Below is an “open letter” that Jeff Herron posted to facebook and I’m reposting here with his permission. I thought Jeff articulated well what I find many simple/house church folks are trying to express–especially to loved ones and other brothers and sisters who may not understand why they are doing what they are doing. Jeff has posted on this site before and he and his family continue to be an encouragement to me and to many involved in simple churches across the region.
An Open Letter
By Jeff Herron
To: My friends and family who regularly attend traditional church services
Re: Why I no longer regularly attend traditional church services and why I do not require my children to do so either
Hello, all you wonderful folks! Let me start by saying three things right off the bat:
1. I am writing this solely for informational purposes. I am not arguing that what I’m doing is better or worse than what you are doing. I am not trying to convince anyone to see it my way or alter their behavior in this regard in any way whatsoever. We each have our own story to tell. This is part of mine!
2. I am a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ. I am not guilty about our somewhat unusual church-going practices. I am under no conviction from the Holy Spirit about it. I don’t need you to tell me how I’m doing it wrong. We’ve been at this a few years now, and I can assure you that I have heard all of the objections already! After reading this open letter, if you still have genuine concerns, feel free to message me privately to discuss further.
3. I am not wanting to start a Facebook flamewar. I’ll delete this entire post if things go that direction. So, if you want to comment, please keep it civil. Thanks!
4. (Bonus fourth note for folks not on the “To:” line above!) This entire post will likely not make much sense to you. I’m posting it here on Facebook because this is where it stands the greatest chance of being seen by everyone that might be helped by reading it. If you are not part of the group on the “To:” line above, you’re welcome to read on out of curiosity, but you won’t be missing anything if you want to bail now. Thanks!
This comes up every so often as a somewhat uncomfortable topic of conversation, or, worse, it gets left undiscussed and just creates awkward silences during family gatherings and other times of getting together that should be fun. I hate for that to occur, so I just want to clear the air around this topic. If I only manage to cloud it further, I will ask in advance for your forgiveness. Nonetheless, I will do my best to shed some light on what we’re up to and why.
I grew up in church. So did Darah. I was in church services from my infancy up through my early 40s and, aside from a brief period in my early twenties, I rarely missed a service. Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Sunday school, Wednesday nights — I was there like clockwork, faithfully. It was a non-negotiable part of my Christian practice. My experience of what the traditional Christian church has to offer has been lengthy and consistent.
I’ve been a member at some churches for many years and a member of others for less than a year. I’ve been a member in good standing of megachurches with 20,000+ members and of small country churches with membership of 100 or fewer. My experience of traditional Christian churches has been broad and varied.
I learned a lot. I met terrific brothers and sisters in Christ. I was part of tremendously loving communities (and a couple that were a bit more challenging!), where I felt like a member of the family. I entered into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior through the ministry of a traditional church. My experience of the traditional Christian church has been overwhelmingly positive.
The churches I have had the pleasure to attend have almost all been traditional evangelical churches (mostly Baptist, with some non-denominational ones sprinkled in) that taught the same Gospel message about the same Jesus from the same Bible that you are familiar with. Read the statements of faith of any local Baptist church, and I wouldn’t find much to quibble with there. My experience of the traditional Christian church has been orthodox.
And yet, even though I still consider myself a devoted disciple of Jesus and someone who knows no higher calling than to help others become his disciples as well, I no longer attend traditional Christian church services with any regularity. What happened?
Well, like so many things that have changed in my life over the last 15 years, I blame it on the kids! 🙂 With growing children of my own attending church alongside me, I started seeing things partially through their eyes, which granted me new insight on something that had long become so comfortable and familiar to me it was almost invisible.
But going to church wasn’t just about me anymore. Now it was affecting my kids! Their experience of the richness of knowing God was largely concentrated on what happened at church services and activities. So, if they were great, then their experience of God was great, and if the services and activities weren’t top-notch, then knowing God started to seem not all that great, either. It was boring or irrelevant, something to be endured because mom and dad made them do it, but not something they truly looked forward to.
Even more discouraging, as I looked around the balcony during one particular Sunday morning worship service, I saw that every teen had their faces glued to their phone screens, oblivious to the service happening around them. They were there in body, but their minds and hearts were far away. This became my vision for where my own children would end up if we didn’t make some changes — and fast!
