By Greg Hubbard
It was shared life with a purpose. We laughed together. We cried together. We prayed together. We ate together. When somebody around us had a need, we spontaneously served them together. Meaningful spiritual conversations were frequent. We caught a glimpse of kingdom life as we had rarely experienced it before.
In the early 2000s, a church known as Apex came to experience all of this in Las Vegas, Nevada. Quite a journey had brought us to that place.
Apex began as an outreach of Canyon Ridge Christian Church as a means to reach young adults. At first Apex was centered around a church service with nontraditional programming. Yet it didn’t take long before we, the leaders, found ourselves troubled that our ministry was keeping us from experiencing true community with one another. As the church grew, the demands on our time and energy made it impossible for us to be the kind of community we longed to be. Though hundreds were attending Sunday services, we were frustrated that so few of them knew church as we envisioned it.
Many of the leaders had experienced this kind of kingdom reality during Bible college. We shared life together with a purpose. We laughed, cried, prayed, and ate together. When somebody around us had a need, we spontaneously served them together. Meaningful spiritual conversations were frequent. We caught a glimpse of kingdom life we had never experienced before.
We tried to recapture the experience of tight-knit community by initiating small group programming at Apex. We tried several approaches to small groups. But the interactions in the groups invariably felt forced and unnatural. We still missed real community. The people we were leading were starving for it as well.
Beyond that, we longed to see countercultural kingdom reality arise in every neighborhood in Vegas; we wanted it to be within easy access to every person, regardless of whether he or she ever entered our church building on Sunday.
Self-Sufficient Expressions of Church
About this time we heard about an urban church plant that had been meeting in an historic building in Norwood, Ohio, in Greater Cincinnati. That building had fallen into disrepair and was condemned until costly upgrades could be made. The young church could not afford such a financial burden, so its people were forced to divide into several smaller communities and meet in homes. Those folks found incredible meaning as they fleshed out what it meant to be church by meeting in smaller communities.
We listened to their story and began to yearn for what our Norwood friends were experiencing in these simple churches. We longed for the same holistic body life they were finding as they met in small communities that were not considered secondary to a larger church service. We also loved the way their church had moved into its neighborhoods rather than waiting for its neighbors to come to the church building.
Our desire was to decentralize our church into smaller communities that were self-sufficient, all-encompassing expressions of church. So we did.
Difficult to Sustain
Our experiences together as tight-knit communities engaging our neighborhoods were dynamic. But they were hard to achieve and even more difficult to sustain.
Arriving at a more missional expression of church was challenging for many reasons.
In the early part of our transition, we did not understand how such a community should function. To achieve a simpler version of church, we merely shrunk church as we knew it down into a living room version. We replaced the preacher with a Bible study leader. Instead of a worship team, we found one person who could play guitar. Almost everything was the same as our former church services, but on a smaller scale. This initial transformation failed to achieve our ideals and only served to decrease the quality of our previous programming.
Not surprisingly, a few of these house churches did not last very long. But as time went on, we learned a better way to be the church in smaller communities. For the groups that did not give up meeting together, something magical happened. Those that stayed together for more than six months tended to go through a metamorphosis and became more like families and less like programmed events.
The key to this transformation was when a community started eating meals together as part of the regular meeting routine. We came to understand the meal to be part of the New Testament pattern of breaking bread together. The common meal required time for food preparation, time to eat together, and time to clean up afterwards. This led to increased sharing of life together.
We started living out the “one anothers” of the New Testament. Once we slowed down enough to notice obvious needs all around us, we started spontaneously serving our neighborhoods and explaining why we lived a different kind of life. Our communities even found ways to learn the Bible and worship together without being dependent on a preacher and a worship team. We went from doing church to being church.
An Anonymous Calling
Other challenges arose. Vocational church leaders—like me—paid a price to embrace a more organic and less organized form of church; though we were trained to be professional church leaders, we felt lost when we realized our sincere vision of church could not sustain a paid church staff. We faced the reality that leadership in these kinds of churches is a bivocational endeavor.
We also came to realize this was not a glamorous pursuit, but rather an anonymous leadership calling. The path we had selected would not lead to notoriety. There would be few heroes of this movement. Very few would be sought-after conference speakers or write best-selling books. Instead, we were called to humbly play our part in a growing trend of transformation. Only by rubbing shoulders with other similar churches in other places could we appreciate what God was doing through such simple faith communities.
Even as we settled into a more missional church experience, we learned it was not for everyone. Many people who had initially embraced the adventure gave up when things became difficult. They returned to the closest church they could find that offered great preaching, high-quality music, and user-friendly programs. Convincing hundreds of people to go through a radical transition proved cumbersome. We wondered if it would have been wiser to start with a smaller, more committed core.
Something else happened that made our simple expression of church difficult to sustain. About three years into our journey of meeting in simple, home-based church communities, a mass scattering of our people began. Family after family left Las Vegas for various reasons.
Some returned to cities where they grew up. Others moved to live closer to extended family. Still others moved because of job situations. Some were relocated by the military. The economic downturn of recent years added to the scattering. Family after family left. Many of those who scattered were core leaders and home church hosts.
During a five-year period more than 300 people who had once been part of our church family moved away from Las Vegas. While we saw people come to Christ through neighborhood connections, there was no way we could replace all of the people who were moving away. At first we felt sorry for ourselves and asked God why this was happening. Eventually we realized that as people were scattering, they were taking their simple church experience to their new destinations. People applied what they had learned in various ways. Some set out to start a simple, home-based, missional church in their new destinations. Others landed in more traditional church contexts, but led by casting a vision for transformation.
Eventually the tide swept up my family as well. We relocated to another region of the country—something we had never anticipated.
Today several faith communities continue to meet in Vegas under the name of Apex. Those who remain have arrived at an understanding of church life that is missional in every respect.
In retrospect, I recognize that God is active in a variety of church forms, from the micro to the mega, from the organic to the organized, and from the simple to the complex. These extreme forms serve not only to reach various kinds of people, but also as healthy critiques of each other. At this moment in church history, it is only in the complete picture of these extreme forms that are we able to clearly see the kingdom.
I remain committed to some core convictions that my experience with missional church instilled deep within me:
• It is vitally important the church understands what it really means to be the church.
• Church is not, at its essence, a place where certain things happen.
• Church is, at its essence, God’s people on God’s mission.
• The church is best described by using family imagery, not business imagery.
• Every Christ follower is a missionary to the culture in which he or she lives.
These days I cling to these convictions while I long to find yet another experience of church like I found both in college and through Apex. I hold to the hope that such a rich reality is, for all of us, our ultimate destiny as followers of Christ.
Greg Hubbard is director of operations with Orchard Group Church Planting, New York, New York. He is both an ordained minister and a licensed attorney.