Revised 11:17 a.m. Jan. 9, 2007.
SAN FRANCISCO (BP)–It’s a church without a name, without a building, without a pastor, without a program, without even an address. Some would question if, lacking all those ingredients, it could be called a church.
But to Matthew and Kristi Connor*, who have planted this nameless house church in San Francisco, it is precisely what the New Testament calls “church” — a fellowship of believers who meet regularly to eat, talk, pray, worship, confess, encourage and share together, then disperse into their everyday lives living a little more like Jesus. It’s not perfect — the New Testament church wasn’t either — but it is church.
“Look at the New Testament church and what they actually did,” said Matthew, a theology of ministry student at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in nearby Mill Valley. “We’re attempting to do the same things.”
Between seven and nine people participate in the house church, which meets weekly — usually on Sunday afternoons and usually at a home in San Francisco, though the time and location vary depending on the schedules of those involved that week. The group meets for about three hours; they eat a meal together, talk about Scripture they read during the past week, pray, sometimes sing, sometimes read Psalms and sometimes have the Lord’s Supper.
The prayer time together is significant for this small band of believers. Matthew tells the story of one member whose mother was visiting: “She had been through a rough separation and divorce, and we’d been praying for her for some time as a group. When she came, we spent time praying with the girl and the mom right here in this room. We’re small enough that we can do something like that, and the mom could be really open with us. It wasn’t as if the bulletin allowed only five minutes of prayer time — we could really minister to her as a church.”
None of this, Matthew said, is “upstart rebellion” against the traditional church, as seminary students who do ministry in a headstrong way. The house church is part of a larger faith community, called Re-Imagine, which networks about five communities of faith in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Bay Area communities meet once a month to fellowship, and the Connors meet with other church planters in the area weekly for encouragement and accountability.
“We’re not a solitary band of believers,” Kristi said. “If we were, I would feel very isolated and alone. It’s very good for us to be part of Re-Imagine.”
The house church grew out of a weekly coffeehouse by seminary students and First Baptist Church, San Francisco, targeted for international students at San Francisco State University. With such a base, the church is inherently transitional — a fact which only encourages the Connors that it can eventually be global, as students return to their home countries as more mature believers who have a pattern they can easily reproduce.
“Our goal is God’s kingdom, not our church,” Matthew said. “We hope simply to be an incubator, with potential for drastic reach worldwide.”
In planting a house church, the Connors have made a conscious effort to assume nothing. Every aspect of the church has been held next to the New Testament church and compared; in doing so, they see both their on-target imitations of the New Testament church and their weaknesses. Examining every aspect of traditional church planting methodologies, they have focused on what appeared scriptural while dropping everything else.
“There seems to be a strength if there’s a team of leaders, not just one,” said Matthew, who grew up in Southeast Asia with missionary parents who planted churches there. “Ideally we want to, as much as possible, eliminate that clergy-laity distinction that’s been driven into the church so much.”
“We see that maybe we are not yet using everyone’s spiritual gifts to the extent that they should be,” Kristi Connor added. “So far we’re just a bunch of hands getting together; we of course hope to see us grow more into the full body of Christ.”
But there’s no set plan for such growth, or even a set plan for anything. “I absolutely love not having a program,” Matthew said with a good-natured grin about the lack of programming. “We’re just completely relationally based.”
“We just want to grow more like Jesus, individually and corporately,” said Kristi, who along with Matthew holds a master of divinity degree from Golden Gate. “That’s really our goal as this house church, to be more like Jesus, whatever that means. We think that if we live more like Jesus in our everyday lives, that will be our evangelism.”
She calls this approach to evangelism “quality lives.”
“I think one of the main reasons San Francisco has not come to Christ more is because they look at the lives of Christians here and it’s just not appealing. Jesus is appealing — though I know that at some level Jesus does become offensive — but so many times his followers are not living appealing, quality lives. Non-Christians just don’t want to be like us. We can talk about evangelizing all day, but if our lives don’t look like Jesus … well, it’s no wonder San Francisco doesn’t come to Jesus. That’s what we want to do in this house church — become more like Jesus.”
Being more like Jesus does not mean being a super-involved church member, the Connors said.
“If you go to church Sunday morning and Sunday night and you spend those times listening, then that means you have to set up another time during the week when you can have some interaction with other believers and really learn and grow. That’s a huge chunk of time,” Kristi said. “But if you make all your time with other Christians chunky, meaty, the real stuff, then you have that much more time to hang out with non-Christians. They aren’t willing to walk into the church with you, but they are willing to talk with you about Jesus because you obviously care about them — you’re spending time with them to show them that. That’s where the messy personal evangelism comes in. In this house church kind of setting, you can’t get away with inviting someone to church and just letting the pastor do his job; you have to do it yourself.”
The weekly house church meeting, then, is a “meaty” time with fellow believers. Matthew admits that discussions about the Gospel of Matthew — facilitated by himself and Kristi — may get intense, but that, he said, is part of the beauty of a small-group setting.
“Out of those discussions we really are sharpening each other, and appealing to Scripture,” he said. “No one is listening to one guy tell us how it is. We’re all thinking about it and wrestling with it, always looking at Scripture. While that’s messy, it’s rewarding. We grow together.”
“I like doing one whole chapter at a time, instead of one sentence like you often get in a larger church setting,” added a Chinese student and believer who has been involved in the house church since its beginning, who asked that her name not be used. “Here, everyone is always willing to listen to my questions, answer them, let me talk with them — that means a lot to me. I can’t get that at a larger church. And also we can pray for each other in a much closer way. That’s why I keep coming back here.”
This student’s home city in China has a population of 1 million, but only two officially open churches. “Those churches are always so crowded you can never get in. I think that’s one of the reasons house churches are growing so fast there. Anyway, the Bible doesn’t say that you have to have a building; church is about being together and learning.”
The Connors’ ultimate goal in the house church is seeing it multiply globally. “For a pragmatic, practical way to reach the nations — for missions — this is simple, effective and can multiply easily throughout the world,” Matthew said.
Kristi added, “We want these students to be able to go home to their countries and not have to worry about raising $10,000 or buying a building or finding a seminary-trained pastor or get through all the difficult laws of their country. We want them to experience and learn something they can duplicate easily wherever they go.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: FELLOWSHIP AT HOME and FELLOWSHIP AT THE BEACH.
*Names changed for security concerns.