As homeschooling parents, Darah and I are no strangers to seeing what is broken in the standard approach, realizing we can do better in our own living room, and getting busy doing it. It began to dawn on me that the same might be true with regard to instructing the boys in their relationship with God. Darah and I could do as good a job as anyone — and better! These are our own children, after all, and their wellbeing and quality of life is more important to us and more directly our responsibility to ensure than it is for anyone else. (Scripture even lays the charge for instructing the children squarely in the dad’s lap! Gulp. That’s me!)
You see, every church I have ever attended gave me the same message: Stay connected in some fashion to what we’re doing here and you will grow spiritually. Some churches put a huge emphasis on the Sunday morning sermon. Others put emphasis on service, usually at the church building during service times in support of one of its ministries. Some wanted to make sure I was connected to other believers in a small group. And even when it was taught with words that I really needed to be connected with the Head (i.e., Jesus himself), the practice demonstrated that connection with the Body in some form was valued much more highly.
The other thing that was communicated quite clearly to me without fail was the preeminence of the person on the platform. They were the professional minister, and they were responsible for dispensing spiritual nourishment to the flock. Sermons, even when they were frankly not very good, were regarded as indispensable. (And if they got really bad, that’s when it was time to start looking for a new pastor.) In-person visits from or to the pastor were regarded as special. Even when the pastor himself sought to get down from the pedestal on which he had been placed, the people of the congregation would not allow it.
Both of these practical teachings served to reinforce the same false understanding I had developed: My relationship with God is someone else’s responsibility. It’s up to either the ministries of the church or the pastor to ensure that my connection with God stays vital and vibrant. But it’s certainly not up to me!
When I saw clearly that this false message from the church that I had received for many years so closely matched the growing experience of my own children, my reaction was akin to being startled from a deep concentration: I physically flinched and thought, “Oh no! What’s going on? This isn’t good!”
It’s as plain as day to substantiate by even the most cursory readings of Scripture that my relationship with God is between God and me (duh!), but I had never once articulated that truth, nor had I ever been challenged to think through what that would look like in my own life. My unarticulated understanding, reinforced by the the structure and operation of the church every church I had been part of, was that the health of my spiritual life was mostly up to other people to maintain and manage. I had been dead wrong! I continued to observe and began rethinking my spiritual life.
As this “holy discontent” began to grow within my heart and mind, I ran across a proposition that got me to sit up straight and think twice. I forget the name of the book where I first encountered the idea, but it’s not important. There are plenty of books on the topic, if you want to do some reading of your own. The premise being put forth was that the way we “do church” in contemporary America is not at all biblical. Not that it’s bad or wrong in any way, just that the way we currently do things isn’t especially favored by God over other sorts of ways that believers have gathered together throughout history.
This was a revelation to me. I had never considered that there might be any other way of “doing church.” And never in my wildest imagination did I dream there might be some alternative to the “pastor as central figure” model of church organization. While no one had ever taught me specifically that either of these notions was ordained by God himself, they both seemed beyond debate, so universal were they in the expressions of the church that I had experienced.
While the plain truth of this claim was impossible to argue with, I nonetheless spent a considerable amount of time praying for clarity and confirmation, and discussing the idea with any Christian I could. (I found there were many with whom I could not talk about this at all without precipitating a heated argument!)
After wrestling with the idea for many months, the image of David in Saul’s tent formed clearly in my mind. David tells the Israelite soldiers that he will go out to fight Goliath. Word makes its way back to Saul, and Saul sends for David to be brought before him. David confirms for Saul that he will willingly go out to fight Goliath, and that he is certain God will give him victory! As he sends him out with his blessing, Saul dresses David in his own battle gear: armor and helmet and sword. Saul is giving David the best war gear that he has. It has been proven effective for him many times in the past, and he wants more than anything for David to succeed against their mutual foe.
But David quickly took off all of it. He was not used to them. He couldn’t see how to fight with those weapons or effectively use that armor to aid him in his task. Instead, he took up the gear he was familiar with: staff and sling and stones. And, as we all know, he went out to achieve a great victory — with God’s help and blessing on his most unconventional approach.
