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.
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.
In this post you can read about the values that we hope will shape us as individual Christian communities and as a network.
1. We are becoming a people shaped by the Story of God. Our lives, both individually and communally must be shaped by the Bible story. We call each other to live lives of sacrifice, service, submission and risk-taking for the sake of the gospel. We listen to God’s Word as the reliable, authoritative and sufficient word of God.
2. We are becoming a dependant people, completely reliant on God to give fruit to our efforts. We cannot plan the shape and direction of mission ahead of time it is the supernatural work of God and cannot be planned, organised or controlled. We are committed to prayer as both a regular communal rhythm and a spontaneous response to needs and opportunities. Our role is to plant the gospel seed, to respond to opportunities and to allow the Holy Spirit to guide the shape and direction of our ministry.
3. We are becoming a missional people. Our primary identity is as God’s sent people and we seek to shape ourselves, our lifestyles and our structures around this primary identity. We want people to experience church as a network of relationships rather than a meeting you attend or a building you enter. We are committed to mission and not our traditions, comfort or preferences as the organising principle for our life together.
4. We are becoming a restored people. The Christian community is a foretaste of God’s future restoration of all things and we seek to reflect God’s coming, yet now broken-in, Kingdom as a community of justice, mercy, peace, reconciliation, beauty, creativity and love. We experience this restoration now imperfectly, in hiddenness and weakness, but one day in fullness and in glory.
5. We are becoming a communal people. We have not been saved for a life of individualistic spirituality but to be a part of a people, God’s new community. We are thus committed to sharing our lives together as extended family. This will impact how we make decisions, how we use our time, how we regard our possessions, where we choose to live and how we deal with conflict.
6. We are becoming an inclusive people, a community of peace in our busy and divided world. We, who in Christ have found rest, peace and wholeness, must now embody that in a community of grace for others, both believers and unbelievers, and not one based on performance.
7. We are becoming a diverse people; restored to one another through the gospel. We will not favour any one culture, education level or socio-economic status over another. All cultures are simultaneously redeemed and judged by the gospel. This diversity must be reflected in the make-up of our community and leadership and in the rhythms and shape of our life together.
8. We are becoming a local people. We wish to see truly contextual gospel communities planted that whilst maintaining robust gospel faithfulness are also truly recognisable expressions of that culture or locality. We are committed to stripping away all the non-essentials to church life and allowing the gospel to reinvent church in every subculture and local community. We are committed to living, listening to and sharing in the life of our local community.
9. We are becoming an ordinary people; sharing life together with gospel intentionality. The context for mission, community, discipleship, pastoral care and training, is ordinary life. We value people over programmes. When we run programmes they must be relational, timely and if necessary dispensable.
10. We are becoming a growing people. We are committed to a simple model of church that is small, decentralized and easily reproducible. We believe that home is the primary location of church and the location for all or most of church life. Church planting must not be dependant on financial resources, buildings, formal education or paid leadership. Leaders must be disciple-makers who create a culture of permission giving for mission and innovation.
11. We are becoming a global people. We recognise and celebrate that we are only a small part of God’s global mission among all peoples and cultures. We are committed to praying for, blessing and celebrating global mission. We are committed to sending people and finances to bless other communities, cities and nations outside of our immediate focus.
A number of missional thinkers have noted that the church globally is living in a time of liminality. Liminality may be defined simply as a time of transition from one state to another. While we, in South Africa, may not have seen the almost wholesale collapse of Christendom witnessed in Europe and parts of North America, we cannot, however, afford to be naïve about the fact that the place of the church in society is changing.
The church can no longer be said to occupy the central place, or even a significant place, in our communities. Increasingly we are a church on the margins, our opinions tolerated or ignored but rarely sought after or embraced.
In South Africa we still have a strong support for and recognition of traditional church structures but we also have an increasingly strong disconnect with traditional church structures or methodology. This is far deeper than simply dissatisfaction with the music or style of the service, although these could be symptoms of a deeper-seated dissatisfaction or apathy. Increasingly people are not simply looking for a “better kind of church.” they simply have no desire for church. This may manifest itself in hostility, around certain issues, but increasingly they feel only apathy as to what organised religion says or does. This trend in our experience is increasingly cutting across racial and socio-economic categories. We are increasingly reaching a transitional stage between what was and what is to come.
What is required in this time of liminality is not an either-or when it comes to church but a “mixed economy” church culture. There is still a value and a role for traditional church structures but there must be an increasing realisation of the need for new ways of doing church. These new ways must not be led by personal preference or clever innovation but by mission. Mission is the catalytic mark of the church.
