Church (S)Hopping, part I

Well….this post is long overdue. I suppose I’ve avoided writing it because I know the process of doing so will force me to come to terms with/confront some truths that I am simply not comfortable with. What, you ask, could I be talking about? Of course I’m alluding to our recent decision to "take a (likely permanent) break" from our involvement in Sanctuary, our heretofore faith community in NE Ohio.
Anyone who knows of my faith journey over the past ten years knows of our involvement with and deep investment in Circle of Hope and House of Mercy, our faith communities in Philadelphia and St. Paul, respectively. Both congregations come at the "problem" of the post-Christian era we now find ourselves in with unique, and uniquely effective, approaches, and I have been immeasurably changed by my immersion in both communities. I only hope that I can honor my unique privilege to have been a part of each of them by synthesizing the best of each in my practice as a Christ-follower/faith-community-member going forward. Of course, as I write so glowingly about Circle of Hope and House of Mercy, you may wonder why I would ever leave either one of them, and what all of this has to do with Sanctuary; so I will try to answer the first question as I make my way to the second.
I believe it was simply the grace of God that led us to Circle of Hope as it was just getting underway in the Fall of 1996. Kirsten and I were newly married at the tender ages of 20 and 21, respectively, and had just moved to Philly largely because of my desire to serve there after my Kingdomworks experience in the summer of ’95. Having come from traditional (Modern American Evangelical) church backgrounds- in my case in the Assemblies of God (Pentecostal) and in Kirsten’s case in some very conservative Baptist circles, there were many things about "Circle" that struck us as being new, fresh, intriguing, etc. We loved that it met in the upstairs of a storefront in Center City Philadelphia, that you could "come as you are" (wear jeans, shorts, whatever), that the band had such a bangin’ punk rock flavor (minus the pretense of trying to appear "cool" about it), etc. We were thrilled that Circle seemed to attract so many other young urbanites just like ourselves. As we began to hear that Circle was a "cell group based" congregation and started to figure out what that meant, we were thrilled by the idea that these folks really had a "life together" that mattered to them and those around them. It was refreshing and wonderful when David, the guy who would become my first cell leader and a hugely significant mentor in my life for the next two years, came up to me at one of the first Public Meetings (aka "PM"- Circle of Hope’s weekly worship gathering) we attended and said, "Hey, if you’re looking around for the leaders, well…we’re just getting started; so you’re it! We need everyone to step up and do stuff," etc.
Anyway, we kept hearing Rod, Circle’s founding pastor, say "YOU’RE the Church. BE the Church." Of course, the way Circle lives this out is through their cell groups, and once we joined David’s cell and really captured the vision for being the church through cells, that vision really caught fire in my theological imagination and there is a deep degree to which I have never been the same since. Rod has often described this vision for being the Church as an Acts 20:20 vision, alluding to Paul’s description of his ministry as one in which he "proclaim(ed) the message…publicly and from house to house." In very simplistic form, then, this is why Circle of Hope meets weekly from house to house in its various cell groups, and then all the cells come together publicly also on a weekly basis to celebrate the life of the Church that is happening throughout the week in the cells. Another commonly used (biological) metaphor is that of the physical cells that make up a person’s body. All of the cells are different and unique and work together to make up the body. They also work together to cause the body to grow, primarily through the process of multiplication. Cell groups are meant to multiply too, and this is reflected in the structure of a cell group. Each group is led by a leadership team comprised of a leader, an apprentice leader, and a host. The leader is always mentoring/training his apprentice to lead the next group. Hence, each cell is meant to "multiply"- or die. The idea here is that the individual cell group will grow as its members simply go about living their lives. Because following Jesus and being the Church, hopefully, is so integral to each member of the group, they naturally talk about this with their neighbors, friends, co-workers, loved ones, their favorite barista, etc. Hence, "evangelism" happens, but not the "hit-and-run" variety in which strangers stand on street corners and pass out tracts to strangers or "invite" someone "to church." Instead, folks are invited, via naturally existing relationships, into the life we’re having together as the Church. In this way the individual cell grows until it gets bigger than ten folks, making it hard to maintain the intimacy and safety of the smaller group, creating pressure to multiply. Not coincidentally, leaders emerge through the discipleship process an apprentice cell leader undergoes with his leader, and the other members in the group are encouraged/discipled to develop and utilize their gifts, and thereby the "priesthood of all beleivers" becomes more than a catchphrase as it actually happens. This is not a pastor-centric model. In the cell church, ministry happens when the people minister to one another, not because the professional "minister" does it all for the whole group. This is also not a program-based model and is instead a prophetic call to return to the heart of God’s mission in the world- the ministry of reconciliation through the restoration of right relationships.
