I remember one Sunday some years ago when a missionary family home on leave was visiting us, the father giving the sermon in the morning service. Afterwards some of the children decided they would play ‘missionaries’. Of course there then arose the question of who should play each part and one of the children was heard to ask “Who will be Mr Halleyberry?” (A corruption of the visiting family’s name).
I was reminded of this event recently when I was thinking about ‘alternative’ (unbounded) missional church networks (MCNs), something that this website is dedicated to promoting, The question that came to my mind however was not “Who will be Mr ‘Halleyberry?”, but rather ‘Who will be Timothy?’.
It is my strongly growing conviction that the church urgently needs to be set free from its rigid, cumbersome and change-averse ‘Christendom’ influenced forms and structures in order to be ‘A church as we haven’t known it for a society as we haven’t known it’. For this reason I have made it a point to gather as much information as I can on the burgeoning simple church, organic church movements that are growing around the world. This includes attending as many seminars, workshops and conferences in Australia and overseas as I can.
When meeting and engaging with those involved in alternative missional church movements I have observed a number of frequently occurring characteristics-
• There is a high degree of passion to make disciples of Jesus, indeed at a level not very common in standard church congregations.
• There is a high level of commitment that is evidenced by a willingness
to sacrifice much time, effort and money to the gospel cause.
• Members of MCNs tend to be entrepreneurial and demonstrate high degrees of creativity, initiative and flexibility in how, where and what they do for the cause. Indeed there is a ‘whatever it takes’ mentality.
• There is a very high commitment to prayer, prayer meetings and prayer-walking for their ministry.
• The above characteristics combine in a powerful effort for disciple-making.
However as I have listened to, and been challenged by, the enthusiasm and passion for making disciples I have frequently sensed a question arising “Who will be Timothy?” Why is this?
An examination of the Apostle Paul’s ministry shows him preaching the gospel around the Mediterranean, with many becoming disciples and forming the first house churches (although we need to be somewhat careful before we simply equate those house churches with the ones that are set up today). Many see this small, simple church movement as a model for us to establish simple missional church movements today, and so it can be. However we must see the whole picture painted by the New Testament, for it also contains warnings.
A major reason much of the material in the NT letters is there at all is because of the problems that arose in the new house churches. Perhaps the most extreme example of things going pear shaped is the Corinthian church. Pretty much the whole of 1 Corinthians is a litany of errors e.g. Lack of love, abuse of the Lord’s supper, misuse of spiritual gifts, factionalism around specific church leaders, false theology in regard to the return of Christ, rejection of authority-the list goes on and extends into most of the other NT letters. The concern I have in regard to many in the simple church movement is that there can be a naïve belief that as long as our small groups gather and study the Bible together (which they of course must do!) everything will be ok. However the NT and church history contain copious warnings that ‘It ain’t necessarily so!’
Do not misunderstand me, I am passionately committed to small group, simple church missional networks, but they need to be spiritually healthy. For this to be so there needs to be some sort of theological guidance system to provide the checks and balances needed for spiritual health, to guard against the legalists, modern Judaizers, ascetics, teachers of licentiousness, modern Gnostics, lovers of the world etc who do and will arise in missional faith communities today. Why I am so sure? Because that is how Satan works, he who prowls around like a roaring lion waiting for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8), because there will arise “mere talkers and deceivers” (Titus 1:10). Yet some in the simple church movement tend to react quite violently against such suggestions.
The need however for some form of theological checks and balances is shown by Paul himself. Most of the faith communities that formed out of his evangelism he actually spent only a little time with, then he moved on and they were left as new, missional communities in a hostile world. However, they were not abandoned, for we see Paul writing letters to these small faith communities full of pastoral advice, encouragement, answers to questions, sometimes rebuke and relevantly, often instructions in regard to problems. He also revisited many of them or if he could not he sent his representatives (Timothy, Titus etc) like travelling overseers (the NT word is Bishop). Later on in the NT story he placed people in particular locations to deal with problems in the churches as he did with Timothy in Ephesus, “to command certain men not to teach false doctrines” (1 Tim. 1:1, 2) or Titus in Crete.
If Paul himself was very aware of the dangers to small group, house churches and put external safeguards in place should we not be equally alert. This is why when I have been listening to various speakers at simple church conferences, inspired as I have often been, I have also frequently found the question coming into my mind “Who will be Timothy?” by which I meant ‘who will provide the checks and balances in regard to the teaching these people are being fed and seem to be soaking up’? teaching that sometimes should have been, but wasn’t, challenged.
We must continue to seek to develop alternative forms of ‘church’ set free, unbound, from the failing Christendom model, in order to be effective in our missional task. There are also times however when we must for the spiritual health of missional communities ask the question – “Who will be Timothy?”