This is what Four31 is all about, re-envisioning church for a new reality in order to reach those who are no longer being reached by traditional church structures. Liminality is a threshold experience that requires risk and danger as we seek to create a missional urgency for the journey between what is and what will be.
Many of those who share a similar vision to us will struggle to find a home within the current church structures. Four31 is about creating a home for missional pioneers, so that they may be commissioned and set free to litter the forgotten and neglected places of our cities and country with scattered communities of light.
Also: Four31: The Back-Story
Here is an excerpt from our recent newsletter (sign up by sending me an email letting me know you want in):
“Our trip to the UK in October and November last year was a huge blessing. We returned home excited, inspired, encouraged and hugely challenged by all that we saw. We were particularly blessed by our time in Loughborough with The Crowded House (TCH) family there. We love the folks at TCH. We love their passion for mission, their willingness to ask the hard questions and their love for the gospel, the church and for us.
TCH leadership have, however, been re-evaluating how external church plants best affiliate with them and how best they can operate as a network. In short they thought that it would be best for us relocate to the UK for at least 2-3 years (probably more) for a time of training, assessment, gaining of experience, belonging to the church family and building of strong relationships.
While there was much to commend this suggestion and everything was been discussed in a spirit of love and grace towards us; we do not think moving to the UK for a few years will best prepare us for church-planting in Cape Town. So, it is with sadness that we will no longer be a part of The Crowded House network.”
“As a result we have begun work on developing a vision for what our own network (cue Four31) could look like.”
“More and more it feels as if God is calling us to pioneer something new. There is great value in partnering with more established overseas networks, but we all know that contextually Africa is a very different place. So perhaps God is leading us (read kicking and screaming) to take up the experience and the wisdom of our overseas brothers and sister and forge something new and highly contextual here. Perhaps it is time to stop looking at what others are doing and to start simply asking “what would it mean to follow Jesus here?” “What would church look like here among these people in this place?”
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…
Decision making is a big issue within Christian circles. Who should I marry? What should I study? Should I take the new job or not? But I suspect that despite the vast amount of talking, teaching, books, video clips and sermon series on this subject, we are mostly wasting our time worrying about the wrong questions. There is some useful stuff out there helping us to make wise and godly decisions. The problem is that as useful as that is, our problem is deeper still. Not only do we often not have the tools to make wise decisions, we mostly are not even asking the right questions. Most of our burning questions that we need guidance on are not the most fundamental questions that we should be asking?
Here are a few excerpts:
“What if… people were willing to consider, entertain, and act upon a different impulse than is normal in our decision-making. What if one of the most fundamental areas of some Christian families’ lives, vocation and place of residence, were decided differently? What if even just a small number chose the location of their home upon the opportunity to become involved in a church plant?
Seldom do we hear of a family or individual who decides to accept this job or move to that place because there is a church there that they could serve and assist in. And that is a travesty. We consider everything else. The schools, the parks, the affordability of housing, area recreation, and the weather are all factors that seem to play into our willingness to consider moving to this or that part of the country. And after we have chosen our location due to vocation or interest it is then that we look for a church to join in that new local.
But what if the order was reversed? What if individuals and families began to consider moving to a new location so that they could help start or serve in a church plant or young church? What if this was considered by more than just a few individuals and families and actually became a real consideration for lay people scattered throughout our congregations? How many churches could be planted?
Can you see the picture? Retired individuals and couples consider moving to that city because their wisdom, experience, stability, and free time could greatly assist the church plant effort there; Professional individuals with their flexibility and financial resources packing their homes and moving across the state or country to assist in this church plant effort; Young families actually considering where they could serve the church best, over and above what location would provide the greatest place of comfort for their family; Young individuals graduating from college and taking two years to lend their zeal and energy to a church planting effort instead of moving on to graduate school or finding their career path.
“If weather, upward mobility, schools, and family can be the draw we need to move across the state or the country then why not the Church? What if the planting of churches was a true consideration for every person in the pew–at least a consideration? It could alter the landscape of the American church, lead tens of thousands to saving faith, result in hundreds if not thousands of new and healthy churches, and it would be good for the spiritual vitality of our existing churches.”
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.”
I loved this video clip (from the Acts 29 Western Europe blog) about a church planting initiative in the forgotten Welsh valleys. Scenes of great revivals in the past and now spiritually barren. I love hearing about gospel risk and gospel initiatives like this, resonates with my own heart for the lost and forgotten places of our city. Pray for the Welsh valleys. Perhaps God is calling you to the Welsh Valleys.