This was how Darah and I felt. We were ready and willing to serve the King and win victories for the Kingdom, and we had been given the very best tools from our leaders, tools that had been proven effective many times before. But as we tried them out for ourselves, we realized we couldn’t make them work. Instead of helping us, they weighed us down and hindered us. The armor acted more like a straitjacket, the helmet was so low over our eyes that we couldn’t see, and the sword was far too heavy for us to lift — let alone wielding it to do any real damage!
Let me reiterate that I am can find no fault with Saul’s gear (i.e., traditional church structures). It works in a great many situations when wielded by many different individuals. The insight I drew from this mental picture was that these were not the right tools for every situation and they could not be wielded equally well by every individual — and, importantly, God used them both for his purposes and to his glory.
As we felt free for the first time to lay down the tools we had inherited, not as something wrong or bad but simply as something ineffective for us, we began to see for the first time that there is a lot of other gear in the armory of the Church. Programs and paid professionals (and the buildings and budgets that come along with them) were all heavy gear that didn’t suit our unique “fighting style.” We began to learn for the first time what our equivalents were for David’s staff, sling, and stones.
We didn’t figure it out overnight. (We’re still learning!) But we started listening — really listening — to Jesus and practicing following him confidently, even when he took us in some pretty unconventional directions.
What we’ve found is that there is just as much need for Jesus outside the structure and institution of the traditional Christian church as there is inside it. There are places where, for one reason or another, that established body cannot or does not go; and there are many people who, for one reason or another, simply will not go to it.
It is in those dusty, dimly lit corners where we have found our expression of the church. It’s not traditional, but it is Christian. It’s not conventional, but it is exceedingly orthodox. It’s not as large as even the smallest traditional churches we’ve been a part of. Instead, it’s much closer in size to a family. And it functions more like a family, too. As we meet in twos or threes or fives or tens, we encourage each other along the way, sharing with one another the gifts we’ve been given and the gifts that we are in Christ.
And as we do so, we’re trying to paint for our children a different picture of what church can look like. Something that is more central to life and less arbitrary and cumbersome. Something that you are rather than something you merely attend. Our hope is that they will witness and experience a vivid, powerful picture of what life can be like when connected to the Source of Life himself. That kind of life has never been about church services and activities; it has always been about being connected directly with Jesus himself. In order to help get them connected to him more directly, we’re simply trying to simplify and remove the clutter that got in our way.
Nonetheless, Darah and I are both grateful for the upbringing we had in traditional Christian churches. It played an important role in shaping us and led both of us to know Christ in the first place. And we know it continues to play this role for a great many people today. We would never and do not ever discourage anyone from being part of such an institution.
But we also know that there is greater breadth and depth to the Church than what can be expressed by the classical, traditional versions of it. We are equally grateful to be part of just a small corner of what God is doing today in our area. While we don’t expect anyone to join us on exactly the same path we’ve been on these last few years, we do hope this brief explanation of how we got here will serve to at least dispel any inaccurate (and possibly unkind) notions you’ve had about what we’re up to.
A couple practical points:
- When we pass on an opportunity to go to a church service, don’t feel that we’re missing out on what a “real” church has to offer and certainly don’t feel that you need to convince us why attendance is a good idea. If you invite us for a special occasion, we’ll usually say yes! But not always. Sometimes we have our own church family to be with during special times. Sometimes it’s just hard to consider putting that heavy armor back on now that we’ve experienced the freedom of laying it down!
- Be mindful of the words you use. We’re just fragile human beings like you. Being cajoled and ridiculed for the way we are pursuing Jesus is really hard, especially when it comes from fellow Christ-followers. Coercing us into going down the same path you’re on is tantamount to asking us to be disobedient to our unique call. We love you, but we have to follow Jesus wherever he leads.
At the end of it all, we’re on the same team. We all know his voice and respond to his call. Some of us he calls to and through a more traditional church; others, one that is less so. But we’re all pursuing the same Lord. And even though the routes we take may vary greatly, our marching orders are the same:
- Love God with everything you’ve got.
- Love your neighbor with the same attention and dedication you show toward yourself.
- Help people meet Jesus and follow him, regardless of their current circumstances.
While there may be some value in discussing our differences (as I have been doing here), I hope that we will never lose sight of the far greater benefit there is in celebrating our unity in the Body of Christ and in our pursuit of his mission to seek and save all who are lost.
When I think of all this, I fall to my knees and pray to the Father,the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen.
Amen and amen!