I’ll say this about current organic/simple/house church proponents: they certainly understand the value of a good story. They’re excellent at finding words and pictures to express what they’re doing and why it’s good. But a metaphor is, by definition, not the truth but something that stands for the truth.
We did some work on metaphors in leadership last weekend, and the theme came back throughout the sessions: can we uncover the metaphors we are organizing our lives around and expose the assumptions that underly them? More importantly, to what degree are we appropriating certain metaphors in order to construct a narrative which may or may not be true?
Christian Schwarz’s “Natural Church Growth” is a really interesting example, because it was written to correct some of the more “mechanistic” metaphors of church growth that were coming out of Fuller. Reading the book, Schwarz would have you believe that what he’s doing is “organic” and “natural” because of the metaphor that he uses, but if you look at what he’s actually doing, his methods are just as mechanistic as the stuff he’s critiquing: fill in a questionnaire, assign scores, measure, adjust, improve. Underneath it’s church-as-machine, but you’d never guess that from the metaphor that he chooses. Good marketing.
Metaphors are limited and provisional. The fun thing about metaphors is that you can do anything with them, but people don’t; they just use them to make one particular point. It’s a way of constructing the reality you want, a way of owning the discussion. Let me show you.
A favourite of the house church advocates is the harvest metaphor, taking its inspiration from Matt 9:37-38 and the parable of the sower (Matt 13:3-9). Do a Twitter search on #organicchurch and I bet you you’ll find someone talking about the harvest. Something like: If you don’t sow seed, you’ll never get a harvest; harvest workers need to be out in the harvest; etc. etc. Therefore, the narrative goes, get out of the church building and into the harvest field, and do house churches. House churches are organic and natural and they’re all to do with harvest working and that’s what Jesus told us to do. How can anyone deny it?
Like I said, good marketing.
Now let’s use this exact same narrative to legitimize the extreme opposite of house church: hierarchical, ecclesial institutions.
First, we have a distinction between the workers and the harvest. There is grain, and there are people who harvest grain. The grain is not the harvester, and when grain grows it does not turn into a harvester. So what Jesus is telling us is that there needs to be a distinction between harvesters (clergy) and grain (laity).
What do each of these things do? Grain grows by itself, but it is not harvested by itself. The job of the clergy is to work; the job of the laity is to passively grow.
If you leave grain in a field, it rots. You have to get it out of the field to harvest it. What you do with grain to harvest it is to gather it into barns. Big barns, preferably, because the harvest is plentiful. Let’s call them “churches.” Do you see how it goes?
Of course, I don’t believe any of that, and I’m sure someone will say that this use of the narrative is “carrying the metaphor too far”, whereas the organic church use of the metaphor is just right. Uh-uh. It’s good if you can decide how the narrative gets to be used.
In “Nexus: the house church reader” there’s a lovely example of owning the narrative, when it comes to Luther. One good theological debating trick is to try to claim that key historical figures actually believed the same as you do, and so they claim that Luther was actually an advocate of house churches. Let me give you two versions of the Luther story.
First version. Luther wrote a third version of the mass, which was a private mass where Christians “meet alone in a house somewhere to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacraments, and to do other Christian work.” As a great reformer and believer in the priesthood of all believers, what Luther really wanted to do was to re-establish the original form of church, taking place quietly and privately in houses, in which every member could take part. Unfortunately, he was put under pressure and never got around to implementing this final reform.
Second version. Luther believed that “although we are all equally priests, still not all of us can serve and minister and preach.” He “did not abolish ministerial order” and indeed strongly defended the ordained priesthood against those who wanted to abolish it. He wrote his first mass in Latin, but believed that people should have the choice about how they worship, and wrote a second mass in German, running both services side-by-side in Wittenburg. He added a third order of service, not to replace the mass (which he saw as the public face of the church) but to function along side it as a sort of house group. However, he did not see this third order as significant enough to implement.
Which version is true? Well, both, of course. But you choose your narrative based on what you believe already. Your narrative doesn’t prove anything, good or otherwise. It’s just marketing, and we need to see through it.