driven, child centred, play it safe, let’s cover all the angles before we step out, Christian culture.”
“Really? You mean those biographies of long since, dead people who buried their children on the missions field after suffering all sorts of wasting diseases, might actually have some relevance for my coddled, sanitized Twenty First Century life? Are you suggesting that I may have to make difficult decisions today that may even be (in human, earthly terms) detrimental for my loved ones? Well, that sounds a bit over the top. That doesn’t even sound biblical, or even closely like my God who wants me and my family to be safe and sound. What would Joyce Meyer or the guy with the nice teeth on the God Channel say about that? God wants me to take decisions that make me and my family happy, doesn’t He? God wouldn’t really want me to suffer for His namesake, would He? OK, maybe a bit of name calling and some strong debate with my atheist friends. But, to move my family to a tough scheme without thought to my young ones? C’mon. God wouldn’t want me to do anything that is irresponsible, surely? We should, at least, consider some sort of risk assessment? You seriously mean to say that my children might suffer for the gospel? My wife might suffer for the gospel? I thought I might have to suffer but not like this. Actually, when I come to think about it, I’m not actually sure what I mean when I say that.”
Over the past few weeks God has been convicting us afresh of the need to listen, to see and to learn from our community. It feels as if He is calling us to a fresh season of listening and learning. As a result we have decided to spend two days this Easter weekend (Friday and Saturday) researching, mapping, walking, seeing and praying.
We will begin each day with some teaching and prayer. We remind ourselves of the gospel, of Christ, who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. We also remember that we are wholly dependant on the Holy Spirit who has already gone ahead of us to guide us, soften our hearts, open our eyes and give fruit to our efforts.
After mapping and gathering information on the Friday morning it will be time to get out and get busy in the afternoon. Time to grab a bunch of refuse bags and head out into the streets around our house and clean up all the dirt and litter we can find. This is a big issue in our area, and a really simple demonstration of our desire to be a blessing to our community. It is also a simple demonstration of the gospel, the God who cleans up other people’s mess. And a demonstration of grace – cleaning up the mess we did not make. Pray that we will get opportunities to explain this gospel of grace to people who ask us why we are cleaning up the streets.
After cleaning up the streets we plan to clean ourselves up a bit and head over to a local hang-out spot for an early supper.
On the Saturday we will spend most of our time in twos or threes walking, praying, and meeting people. As we do this we want to consider questions like what are the needs in our community, where is the brokenness, what is the gospel story that people tell, who/what are the influencers, and where do people gather. We will finish up our time together with a meal, some prayer, a bit of a debrief and hopefully some dreaming about future plans.
We are hopeful that we will learn more about our community, meet some new friends and have God show us where and with who he wants us to busy ourselves in the next season.
If you want to join us for all or part of the two days drop me a line and I can send you some details.
Last week we were working through the Porterbrook Training module on Missional Community Life with our learning group recently. In the unit on Missional Engagement one of the exercises asks us to list ten things you love about your neighbourhood.
I previously posted 10 Things I Love About Woodstock but I thought it might be fun to see if my list needs some updating.
1. The ethnic, economic and cultural diversity
2. I love the proximity to the mountain and Woodstock cave (ok this is a bit of a stretch but it is called Woodstock cave) is one of my favourite spots to pray and stare at the city.
3. You can paint your house (or parts) thereof weird colours and does not look out or strange
4. Jamaica Me Crazy is one of my favourite hang-out spots. Good food (pizza, burgers), excellent selection of craft beers, sport on the big screen and a overall a good vibe.
5. Love finding bargains and interesting “junk” at the dump, Salvation army shop or a bunch of other (sometimes unnamed) shops around Woodstock.
6. I love the vibe and the feel of the place- creative, noisy, vibrant, loud, colourful, a bit grungy, full of life.
7. It is so central to airports, public transport, major highways, city centre, and just about anywhere you care to go to in the city. Interesting but useless fact – there is not one single traffic light between my house and the airport!
8. I tutored kids with the Help to Read programme at Mountain Road Primary School last year. It is not a wealthy school at all but I was seriously impressed. The effort to beautify it, the passion of the teachers, the library, all the extras like that the school offers. In fact, next year we are sending our boys there.
9. Love the street art that you can find in all sorts of nooks and crannies all over Woodstock. We have street art by some of the biggest names in South African street art such as Freddy Sam and Faith 47.
10. Love that I can still get a great haircut for only R20 from my Congolese barber
TSK posted this poem by Steve M recently as a tribute. Thought this might resonate with some of my friends.
can i take my addictions into your church
can i sit on your padded pews
can i bleed on your carpet or do you want
me when i’m clean and not now.
can i take my addictions into your theology
is it big enough to face my pain
or will i stain your glass with street smells
where can i go
where can i go when i’m addicted . . .
It also reminded me of this poem by Steve Turner:
THE GOD LETTERS:
The Lord God says:
‘Share your bread
with the hungry,
bring the homeless poor
into your house,
cover the naked.’
Dear Lord God,
We have got
so this will
not be possible.