I could go on and talk about how one becomes a Covenant Member with (not "of") Circle of Hope, or I could describe our quarterly Love Feasts, but perhaps you get now that I remain captivated by this vision for how to go about building God’s kingdom, and I can point to how effectively this has happened through Circle so far, as one cell group in 1996 has grown over the years to comprise a network in Philly of about 30 cell groups and two distinct congregations. Sadly, though, we made the hard choice to leave Philly and Circle of Hope after only two years, in 1998, in order to indefinitely move to MN to be with Kirsten’s dying father and her family. Once there, we fairly quickly found House of Mercy, which had started around the same time as Circle and so was barely two years old when we arrived.
In the House of Mercy community we found another congregation that was doing an amazingly effective job at reaching the "unchurched" and "over-churched" of Generation X, though in quite distinct fashion from Circle. Mark, Russell, and Debbie- House of Mercy’s founding pastors- started the congregation when they realized that none of their friends believed the Jesus story anymore. They focused House of Mercy’s energy on three hallmarks: the recovery of evangelical (simply meaning "good news") theology, liturgical ecclecticism (recognizing that Christians had been "doing church" for thousands of years, such that unlike some "popular church growth schemes" which seem to ignore the past, they wanted to in their practice honor and borrow from the best of what the church has done over all those years), and active participation in the world (largely through service, though the arts also play a huge role in what House of Mercy does). Having had the privilege to sit at the feet of Mark, Russell, and Debbie for nearly five full years, I can likewise say that I have been profoundly influenced by their life and practice. Perhaps especially through their proclamation of the good news, I have learned from them much of what I know about grace and about prophetically speaking the truth to the powers that be. It was also their influence that largely guided my seminary experience, including choosing which one to go to, for starters.
While there I developed a rapport especially with Russell, and they honored and utilized my gifts by asking me to lead their Service and Reconciliation Work Group, which under my leadership later morphed (naturally, of course) into a full-blown cell group system. I started with one House of Mercy cell around 2000-2001, stumbled through a failed multiplication, and went through the process again so that by the time that we left the Twin Cities after five years House of Mercy had three existing cell groups. Still, after five years we did leave, returning to Philly in order to be a part of what God was doing among the Circle of Hope community again. I won’t go into tremendous detail here, but suffice it to say that I quickly rose up Circle’s leadership ranks upon our return as I soon led my own cell group and then became one of the Cell Leader Coordinators (a leader of other cell leaders and part of the leadership team of the entire network of cells and congregations). Kirsten and I also moved in with new friends from Circle in order to start our own intentional community in which we pooled our resources and sought in obviously deeply intentional fashion to "have a life together" such that we expected and hoped to grow old together, raise our children together, and really impact one another and our neighborhood for Jesus over the years. Obviously the events surrounding Samuel’s birth quickly caused those dreams to come crashing down, and I won’t re-hash that again here. If you want to know more, feel free to visit the archives of this blog, as I have written somewhat extensively about it previously. Basically, while under great duress, we got hurt fairly deeply and ran away to the suburbs of Akron with our collective tail between our legs. So here we are.
Stay tuned for a later post in which I’ll pick up the story again at this point and maybe finally talk, as promised, about recent events concerning Sanctuary, etc.

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